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magicicada

Hard to Keep (7)

6/28/07 11:17 am - Hard to Keep (7)



Part seven

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The next morning as Draco climbs up from the Chamber, he hears Myrtle arguing with herself about the school closing down and making wrong decisions being scared of what will happen next, and if she weren’t always scared, he would be concerned by it, but instead he hops up the final few steps, surprised at how much easier walking seems when you never again have to worry about what might happen if you fall.

The flowers above the sink seem slightly brighter than they had been a few days before and quite a bit brighter than they were when Draco first picked them in the abandoned greenhouses, and he looks at them for a few moments before walking over to Myrtle’s stall. “What on earth were you talking about?” he asks, smirking as he leans against the cubicle more confident than he’s felt in years.

“Nothing!” she snaps, poking her head around the half-opened door.

“Why are you upset then?”

“I’m always upset,” she says, pouting and floating slowly over to the sinks.

“You shouldn’t be,” he says. “I’m here now. I’m not going away . . . not ever.”

She shakes her head scowls. “You’re awful,” she says. “And you’re always forgetting how awful you are. I doubt you even remember last night.”

“I remember you showing me every boring place you could think of— there was a tunnel— a long tunnel you were leading me down that never seemed to end.”

“Well,” she says. “I suppose that’s them most important part, anyway.” Draco’s head had hurt when he woke that morning— ached terribly as he removed the silk scarves and silver bangles he found himself wearing, and though the pain was quick to fade, he had wondered what of his memories were real and whether it was all imagined or dreamt. He still wonders. Was he in the Great Hall? The Owlery? Did he nearly drown in the lake? But if that part were a dream he doubts he would have been saved by the cool arms wrapped around him just strong enough to pull him to the shore. If it were a dream, he knows there would have been no one to catch his hands when he reached towards the surface, but from the look on Myrtle’s face he can’t imagine her being the one to rescue him. She flashes a glance at the mirrors and is quick to turn away. “I don’t know why you think I should be happy about seeing you.”

“I thought you wanted me here,” he says. “You were the one who asked me to come back at first. You certainly seemed desperate enough then.”

“I thought we were alike then,” she says crossing her arms over her chest. “But I was wrong. I’m wrong quite often, you know. And if you were at school when I was, you would have made fun of me just like all the others. ‘Stupid, ugly, fat Myrtle,’ that’s what you’d call me. You would have been the worst of them.”

She may be right, of course, though it’s hard now to tell. She fixes him a gaze that holds some unidentifiable challenge, and he asks himself what he would have said about a plain Mudblood, silly and frightened of nothing real. He tries to remember what he said the night before and how she answered and what he would have said about himself years ago if he had known where his life would lead him. But Draco was scared, and if he is still, then he has reason to be, just as he must have reason to be upset from the night before. He wouldn’t say those things about Myrtle now, not to her face anyway, and he wonders what changed, and he wonders if even her moods are more constant now than they had been. “You’re not that stupid,” he says, glancing down at his left arm for just a second. “And you can’t really be fat anymore, can you? You’re— you’re . . .”

“Insubstantial? Incorporeal? Dead?”

“You’re not stupid,” he says. “And I don’t think you’re ugly.” He looks at her more closely and decides it’s true enough. If she had been that horrible to look at, he tells himself, he wouldn’t have been able to spend so much time with her no matter what the gain. She’s familiar, really, more familiar to him in the past months than his own family and different, now that he finally lets himself notice the changes, not just brighter or a bit less slumped, but . . . different. He tries narrowing his eyes and then widening them, but he can’t quite put his finger on the whole of it. “Not too ugly, anyway. Your face looks like it’s clearing up a bit,” he says, which is also true enough, and she looks distinctly uncomfortable.

“That’s impossible.”

He’s still staring at her, and she looks like she might dive into the toilet she’s hovering over at any moment. He wants to say something that’s really true, like that her hair has gotten longer or that her nose seems to fit her face better than before, but he was never especially good at noticing that sort of thing. He could never tell the difference between the hundred shades of pink gloss Pansy used to color her lips as she expected him to, nor could he tell Crabbe from Goyle when they were wearing other bodies and sometimes even when they were wearing their own. He hadn’t even noticed how ill he was beginning to look in the months before school let out. Myrtle crosses her arms over her chest, and he wants to say something to her, and he wants to be sure. He thinks for a brief moment about telling her she looks quite nice floating below the harsh overhead light that shines from the bathroom ceiling with her back to the grubby tile wall, but she doesn’t, not really, so instead he says, “Your glasses remind me of Potter’s.” And she goes stiff and still for just a moment when she hears his name.

“I had them first.”

“Yeah,” he says, finally letting himself glance back to them mirrors behind him. “I guess so.”

“I used to wish I’d left them on, that day. Then I would have been okay— frozen stiff for a while and terribly embarrassed but okay in the end. A Basilisk doesn’t kill you unless there’s nothing between it and your eyes. I’ve had so much time alone to wish for things. Now I’m just mad they got put back on somehow after I died . . . only they didn’t right away. But you can’t change, that’s my point. I wore them while I was alive, so I wear them now. There’s nothing to be done about that.”

“Well, they’re not so bad.”

“Olive Hornby made fun of them,” she says, sounding less sure of herself than before. “I promised to haunt her for as long as— as long as I could. It was right before I died, you see, that’s why I was here crying. But wizards from the Ministry came and told me I couldn’t bother anyone who didn’t want me around. I already knew, though. I already knew the bathroom was where I had to stay. But it’s very hard for a ghost not to be seen by anyone, and of course no one truly wanted me around. It can make you forget you’re real if it goes on long enough and then— then . . .”

Myrtle doesn’t cry. She doesn’t do anything, but float very still and stare past Draco to the sinks and the flowers on the mirror ledge, and he forces a smile even though she’s not looking. “I guess you’re going to have to haunt me then,” he says. “Don’t be sad. If you knew how ridiculous it made you look—”

“I can be sad if I like. I can’t help it, anyway.” She’s glaring at the mirror ledge now, and Draco feels the room beginning to get colder. “You can’t change who you are.”

“I don’t believe that.”

“That,” she says, “is because you’re arrogant and ignorant of most things and ridiculously overconfident.”

“Yeah?” he asks, pushing his shoulder off the cubicle wall and standing straight. “You sound like . . .” ‘Like Granger,’ he thinks, ‘like a stupid Mudblood, like his mother when she would scold him, like Snape once did before he gave up telling Draco he was wrong, like his father when he knew he was right.’ And Draco wants to be right, this time, completely and inarguably right. “You— you sound like you’re older,” he says, and it’s true. He knows that it’s true, not just true enough, but true all the way, and he thinks that he might be smirking just a bit as he shoves his right hand into the pocket of his too-big, patched robe, while his left arm hangs limp at his side and tries to suppress a shiver, but he doesn’t care how foolish he looks. He wonders if this is what it feels like to be really right and begins to ask himself why he didn’t feel it with her before in the library or in the Chamber, but he doesn’t think long before her glare turns back to him.

“I’m not,” she says, raising her chin. “And I don’t sound like it either.”

“Fine,” he says, glancing around the bathroom and wondering if Myrtle might really look nicer if she weren’t floating in front of the grubby tile wall or glaring at him as if she wanted him to drop dead right there and pop back up, still wearing the Gryffindor robe to find out that she was really right about things not changing, and he wonders if he would believe her even then. “We could move to a bigger place, you know, something more cheerful. What would you think of the prefects’ bathroom? Just for the two of us?”

She looks at him, smiling at first as if she thinks it’s a joke and then frowning and biting her lip as if she thinks he’s mad. Her smile returns slowly, but it’s different this time— odd and nervous. “But the prefects—”

“We could spook them out of it,” he says. “I’d like to see Potter’s face when he realizes—”

“Or we could watch them,” she says, and she gives another unsure smile for just a second before biting her lip again and swallowing and looking like she might be trying to remember how to be properly indignant. “They don’t seem to like that though.”

“Hey yeah, they might never come back. We could have the whole castle then.”

“Oh no, Draco,” Myrtle says, shaking her head. “It doesn’t work like that.” But he’s too busy imagining everything that could soon be his to think of what she might mean by it.

“We could have the whole castle now.”

“Oh, don’t . . .” she says before her voice fades to nothing, but it’s all a bargain, and he realizes that now, to trade a second of happiness for a lifetime of apprehension and the kind of fear that cuts you open and leaves you numb, and it will be worth it to never be afraid— to go in blind and come out blinder, because there’s no way to tell which side is losing until it’s already lost and no magic potions or mother’s love to save him when the end eventually comes.

The only sacrifices that matter are his own, and it’s too hard to keep worrying. He starts to laugh, the kind of howling, mad laughter that tickles his throat and makes Myrtle gasp and back away in terribly dramatic fashion. He thinks of the night before and the moment he first hurled the fireworks into the potion. He was drunk then, and he can blame it on that to himself and blame it on Peeves to Snape, who has already worked through the night to restore everything that he’s destroyed. He smiles at Myrtle before he leaps into the tunnel that leads to the Chamber, and he lands on his feet at the bottom without touching a single step. A dull sort of itchy pain shots though his ankles and up his legs, but he runs across the floor, because he’s still able to and because there’s nothing left to lose.

Myrtle follows him, slipping down through the ceiling, and she shoots nervous glances at Snape, sleeping still as death, wrapped in blankets on the floor, and as Draco moves closer to shift through his cabinets, he wonders what he must have gone through to make him sleep like that. He doesn’t look at what he takes until he’s on the other side of the room, but he knows he doesn’t need to. The smallest, simplest change will render Snape’s potions useless, and he certainly doesn’t seem up to fixing them. With his good hand, Draco adds firefly wings to the cauldron on the far left and a handful of toad warts to the small cauldron beside it, hovering over a white flame. He flings dried starfish into the large center cauldron, which make the clear liquid inside it turn to a tarry, black sludge and into the cauldron beside it he brushes the dust that seems forever stuck to his robes.

The whole time Myrtle swoops about the Chamber from the ceiling to the floor and back again, glancing occasionally to the side at Snape’s set of Gobstones or the large un-boiling cauldron in the center of the floor, but she makes it look hard to keep going, and her heart doesn’t quite seem in it, no matter how brightly she shines, and Draco wonders if that’s one of the things you have to leave behind, and though he won’t ever admit it, he’s afraid to ask.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

It’s easier not to think about much. These days Draco can no longer be sure where his thoughts will carry him— into which dark tunnels and twisting corridors. He walks silently through the hallways of the castle until his feet and his mind go numb. He sleeps on the floors of abandoned passageways and on the desks or disused classrooms. He takes food from the kitchen and from the potions storeroom, once a box candies Slughorn left behind, but mostly just the few ingredients that appear edible— plants and animal parts and a strange powder that looks like sugar and tastes like wax.

His face feels slimy at first and red bumps spring up on his arms, and the fingers of his right hand sting while his left arm feels nothing at all. He wonders to himself if he should write down the contents of each vial and just how much he eats and what changes he observes, and if he does that whether he’ll be written about in books as one of Tomorrow’s Masters, and he wonders just for a second what made him think of such a thing. He swims lopsidedly in the prefects’ bath, splashing about with his good arm and wondering if the pretty mermaid in the painting would laugh at him if she were still there. The days pass, disappearing like the puddles on the floor that slowly wind their way down between the stones. The hair on his arms grows long and then falls out and his skin feels scaly and looks paler than it ever has, and through it all he keeps walking.

He stays far from the Chamber and from Snape, and he tries to stop himself from remembering empty dorms that once were full and tries to shut away the empty place in his mind he runs up against when he thinks too long about what his future will hold. Seeing Myrtle so often makes it worse, he knows that, and he doesn’t have to spend time with her, not anymore. He has everything needs, and she has nothing he wants, but he wonders sometimes if he’s got as far as he hoped with his plans because of Myrtle herself.

He wonders if he would he have cared to ask Binns or the Bloody Baron or the silly Gryffindor ghost with the almost detachable head. He wonders if they would have answered him, and he shivers, and hopes very much that, in the end, he stays in one piece and isn’t too badly mangled. Myrtle tells him he has nothing to worry about, and he tries to tell himself she really doesn’t matter, and this happens over and over again long after even she must have realized that she’ll never change his mind, and he wonders why. He clenches his right fist and shuts his eyes, thinking it as hard as he can— I don’t care. I don’t care over and over and over again. But there are some things he can’t build walls against, and there are some people who can slip through stone as if it were nothing at all.

His left arm begins to move, gradually at first and not in any way that he can control. Muscles twitch beneath his skin in uncertain rhythms, and numbness gives way to pain until it’s hard to keep still for long and hard to keep from cursing to himself and hard to keep his mind from wandering so far away he’s not sure whether it will fully return.

“Hello, Draco,” Myrtle says, sliding up beside him, and he nearly jumps.

“Don’t do that!” He glares up at her, squinting this time, because his eyes have finally adjusted to the dimness of the hallways. Her new brightness has always been off-putting, and it’s hard to keep from turning away.

“Do what?” she asks, looking more serious than usual.

“That,” he says, trying to catch his breath, “what you just did.” He starts to walk ahead, though he realizes he’s completely unsure of where in the castle he is. He glances from side to side at the empty portrait frames and closed doors and follows the narrow hallway that has more twists and sharp turns than any he’s ever walked before.

“Sorry.” She keeps pace with him, staring at the floor as he makes his way through the hallways, and the motion of her floating seems more like walking than it ever has before, but unused to walking as she now is, she keeps bumping against his side. He feels it as a cool wind that makes the tiny hairs rise on the back of his neck, and just once she seems to grab his left forearm with a transparent hand to keep her balance, which makes him shiver, but it doesn’t hurt so much after that. “Are you sure you should be out like this? It’s not safe. Doesn’t Snape—”

“What can Snape do? I think he’d rather have me here than where I can do anything to his potions.” He begins to walk towards a winding staircase nearby, but Myrtle doesn’t pay it any attention so he turns back towards her and walks with her past two more staircases.

“You shouldn’t have done all that,” she says, finally. “I told you not to.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t have shown me where to find the fireworks. Maybe you shouldn’t have frozen the potions the first time.”

“You’re right.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t have told me about Polyjuice. Maybe you shouldn’t spoken to me at all. Maybe you shouldn’t have kept saying that everything would be okay, because it won’t— and you . . . you know it won’t, don’t you?”

“Draco,” she says. “It will. I know it will.” And he laughs and coughs and shivers, and he tells himself that she doesn’t know anything.

“Are you okay, then?” he asks, narrowing his eyes. “No, you never were, and you sound different now, but not better.”

“You’ve said that before,” she says, shrugging, and she turns left onto an intersecting hallway, and he follows but makes sure to walk ahead of her after the turn is behind them.

“Of course I have, but that’s because—”

“I don’t— I can’t.”

“You do,” he says, and he clears his throat and tries to make his voice sound as much as hers once did as he can manage. “Oh, Draco, no! Oh! It’s just horrible!”

“That was horrible,” she says, but he can tell, glancing back, that she’s finding it hard to keep from smiling, “absolutely terrible.”

“Yes well, don’t go taking Snape’s side.”

She shrugs again and smiles and follows him as he walks by the patch or wall that hides the room of requirement, and she doesn’t ask why he turns around after just a few steps and walks by it again and again and again. ‘I need a place to be alone,’ he thinks. ‘I need a place for my secrets. I need a place for Myrtle, a place to talk, a place to listen. I need . . . I need . . . I need. . .’ And nothing happens— no sound, no change in the air, no door appearing for him to open, and Myrtle, still not speaking, raises her eyebrows.

He silently asks for the room he used to hide the vanishing cabinet, the one so full of hidden treasures that his eyes can’t see them all at once or a room with a soft, warm bed for him to finally rest or a dry, quiet room with straight backed chairs to sit in and think about everything that’s happening so fast so long after he’s grown aware of the slowness of time, and he wonders if it’s his inability to think of just one thing that stops the room from appearing or if he’s too grateful to have found his way back on his own to really want to enter a place so uncertain or if maybe he doesn’t need anything at all.

The last time he walks by the tapestry of Barnabas the Barmy and the dancing trolls he looks straight ahead and tries to decide on the longest route he can take back to the Chamber. He trusts that Myrtle’s behind him and never bothers to look back to find out if she really is. “We can haunt people, you know, not all the time, but sometimes— and we’ll have enough time— we can haunt everyone they wouldn’t let you haunt before, and not just them— Potter, Snape, the Weasleys . . . we really could.”

He hears her sigh, and from the corner of his eye, he sees her shaking her head and looking for a second as if she’s about to tell him that it’s all impossible, but then she bites her bottom lip and straightens her shoulders and rubs a hand over her eyes and nods.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Snape is asleep when Draco returns to the Chamber, and he does not speak to him even after he wakes. Tiny drops of water from the leaking ceiling pipe rain down into the cauldron below. Slytherin hisses, slow and sleepy as he swallows the smoke that fills his mouth, and Draco talks and taps to Myrtle through the open pipe. She whispers back sometimes, and sometimes he hears only the swishing of water through the S-bend to the U-bend, and sometimes he hears nothing at all.

The hours pass, and the magic in the Chamber rises and falls and rises again as Snape’s potions change colors and forms and the fires beneath them begin to burn out, and Snape begins to shut heavy lids over his most precious mixtures, clattering about faster than Draco’s ever seen him move and with none of his usual grace, and Draco’s almost surprised that he pays so much attention to the largest cauldron, the one below the drip filled only with un-boiling water.

Draco raises a finger and clacks the nail down against cool metal and does it again and again in a slow, steady rhythm as Snape nearly trips over his billowing robes and spills a jar of dried fireflies on the floor. Their lights flicker on an off, reacting erratically to the ebbing magic of the Chamber, and Draco absently wonders how something can shine brighter in death than it had in life. He brings his finger down again and waits for an answer, but he is stilled— both he and Snape are stilled by a sudden, horrible grinding sound and the clap of stone against stone.

Slytherin closes his mouth, and the whole castle shakes. Smoke swirls down from his nostrils and up from the dying fires, stirring the dust that covers everything, and Snape turns to look at Draco, who hasn’t moved from his seat against the wall, and speaks to for the first time since the night of his return, not about the columns of ash and soot that that make it nearly impossible to see one another as anything more than shadows or the stones that shiver beneath them, not of the castle or the Chamber or of what has been happening on his long trips away. “I spoke with Peeves today,” he says, through sharp unsteady breaths. “He claims to have no connection to the explosions that destroyed my months of work.”

“You can’t believe a poltergeist,” Draco mutters, sneering and moving his fingers in nonsense patterns over the floor. “All he does is lie.”

“Yes,” Snape says, “perhaps, but I do wonder how he would find the Chamber unless someone above had showed him how to get in, whether intentionally or otherwise.”

“Well, I haven’t.”

Snape clears the air around his face with his wand and wordless enchantments, and then his wand disappears back into his robes and the magic is left to fizzle in the air before disappearing into the smoke. “Perhaps not, but I must also wonder how your arm was spelled motionless for so long when you have no wand and how the sleeve of your robe has been turned the precise blue of a Disabling Draught. That is odd, isn’t it, Draco? I do not think Peeves found the Chamber by following you. In fact, I am sure, no matter what you claim, that he has not found the Chamber at all. I was sure before I even sought him out.”

“I—”

“I cannot imagine why you found it amusing to sabotage my work,” Snape says, and Draco wonders if he’s only speaking of the fireworks, if he’s not yet aware his latest secret additions to each cauldron. Thick clouds of dark smoke rise between them and as they pass Draco catches a sardonic smile on Snape’s lips and a gleam in his dark eyes and is sure at once that he knows everything. “But no matter what lead you to add firefly wings and toad warts and dried starfish and dust— of all things— to the potions I try to brew only after blowing them up and freezing them once before that, you will be the one to suffer for it.” He clears his throat and while doing so his smile becomes a scowl. “The only explanation I have is that you are lowering yourself to the level of the company you now keep.”

“I—”

“Peeves said he’s been seeing you in the library, not that I needed him to tell me so. What have you been doing there?”

“Reading,” Draco says, because the best lies always start with the truth.

“Reading what?”

“Just reading.”

“What have you been talking to her about— that ghost?” Snape asks, glaring and taking a step forward. “What has she been telling you? Why do you think you should believe her?”

“Why do you hate her?” Draco asks, standing up finally and taking the smallest step away from the wall.

“I cannot be bothered by the insubstantial remains of such a person, but I am concerned that you mind is weak enough that she can hold sway over it. That is most disappointing and most dangerous.”

“My mind isn’t weak,” Draco says. “And you do hate her. Why?” Snape doesn’t speak right away, and for a while Draco doesn’t think he ever will, at least not to answer his question. His black robes billow as he turns and makes a show of inspecting his potions further, and when he moves to brush soot from his golden scales, he tenses and hisses louder than Slytherin ever did and clutches his left arm. Draco wears the same Mark beneath the stained-blue sleeve of his robe and has felt hardly a twinge. He wonders if that might be because of the some lingering numbness from the Disabling Draught or if it might be eclipsed by a different kind of pain felt much deeper inside, and it’s hard to keep his mind clear when thinking of such things and with Snape so near. “Answer me!” he shouts. “Answer me, will you!”

There’s a coldness to Snape’s voice when he opens his mouth to speak and a surety that Draco envies. He turns to face Draco, hand still holding tight to his left forearm just above the Dark Lord’s Mark. “The first of his murders could have been prevented had a stupid little girl not taken off her glasses to stare a Basilisk in the eyes. It was not until that moment that he truly took the name Voldemort and started to become what he now is. In her own way, she is responsible for his creation.”

Draco’s heard it said before that when you kill someone— when you knowingly take the life of another, you lose a part of your soul. He’s also heard rumors that there are ways to store it, to hide it away somewhere it can never be damaged or destroyed— that for one stolen life you can live forever. He’s also heard that it is possible to create a sorcerer’s stone from dragon’s blood and ancient incantations, and if he had believed any of it he may not have spent so much time with Myrtle. That is what he tells himself before he remembers the look on Dumbledore’s face that night in the tower, and he tries not to shiver. “That wouldn’t have made any difference,” he says, and he remembers the Dark Lord staring down at him with burning red eyes and a will impossible to stand against, and he knows nothing someone like Myrtle could have done would have offered any obstacle. “It was just her bad luck and what he wanted all along. It wouldn’t have made any difference if she wasn’t there then or if she kept her glasses on.”

“It made the difference of the Bell girl keeping her gloves on in the cold and of Potter, in spite of all previous stupidity, knowing the proper use of a bezoar when it mattered most. It makes all the difference, Draco.”

“Well, you’re the reason for that, aren’t you? For Potter?” he asks, still trying to shake away the memories of the night he was first assigned his task— the way the Dark Lord saw into his mind so easily, as I there were no walls there trying to keep him out. “You taught him potions, didn’t you? You taught him potions all those years, even he was bound to learn something from you.”

“Then perhaps it is not too much to hope that you can learn something too. Listen carefully. Whether you believe you’re wrong or right or only desperate, whether you find a way to trap it or not, in killing you lose a piece of your soul, no matter what the circumstances or the intent— you lose it, Draco, and you can never get it back.”

“And should I have died in the old man’s place? Should my mother and father have died? Should you have?” He wonders why he says this— what purpose it will serve but to make Snape angrier and if he’s just trying to prove that he’s not afraid, that there’s nothing left that should make him afraid, but he thinks of the Dark Lord again and shivers. He reaches for the memory of the words he said in the library with Myrtle, but the surety he felt then seems less real now, here in the Chamber where smoke obscures everything. He takes a deep breath and coughs hard, felling his throat burn and his eyes water. It’s all too much— the smoke and the heat from the dying fires and the cold of the stones that surround him. He can’t see clearly or think of anything to say. It’s hard to keep breathing and hard to keep standing and hard to keep believing the things he tells himself. “Anyway,” he says, rubbing his eyes and straightening his back. “I don’t plan to kill anyone, not now. So don’t blame me for your mistakes.”

“My mistakes are nothing compared to the one you’re about to make,” Snape hisses and takes a step closer, narrowing his eyes and searching Draco’s face. “Or have you done it already?”

Draco takes a quick step back, half expecting to loose his balance as his head bangs against the wall, but he stays steady on his feet and glares back with all the defiance he has left. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Then why do you shield your mind?”

“I—” he begins without knowing how he will answer and then cuts himself off with a sharp cough, thinking that soon it will be no easier to breathe here than it is underwater. Snape waits for him to gasp and spit and clear his throat before giving an unpleasant smile.

“Very well,” he says, drawing his wand from some hidden pocket of his robes. “We shall see if you have indeed been practicing your Occlumency.” And the spell he casts is silent, but that doesn’t matter. Draco knows what is coming. He recognizes the movement of the wand and the look of concentration on Snape’s face, and he hears it echoing in his mind just as he had before. Legilimens.

Draco hasn’t been practicing his Occlumency, not really, but holds his thoughts tighter than he ever has before, and his walls hold as well. He tells himself things, back in the far reaches of his mind, secrets that can belong only to himself— the way sunlight hit the devil’s snare in the abandoned greenhouses, a spider dangling on a silken thread, the cool water of the prefects’ bath washing over him, a hidden tunnel leading away from the castle that seemed to go on forever, his dreams, his nightmares and Myrtle hovering over him, smiling and crying and shining like nothing he’s ever seen before. He gains strength then. Snape seems to pull away slightly, and he pushes back, and suddenly he’s in Snape’s mind, and Snape has nothing left to push him out, no walls or strong gates or thresholds impossible to cross, and there is no flashing of memories to assail him, but a single focused thought— clear and vivid and brighter than any of Draco’s own, like the scenes that played before in his mother’s secret Pensieve of her smiling, brown-haired sister who’s never been spoken of or mentioned in any of the family records.

He’s in the headmaster’s office— Dumbledore’s office, for the old man is standing behind his desk, leaning slightly against the curved wall with his hands hidden in the pockets of his robes. Snape is there shaking his head in refusal and pacing angrily across the floor, pausing for just a few seconds to glare out of a small window as if the night sky beyond the castle displeases him greatly, and he clutches his left arm as he did moments before or years later in the same castle beneath a different sky. Draco stands in the middle of the room unnoticed by anyone but the bright Phoenix perched on Dumbledore’s desk that squawks in his direction, ruffling its shimmering feathers and the surrounding portraits that stare silently down on all of them.

“Severus,” Dumbledore says, stepping out of the shadows towards the center of the room— towards Draco, and Snape stops again beside the window and looks out wearing an expression Draco’s seen before on a very different face, as if though nothing but a thin plane of glass separates him from the world outside, there’s no way he can really get out. He’s right between them, and he can’t move, as if his whole body has been submerged in Disabling Draught, and though he knows it’s impossible Dumbledore seems to be looking at him rather than through him to Snape His eyes shine bright in the dim light of the office, and he smile is brighter still. “To the well organized mind death is but the next great adventure.” Dumbledore says, and Draco glances away to the Phoenix on the desk. “I’ve told this to many students over the years— to many friends, and those who don’t learn to understand its truth in time always come to bad ends.”

The portraits begin to whisper amongst themselves, their hushed voices rising and falling and rising again in a strange, uneasy rhythm, and Draco feels himself moving with it as if he’s being rocked by wind or water or a castle that shakes beneath his feet, and he tries to tap on the pipe that twists its way down the wall, but his fingers find nothing but air, and he falls. There are memories then flashing before him strange memories that he can’t imagine belonging to Snape— students dancing in old fashioned robes, the Great Hall filled with so many people that it seems small and the enchanted ceiling seem so close imagines he could reach up and pluck a star from the sky or at least bang his fist against it, the sorting hat looking newer than he’s ever seen it singing a song he’s never heard before, a girl in glasses crouched away in the Transfiguration Section of the library, surrounded by tall candles, etching complicated runes on the floor and drawing her wand, and he sees himself swimming alone in the prefects’ bath, reaching out a hand with no one there to take it.

Draco sputters and coughs and pushes himself away from the large cauldron he has fallen into, and he gives a shiver that’s quick to leave him as he brushes soot and dust and shimmering water from his outer robes and contents himself by thinking the Slytherin ones beneath it are in considerably better shape.

Snape is on the floor breathing hard and shaking, and just for a second Draco thinks that it could be from the effort of holding a single thought constant, but that’s impossible, and he hasn’t, not really. Draco can’t be sure of what he saw or even when it took place, and Snape is slow to get to his feet and careful to avoid his eyes as he rises. An unseen wind blows smoke over them both, and Draco laughs— laughs to himself and laughs at Snape because he’s been beaten— just when he thought he would win, he’s been beaten.

Slytherin hisses, and his stone teeth grind together with a sound that makes Draco’s blood run cold, but Draco laughs louder and walks through the sound and the smoke and the shadows back towards the wall and the pipe, filled with a mad kind of anger, telling himself that if he had chose, he could have brought down the most powerful of wizards, that he can crush Potter’s face beneath his shoe and never have to really die. He doesn’t speak to Snape. He doesn’t need to. He settles himself on the floor, leaning his back against the wall, and without thinking of anything his fingers search for the open pipe. Snape begins again the endless checking and fixing of his ruined potions. Slytherin’s hissing slows, and the smoke rises, and Draco tells himself he will stay below all of it.

Snape stumbles over lose Gobstones on the floor and slams a lid over a small cauldron with more force than necessary and turns to glare at Draco before speaking. “I have ways,” he says, “of knowing what you do if not what you think.” But his voice is weak, and Draco tells himself he has no reason to believe any of it. Snape is jealous, after all— jealous of so much that Draco has always had and maybe even what he’s recently attained. Snape will die too, after all, though he’s better at putting it off than most, and Draco smiles, and he doesn’t listen to the thoughts that whisper, slipping through his walls, that he has nothing anymore. He taps on the pipe again and again, but there is no answer other than the soft echo of water moving slowly to the toilets and sinks and through its secret world concealed by the walls of the castle, and the faint splashes of drips, and something that sounds almost like crying.

He congratulates himself on improving his Occlumency without practice, trying to be pleased with himself for as long as he can, but doubt creeps in as it always has, slipping unnoticed in and out of his mind like shadows or secrets or ghosts, and he wonders if maybe he has been practicing, after all. Maybe he’s been practicing on himself without ever knowing it. He’s been telling himself things, things he’s not always sure of, and he’s been making himself believe them. Maybe he’s seen some truth that he finds it easier to hide than to accept or maybe there’s some truth— some secret lurking nearby that he doesn’t want to see. He shivers, hoping Snape won’t notice, and his hands tremble as he lowers them to his sides, and he falls asleep that night to the sound of soft taps echoing out of the open pipe while wondering what power such a secret could have over him if he were to discover it.

~*~*~*~*~*~

Part eight


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