6/28/07 11:23 am - Hard to Keep (9)
Draco wakes up in the Basilisk skeleton. The robe and the floor beneath him are wet, and the twist of spine and curve of ribs above him are almost comforting compared to the horrible skull. He watches, and he waits unmoving in the silence and tries to cast wordless drying charms, but the magic in the Chamber won’t let him, not after already giving him so much.
He climbs to his feet slowly and stumbles just a little as he slips out of the skeleton, wand still clutched to his chest, and he uses his free hand to squeeze the water out the robes he wears, absently noticing that the ones he slept on are already dry. He tries not to shiver and he fails, teeth chattering noiselessly as he moves towards the center of the Chamber and the un-boiling cauldron. He can see the whole of it here. The drip from the ceiling is faster now and each bead of water seems larger than the one that fell before.
There are puddles everywhere and shadows moving through the water above the strange blue stains on the floor, which take on shapes of their own. He sees the forms of monsters and distorted human figures beneath his feet. He watches them spinning, dancing, swimming, shifting and breaking apart to become other horrible things and moving in the water from one puddle to the next as if they could go on forever, and he thinks of Myrtle and how she, with a single touch could make everything still, but Myrtle’s not here, and she wouldn’t hear him if he screamed, and if she did what then? Would she smile and laugh or cry at how horrible it all is? Would she freeze the water on the floor because she knows it would anger Snape or get Draco in more trouble than ever before? He wonders this, and he wonders, if she would listen, what he would really want her to do.
Dark figures rise up out of the water and pass through walls or drop low into the small spaces between the stones of the floor and never come back again, and Draco doesn’t scream because his chest aches from the smoke he breathes and the nervousness he can’t let go and his throat nearly closes and he can’t stop his teeth from chattering and because no one would hear him if he did.
Snape rises in a daze, and Draco jumps nearly out of his skin to see him move, but his silencing spell holds as Snape pulls the mandrakes from an invisible cabinet beside the workbench and finishes chopping them, knife hitting the makeshift bench below in perfect silence, and weighing the pieces on his golden scales, which look duller now than when they first arrived, and Draco walks, when he is no longer too stunned to move his feet, to a dry patch beside the open pipe, and he taps out a wake up call to Myrtle before remembering that she doesn’t need to sleep.
His ears hurt briefly and shortly after he notices his tapping ringing out in the quiet of the Chamber, sharp and sudden, and he hears the rapid dripping from the ceiling and Slytherin’s hissing snores and the swish of Snape’s billowing robes and he turns towards him and strides, boots slapping the floor with each step to where he stands beside the pipe and snatches his wand back from Draco much faster than someone who looked nearly dead the night before should be able to, and glares at him while pulling the fluff from his ears. “Am I expected to find this amusing?”
Draco coughs and tries to laugh. “Well, I certainly do.”
Snape turns on his heel and strides back towards the makeshift bench, while Draco sits and tries to pinpoint the exact moment when sounds began. He watches the dust floating in the air and settling on the water that covers most of the floor, and he watches shadows moving close to his outstretched legs, and he kicks out, causing a large splash and ripples that seem to run through the air as well as the water.
Snape peers back at him through the smoke, and his gaze rises to the un-boiling cauldron between them and follows the water dripping out of it and across the floor. There is a still, terrifying moment as realization dawns on Snape’s tired face, and Draco wonders for a while if the Chamber might have fallen back under the silencing spell. There is no sound then but the muffled beating of Draco’s pulse in his ears. “What have you been doing?” Snape asks in a hiss of a whisper. “What have you done?”
Draco crosses his arms over his chest and tells himself he looks perfectly dignified sitting in a puddle on the floor and shuddering whenever he catches dark shapes moving out of the corner of his eye. “Don’t you always know?”
Snape stares into the overflowing cauldron and at the water on the floor and almost at everything at once, his eyes darting across the Chamber faster than a golden snitch, faster than Myrtle when she’s nervous or Peeves in his dream. “What happened?”
“Nothing!” Draco shouts, disturbed by the alarm in Snape’s voice, and he tries to calm himself and to keep his own voice steady when he speaks next. “I didn’t do anything. It overflowed, and I really don’t see why it matters. You have your wand. A few drying spells and everything will be—”
“It is no longer safe here!”
Draco feels panic rising in his chest to replace the nervousness, as thick as smoke and the strange memories slipping in and out of his mind, and he tells himself again that there’s nothing left he needs to fear. He slaps his hands against the puddles, scraping his knuckles on the stones of the floor. “Why?” he says, nearly choking on the word as he coughs. “It’s just water.”
“Do you really still believe that?”
“Yes,” he says, wincing as he presses his bleeding fists to the damp fabric of his robes, and he wants to really mean it. “Yes,” he says again and this time he does. Inside the walls he builds his commands are all that matters. ‘There is nothing to fear.’ He looks down at his hands and the shallow scrapes that bleed more than they should. There is pain, but he tells himself he can no longer be bothered by it, and he isn’t. He smiles and shakes away all memories that aren’t his own. He can almost feel Snape trying to get in his mind to catch the lie, but there is no lie. There is only what Draco believes, and he chooses his beliefs to suit his purposes and trades them just as easily.
Snape steps forward and taps the edge of the large cauldron with his wand, and the water inside and the water all around them glows bright silver. “There are ways,” he says, “to trap and contain the resonances of events left behind. They are taken from people most often and given freely, sometimes from beasts, rarely from the land itself.” Draco knows this. His mother told him what happened after the worst of the battles against Grindewald— how if you stood in certain places where someone died or where someone killed or tortured you could hear the distant fizzling of spells shooting from wands that were long since been destroyed or buried with their user. This was before the land was cleared by the Ministry— cleaned somehow of those echoes of the past with hardly a trace left behind. He swallows hard, thinking that now it seems wrong somehow— like forgetting on purpose or telling yourself that true things don’t matter, and he wonders absently that it’s been a long time since he remembered anything about his mother. Snape taps his wand against the cauldron again, loud enough to pull Draco from his thoughts. “There are impacts,” he says, “left by every action. By keeping them in this secret place no one could use them to find out we were here. I did this for your own protection and mine.”
“Not water?” Draco says with a pained smile, and Snape dips his wand into the cauldron and with it pulls out a silver thread that floats into the air and fades into the smoke.
“Memories,” Snape says, “Memories so no one else could find out from the castle itself that we were hidden within.” And he gives a brief smile that’s not so pained as Draco’s. “Memories so I could see what you were doing while I was gone.”
“A Pensieve,” Draco says, testing the word on his tongue and wondering if it could really be possible. A true Pensieve requires delicate potions to keep the memories moving and alive or they would go still like the image in a Muggle photograph. Snape had no such potions here but he used a fire to keep the water in motion when not even the most basic ingredients of stirring solutions could be found, and he recalls vaguely the powder Snape added and decides it must have been snail salt used to keep the memories ever changing so they could be pulled out and examined, and he’s surprised at how much he remembers when he tries. Shadows move in the water on the floor— in them he sees himself setting off rockets and drinking sweet baking sherry and slipping on ice in the bathroom above, and he nods to himself. Not water. There are cracks in his beliefs— in his walls, but he is quick to seal them.
The shadows beneath his feet show him twisted hallways and crocked towers and a starlit sky above empty tables and everything Myrtle showed him, but he doesn’t see her there, and he doesn’t see his own shadow. Snape is silent and for that Draco’s thankful. There are so many things he saw since coming here and things he knew without seeing— the memories— yes—the memories of a castle passing through him and settling back into the stones, and he asks the question though he already knows the answers. “A Pensieve for all of Hogwarts, what was inside?”
“Everything” Snape says, “practically everything. You could have looked anytime you chose— nothing was stopping you save your own refusal to see what is right before you.” But Snape’s wrong, he did look inside the cauldron, and it did tell him something. It told him how the days passed, but he still wonders about all the secrets kept so close beside him, and what they would have showed him if he had really looked. He gives a nervous laugh, wondering what more he might have done if he had known and thinking this— the Chamber— was the right place for it after all— for the cauldron to catch the water that traveled through all the hidden parts of the castle and leave behind all the memories of what it passed, for him and Snape to hide unnoticed, but now it seems colder, unprotected by any walls to keep intruders out or to keep in the whispers that can carry for miles, and the voice in his mind that he’s become so skilled at not hearing says to him that the time for secrets is quickly running out.
Draco’s heart beats faster. The fear is back and with it the doubt he can never leave behind, but he raises his eyebrows and watches as Snape holds his wand so tight in his hand it looks ready to break. “What do you mean practically everything?”
“Everything that matters,” Snape says with a twisted sneer as if each word is more painful than he would ever admit. “Ghosts present some difficulty, of course. It is people who need to see them, not stone walls. They pass unfelt through the castle and confuse the magic of the water.”
Draco smiles in spite of the cold and the fear and the terrible shadows that surround him. “Then,” he says, “you haven’t seen anything.”
Snape only shifts through the invisible and hidden drawers of his makeshift workbench and pulls out vial after vial of potions that glimmer in the Chamber’s faint light. “Spells,” he says, “are easily traced and leave behind a clear signature from the wand of those who cast them.” And Draco nods. He’s heard Snape say this before in his classes and after his own wand was taken from him, though he tells himself that was because of the spells he would have cast rather than any trail of magic he would create leading to him and to Snape and to the Chamber of Secrets. “Potions, when brewed with care and used with discretion, can do everything spells can and sometimes what they cannot.” He holds up a flask of liquid— pale pink and translucent. “To turn flesh to stone,” he says before placing it into the long sack he had often carried with him and examines another potion, this one the color of grass. “To wood.” And another, flat milky white, “To ice.” He goes faster then and Draco watches the blur of colors passing through his hands and disappearing into the sack— deep violet with white foam on top, red and orange, yellow as sulfur and black so dark no light shines through. “To steal memories, to blind to deafen, to paralyze, to kill.” And Snape’s voice wavers there and his hand trembles slightly as he pulls out another potion— blue and oily. “Disabling Draught concentrated— the most effective mixture of its kind as you have already found out.”
He flings more up onto the workbench this time showing hardly any care to whether the vials and flasks are shattered or the potions badly shaken. “For invisibility, for strength, for luck, to mend broken bones and heal shallow wounds.” With a sweep of his arm he draws them all into a smaller sack that he places in front of the workbench. “All tainted by changes in temperature and spills to the floor, by explosions and freezes and by all of your clever little additions. “Hope, Draco, that you are never left with no choice but to discover how well they still work.”
Draco waves smoke from his face in a manner that is not so careless as he would have liked, and he wonders which of the potions needed the legs of a spider. “Is that all?”
“There is one thing more,” Snape says. “Not a potion, this time, not just a potion— a spell.”
“What spell?” Draco asks with a sneer, but Snape only stares ahead, looking right at Draco as if he can see through the smoke.
“The Fidelius charm,” he says. “I have managed to speak with your mother a few times in these past months, very difficult considering how well she has been hidden. She is your secret keeper now.” And Snape says it as if it makes perfect sense, but of course it doesn’t. He’s not sure he believes Snape’s seen his mother or talked to her, but even if he did there would be no reason to cast a spell to hide Hogwarts from anyone searching for them right before they’re about to leave. Hogwarts itself wouldn’t allow such a thing. Its magic is strange— stranger now than before, because it has been so long empty, but it was meant to be seen by witches and wizards. It was meant to give them comfort by knowing it was there. It was meant to be a place they could go when they had need. It wouldn’t disappear, not for Draco’s sake or for Snape’s or for anyone else’s.
“We can’t leave,” Draco says. “Not if you’ve really cast the Fidelus, not if my mother’s really keeping us safe here.”
“You, Draco,” Snape says drawing a vial smaller than any of the others from the pockets of his robes. It has a few drops of liquid inside and when Snape shakes it out over Draco, it’s hard to keep from shivering. “If all works properly it will keep you hidden anywhere you choose to go, but it is up to you to stay safe. I’m sure the changes I’ve made are not yet perfected, and if anyone can be counted on ruin such a gift or render it completely ineffective it is you. This is the first charm of its kind tied to a person with no fixed location. It was difficult to cast over such a distance. The charm itself required a great many alterations— additional protective spells, hiding hexes, secretive solutions, your mother’s blood.” Draco does shiver at this, but Snape, though looking right at him, pays no attention. “And, of course, my work was set back a great deal. I decided it would be far too great a risk for you to know about it before it was finished, however I trust you are able to shield your thoughts well enough now.”
“Did you take my blood?”
“Your hair,” he says. “I had thought you may have been able to accompany me on that particular journey, unfortunately you were indisposed.” And he says it as if indisposed means something other than spelled motionless and lying tied up on the floor.
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Have you still not been listening? I tell you this because we are leaving.” He looks away from Draco, and one by one uses his wand to put out what remains of the fires beneath every cauldron, but the smoke remains. “That’s what the potions are for, aren’t they? To use against enemies. As usual you have sabotaged most of my attempts to protect us both.” His hand disappears into his robe pocket again and again he draws out a simple vial, this one full of clear liquid that looks almost like water, and Draco rolls his eyes wonders when Snape will finally be out of vials of potions to show him. “There is this. My own mother came up with it— quite ingenious, really.” He holds it up and Draco notices that it stays still in the vial and doesn’t move easily as water does. “She only used it for silly games, but there are more practical applications. I have finally made it strong enough to stop your Mark from burning when the Dark Lord calls.”
“I don’t need it,” Draco says instantly, and Snape glowers.
Draco shrugs and looks down beneath his sleeve, and he can see nothing but the skull and snake, but it feels like a cold hand is wrapped around his arm, brushing his skin with fingers of ice to keep the pain at bay. Draco coughs and shivers and almost laughs, because he knows now how Snape won so easily when they played Gobstones. He thinks of them sitting on the floor that was dry then with Slytherin staring down on their every move, and he smiles, thinking that he might have won if Snape had played honestly. He tells himself he would have won and then that he has and that such a victory matters, even if the game was only intended as silly diversion or a punishment or a lesson he never managed to learn. It seems very long ago, longer with Snape glaring at him as he does, and he wonders now how they could have played a game here and how Snape could have ever looked at him with something other than disdain.
“But no one can find us, not where we are now! And the spell— the Fidelius—”
“There were protections in place,” he says, “and we were both extraordinarily lucky. Do you know why so many portraits chose to depart? I could think of no spells to manage such a thing without alerting them to our presence, and you certainly know nothing of caution and very little of magic.”
‘I saved you,’ Draco thinks furiously. ‘I quieted the mandrakes’ screams, and I could have left you there. I should have.’ And no matter what he tells himself, he won’t ever believe it, but hates the Chamber and the Basilisk and the mandrakes and Snape and everything that can kill with a shout or a stare or a spell that he knows now he could never manage. Memories spin through him, making his stomach clench and his whole body tremble, and for just a second he sees himself standing over Dumbledore, wand shaking in his hand.
Draco stands, holding tight to the open pipe for balance, and he turns his back on Snape, and he runs towards the stairs, amazed at how quickly the hope he felt is fading and the warmth is so diminished.
Myrtle stares at Draco when he stumbles over the edge of the makeshift stairway, and she darts back and forth too fast and smiles too bright and laughs too much when he slips on a wet patch on the floor for him to believe she’s not pretending. He watches her floating— her rising toward the ceiling and drifting slowly back down again, her arms moving instinctively outwards as if to keep balance or catch her if she could somehow fall, the way she rests easily on the air and moves as if she could go on forever, and he wonders what that must be like. “You were quiet last night,” she says finally
“Silencing spells,” he mutters.
“Oh.” She summersaults in the air, flipping over and pushing off one wall towards another.
“Is it like swimming?” he asks, holding himself straight by leaning against a sink basin, and somehow she knows what he’s talking about.
“Like flying on a broom?”
“I was never very good at that.”
“Are you cold?”
“I’m not warm.”
“Are you going to give me a proper answer about anything?” he asks, glancing at his still bleeding hand and wondering when the pain returned, and she sighs and shrugs and looks down at the tiles she’s floating above. Sweat pricks at his skin, and it’s still hard to keep from shivering, and he wonders if this is what it feels to be freezing and burning at once, and if that’s what she feels too then there is no way to describe it. “Is it horrible?”
She nods her head this time and gives a smile he can almost believe. “What happened last night?”
He swallows and moves away from the sink when a faucet snaps at his arm. He doesn’t know how to explain to her how he felt Snape’s thoughts and used a wand for the first time in months, how there are memories all around him taken right from the castle and the water that she passes through as she travels in the pipes, how Snape looked at him in the morning like he was more foolish than ever before and told them they had to leave. He doesn’t know how to explain to her that he decided to forget everything that Snape said and how he’s starting to— how since making that decision he’s starting to feel hopeful as he did right after their first meeting, as if anything can happen.
He wants Snape to look in the un-boiling cauldron one last time— for him to see himself the night before lying helpless while Draco held his wand and used it over and over again to keep them both from falling prey to the mandrakes’ screaming, how his final silencing spell used the strange magic of the Chamber rather than struck out against it and was able to hold while Snape’s had failed, but those memories— those secrets are his alone, and he knows now they will be hard to keep.
He looks up at Myrtle. “You really do look different without your glasses,” he says, and he’s not quite surprised when she doesn’t try to deny it as she always has before.
“I looked at the Basilisk without them. I shouldn’t be afraid anymore.”
“I’ve been dead for quite a long time, you know?” she says, and Draco nods, because he doesn’t know how he should respond to that, and everything she says seems rather silly, but she looks terribly serious. “You’re leaving.”
“No,” he says, wondering if she could have heard Snape through the pipes or the floor or if he had told her somehow without realizing it. “No— only if Snape has his way. We could hide somewhere. We will.”
“You’re leaving,” she says again, staring at him and through him all at once. “I knew you would.” And she could have said it months ago with tears in her voice, and he wouldn’t believe her. All his life he has been very good at deciding what to believe, and he knows he’s gotten better— much better since moving with Snape to the Chamber. Now he has to fight to convince himself she’s wrong.
He glances at a window on the opposite wall but doesn’t look down. He already knows what lies below, and Myrtle must know too— she’s always looking. “There’s nothing but forest now. The Floos are shut down here at least, maybe everywhere. It would be impossible.” She keeps staring and he knows it will be an even harder fight to convince her.
“No,” she says. “No, it’s not. Don’t you remember?” but there are memories everywhere— strange and unfamiliar scenes that can be plucked from the air and the water, and they make it harder to find the thoughts hidden so well behind his walls.
“But I can’t leave,” he says, and he thinks of the broom down in the Chamber and the freezing winds that beat against the castle walls. “It would be . . .” he stops, and in his mind he stutters over what to say next— Dangerous? Foolish? Since when did he care about that? He feels the familiar fear building and doubt creeping in, and the hope that’s been burning in him fades again. He shivers now, because he doesn’t know if he’s really cold, but he’s certainly not warm, and he moves his feet because he’s scared that if he stands still any longer he might find himself rooted to the floor. “I’ll go out flying in the spring— maybe.” His voice shakes. “We had plans, didn’t we?” The thinks of the prefects’ bathroom and the Great Hall, the long corridors and hidden tunnels and the highest towers she showed him. He thinks of the Chamber and all the other secret places yet to be found. “Oh, Snape will probably leave soon enough, and it will be ours— everything— the whole castle.” But the voice he uses to tell himself these things is weaker than it once was, and his own voice sounds small and scared and desperate.
Myrtle shakes her head. “You’re leaving.”
Draco takes a deep breath and coughs, because the smoke is here too, rising up from the tunnel of the makeshift staircase, and he tells himself not to believe her, but it doesn’t work. No matter how he fights, this time, it doesn’t work at all. He tries again. Oh, he might have to leave for a time, not today of course, not until the air is warm and the forest has receded back to where it was before. When the war is over he might walk down the open paths to Hogsmeade or to take a simple boat across the lake to the train station, and he might die that day or years later in the hazy, distant future that’s rushing towards him much too fast, but even if he does he’ll make his way back here. He’ll never really leave because he said the words in the book, and he meant them, and Myrtle’s looking at him and reading something from his face, and he’s not at all sure what she means by it. He’s not yet convinced, and it’s hard to keep his breathing steady, and wants to blink but he can’t quite manage it. “It doesn’t really matter, does it?” he says finally. “It doesn’t matter if I leave, because even if I do— even if something happens— well that doesn’t matter because of what I did. I don’t have anything to be afraid of.”
“I lied,” Myrtle says, and her words, at first, seem to pass through him as easily as her eyes— as easily as the rest of her if she chose, but they feel solid and real in his mind as if they could begin to shake about and topple the walls he’s worked so hard to build and been so careful to protect.
“What?” he says, and then, “no, you didn’t. You can’t lie at all, can you? I’d know the moment you started trying. If you lied, I could see it.”
“Then,” she says, “You haven’t seen anything.”
He leans heavily against one of the stalls and braces his legs when he feels himself sliding down towards the floor. The smoke seems suddenly to remember the heat of the fires it came from and burns in his eyes and his throat. “What did you lie about then?”
“About the spell I gave you,” she says, and her voice is barely above a whisper.
“How could you have lied about that? I read it— it said . . .” But he can’t remember what it said or what it meant, and he can’t tell if she looks ashamed or pleased with herself. He feels sick, and he thinks he would throw up in her toilet, but he can’t move, and he hasn’t eaten properly in longer than he can remember. He clutches his stomach and gives a few dry heaves, and spits trying to get the smoke and the dust out of his throat, and he wipes his mouth with the sleeves of his robes and wipes his eyes with his hands, and he glares up at Myrtle.
“It wasn’t real,” she says.
Draco feels for a second as if the breath has been knocked out of him, and he struggles to stand just a bit straighter, and he screams. He screams with his own voice, raw and trembling and with the voice in his head that he uses to tell himself what’s true and what he should believe. “I decide what’s real!” He slams the wall with his fist, already sore and bleeding. “I decide what’s real! That’s not up to you!” And he shivers, and he coughs, and he feels the memories all around him, and he can almost see them playing out in the air in front of him when his eyes lose their focus, but then he looks back at Myrtle and he spits again onto the floor. “You’re dead,” he says. “What can you do anyway? What have you ever done?” he swallows hard and leans against the cubicle again. “It’s up to me whether it’s real.”
“It’s wasn’t real.” She shakes her head and looks worried and scared and just as stupid as she always has. “It wasn’t real. I wrote it.”
“You couldn’t have!” he shouts, and he shouldn’t have to tell himself this. She’s a ghost. She’s see-through. She can’t touch things or feel things or hold a quill to write, but she puts a cold hand on his shoulder, and he shudders. It’s not solid, not like a real hand, not really, but its there. He can feel it when he closes his eyes, and he can see her outline shimmering so bright he can hardly make out what’s behind her. He jerks away fast, and when she lets go it’s too hard to keep his balance, and he topples sideways onto the floor. “Get away from me!”
He stays down for a few moments until the sharpest pain of the fall begins to fade, and then he props himself up on his forearms and leans, sitting against the wall. He remembers that she said the book she would bring him was about flowers, which it obviously wasn’t and how it seemed too new, and he remembers Peeves singing out his stupid rhymes as he tumbled through the air. His head hurts terribly. “But there must have been other books.”
“There were,” Myrtle says, “Of course there were. I got rid of them.” And she absently taps a finger on the clear skin of her chin. “I t wasn’t hard. I knew every one of them, you see.”
“But you couldn’t,” Draco says, though he’s no longer sure of it. “You can’t move things or pick things up.” And just as he says to her remembers the library— the toppled shelves and torn pages strewn across the floor, how a thrown book stopped when it hit her and pages turned beneath her fingers.
“You told me I could.” She floats back from him and perches on one of the sink basins.
“You can’t write.”
“I learned how,” she says. “You thought it was Peeves. I kept practicing writing the way you did on the mirror.” And he looks at the mirror behind her and can almost see a reflection in it, and he remembers tracing an apology there and how there had once been smudges on the glass that looked almost like words and fog everywhere, and he thinks she must have turned on the sinks to make it warmer, though he’s not sure how she managed that either.
“Why?” he asks, because if it’s true how doesn’t really matter anymore.
“Because it’s horrible.”
“No,” he says. “I know that. You already told me that.”
She turns from him and runs a finger down the surface of the mirror, making a clear path in the dust and ashes that cling to it. He can see her reflection there so bright it hurts his eyes to look. “You don’t understand,” she says with glimmering tears running down her cheeks and disappearing before they can fall to the floor. “You don’t understand. You couldn’t. It’s like walking without feeling the ground beneath your feet— like going numb, like forgetting. The years are so long, and no one keeps their promises.” She wipes her eye and gives a bitter smile. “I don’t keep my promises either.”
He clears his throat and tries to sound certain. “I have. I—” But she shakes her head as if he’s wrong and as if even if he were right that wouldn’t really matter.
“And how long can you keep going?” she asks. “One year? One hundred? Even that is nothing. It never ends. It goes on forever, and it’s horrible.”
He takes a deep breath and nearly chokes on it. “I thought we already decided—”
“And what happens when the castle’s gone, when it’s nothing but crumbling stone? How long do you think that’ll be? It’s already empty. And without magic done here— without people to see you . . .”
“What? I thought we wanted it empty. I thought we didn’t want anyone else here— It— it could have been ours.” She shakes her head again or maybe she’s never really stopped, and somehow he’s the one who feels dizzy.
“It would never work.”
He clenches his teeth and clenches his fists, cradling his sore hand against his chest. “It will,” he says, and his voice sounds rough and raw. “It would have, and it still can.”
“What happens when Muggles build their houses in this place?” she asks, and her tears aren’t disappearing in the air anymore. They hit the tile floor as tiny drops of water over the dusty tiles. “You hate them, but they won’t even be able to see you, and the only magic left in the air will fade when the castle’s gone, and you’ll fade too. You’ll fade until you won’t even be able to see yourself or know yourself. You’ll be less than nothing, and you’ll be alone.”
Draco closes his eyes because of the dust and the smoke and because Myrtle’s too bright, and it’s hard to keep looking at her for very long. He sees things sitting there on the cold tiles of the bathroom floor with his eyes shut tight. At first it’s nothing more than swirling shadows, but those shadows shift and take on different shapes, and he knows this is no memory. There have been no ghosts in any of the memories. According to Snape that would be quite impossible. There are ghosts here.
There is a scene being painted in his mind, closed in safe by the walls that he uses to convince himself that it’s all daydreams or nightmares or that he’s drunk on baking sherry or has half-poisoned himself by eating the whatever strange things there were left on the old potions storeroom. He sees Binns in his classroom lecturing to no one, the Grey Lady in the library, Peeves spinning slow around the Bloody Barron before he slips away through the walls, and then he sees all of them huddled together with dozens of others in the Great Hall. Some are old, and some are young. Some look just like the people they once were, and others are missing arms and legs and have huge gaping wounds covered in silvery blood or hold severed heads under their arms. He watches them getting more and more transparent until there is nothing left but a chill in the air that he remembers feeling when he looked up at the stars. “What about you?” He looks at Myrtle and she floats up off the sink and away from the mirrors. “Would I be able to see you?”
“You’d have forgotten me,” she says. “Surely, you’d have forgotten me long before then.”
“I won’t— I wouldn’t.”
“You would,” she says. “You will. You already are.”
“You forgot to take me outside with you.” And of course he did, and of course he tells himself he was occupied with things much more important than that, though he knows better than to tell her so, and he thinks maybe he should apologize, but he’s done that too many times before, whether he’s meant it or not. He thinks of the fireworks that ruined so many of Snape’s potions before he knew what they were for, about Snape shaking his head in Dumbledore’s office, about Potter nearly destroying the Dark Lord when he was hardly over a year old, and he thinks of Myrtle in the bathroom long ago, without her glasses on, sensing something strange nearby and turning to look not at all sure of what she’ll see, and he begins to wonder if what you do matters much more than what you intend.
“I didn’t,” he says. “I mean— It was just a mistake. I just didn’t remember.”
“It’s the same thing, isn’t it?” She sniffles a bit but doesn’t seem to be crying anymore. “It hardly makes a difference now anyway. Some promises can be kept, while you’re alive.”
“Why, then?” he asks, and he would scream if it weren’t so hard to keep his voice from breaking. “Why did you bother with me? Why did you bother pretending?”
She seems to be breathing heavily, taking in short shallow gasps for air and almost coughing, though he can’t imagine what could cause a ghost to cough or to think she can breathe, and until she speaks he’s sure she’s about to start crying again. “Because we— ghosts I mean— need to be seen to stay visible, and we need to be believed in to stay real. You wouldn’t have come back to see me if you didn’t think I could help.”
Draco’s heartbeat pounds in his ears, and he waves smoke from his eyes so he can properly glare at her, and if there were ever a moment, just a smallest increment of time he could look at her and not see silly, slow, low-born girl who died of her own stupidity, then that moment’s long gone. ‘How dare she,’ he thinks. ‘How dare she use him, and how dare she trick him, and how dare she even attempt to make a fool of him just to prolong her own miserable, pathetic existence.’
“You don’t understand,” she says in that awful whining voice of hers. “It’s horrible, and I didn’t want it to happen to you.”
Memories pass through him on their way back to the parts of the castle they came from— unfamiliar professors practicing their lectures in empty classrooms, students lost in the hallways, house-elves standing in corners and banging their heads against the walls. Though he hates to admit it Draco thinks he might have come back to see Myrtle even without her promises to tell him how. He might just have been bored enough to want someone— even someone like her to complain to about Snape and the horrible Chamber and feeling trapped. She may have done it because she knew he would have been able to find the proper spells on his own, if she hadn’t interfered, and be able to cast them, but how dare she lie to him about it. He was never given the protection Dumbledore offered, and he doesn’t need protection from Snape or his mother and certainly not from Moaning Myrtle. He’s smarter than her, certainly smart enough to make his own choices. How dare she decide that for him. “That’s not fair!” he nearly shouts and half sobs, and she laughed at him for saying it once, but now she stares at him and through him as if he’s the one who’s transparent and crosses her arms over her chest, and he looks at her— really looks at her.
“Nothing is fair.”
‘Selfish,’ he thinks bitterly, ‘selfish, just like any other Mudblood and dead and stupid and still ugly as ever.’ And it’s all true, and he would keep thinking it— keep getting angrier and angrier until he once again had to let his fists loose on the walls, but she touches his arm once more, and this time he doesn’t shout or jerk away. “Ghosts fade,” she says. “We fade when we go unnoticed for too long. I thought you might be the same.”
He stands without effort almost as if he’s being pulled up off the floor, and he shrugs the cold hand off his arm. “I’m nothing like you! I’ve never been anything like you!”
“Yes you are. You have been anyway, and you were starting to fade away,” she says shaking her head. “It can happen to people too I suppose.”
“What?” he asks, and he shakes his head to tell her she’s wrong and to clear away all of the confusion that’s clouding his thoughts.
“You were starting to forget things. You were starting to forget what was real and what mattered. You couldn’t tell the difference between your dreams and things that actually happened, and you never realized that it’s not like living forever or never having to be afraid, because what there is to be afraid of is so much worse than dying.” She seems to take another deep breath and flashes just a bit brighter. “You’d need to be seen to keep from fading, seen by witches and wizards, real living people with magic. You’d need to know that you’re seen and— and to know that you will be seen again. That’s why so many choose Hogwarts, because there have always been enough here to see us. Some thought there always would be, but I knew— I knew nothing lasts long.”
He wonders, if nothing lasts long, why she just told him it went on forever, and he wonders if it just feels that way. If it weren’t for the un-boiling cauldron, which turned out to be something much more, and the windows he glanced out to take note of the seasons, he may have thought he’d been hiding in the Chamber for several years. He wants to tell himself and Myrtle that he decides what’s real once again, but he doesn’t believe himself anymore. Everything seems so confusing and conflicting that the walls in his mind are starting to tremble, and no matter how sure he was that Myrtle couldn’t possibly lie to him, he’s starting to figure out that she had been and to remember how nervously she smiled and swayed back and forth and fiddled with her hair. He decides to hate her for it. “You can’t! You couldn’t have! You’re not allowed to do that!” He falls a few inches backwards and leans awkwardly against the cubicle again. “You made me think you were stupid.”
“You told me I wasn’t.”
“You used it against me.” He slams a fist back against the cubicle door, which rattles and nearly opens. “You’re not allowed to use it against me!” he shouts, and he pulls the sleeve of his robe down further to cover his bleeding hand so he doesn’t have to look at it any longer, and he wonders if he shouldn’t have left the other robe down in the Chamber.
“You were using your own thoughts against yourself.”
“You have,” she whispers. “You have been for as long as I’ve known you, probably much longer than you realize.”
Draco decides to ignore her and whatever she has to say, and he thinks back to the spell she gave him in the library, despite what she told him. He reminds himself of how much he meant what he said, and how most of the magic is in really meaning it. “It had to have worked,” he whispers to himself. “I felt it. I’m sure I felt it working.”
“You’re doing it again.” She rubs her forehead and sighs, and he can’t stand that she’s flinging all these accusations at him without even the decency to appear properly outraged, and he can’t help but remember then that after he said the spell in the library he told her he didn’t feel anything.
“It had to have worked. I—I can’t see my shadow anymore.”
“What does that mean?” she asks, floating very still in the air.
“You could if you would stop standing in the dark.” She floats closer, looking more than ever like she’s walking through the air. “I was never good,” she says, “Never good at lying and pretending, just good enough to fool you. And I didn’t even do that properly, because you realized it— you realized it over and over, but you just went on believing anyway. It must have been hard to keep ignoring everything— hard to keep telling yourself so many things that weren’t true— hard to keep convincing yourself you wanted something that you found revolting and pathetic, something you knew you would absolutely hate, something worse than dying.” Her voice is softer then, and he remembers fighting with her the day before, how much he didn’t want to stay trapped here forever like her and how she told him he wouldn’t, and he believes her. He doesn’t want to, but the walls in his mind are falling, and it’s all he can do to grab hold of the cubicle door to keep from falling with them.
“Shut up, will you!” Draco shouts, and he tries to think. He thinks of his aunt Bellatrix teaching him Occlumency and how the walls he built to stop her getting into his mind were the same he used to close off his own thoughts— the ones that disagreed with the world as he wanted to see it. There are many things he could say to Myrtle— many things he could scream, but he feels too empty— too drained of his anger and too shocked to be struck by the fear that creeps around the edges of everything. He feels only cool rationality. He’s in a castle that had once been his school, and he’s a student once more— ready to see what’s really there instead of what he thinks should be and ready to learn something of value. “Ghosts need witches and wizards to see them. That’s why Muggle houses are never properly haunted.”
Myrtle gives a sad sort of laugh as if remembering something very far away, but smiles slightly, relieved perhaps that hasn’t decided to rant and rave and injure himself further. “Not haunted often and never for long,” she says. “Some believe— children mostly and the very old, the mad ones who want extraordinary things to be real, even if those things are terrible in the end. Some hear things and sense things, and they don’t try to explain them away.”
“Oh.” He shivers and he thinks of magic so strong that without spells or potions even someone with no magic of their own could feel it, and of a talent that slowly turned against him, and he thinks that maybe there is no magic that strong and even some Muggles can live closer to dreams than reality.
“I wasn’t at all like that before I knew I was a witch.”
“I guess not,” Draco says, shivering worse than before, and his composure begins to fade. He thinks about having to leave, because nothing he can do or say to himself will be enough to convince him he can stay, and he’s afraid. He’s afraid that despite Snape and his mother and everything he does, he’ll be squashed like a spider as soon as he steps out of the castle. He doesn’t know what will happen after that, and he sinks down the floor with his head in his hands. He doesn’t want to cry. He doesn’t want to look so pathetic and so helpless, but his eyes burn in a way that has nothing to do with the smoke, and his chest feels tight and itchy and terribly uncomfortable.
“Oh, Draco,” Myrtle whispers, “Oh, don’t be upset.” She’s floating very close, so close she’s almost touching him. “In her second year, Granger turned herself mostly into a cat. I stopped by the prefects’ bathroom while Potter was there and frightened him terribly. Neville Longbottom once charmed the door of a broken stall shut, but he couldn’t reverse the charm and stayed locked there for hours until Filch came and let him out.” She keeps murmuring to him, anxious and almost nonsensical, about things that seem taken out of another life, and maybe that’s shat she meant about him fading and forgetting, because this would have amused him once. Once, he would have been listening eagerly to all she had to say and been properly distracted from his own problems, but he’s not, and maybe it’s not about him forgetting what mattered— maybe he never really knew. His tears are hot and his hands are freezing and he has to gasp to breathe. “That Weasley girl Potter likes so much used to come here all the time to write to an imaginary boy if her diary, Snape used to come here, searching for something, and one time other students were hiding nearby, invisible I guess, but they had a camera.” She laughs to herself and Draco tries to smile and laugh with her, but can’t quite manage it. “There were pictures all over the school for weeks of him coming out of the girl’s bathroom. Have I ever told you about that, Draco? Oh, it will be okay.” But Draco rubs his eyes and shakes his head because he knows it won’t, and Snape’s there then, because Snape’s always there to see him looking foolish, and not even Trelawney’s scarves and bangles could make him look any worse. Snape carries the long velvet sack over his shoulder and wears a heavy wither cloak and a glower fiercer than any Draco’s seen before.