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The State of Things by peppersweet
Chapter 2: the lantern
He arrived in Knockturn alley a little early, having left too much time to navigate the muggle transport system. When he found the apothecary, he glanced to his right to see the pub. As Astoria had said, the door was black, although the paint was so old and chipped that little strips of older red paint flashed through like warning signals. The whole facade was shabby; a grubby sign hung above, creaking in the slight breeze.
Draco took a step back. The pub’s name was The Lantern – an optimistic name for such an unkempt place, he thought. Drawing his scarf tight around his neck, he placed a hand flat on the door and pushed.
The pub was quiet. Small knots of wizards and witches alike sat huddled around tables, and smoke hung around the room like a fog. Low murmuring wrapped the place in a gauze of sound. Draco hastened to the back of the pub, choosing a table half-shielded by a protruding wall away from the other customers.
Astoria was ten minutes late. The door banged open and she came striding in, still wearing the same clothes as she had earlier, her hair still in disarray.
‘Sorry I’m late,’ she said, not sounding apologetic at all. ‘Floo Network was a nightmare getting from the Ministry.’
‘You went back?’ he asked, as Astoria sat down, placing a folder and battered notebook upon the table. He picked up a vaguely northern twang to her accent he hadn’t noticed earlier.
‘Yes. They’ve just called up Theodore Nott for trial about involvement in the Battle of Hogwarts. I had to try and shoehorn in an interview with him before the Wizengamot sat in the afternoon.’
‘Never mind that, though. I’ll get started,’ Astoria flipped open the notebook to a fresh page, produced a crumpled quill from her pocket, and then set it over the paper. She seemed to think for a moment, her brow furrowed, until the quill leapt into the air and stood poised on the first line.
‘Hope you don’t mind if I use a quoter,’ she said. ‘Saves time.’
‘D’you want a drink?’
‘Seeing as we’re in a pub,’ she waved a hand at their surroundings, her lips curling into a wry smile.
‘Alright, I’ll go up,’ Draco made to stand, but Astoria grabbed his arm.
‘I’m buying. Consider it a thank-you for the information you’re about to give me,’
She stood and left the table, heading towards the bar. Draco folded his hands on the table, momentarily perplexed – in the old world he’d grown up in this sort of behaviour was strange, even unseemly. One did not drink in scruffy pubs, and one certainly did not let a woman buy one’s drink. He almost laughed at himself as these thoughts crossed his mind. The world he’d come from was old and archaic, but increasingly hard to shake off. He tried to distract himself by toying with the corner of her folder. It was stuffed with crumpled parchment…page after page of crinkling notes in an illegible shorthand, clippings, photographs, an entire documentary of the second war between two battered pieces of card. Before long, he had pulled the folder towards him and was thumbing through the pages, searching hungrily for some mention of his parents. Most of the notes were given over to the Freedom and Justice movement she’d described earlier, if he’d deciphered the handwriting correctly. This somehow bothered him; the concept of such a movement existing didn’t sit right with him. He could see the Ministry’s point, in an abstract way.
He’d reached the middle of the folder when Astoria returned with two dusty glasses of Firewhisky. She set these down on the table, eyebrows raised.
‘I didn’t think you’d be the type to go through my confidential notes,’ she said, snatching the folder back.
‘Since when were they confidential?’
Astoria pointed at the dog-eared cover, where, very clearly, the word ‘Confidential’ had been stamped.
Draco changed the subject. ‘Firewhisky, right? Not too strong for you?’
‘I’ve had a long day,’ Astoria almost snarled, ‘and I’m at perfect liberty to drink what I like.’
There was an uncomfortable silence. Astoria grabbed her Firewhisky and drained half the glass in one go.
‘The Freedom and Justice Movement is a rubbish name,’ he said, bitterly, sipping at his own glass. The Firewhisky burned his lips and tongue; he let it linger for a moment before letting it slip a fiery trail down his throat.
‘Suppose we should start. So tell me why you joined the Death Eaters,’ Astoria said, and her quill leapt into the air again.
‘You’ve heard about the Battle of the Department of Mysteries, I presume?’
At Astoria’s nod, Draco continued. ‘Well, my father was sent on a mission then to get the prophecy about Potter and the Dark Lord. You know. You probably read about it in the Prophet. They bungled it. Anyway, the Dark Lord was furious. He’d trusted my father with this all-important mission, and he’d been overpowered by a load of fifteen and fourteen year olds. He got sent to Azkaban, along with the others, and the Dark Lord lost almost all of his most prized, most valuable Death Eaters. So he wanted to punish us. Not just my father, but our whole family. I dunno why he didn’t just kill us all.’
It was a well-rehearsed story; he knew it by heart. Despite this, it was often something his mind picked over on sleepless nights. There were far faster, more efficient means of punishment – it would have been so easy for the Dark Lord to wipe out the Malfoy line with a few spells…but then the answer came to him a few years after the war had ended. The orders to kill Albus Dumbledore had been the most efficient form of punishment after all, the slowest, most tortuous way to ruin the Malfoys.
Astoria’s quill paused over the parchment for a second.
‘So…I joined the Death Eaters. I had to. You know that already. It…suffice to say my mother was unhappy.’
It was strangely easy to speak, to let these relatively simple words trip off his tongue, yet there was no way they could match the memories in his head. Unhappy was a delicate way of putting it…if the newspapers had found out what Narcissa Malfoy had become…
‘I, uh, I didn’t do it. As you know,’ he continued. ‘And he could have killed us right after that, but he didn’t. He…he rarely gave you what you wanted.’
The words trailed into silence.
‘You know what happened next,’ he said, surprised by the bluntness of his own voice.
‘Yes,’ Astoria said. ‘Assault, unforgivables-’
‘Please,’ he said. ‘Don’t.’
She lowered her gaze and the quill paused again.
‘So you want to know why I joined? Power. I was sixteen. I didn’t know what I was doing. I just wanted to be like my father and the others. You know, I was nine when I knew my parents were Death Eaters. They used to hold soirées at our manor. Very elegant, very fine. They’d sit in dinner robes and talk about who they would kill if the Dark Lord came back. Money, lots of it. I was brought up believing in that.’
‘I know,’ she said, and her voice was somehow softer. ‘So was I.’
Another silence fell. He tried to meet her eye, but she kept her gaze on the table.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I’m not much of a conversationalist.’
Astoria seemed to snap out of her reverie, checking her watch.
‘We’ve still got fifteen minutes of our half hour left.’
‘There’s not much of an article in what you just said, Draco, I’m sorry. But if it’s difficult to talk about, I won’t ask any more.’
‘I’ll talk,’ he said. ‘Just…give me time.’
There was another break in the conversation. Astoria shifted in her seat, her gaze constantly flickering to the door. Draco stared at her hands, palms flat against the table, spattered with ink, the nails chewed right down to the quick.
‘So what’s this...Justice Movement, or whatever it’s called?’ he finally said. Checking the clock above the bar, he saw that there were now only thirteen minutes left of their appointed half an hour.
‘The Freedom and Justice Movement,’ Astoria recited, stiffly, ‘was created in the year nineteen-ninety-nine in direct response to the harsh and biased war crimes trial held at the ministry. The movement aims to lobby top Ministry officials to improve the conditions in the courtroom and in Azkaban, first removing the Dementors as Azkaban guards and banning the use of Veritaserum in the courtroom. It also pledges to provide a suitable, trained wizard or witch to defend any Death Eater on trial at a reduced rate.’
The uncomfortable frankness of their last exchange seemed to have vanished. Draco’s lip curled involuntarily; the Dementors were there for a reason, he thought. And wasn’t it easier to ply criminals with Veritaserum? If they tried to give it to him, he would not resist. To tell the truth would be to prove his innocence.
‘I can’t imagine you’re very popular,’ Draco didn’t bother to mask the sarcasm in his voice, ‘Are you standing for election, or just giving out leaflets?’
‘I’ll have you know that we have growing support in Birmingham and Glasgow,’ she said, haughtily. But then her face fell slightly, and she added ‘Although we haven’t cracked London or Edinburgh yet. They’re very much…pro-Phoenix.’
Draco took another swig of the Firewhiskey before asking ‘pro-Phoenix?’
‘Surely you’ve heard,’ Astoria said. ‘Independent campaign group. Kind of the antithesis to everything we do. I bet they’re Ministry funded, as well, but I haven’t been able to dig anything up yet…’
‘When you say the antithesis-’
‘If they had their way you’d get life imprisonment,’ she said abruptly. ‘That’s all there is to it, really, Draco. They want retribution. And, in some ways, I can’t blame them. Don’t take it like that,’ she added, as he scowled and swigged at his drink again. ‘You know we’re in trouble and we probably deserve a lot of what we get.’
‘We?’ his expression darkened. He set the glass down, looking her in the eye. ‘You don’t-’
‘My parents were killed in the last week of the war,’ she said patiently. ‘If they were alive, now, they’d have gone the same way as yours. And I don’t know what’s better.’
He felt a surge of hot, bitter anger. ‘Dead or alive? You’re kidding me.’
‘I would not want my parents guarded by Dementors-’
‘Alive is always better,’ he snarled, and then found he couldn’t say any more.
‘Well…’ Astoria murmured. ‘I don’t know.’
A hush fell over the pub almost the moment she’d finished speaking. Behind the bar, the landlord was fiddling with an antique radio, the volume steadily rising each time he tapped it with his wand.
‘Oh no,’ Astoria murmured, sinking her head into her hands. ‘Braxton Barr’s doing a speech tonight. I forgot,’
‘Who’s Braxton Barr?’ Draco muttered, as chairs around them began to turn in direction of the radio. He didn’t pay much attention to the news these days; it was mostly about Death Eaters, things he’d known before.
‘He’s the leader of the Phoenix movement. I completely forgot. I should be helping my sister figure out a response for tomorrow’s Spark-’
‘Wizards of Britain,’ the radio boomed, making Astoria jump and almost slop her Firewhisky down her front, ‘our country is in a sad state. A sad state indeed. I would even go far as to say broken.’
Braxton Barr had a strong, quintessentially English voice in intonation and accent; perfect clipped vowels, soft ‘r’s, the sort of voice that sounded faintly aristocratic and old-fashioned to Draco.
‘And what do you do when something is broken? You fix it. That is exactly what the Phoenix movement calls on the Ministry to do. We want the Ministry to promise each and every one of you that they will lift this country out of danger and back to glory again. The Death Eaters destroyed everything that made us great. We had a stable economy, a stable government; now the galleon is worth half of what it was ten years ago, and the government is in ruins. The Death Eaters destroyed everything. Our currency. Our buildings. Our Ministry. But most importantly, they destroyed our people. They broke Britain, and it will be a difficult break to fix. But we can do it. We call upon the Ministry to do everything in its power to obliterate the Death Eaters, to punish them for the heinous crimes they committed, and to rebuild the society they destroyed. We want bring them to justice, but we cannot do this without your help. You can help make our country whole again. By supporting the Phoenix movement, you support justice. Wizards and Witches across the nation, I implore you: lend us your hand and help us rebuild Britain.’
The speech ended. The landlord tapped the radio again, and around the pub, chairs scraped across floors, and the low buzz of conversation resumed. Astoria ran a hand through her hair.
‘That was a load of bullshit,’ she said, darkly. ‘But he can make a bloody good speech,’ draining her Firewhisky in one go, she gathered her folder and notebook together. ‘I should probably get back to my sister.’
There was another tense silence.
‘You can come, if you’d like,’ she said, sounding a little hesitant. ‘I’m sure Daphne would love to see you again. And if you feel like giving me any more answers…’
He felt tired, but knew he’d rather make the painful reconciliation with an old Hogwarts friend than go home to his mother. ‘Of course,’ he said. ‘I’d appreciate that. Is it far?’
He followed Astoria from the pub and out into the frigid night air.
‘Just a suspicion, but…you can’t apparate, can you?’ she said.
‘I never got my licence.’
‘Neither did I,’ she set off towards the end of Knockturn Alley, where a small passageway lead into Diagon Alley. He followed her through this, keeping a short distance behind as they passed through the brick archway and towards the Leaky Cauldron.
‘We’ll just Floo, then-’
‘I don’t have any Floo powder.’
They stopped near the entrance to the Leaky Cauldron. Astoria gave him a withering look before reaching into her satchel and withdrawing a small drawstring bag.
‘I’ll lend you a pinch,’ she said, pulling it open.
‘Thank you,’ he said, as she shook a tiny pile of vivid green powder into his hand. ‘I can never get this stuff.’
‘What, really?’ she said. ‘That’s dire.’
They passed the Leaky Cauldron and headed to the communal fireplaces, lit by the brilliant smoulder of the day’s dying fires.
‘Flat seven a, Perth Tower,’ she said. ‘I think that’s all you’ll need to say.’
‘It’ll drop us off in the building’s shared fireplace,’ she smiled. ‘Seven flights of stairs, by the way. I do hope you enjoy exercise.’
He couldn’t help but smile back. ‘I’ve had worse.’
‘See you in a minute then,’ she said, and he stepped into the flames.