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In Dreams by peppersweet
Format: Short story
Chapter 2: two
They met on a dingy morning in January. A bitter handful of sunlight had been scattered through the thick clouds and touched gently upon the grey pavements. It was early and nothing seemed to stir; only two days after the New Year, London still drifted in the haze of dead celebrations and resolutions already forgotten.
They were both waiting at a bus stop in the city centre for a bus that would never come and that neither of them intended to board. He was tired, and had stopped purely for the shelter. She had a twenty minute break in her shift and no desire to spend it in the hospital. She smoked then, and the obsessive drawing on her cigarette gave her break a rhythm, a drumbeat to the hushed counterpoint of London at half past six in the morning. Her hair, dull and unwashed, was tied back from a face that was pinched, vaguely monochrome with fatigue. He was similarly exhausted, similarly hollowed out from research that had gone on too long, was worthless, all going nowhere, and in the half-darkness it was unsurprising that both of them were considering giving up their jobs.
She was not much of a conversationalist, but after two minutes she recognised the man at her side and knew she wanted to speak to him. She waited until she’d finished her cigarette before she turned to him and said ‘You look tired.’
He, in turn, had recognised her. He knew her sister, and there was a trace of her sister's benevolence in the girl's wide, sad eyes - eyes that seemed bright despite her exhaustion. He nodded to her, a little stiffly. A formal greeting. She dropped her cigarette to the ground and crushed it with the heel of her shoe.
'Are you waiting for the sixteen?' she said. 'It's always late.'
'Yeah,' he said. 'I know.' There was no truth in what he said, but it was not normal for someone of his kind to be found loitering in a bus shelter. 'Daphne's sister, right?'
'Yes. You're the Malfoys' son.' she responded.
He found it hard to look her in the eye. 'Well,' he said, in that same stiff, cold way. 'I'm sorry for your loss.'
'And I yours.'
He only realised then that she was not familiar because she resembled the sister he'd known, or perhaps familiar because she'd been two years below him at school, in his house, no less. She was not familiar for the dinner parties she'd attended at his mansion or the circles they'd both revolved in in some distant age. She was familiar because of the war. He met her eyes for the second time and saw how she looked politely absent - almost as if she could see something he could not just over his shoulder. Their exchange hadn't opened up an old wound, rather traced it with the blunt edge of a blade; it was a reminder. He dredged up the memories. Both parents, a sister, a childhood home, all lost to a fire. In an instant, he knew she was drifting.
'I have some photographs of Daphne from school,' he said, mechanically. 'If you'd like them, that is. I'm sorry.'
She nodded. 'Yes. That would be much appreciated.'
They made brief arrangements to meet later that day once her shift was over; she warned him not to expect her on time. They then exchanged small talk; she was a Healer, he an Unspeakable, both worked unsociable hours, both wished they'd thought to bring a pair of gloves, both ached for sleep. The exchange was light in topic, yet the mood was somehow sombre. It was as if their initial exchange of sympathy had summoned the spirits of those they'd lost to crowd the bus shelter in an invisible, silent mass.
She left after five minutes, returning to her shift. He stalled for five minutes more, giving her a head start, before heading for home.
I can't wait to get to bed, she'd told him. I'm beat.
He felt sick as he crossed the road before the full beam of a car's headlights. It had been months since he'd slept properly. It had been a passing concern at first; he'd always been the nocturnal sort, and it was not unusual for him to lie awake into the small hours, working over some trivial issue or devouring some new book. But as soon as the lights went out, he often found it easy to drift into sleep in a matter of minutes. Not these days. These days, he could turn off the light and lie awake, watching London soak the sky a sick orange, watching car headlights scatter lightning through his room as they passed and then vanishing, or the pattern of the moon slowly drawing and erasing itself on the wall above his bed - or perhaps he'd listen to the sound of his breathing, his pulse.
It was not that he felt too awake to sleep. He felt comatose, paralysed, as if he was somehow asleep yet still conscious. There was always the nausea, of course, and the headaches. Side-effects, he supposed. He was sleeping awake, effectively, eyes open and blinking, mouth dry; mind full of dull, thick fog. There were times during those nights that he would be lost to that fog, or lost to the patterns on the ceiling that he so often traced.
And now fog stifled London like a gauze, trapping sound and colour. He always associated fog with forgetting. He was an Unspeakable, and his expertise was in memory. The Occlumency he'd once learnt from his Aunt had helped him into the department - a course in Legillimency had followed, and then a transfer to the memory room.
There was a small, secret department in the Department of Mysteries that he unofficially belonged to. He was on the payroll as an Unspeakable, although his job title would presumably be Dream Researcher. Draco Malfoy, so crushed and bitter and down on his luck, had forgotten how to perform the simple reflex action that was the only focus of his life. He did not dream himself, because he did not sleep, but he was paid to investigate the dreams of others. Extract them. Store them in small glass phials like memories for later viewing in a Pensieve. It was a lucrative business. The extraction of surrealist comedies and darkest horrors, premonitions and omens and subconscious thoughts. The research was supposedly academic but he knew that, in the end, it was for the money.
If the rest of the Ministry was the introspective, the concrete, the paperwork and laws and regulations and the things that bound people to the land, then the Department of Mysteries was the abstract and unknown. The research was to last three years. Firstly, how do you extract a dream and keep it? And second, is it possible to manipulate a dream?
Draco regarded the second task with a certain suspicion. He knew what they meant. Of course it was easy to manipulate a dream – if it wasn’t extracted immediately upon waking or even before, it could be forgotten and easily modified. They meant to modify a dream in real time. As it happened. They meant for him to find out how to invade the minds of the asleep.
But the first stage had taken them almost a year and a half, and he almost hoped they would call he project off after that. Dreams were rarely remembered, like a mirror that shattered upon waking and left fragments and dust embedded in the mind. A full dream extraction was rare. Usually only scraps remained, and it was a task enough to lift all those scraps at once and knot them together into something whole and coherent. It was advanced Legillimency. He’d tried anyway. It was around then that he stopped dreaming.
At first it seemed like a lack of dream recall. That happened when you grew older, and his job was demanding with unsociable hours. Stress was a perfectly logical explanation. When he woke, there was no sensation of having slept; it was as if he’d blinked and travelled forward in time. And then the fog came.
He knew the following to be true: modified memories are foggy. Real ones are not. Fog is concealment. Even an experienced Occlumens cannot modify a memory without leaving some sort of mist behind. A gauze you have to look out for from the corner of your eye.
The more Draco found his head full of fog, the more troubled became. So when he met Astoria Greengrass again later that day in the Leaky Cauldron and found out that she was a Healer, he knew he couldn’t let her go.