The cold air stung Draco’s face and blotched his pale cheeks winterberry red. Snow fell heavily, as he’d predicted, through a thick fog. Thin ice crunched under his feet as he treaded quickly over the cobblestone, as if he actually held a purpose. His hair was no longer dark. Where he was going, a façade was no longer needed. Strands of white-blond hair were frozen near his temples, where an anxious sweat had grown frigid.
He had not slept the night before. Eloise’s breath had come low and long over the hours, and at one point she had murmured a single indistinguishable word. Draco had merely lain awake facing the window, the hours slowly sliding past.
The spot on his arm was aching, that horrible black tattoo.
When a streak of silver appeared just above the horizon, he knew that a watery dawn was near. Still he found no sleep. As the line of daylight grew into a wide brushstroke, flurries of snow began to fall. Draco had crossed silently to the window then, where the frost was collecting on its outer hinges. The town below was still. He absentmindedly pushed the cold panes of glass, opening the window to let the snow inside. It was then that he realized, with a start, that the locking charm had ended. Eloise must have accidentally broken it when she tried to come in the night before.
He had wasted little time. There was a ledge just below his window that he could reach. The jump to the ground would be painful, but it was an escape. Quickly he put on his shoes and threw his dark cloak across his shoulders. It swept over the window, shadowing the room only for a moment. He made no sound. Draco left Meader’s potions on the nightstand. He did not need them.
Only seconds later he was poised at the window, one leg already hanging outside, when he happened to glance back at Eloise. Her sleeping frame was turned away, on her side. Draco paused before slipping back in to the room--quiet footsteps. He stood at her side of the bed.
Eloise’s full brows furrowed even in her sleep; her eyelashes trembled. Her nose was smudged with dirt, and her long tawny hair was now tangled and unruly. Draco had never really studied her before. In fact he hardly knew anything about her.
Which is what makes this painless, he thought as he turned away.
As he went back to the window, she turned in her sleep and her hand rested on the same place where his head had been, only minutes before. Draco did not glance over his shoulder again as he slung both legs out the window. The others were probably awake, slumping around their miserable breakfast table. He would have to be quick.
His feet groped for the icy ledge below until he felt its small but firm surface. Very carefully he lowered himself onto it, clutching the window frame above. Even then he could hardly see the ground for the swirling fog and snow.
But it was the only way down.
Draco lowered himself until, like a slender gargoyle, he crouched, gathering himself before stepping off the ledge.
He managed to roll as he hit the cold ground, though his feet still took much of the blow. Shock waves of pain traveled up his legs and he slowly rose to his feet. He glanced up at the open window, where Eloise still slept inside, before stepping away from his confinement—and maybe his refuge.
He walked for several minutes before arriving at the center of the town: the point that all the dark houses faced. Through the thick white air he suddenly spotted a great stone statue, in the middle of the cobblestones. It was a man in what appeared to be strange medieval clothing, though Draco recognized him at once. The wide, regal shoulders, the sweeping cape of stone and the strong hand placed protectively at the hilt of his sword. Godric Gryffindor.
From far away, Draco heard what sounded like the slamming of a small gate, and realized that the other villagers would be waking soon. Quickly he left, heading down a small, straight pathway directly behind the statue.
As he traveled down the tiny road, the surrounding houses became scarcer. Trees began to appear, their gnarled trunks winding from the ground, black as tar and their branches dead. He had to be nearing the way out. For several painfully long minutes Draco hurried with hands shoved in his pockets and shoulders hunched. At last something began to appear ahead: something iron. A gate. The exit. Again he heard movement from somewhere far behind and quickened his pace; he couldn’t let anyone see him. He just needed to escape, and then he didn’t care what happened.
He didn’t care.
Draco could feel his pulse quickening. At last the gate materialized into an enormous archway where Godric’s Hollow was written in spindly, unwelcoming letters of wrought iron. The fog was too thick to see anything further, but Draco could feel a growing edginess. His chest felt tighter. There were Dementors out there; he knew it.
I hope you’re hungry, he thought morbidly as he reached for the black-iron gate.
A hand suddenly seized his arm, just above the Dark Mark etched into his flesh, and spun him around violently. Eloise’s yellow eyes were wide and for several long moments they both only stared.
At last she managed breathlessly, “What are you doing?”
Draco didn’t know exactly what he was doing. He could have told her as much. Instead he responded with indifference, “I’m leaving.”
“To where?” she murmured, still not letting go. The clothes borrowed from him weeks ago had been thrown on hastily; she hadn’t even taken time to fasten Meader’s cloak. Her free hand clasped it tightly around her throat, nearly as intensely as the grip on his arm. “Back to… back to him?”
Draco looked away and tore his arm from her. He started for the gate again, but in a blur of the brown cloak she was before him, barring the way. “You can’t go back,” she said, her jaw set but her voice trembling. “He’ll kill you.”
Draco didn’t respond.
She didn’t move from her place and looked at him, pleadingly. “He’ll kill you because you’re not a…a follower…any more—”
Before she could even finish, Draco felt something break in his mind. Words he had wanted to scream for so many years tumbled crudely from his mouth, or somewhere deeper. “A DEATH EATER?” he bellowed. “IS THAT WHAT YOU WANT TO SAY? THEN SAY IT!”
Eloise stared wide-eyed as he drew back the sleeve of his left arm, revealing the cursed skull and serpent, horrible and burning black. “IS THIS WHAT YOU WANT TO SEE? THIS IS WHAT I AM! THIS IS THE PERSON YOU THINK YOU’VE COME TO KNOW!”
Her eyes quickly left the marking as if it pained her—a blotch of black on his fair skin. Even he himself seemed a black mark: darkly clad in a world of white. He truly did frighten her then, his cloak billowing like a giant, torn wing.
Draco cursed loudly and hit the black-iron gate with his bare fist. The skin over his knuckles cracked and pushed up tiny beads of scarlet. “And you shouldn’t want to be here either! It’s the Order’s fault that your father is dead! They were supposed to arrive at the assassination on time and stop it, and they never came!”
He said it with such biting viciousness that Eloise staggered back against the gate. Her hands went limp and left her cloak open, flapping in the wind. Draco suddenly realized that she had never known; that she had never heard him speak of the Order's mistake to Severus. She had been completely unaware of just why her father had died. Cautiously he chanced a look at her.
Her eyes were broken.
Draco stopped and rested his forehead against the gate, gripping the icy bars with his hands—knowing that he had gone too far and too angry to apologize. “It’s their fault,” he murmured again helplessly.
Eloise looked away, her cheeks flushed with the cold or with anger. She clasped her cloak back and muttered, looking past him, “You’re the Death Eater. It’s your fault, and that’s why you’re so angry.”
Draco merely looked back to the mark on his arm, miserable. The serpent slithered over the muscle when he clenched and unclenched his fist. Then he lifted his eyes to her. She must have realized the sudden change in his face—something foreign and soft—because she stared like she had never even met him before.
“Eloise,” he murmured desperately. Her name fell from his tongue for the first time. “It is my fault. So let me have what I deserve.”
She had shut her eyes when he said her name. With shaking hands she tried to ask evenly, “And you believe that you deserve death?”
Moments passed and neither of them spoke. He didn’t have to answer. The slate-gray skies only emptied more snow. Suddenly Eloise moved—to let him pass or to grab his arm again, he’d never know—and then somebody was shouting to them from far away.
Remus was hurrying over to the black gate, along with the pink-haired woman, Tonks. His threadbare coat appeared to have been thrown on hastily, and they were both panting. They must have run the whole way. Draco tensed visibly as Tonks arrived, heaving.
“You—can’t—leave,” she said between breaths, hands on her knees. Remus was only steps behind, looking intently at Draco. It was as if he knew exactly what had been said, but Draco only turned his eyes away, looking tired.
Tonks managed to regain her breath. “You’re in the safest place in Britain right now. I know that’s not really saying much, but… If you leave, you’ll be dead.”
Neither of them spoke. Though the adults watched them Draco’s gaze went longingly to the gate. His hand slowly reached to the cold handle, fingers bitten red by frost. Remus moved slowly for his wand.
“We won’t let you leave,” he said evenly. “Staying may not seem like your best option, but it’s the only one you have. We’re trying to protect you.”
Draco’s hand dropped to his side and it clenched into a fist. He could see Eloise watching him uneasily as he released a short, wry laugh. “Protect us?” he repeated.
Remus lifted his chin. “Yes, Draco.”
Shoulders trembling with hysteric rage, Draco tore out his wand. “YOU WANT TO PROTECT US?” he screamed as Tonks jabbed her wand at him. Remus only waited patiently, as though he truly wanted to hear him speak. “YOU EXPECT US TO BELIEVE THAT? IF YOU HAD BEEN THERE TO STOP THE ASSASSINATION THEN NONE OF THIS WOULD HAVE HAPPENED!”
And with that, Draco spun around and threw open the gateway. It crashed on the opposing iron bars and the hard sound reverberated through the air. Walking backwards, he began to shout a curse at Lupin, but Tonks was too quick. She did not even have to speak before a bright light sent him collapsing to the ground.
Eloise let out a cry and dropped to her knees. When she turned him over his gray eyes were open and still. With a grimace she closed their lids with the tips of her fingers.
Remus said gently, “He’s all right, Miss Scrimgeour. It’s only a deep-sleeping spell, something I’m sure he could use.”
She didn’t respond and stared down at Draco, at the arm still exposed. The Dark Mark brought the chill around them to a swell.
The wind tossed their cloaks around angrily as Tonks extended a hand, suddenly gentle again. “Come on.” She was wearing purple leather gloves, the fingers cut out. “Mrs. Weasley’s here, and that means there’ll be a real breakfast for once. I’ll bet you’re starving.”
Eloise accepted her hand uneasily as Remus levitated Draco’s body into the air. They walked in silence, passing houses gray and white or stone. Once or twice Eloise could have sworn she saw pale faces, peering out just beyond the cool glass of upstairs windows, but when she looked harder they always disappeared.
At last they reached their own house, though nothing about it stood out among the others. Maybe being inconspicuous was what they hoped for. The house was tall and thin, and very old. The white paint was peeling. One of the downstairs windows was cracked.
When they neared the door Eloise suddenly remembered something, and mumbled, “Wait.” Tonks and Remus watched inquisitively as she unhooked her cloak and laid it across Draco. His left arm and the Dark Mark were covered.
She glanced at Remus under her eyelashes as she headed inside, and saw that he was watching her knowingly.
Eloise’s head was bent over her breakfast as if it was a very interesting book. Her wet hair dripped melted snow and her clothes were soaked through. The younger, red-haired girl was sitting across from her at the small breakfast table, obviously trying not to stare. Halfway through the meal, Ron had arrived and sat next to his sister. Few words had been exchanged, and none involving Eloise. Ron chewed thoughtfully as he watched her suspiciously, and pretended to be staring over her shoulder when she glanced up.
Eloise kept thinking of Draco, of that black spot of skin that writhed and crawled under his muscle. Of the paleness of his skin, of his eyes. She blinked hard, trying her best to concentrate on her toast.
Mrs. Weasley bustled in, just as Eloise was finishing her second plate of food. Tonks had sat with her through the first serving, and when Eloise had finished long before her and sat with her hands in her lap and her stomach growling, Tonks had laughed, “Go ahead, tuck in! It’s been days.”
Eloise had never tasted finer bacon or toast.
The sounds of Mrs. Weasley—sounds a mother hen would make—announced her arrival to the kitchen. She was looking over a list, a suitcase in one hand and a parcel tucked under the other arm. Mid-thought she glanced down at her daughter.
“Ginny, dear, we’ll be returning you to school shortly, just after—oh, dear Merlin!”
Eloise looked up, startled, to see Mrs. Weasley staring at her. Ron and Ginny exchanged glances before their mother asked, sounding scandalized, “Nobody has even offered you a change of clothes, Eloise?”
She was too surprised by her motherliness to respond, and Mrs. Weasley said sharply, “Ginny, why didn’t you offer?”
“She’s too tall,” the red-haired girl responded with a shrug, but smiled from across the table. Eloise returned it awkwardly as Mrs. Weasley disappeared and the clucking started up again. Up the stairs; footsteps thudding overhead; then she was coming back down; then she was in the adjacent hall… all the while she chatted away.
Ron rolled his eyes before shoving a forkful of scrambled eggs into his mouth. “Mental,” he said, mouth full.
“…At least drawn her a warm bath,” his mother finished as she returned. In her hands were several towels that looked so delightfully warm and fluffy that Eloise nearly cried. Mrs. Weasley turned to her son, “Ronald, does Hermione have extra clothing?”
“Erm, shouldn’t we wait for her to get back…?” he stumbled for words. Eloise agreed that she would feel strange wearing a hospitalized girl’s clothing.
“Mum, Eloise is too tall,” Ginny repeated, sounding irritated. “Look at her legs, they’re much longer than ours!”
Eloise thought that this might have been a compliment, though she hated being so tall. But didn’t have time to dwell on it. Mrs. Weasley was whisking her empty plate away and shoving the towels into her dirty, cold hands.
“This way, dear.” She nearly lifted Eloise from the chair and shooed her from the kitchen. Eloise was herded, like a sheep, down the hallway and up the stairs. At last Mrs. Weasley dropped her off in a small bathroom with a four-legged white bathtub and a pale window with the curtains drawn.
“Now you take as long as you like, we can all wait,” the stout woman said as she fluffed her hair in a mirror over the sink. “I believe my daughter-in-law will be here shortly, you look about her size. We’ll have found you some dry clothes by the time you’re out!” Eloise turned to thank her, but she had closed the door before her sentence was finished.
The small bathroom seemed as quiet as a morgue after the Weasley disappeared. Eloise cautiously took off her mud- and snow-caked shoes, and left them sitting in the corner. Meader’s cloak was folded carefully and placed on a chair, though Draco’s old shirt and pants were cast aside sloppily. The bathroom felt colder on her bare skin.
Eloise eyed the circular mirror, wary and curious all at once. She hadn’t seen her reflection in two weeks and wasn’t certain she wanted to. The mirror would show the surface changes, but also those under her flesh.
“Oh, calm your self,” she chided quietly, and in the small space it seemed extraordinarily loud. With a small intake of breath she stepped across the cool tile to the mirror.
She was skinnier, and paler, that much was obvious. Her hair was almost matted in several places. A dead leaf was still stuck to one particular curl beneath her ear. Her lips were chapped and bleeding, and there was a long scrape going into her left eyebrow. Several unmemorable bruises dotted her neck and shoulders. She could hardly see her real fingernails for the dirt. Her feet were blistered and her eyes were dull.
I suppose it’s not as bad as it could be, she thought with no real conviction.
Her dirty hands felt unnatural on the pretty glass knobs. As the hot water rushed from the tall showerhead, her eyes closed. The pool collecting at her feet was muddy. Her skin was left pale and new under the watery sheen.
It was impossible to miss. The click of a door latch, left forgotten and unlocked. Left for anyone to open. Eloise grew still. After a moment the room was quiet again beneath the sound of the running water. But she knew what she had heard. Slowly her hand crept through the air, to the shower curtain that hung like onionskin. When her hand drew back the thin barrier, she heard herself suck in a soft, slow breath.
Draco stood unblinkingly in the middle of the small tile floor. The room suddenly felt as if something that had been missing before was finally put into place. Eloise stared at him, naked, vulnerable. His hair was nearly glowing it seemed so pale. The hem of his cloak was soaked and dripping with old snow. He took a step closer, she didn’t move. He took another.
When his hand reached out for her shoulder, she closed her eyes and breathed in. And when she opened them again, the door was closed and locked. The room was empty and cold. The feeling of something missing was strong again.
Eloise had imagined it all. She was left only with the chill bumps that rose all over her skin.