Chapter 4 : Chapter the Fourth
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Draco slammed the door of his study shut. He would have much preferred to slam it with Granger’s nose caught in it, but alas, she was off owling the Ministry, informing them of the catastrophe.
Yes, catastrophe. It was all an awful, bloody catastrophe.
His fist banged on the desk and he swore loudly, not caring how far it carried through the manor. Not that there was anyone to hear but Granger, damn her, and those blasted house elves. How could she enter his house and cause such madness in such a short period of time? It was preposterous, ridiculous, just the sort of thing he should have expected from one of the glorious and much-worshipped Golden Trio.
He was powerless, absolutely powerless.
Sinking into his chair, he stared at the wall. It was not the same room that his father had once used as a study; any room his father had used for his nefarious activities had been long shut-up, hidden behind magical barriers that forbade all entry. The only one who could enter them was Draco, and once he died, only Scorpius could enter. An old pureblood spell for the safekeeping of family secrets. Merlin knew that the Malfoys had too many secrets, most of which needed to be hidden from the prying eyes of the unclean.
Once again he had lapsed into the old ways of thinking. It was something that couldn’t just be erased from the mind. This imprisonment, the physical one, was revealing to him another, more permanent imprisonment: that of his mind, of being a Malfoy in a world where his name was no longer esteemed, sometimes even derided.
Not that derision bothered him any. It brought him peace. The one thing he valued most.
“Malfoy? Disappeared already, bloody hell.”
She must have picked up that low accent from her husband. Unconsciously, of course, as Hermione Granger would not speak like that on purpose and certainly not if she believed that anyone was listening.
Draco went to the door and opened it, leaning outward like a fishwife at her window. “What is it, Granger?” He saw her down the corridor, stalking down toward him with closed fists. “What more could you possibly do to ruin my day?”
Life, actually. Though others would suggest that he’d done that himself.
She appeared in the doorway, brow scrunched in some sort of unimpressed emotion.
“I wanted to let you know that your wife and son are safe.” She inched into the room. “The Ministry is checking them for the disease.”
Draco straightened himself in the chair, hands clenching the arms. “The Ministry and disease are two things I don’t associate with the idea of safe. I will think of them as safe when they’re cleared and free.”
Her brow scrunched further. Not a pretty picture. Not that she was remotely pretty to begin with. Her hair was still as uncontrollable as the rest of her, and while her teeth may have been long-ago fixed, Draco still preferred to think of her as buck-toothed.
She was going to talk again. He braced himself.
“You make it sound as though they’ve been arrested, Malfoy.”
His eyes wandered to the walls, the gaps in the bookshelves, the darker squares where old portraits had once hung. He had disliked those old pictures anyway, ugly things, ancestors with forgotten names and positions, reminders of what the Malfoys had once been.
A little smirk came to his lips, surprising even himself. “As you well know, Granger, these days, when a Malfoy goes to the Ministry, it’s never for a good reason.”
She fell silent and looked away, eyes wandering across the shelves of books. Draco suppressed the urge to laugh. Even now, after all these years, she wanted to bury herself in those old dusty books, fill herself with knowledge to erase the emptiness within. Yes, Draco liked the sound of that. He could almost envy her in having something to fill that void within, something with which she could consume herself.
He realised that she was watching him, staring, in fact, as though he was mad. It was not too far off the mark, but all the same, he felt the necessity to speak.
“How long will this take?”
As though the question acted as an invitation, Hermione set herself down in the chair across from his. “I should hear word back by the morning.”
The morning could either be a very long time, a full eternity of wishing he could throw her in a dungeon or, better yet, out of an attic window, or it could be a very short interlude in his otherwise monotonous life. Experience had taught him that looking toward the positive side of things helped to put the madness at bay, the madness of being useless, unwanted. Even in this situation, what could he do? He did not yet see any possibility of playing a role in the affair of the dead house elf. The Ministry would come and do its job as it always did, then it would leave him to his tremulous peace.
“It could be longer than just a day, Malfoy.” She added this now after he had gotten his hopes up. Typical. “It depends on how serious the... problem is and what treatment it requires.”
“If anything.” He maintained a tremulous grip on positivity.
She conceded with a sigh. She could not be looking forward to this time anymore than he did. “Yes, if anything, but I’m not sure if that’s likely.”
Draco swallowed, trying not to look as though he was nervous, anxious, or in any way bothered by the situation apart from some expression of mild annoyance. Fear, no. He must not show any fear. A tickle at his temple forced his heart to jump. The fear was there, understandable. He had seen one of his house elves with melting flesh.
He did not want to think about what he would look like if he started to melt.
Or if Granger did.
The mental image came too quickly.
“Are you alright, Malfoy?” She rose and leaned over the desk, reaching out a hand. “You’ve gone all pale and you’re sweating. Are you–”
Ill, are you ill, she was going to ask. Physically, no. Mentally, definitely.
“No, no.” He cut her off, his swinging arm pushing her away. “Get out of here, Granger.”
She backed away, stepping into her chair. It toppled to the floor. Draco barely registered the crash, his hands over his face. Melting. Melting! A face like wax that dripped, forming a puddle of... of–
“You can’t overreact like this. I need your hel–”
She did not move. His head pounded with fury.
“Listen to me, you stupid mudblood!”
The sound of the door slamming shut roused him from what seemed like a dream, the nightmare of all this trouble consuming him at last. He had seem himself a melted ruin, and some portion of his consciousness had asked whether he was not already ruined, that his body disintegrating into – he would say it, think it, imagine it – ooze was only the final step in the long downfall of his family, his blood?
He had not realised that, while ordering her to leave, he had stood up with one hand was clenched around his wand. Another moment and he would have pointed it at her. Bad enough that he should call her, a Ministry official, a mudblood, but to threaten her with his wand....
Everything, everything was ruined. They would throw him in Azkaban just for saying that word, a word that still came too easily to his mind, especially in relation to her. He would go to Azkaban and rot.
It took him some time to overcome this disturbing revelation. His father’s stories of Azkaban made working for the Dark Lord sound like a jolly good time. Head in his hands, Draco thought and thought and thought and thought about his predicament and how it continued to get worse and worse and–
The rational, Slytherin side of his brain had an idea, something that might save his sorry soon-to-be-melting skin.
If, perhaps, he could discover the root of this problem, the reason why the house elf had died, and, even better, what it was that had killed him... her... it, then they may let him off with a reduced sentence, maybe completely. What became priority in Draco’s brain was to make up for his sins, make himself useful to those whom he could benefit from. A Slytherin mind, after all, thinks first of saving itself.
“House elf, yes,” he muttered to himself, still standing behind his desk. “Purchased where? From whom? Astoria would know, would have written it down. Recorded it in her little book.” He moved around the desk, past the tipped-over chair and toward the closed door.
His wife kept a book of household things that Draco had never looked into, either because he hadn’t wanted to, or because he simply had never needed to. It was up to his wife to maintain the servants and the house; he only needed to know the values of income and expenses. He had no idea how skilled she was at keeping records, particularly of the origin of house elves. It wasn’t a thing that many people thought of. Where did they come from, after all?
He wandered out of the room. No sign of Granger. Or anyone. Anything. (Still not sure about those house elves.)
Concentrating on the task he had assigned himself would be a distraction, a much welcome distraction. The less he thought about Granger, the better. No, no, about the problem, of which Granger was a part. Granger herself did not matter, why should she?
Rubbing a hand across his forehead (with the hope that it would rub away his quandary), he made his way through the hallway, up two staircases, and down another long hallway lined with sparkling mirrors and esteemed (read self-righteous) portraits. They muttered insults and called out demands in his wake. He didn’t know their names, and they did not know his.
When he finally arrived, he frowned, standing in the doorway as though on the threshold of an alien world.
Astoria did not have a separate study, studying not really being in her line of interest, but she did have an expansive dressing room which she and his mother referred to as a boudoir. It contained enough to withhold a siege of Malfoy Manor for a considerable length of time. Draco looked at the various pieces of furniture, trying to remember when he was last in this room, in any of Astoria’s chambers, for that matter.
“Now where do you keep your notes?”
It helped to hear a voice and imagine that he was not alone with only that damnable Granger for company.
There was one of those feminine desks – a secretary desk, he thought they called it in those posh antique stores – in the corner by the window. It was a delicate thing of cherry wood with intricate scrolls and marquetry, and he was almost afraid to touch it in case it would shatter to pieces. Knowing most magical antique shops, it wouldn’t surprise him if this desk was a little cursed, armed with some sort of self-destruction mechanism should prying eyes attempt to infiltrate its contents.
But he was, after all, the one who had bought the damned thing. It should open at his insistence.
He reached out to pull open a drawer. It would not budge. He pulled at another. Still nothing. Oh, this was hilarious, he thought, grimly taking out his wand. The desk shuddered and, if it could leap back on its legs, it would have.
Waving his wand at it (like it could see him threatening it? All this trouble had made him as mad as that vain dolt Lockhart), he decided that talking to it might help.
“Reveal your secrets!”
It shook again, this time in what must have been mocking laughter.
Stepping closer, poking the desk with his wand, Draco tried again.
The drawer he was pointing to opened slightly, but when he moved his hand toward the knob, it slammed shut again.
“Piss off, you stupid thing!”
This time, the desk did leap back.
Maybe those Muggles did have an easier way of life, not having to deal with magical pieces of furniture that had a mind of its own. He did not want to destroy the desk, knowing that it had cost a not inconsiderable amount of money, not to mention the expression on Astoria’s face when he admitted the act to her (if he lived through the night).
“All I want are the house elf records.”
Why he spoke to it again, he wasn’t entirely sure, but the reason did not matter, not when one drawer popped open and a book shot out, a small moleskin notebook that landed in his free hand.
Draco stared at the book.
Then at the desk.
Maybe being mad wasn’t such a bad thing after all.
He took a seat on a nearby chair (trying not to think that maybe it, too, might be magical) and bent over the book, weeding through Astoria’s very odd accounting methods. Beyond the fact that they made very little sense, being predominately written in shorthand, he could not guess at the majority of her expenses; they did not correspond with what he could remember of numbers she had provided him.
Flipping through the pages, Draco dreaded the necessity of forcing Astoria to explain the various entries in her accounts book. There had to be a reason why she made it so complicated to understand, and it suggested that she was hiding something from him.
For now, it was better that he didn’t try to think of what. He had other fish to fry.
Oh. What a dreadful saying. Where had he picked that up from? This is what came of having a Weasley in your household, even for a short period of time.
Yes, yes, he called her Granger, but she was a Weasley in name, and therefore also in body, mind, and spirit. It was one of those unavoidable facts.
What did not strike him was why it should be an unavoidable fact.
He flipped another page, growing more irritated with the workings of his highly emotional mind (it had to be entirely Granger’s fault, of course), and there it was. A whole three pages devoted to a list under the heading of, in clear block letters:
From their marriage onward, then, his mother having renounced her powers as mistress as soon as he and Astoria had said “I do”. His eyes drifted down the list. The names of the elves were clear, as were the prices (that much for an elf these days? He’d had no idea). The one thing that failed in the clarity test was where she’d bought the cursed things. It was in code, all short forms and symbols.
He could tell that a number had been bought from the same place. It must have been the main London branch of... well... whoever bred them? Or sold them en masse. Or whatever.
But there was a new place that came up beside the last purchases. The two newest house elves had come from somewhere else for a much-reduced price. He had to admit that he was pleased to see Astoria allocating the money more appropriately. The less spent on useless, whiny creatures, the better, he thought.
But what did the code mean? It looked like an ancient rune crossed with an upside-down tulip–
Then he knew.
He ran from the room.