It's witching hour and the hungry wicked are prowling the streets, the night moonless and as dark as their deeds. The world will be different when the sun rises and no one sleeping with a clean conscience and a peaceful soul will know it, but Draco does. He knows that business continues as usual in the disreputable corners of the Alleys and that the sad sinners there will only grow more hopelessly lost. He knows that the city is bustling and teeming with malevolent life, that the moon's absence will go unnoticed in the orange glare of the combined illumination both Magical and Muggle, not so different after all, both just dirty smudges in a night sky. But he's not going to witness it this time. He's gone where the sky is inky black and the wind high, where he can smell the cold in the air, where, far from the silly, coincidental havoc of the Alleys, the polished and glamorous life of real evil rears its pretty head. He's gone home.
Some distance ahead of him, the lights from the windows cut through the darkness so sharply, it's as though the house is a beacon, calling him in from the wild plains outside. But he doesn't go ahead just yet. He's got to take a minute to make sure he has a handle on the shakes that are quaking up from deep within. It's the past and the present all colliding and he can't afford to go to pieces now, he's got to blot out those voices in the wind and in his head, but god, sometimes they call so loud. He thinks of her telling him Cool it, Malfoy, the way her mouth forms the words, the soft breath of it. It helps, not a lot, but some.
He moves forward, up the path between the high hedges. He doesn't look at the place; he has his head down and his hands in his pockets and he walks with all of the grace of a condemned man walking to his own execution. He moves through the gates, which are open, and up the gleaming white gravel drive. Now he can hear them, the revelers, and see their shadows passing before the windows. They're having a party, every room filled with distinguished guests drunk on fine champagne and their own power. It's no coincidence. They don't do anything by accident. He knows, somehow, that this party is for him.
Not a single guard at the door, and no one even looks up as he steps through the wide front doors. It is an environment that encourages anonymity. The rooms are cloaked in half-light and crowded with faceless figures, smoke floats through the air and hovers over groups, bodies twirl and pass and float by like so many graceful leaves tumbling in the midnight wind. The air is thick with conversation and music and mystery. It's a minute before he realizes that the distorted, discolored faces floating by him are concealed behind masks, rather than a product of some twisted fantasy in his head. How perfectly appropriate for these demons in disguise, to hide behind delicately beaded and laced faces of decency that, in the end, conceal nothing.
He slips from room to room with his head down and trusts to the shadows and the smoke to conceal him. Lucky he knows this place better than any of them, that he comes here often in nightmares and daydreams alike. It looks, despite the darkness and the chaos, the same as it always has. Sickeningly so. It's easy enough to find a drunk and delirious guest slumped over a statue in a corner who doesn't protest when Draco lifts the mask from his face. He slips it on and he is one of them, dressed up and sinking down into their gluttonous depravity, drifting among them, as silent as the souls that they have forgotten they have. He believes in Heaven and Hell. He believes that Heaven is where the world is safe from him and his kind and Hell is the other side of the door in his mind which he doesn't dare open anymore. But there is something distinctly underworldy about this place and the laughing creatures that occupy it. The residents of everlasting fire, the demons and those who once were angels but fell and shattered into pieces on the hard surface of reality.
Therein lies the beauty of it, he thinks to himself, as he prowls the crowded corridors in search of his prey. They are not all evil, but they are all broken beyond repair. Joel and Tracey Davis, orphans since the war, entirely alone until this place opened its generous arms to them. Joel was just sixteen when his parents died. Thomas Coal drawn in by hopeless love. Rose by crippling dependence. Cho Chang, fallen into this pit when no one could hold her up anymore. And Pansy, of course. Pansy who was more broken than all of them. It was this place, he knows. This dark fantasy world that has given her the twisted strength to stop feeling the broken shards of herself rattling inside. He knows because he has stopped feeling his, too. But for him it was easy. No eager hands pulling him down into the flames. Just his own choices.
Thinking of it makes him angry but he doesn't realize it until he looks down and sees the shaking of his hands, clenched into fists. It's not like him to get sentimental. Perhaps it's the place. Maybe he made a mistake coming here, where there is no escaping the memory of the cracked and crumbled mess that is his life, everything he has ever known. But it is almost comforting, knowing he is not alone in the dank pit where the lost wander. Every one of these starved souls will accompany him to Hell, when his time has come.
No one notices him as he slips among them, too distracted by their own revelry. Somewhere in a room ahead, there is laughter accompanied by the soft clink of glasses. It's coming from the library and it sounds like a fairly large group. Instincts tell him he is in the right place, that they are waiting for him. The fire and brimstone gates are opening before him and he can't help but think that maybe it's an advantage, that the devil is familiar with the sound of his approaching footsteps. He has so much experience navigating the road to damnation. He slips around the doorway intending to surprise them, but their faces are all turned to him, looking mockingly expectant.
"Malfoy," Theodore Nott says, rising to his feet. "Welcome to the celebration."
The people seated around the table are mostly familiar to him, with a few exceptions. Witnesses to his weakness, gathered to watch the mighty fall. It's infuriating and it takes him a minute to remember how to walk while he concentrates on not blowing something up. No wand, no room for mistakes. He steps further into the room and keeps his eyes on Theodore, ignoring the others. They want a show. Well, they will get one. Perhaps not the one they were expecting.
"Nott," Draco greets him. "Interesting party."
"Well, we thought we'd welcome you home in style," Theodore shrugs, and Draco feels another surge of fury. It wasn't enough for them to blackmail and twist his family into debt, but they had taken his ancestral home and turned it into the scene of his destruction once more. They were sitting in his goddamned library, waiting to see him fall apart. "And all of your old friends are present."
"Including you, Nott," Draco replies, raising an eyebrow. "You haven't changed much, have you? Still playing games, I see." He approaches the other man slowly, his hands in his pockets, his stride casual. He keeps his eyes alert and ready, but he doesn't really think anyone is going to attack him. No, they are much more subtle than that. Besides, they have leverage on him. He is the one walking the wire.
"Look, Draco, no one wants to make this hard," Theodore says pleasantly. "But I don't see Rose Weasley with you. So what did you come back for? You'll only make things harder for her, you know."
Theodore smirks, and Draco's hand twitches toward the wand he doesn't have, and he thinks he might vomit, but all the while his expression never falters. Just a few more minutes. He is eroding, being broken down and dissolved in something corrosive. They have waited here for him on purpose and he has walked right into their trap. But he doesn't have to play this game much longer. The illusion of steel can crumble, but not yet, not quite.
"I didn't invite her," Draco admits. "I didn't think this was really her crowd."
Theodore's expression tightens for an instant and it gives Draco enormous satisfaction. "Oh? Well I don't see why you bothered returning, then, Malfoy. Unless you really are as masochistic as they say."
"Maybe I just like watching you sweat, Nott," Draco replies flatly.
There is a moment of tight silence and Draco becomes aware of the people still seated around the table, watching the exchange with sharp eyes. He knows he should be more careful, more delicate, but it has never been his best quality. Still, he will regret his boldness, he can tell already by the calculating sheen in Nott's narrowed eyes. This is a man with everything at his disposal and a tightly wound temper just waiting to snap. There is something animalistic in his gaze, something hungry and primal and wild, when he glances behind Draco's shoulder and gives a nod at someone standing there, and Draco knows, already, what he will see when he turns around. He knows it by the sweet anticipation in the air of the people here who can't help but see something grotesquely beautiful about breaking a man, about watching human will fall apart.
She is not bound, gagged, or blindfolded, no, nothing so archaic as that. So there is nothing to obscure the haunted hollowness in her wide eyes and in the delicate curve of her too-full bottom lip, trembling ever so slightly. She stands with pride, her chin held high, and he loves her for it. She is guarded by two beasts with wands, but they may as well not be there because they won't stop him, won't stand a chance against the savage rage that will propel him to her, and it will be easy to watch them writhe and twist on the ground, hell, he's done it before, not so hard when there's no other choice, and this time maybe he'll enjoy it, but he doesn't move because he knows this is what Teddy Nott wants to see. He is still and impassive and untouched. Choices must be made, after all, and he always calculates the best odds.
"Look, Nott," Draco says, sighing. He turns away from her and the expression on Theodore's face is frozen in surprise. "I don't have time for this shit. I came here to make a deal with you."
"Oh?" Nott said, distracted, as he met the eyes of one of the bulky figures standing over Draco's shoulder. The sound of her tiny intake of breath should not be audible but it is deafening, roaring in his ears. But Draco can't afford for attention to be diverted now and so when she says his name, softly, he blocks out the noise and ignores her, accepts the sharp, agonizing sting of it, uses it to keep his focus. The noises slashes him open and he feels the blood trickling out of him and it keeps him alert.
"Yeah, Teddy," Draco says mockingly, the name bitter on his tongue. "I'll make you a deal. I won't have you thrown in Azkaban, if you give me what I want."
The silence is thick and satisfying but it only last a second before Theodore's sneering laugh cuts into it. "Going to sell me out, Malfoy?"
"Not going to," Draco corrects him simply. "Already have. The Aurors are currently ransacking your little hideaway beneath the pub. Maybe get a better lock next time," he suggests.
In the instant it takes Theodore Nott's face to contort with rage, his wand makes it out of his pocket. Draco is unarmed and useless and he waits for the curse to come. But it doesn't. Instead the calculation returns to Theodore's face and he calms himself.
"You're lying," he says simply, and Draco shakes his head.
"Have your muscle check," he suggests, and Theodore turns his head, meets the gaze of a man seated at the table, and nods. In an instant, the Crack! of Apparition sounds, and the man is gone.
"Even if what you say is true," Theodore says slowly, "What could possibly make me bargain with you now? If you've blown my operation and out us all on a wanted list?"
Draco reached into his pocket, ignoring the startled twitches of the other men at the table. He pulls out a roll of parchment, nods at them with a raised eyebrow and a smirk, and gestures to Theodore. "All of those papers with your name written so carelessly on them? I happened to rescue them before the Aurors could."
Nott glances at the roll of parchment, then back at Draco's face, looking rattled. Another Crack! sounds and the other man has returned. He steps to Theodore's side and whispers something quickly to him before taking a seat again. Theodore's gaze is cold when it returns to Draco.
"Alright, let's say I bite," he says. "You're saying you'll destroy those papers provided I bargain with you."
"Full marks," Draco drawled lazily.
"Well I don't believe you," Theodore replied, sneering. "You know why? Because you came all this way to rescue Miss Parkinson here- pathetic, you know that, Malfoy? And you're not going to let her go to prison too, are you? It would make for a pretty pointless trade. If I let her go, you'll destroy the papers, but if I don't, you'll send her to jail? You know her hands aren't clean," he mused. He stepped closer to Pansy and Draco could keep them both in his sights now, Theodore, looking cold and quick, and Pansy, silent and proud and softly shaking.
Draco is silent for a minute and the room waits for him to crack open and spill out onto the marble floors. But when he speaks, he's smooth and cold and simple.
"It would be a pointless trade. If I was trading for Pansy. What I want is for you to stop leaning on my mother for cash, and give me my manor back. Frankly," he added, and now he turned his gaze to her and raised an eyebrow, his expression carved from stone and cruel intent. "You can keep her, for all I care."