She was sure that she was dead, for she couldn’t remember her heart beating for over several minutes while she stood there.
It had to be some sort of apparition, her heart pushing in a last ditch effort to give up on the love that had broken her so, that had left her trembling and empty. She was so sure there was no way to regain a sense of normalcy before she ventured off into the real world, disabled by the love and pain she had felt within her only year at the castle.
Her mind was paralyzed, but her body seemed to know what to do. Her eyelids shut over her blue orbs; she felt her chest expanding with a deep breath, pushing out the air from the depths of her stomach, out of her nostrils, the gas floating away in cold wisps.
Her eyes hadn’t left the place where she had last gazed, even as her eyelids uncovered them. But the scene before her, which she was still internally struggling as being reality or not, remained unchanged.
She was fastened to the ground, as if her heels had sprouted roots and clung to the cobblestone, winding deeper and deeper to the earth underneath, until it had reached to core of the planet, dashing all hopes of ever moving again.
The next thing she remembered feeling was her shoulders shaking, although she couldn’t determine if it was from nerves or the cold of the oncoming night. She felt numb, a feeling that had been absent for weeks, hitting her like a wave, drowning her and paralyzing her senses.
The world around her was so silent it must have been her breathing that gave away her presence.
The face she had realized that she had never truly forgotten looked up, straightening in her presence, standing tall from his previous stance of leaning over the edge of the walkway, as if looking out over the lake would give him solace and the peace he had been searching for for months.
He clenched his jaw, shoving a small particle that he had been fingering into his pocket. Between the starch-whiteness of his fingers and the darkening of the sky, the stark contrast had caused her to miss it, although she didn’t know if she could tear her eyes away from his if her life depended on it.
“I-I was trying to think of something to say, before I found you.” He mumbled.
How many times had she played this out in her head?
“I have so much to tell you…”
How many times did she imagine herself running into his arms, squeezing him so hard he couldn’t breathe, in fear that he might disappear again?
“…and I know that you have a lot of questions…”
How many times did she rehearse all of the sappy, cliché things she would say to him, crying out desperately how much she had missed him and how there was such a dark abyss when he was gone?
“…but I couldn’t wait any longer…”
How many times did she try to erase his angelic face out of her memory, convinced that if she told herself over and over that she didn’t need him, she would find one day that she wouldn’t?
“…and I know that this isn’t exactly fair, f-for y-you, I mean, showing up like this…”
Only to find out that none of it was true. That none of it had ever been true. She still loved him with just as much fire as she did when he left.
“…but if you don’t say something, I might go mad.”
She snapped back to reality, his hoarse words rang dully in her ears. She looked him over, as if a physical assessment would spout words from her lips.
He looked just as she remembered Lucius had before he died: even paler than before, accompanying weariness so great, it seemed a year’s worth of sleep wouldn’t cure. His gray eyes were red-rimmed, the skin around them black and purple with bags, a canvas for stress and heartache that was starting to seep away just from the sight of her. His hair stuck up on end, the smooth, silky locks lackluster and in dire need of a trim. His pointed face looked even more so, what little fullness that filled his contours was completely absent, casting dark shadows on his cheekbones and eyes that wasn’t helped by the darkness that was quickly falling. He gripped a cane in nervousness, only drawing her attention to it at the movement of the grip of his hand. His knuckles and tendons stressed at the situation.
“I only went away so you could miss me.” He joked weakly, a thin hand rubbed his chest in attempt to rid his body of the sickening cough accompanying the attempt to chuckle. He pulled out an old, mangled handkerchief, wiping his mouth of the sputum, which he was sure was due to the brokenness he felt within.
“I spent the last three months preparing for a life without you.”
She was stunned by her own words, knowing that they were not ones she wanted to speak nor Draco wanted to hear.
He nodded, shoving the cloth inside his jacket pocket. He had always been one to look dapper in suits, but there was nothing the Italian-made robes could do for him that night, his sorry appearance heavily outweighed the carefully tailored material.
“As I knew you would.” Draco coughed again.
It was if she had nothing more to say, although a thousand voices inside her head, suppressed for months, were screaming at her to do otherwise.
They stood there in silence for many moments, not quite sure what to do. Draco didn’t know if it was appropriate to be intimate with someone who might not even belong to him anymore, and Ashley was rather unnerved at his fragile appearance.
He winced as he moved slowly towards her; another flare-up of Bellatrix’s Curse that had seemed to permanently lock into his muscles plagued him as he shuffled closer. His cane racked loudly on the cobblestone, reflecting that of his heart within his chest. She didn’t move as he came near, but remained still as he pushed her arms from her sides, hugging her weakly around the waist.
There was a painful sense of relief as he pulled her closer to him, his aching heart throbbed with her touch that he felt deprived of for decades rather than a few months. He panged as he felt her hesitation at first. Was she afraid she would hurt him, or because she didn’t want to be in his embrace?
She wrapped her arms around his shoulders gingerly, as if she would make him buckle if she applied anymore pressure. She sighed as his unshaven cheek rubbed against hers, her heart constricting from the ache of heartbrokenness. The tears came quickly, and she could feel him shaking underneath her as a result of her trembling shoulders that were warning of oncoming sobs. As if on cue, large droplets spilled from her eyes. She hugged him closer, losing herself in his blond hair, as if she would be safe there.
His heart was beating hard, as if it was attempting to burst out of his chest to reach out and comfort hers.
“Why are you back?” She asked weakly, “He isn’t dead yet.”
Draco pushed her back to look at her, “I found something.”
Ashley wiped her eyes, looking up at him in confusion, “Found what?”
Draco remained silent, but he offered her his hand. She looked at it, as if she couldn’t quite understand why she was being offered his limb. He watched as it slowly came back to her. Swallowing hard, as if preparing for some nightmarish thing to happen, she gently put a finger to the middle of his palm.
“Do you think it’s safe to go back now?” Draco asked quietly, his thin fingers tracing an outline of carved initials into the table. A terrible cough pulled at the back of his throat, but he refrained from hacking in front of Narcissa, knowing she would grow fussy with his illness.
Narcissa looked up from her book, sighing inwardly. She removed her black-rimmed glasses looking at him, “I’m not sure.”
“When I went back there, everything was fine.” Draco lied, trying to conceal that fact that in reality, Bellatrix may still be lurking around. But he couldn’t stand for Narcissa to abandon the Manor. A strange pull was tugging at him, and he needed her to answer that call too.
“I’m not sure, dear.” Narcissa repeated gently, putting a hand gently on his shoulder, an immediate truce to avoid an argument.
“Don’t you hate being here?” He asked her weakly, looking up at the peeling wallpaper, yellowing with grease and grime that had collected over the years. A quiet cough came from his batty great aunt’s portrait, the curtains swaying gently from some sort of supernatural breeze. They had learned quickly to be as quiet as mice, knowing that anything could cause an episode, but acting in such a manner had quickly worn on him. He was tired of being quiet and careful.
Narcissa fumbled with her hands, “But we’re safe here.”
“We can’t hide forever.” Draco told her. “We have to face the music sometime, don’t we?”
Narcissa grimaced, nodding slowly, “I suppose, in the end, we will, yes.”
Draco nodded, rising slowly from his seat. He looked to the darkened fireplace in the far corner, “If anything happens, we can come back. Stella will make sure we’re safe.”
He wasn’t sure how sound the logic was, too afraid to try again ever since he saw Bellatrix roaming the grounds. Even though she would always be unable to find the Manor until the charm was lifted, she was no less threatening standing on the lawn, knowing that he was in there despite not being able to see where the estate was.
“Stella would’ve told us something by now…if there was anything wrong.” Draco added quickly, sure that he was merely talking to comfort himself more than convince his mother.
Narcissa didn’t make a move.
“I-I’ll go first.” Draco nodded.
He looked to the fireplace, the lack of light in the corner and absence of dusting made the idea of Flooing through it a rather bad idea.
Draco grabbed a pinch from the clay pot, nearly dropping the powder on the floor as he felt a spider crawl across his hand. Shaking it off quickly, he threw the powder into the dark hole. Green flames illuminated the dreary kitchen, appearing somewhat dull and dingy, as if the flames themselves needed to be cleaned and polished.
“Malfoy Manor!” He boomed.
He stepped into his spotless parlor. Nothing had changed. Nothing was broken, or missing, everything was white and neat and orderly, just as he had always remembered it.
He jumped when he felt gentle hands on his shoulders, knowing it was his mother by the expensive perfume that flooded his nose.
“So?” She whispered.
Draco shook his head, “Nothing.”
They waited in silence, as if an explosion should set off, set by Death Eaters who were waiting for their return.
“Stella.” Draco breathed quietly.
The pair made a move for their wands as the double doors swung open, the couch hiding the culprit until they had moved from behind the piece of furniture.
“Mr. Malfoy, sir!” Stella beamed, clasping her hands to her heart, “It has been many more weeks since I have seen you!”
Draco couldn’t help but break a grin. He never thought he would be so happy than to see her standing there, in her grungy little pillowcase. He made a mental note to get her a new one.
“It’s good to see you, too.” He breathed.
Stella looked shocked, but quickly recovered. None of the Malfoy’s had ever said something nice to her short of a scolding or threat.
“Has anything happened?” Draco asked.
“No sir, no.” Stella shook her head, her bat-like ears flapping in her face, “The Manor has been very quiet. No sightings of Missus Lestrange either, sir.”
“Oh, good.” Narcissa sighed behind him “But it’ll only be a matter of time.”
“Nothing at all?” Draco tried again.
“No sir.” Stella reassured him, “Stella and Keely have done everything to ensure that it was safe when Master and Missus Cissy came back. We keep our promises to our Master.”
There was an intense wave of gratitude that hit him, so much so that he wanted to bound over and hug her tightly, praising her for everything that she had done for him. But he knew that would cause her quite a shock, perhaps give her a heart attack, and he couldn’t have that either.
“Have you come back, sir?” Stella asked, her big eyes pleading.
Draco looked to Narcissa, who stared at him, the pair quite unsure if they were supposed to.
“I-I think so.” Draco breathed.
“Oh, wonderful!” Stella clapped excitedly, “I will prepare supper at once, sir!”
She bounded out of the parlor, the double doors swallowing her little frame.
“Now what?” Narcissa asked.
“I wonder if father left any instruction for safekeeping.” Draco thought aloud, “In case something like this ever happened.”
Draco made his way to his office. Narcissa’s heels clicked after him.
“He may not have cared about us, but he cared about someone taking care of his Manor, that much I know.”
“What do you think you’ll find?” Narcissa breathed, her loud whisper echoing off the marble floors and crown-molding walls.
“I dunno.” Draco answered truthfully, pushing the large, oak door open.
Lucius’ office hadn’t been touched. It had the same, looming presence as it always did, a feeling that nearly suffocated him, telling him he shouldn’t be in his father’s office.
But it was his now, wasn’t it?
“In his desk, perhaps?” Narcissa offered.
“It would have to be, he knew I’d be the only one able to open it.” He answered, taking a seat in his father’s chair. He didn’t know what he was looking for, but he assumed that his father would have had to have some sort of emergency plan for the Manor should something happen, an ambush from fellow Death Eaters, an attempt at repossession from the Ministry, anything. And, knowing that his father had quickly fallen out of the Dark Lord’s favor, was probably updated recently.
The desk top had been cleared of the clutter since Lucius’ death, the desk top looked quite pleasant with its polished, dark wood, he thought, as the claws of the desk scratched in agreement as his silent thoughts.
Carefully placing his hand on the dark slab of the tabletop, he pressed his hand onto the cool wood. The desk gave its usual shutter, then relaxed completely. He heard all of the drawers unlock, clicking crisply.
His mother made a move to try and open the drawers to the left, but Draco’s halting hand stopped her.
“Remember, you can’t touch the handles.” He told her, “Wait until I open them.”
He grabbed the handles, extending the shelves out all the way, looking at the piles and piles of saved documents he hadn’t had time to go through.
“Pull out anything that might look like a plan, an official document, or something.” Draco told her.
Narcissa rummaged quietly while Draco ransacked the drawers on the right side. He quickly looked through receipts saved from shops, lists of people’s names, both Muggle and non-Muggle. Draco discarded that quickly, shivering at the thought of what those were needed for. There were letters of recommendation that were never finished for people that had worked for the functions he had donated loads of money to: St. Mungo’s, the school board of Hogwarts, the Ministry. There were also numerous order forms dealing with various departments within the Ministry.
“Father was a bookkeeper?” Draco asked, showing her the receipts.
“He funded a lot of research in many departments.” She answered, turning her attention back to her pile, “That’s why he was so popular for donations.”
Draco huffed, having completely gone through the first drawer, with no luck as to how they should protect the Manor, no guidance from the man that loved his estate more than his own family. His father had never bothered to teach him about finances and mortgages, and even though he had knew the Manor was completely paid off and his family had absolutely no debt, he regretted not learning from someone. Narcissa wasn’t very helpful either; she completely relied on a man to take care of everything and had no knowledge of how to deal with finances any more than he did.
“What if we don’t find anything?” Draco wondered aloud, closing the first drawer and starting on the second. He was starting to grow doubtful, the same sort of papers were in the second drawer.
“What are these?”
Draco snapped his head to the left immediately, hoping something like this would pop up. But it didn’t look official at all. Narcissa held a dense stack of folded papers tied with twine.
“They look like letters.” Narcissa said, grabbing for a sharp letter-opener on the desktop, cutting the piece of string.
She handed Draco the bottom half to help her sort through them.
“They aren’t addressed to anyone.” Narcissa frowned.
Draco unfolded the top, recognizing the tight, small handwriting of his father, elegant lines and curves were scrawled in orderly lines across the paper. He looked to the top and bottom, looking for a name that he was writing to, but none showed up.
“Draco…” She breathed, looking horrified.
Draco took the letter from her.
“Read it, the whole thing.” Narcissa told him.
Draco gave her one last glance before he read the short entry:
Idiots, the lot of them.
So gullible, so ignorant, so stupid.
Although, when you’re a Malfoy, it doesn’t take much shove for people to tremble. Although, they didn’t know that.
My plan has worked perfectly thus far, everything is starting to fall into place. I caught wind earlier this week that Felix Delacour was being transferred to the English Ministry, due to a case of some disturbances reported around their French cottage.
It almost isn’t fair, this is too easy. I’m too brilliant.
If it hadn’t been for Potters desperation to be a hero two years ago, and his sodding nosiness that made me break the Prophecy, none of this would have happened. I have to remind myself to thank him before the Dark Lord rids of him.
If he hadn’t saved that stupid little girl from the lake, I wouldn’t have known about this family, I wouldn’t have any bait.
My family, I must say, also made this easy. I’m glad for their lack of questions, otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to go to France with the others and search her out. But they all fell into my trap so easily; I probably could have sent the others to do it in my place.
Of course, my Lord doesn’t know, but I think he will be pleased. He will see that I am trying to redeem myself. Even though it has all worked out splendidly, I must bite my tongue, I must wait to pounce until Draco brings her home for the summer break. Then we will all bring her in together, as father and son and the Lord will see what I’ve done for him, he will understand that this is the bait that he needs for Potter.
Draco stared at the letter, beyond dumbfounded.
“The Dark Lord didn’t even know.” Narcissa breathed to him, as if anything above a whisper would make it untrue. “He was going to wait until the summer. Your father made the whole thing up. This was all-’’
“-just a waste of time.” He finished, letting the letter fall from his hands and onto his lap.
“He would have never found out.” Narcissa concluded, “Not with Lucius gone.”
Draco’s face screwed up in agony. He had left her, heartbroken and confused…and for no reason at all.
He felt his shoulders shake in anger and sadness. The pain of being forced to do something that was completely unnecessary shook his core. He buried his face in his hands and cried angrily.
“Draco, love.” Narcissa cooed, kneeling down by the chair, wrapping an arm around his shoulders and stroking his hair with another, “This shouldn’t be a source of pain, but of joy.”
Draco nodded his head, wiping away a tear bitterly, “Three months! Three months! Do you know what could’ve happened in three months?”
“I’m sure she waiting for you.” Narcissa whispered against his cheek, “Go.”
Ashley pulled her finger away from his hand, forcing herself to look at him.
Her head started to spin, giving her a lightheaded feeling despite the cool, fresh air. Finding her feet again, she walked over to the edge of the walkway, grasping the cold stones of the ledge. The roughness of the stone underneath her skin gave her some grounding back to reality.
“How anti-climatic.” She rubbed her forehead in exhaustion. “It was all for nothing.”