Chapter 12 : Climbing Back
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Astoria lay on her side, staring at the wall where the reflection of the morning sun in her dressing mirror was slowly making its way toward the floor molding. Or perhaps it was the evening sun. She really couldn’t bring herself to care. At some point, her parents had forced their way into her bedroom and lifted her from the floor into her bed. Otherwise, she hadn’t moved since collapsing the night before. The guilt and anguish from her row with Draco still sat on her chest; she could feel it slowly squeezing the life out of her. Nothing was ever going to be the same again, and she wasn’t sure she’d ever be ready to face life without him.
Human shadows occasionally passed through the reflection. Her mother must be pacing, possibly her father as well. She could hear them talking in quiet voices, but their words failed to penetrate the thick layers of grief and hopelessness. If they were talking about her, it really didn’t matter what they were saying. Better that they should marry her off to some pathetic, rich young man sooner rather than later. Better to get it over with.
The events of the previous evening played over and over again in her mind, every detail horrifyingly vivid. The hurt and fear of rejection that had fueled her anger. The moment of panic that had led her to try to seduce him. The feeling of his strong hands pushing her away. Her own cruel words echoed in her ears, every drop of venom that she’d laced them with, and they sent sharp lances of pain through her ribs. How could she have been so horrible, so selfish, so stupid?
The volume and pitch of her mother’s voice increased. She sounded upset. With great effort, Astoria managed to focus on what she was saying.
“Horatio, we need to call for a healer! Maybe somebody slipped something into the food. The Montague boy had some sort of magical explosion in our garden for heaven’s sake! Then Jasper and Sophia found him in his bed at home, naked and... defiling himself. They’ve sent him to St. Mungo’s to check for spell damage! What if the same thing happened to her?”
Astoria felt a bitter smirk try and fail to make its way to her lips. At least she wasn’t the only one suffering in the aftermath of Daphne’s wedding reception. She hadn’t stopped to wonder what had actually become of her intended suitor because she honestly couldn’t care less. The only Emery Montague that mattered was the copy that she’d driven away with her own temper and stupidity.
Her father captured her attention when he spoke. His voice lacked the deep resonance of self-assurance that always seemed to add weight to his words. They sounded flat and lifeless without it.
“I’m not sure what to do. Last night wasn’t the first time I’ve noticed her acting strangely, although it was obviously the worst. Ever since the incident with the Malfoy boy in Hogsmeade, there’s been something off about her.”
So her father wasn’t a complete idiot. Her refusal to entertain any conversation about her love life lasting longer than thirty seconds apparently hadn’t gone unnoticed.
Her mother’s voice was tentative, as though she wanted to say something but wasn’t entirely sure that she should.
“It’s nothing. Just a stray thought. I still say we should call for a healer.”
Her father’s voice remained diffident, but he grew more insistent.
“Priscilla, if you have any thoughts about her condition, please, share them.”
Astoria waited for her mother to reply. When she did, it sounded as though she was choosing her words cautiously.
“I was merely wondering whether all the emotional turmoil from Daphne’s wedding got to be too much for her.”
Her father gave a tired sigh.
“At times, I suspected that none of us were going to survive Daphne’s wedding.”
“That isn’t what I mean... not exactly, anyway. We’ve been pushing her so hard to think about her future. All the while, she was watching her sister go through a very difficult and emotional time in her life. She’s still so young. Maybe she isn’t ready.”
It took a moment for her father to answer, but he seemed to find a measure of confidence.
“In less than a week, she’ll be of age. You and I were only fifteen when we were betrothed to one another. ”
“Things were different for us, Horatio. When I was a little girl, I wanted nothing more than to marry a wonderful man and raise beautiful children. I know that Astoria wants that, as well, but she also wants to excel in her lessons. Maybe she simply needs more time.”
“How much time does she need? She’s nearly seventeen and she’s never had a proper relationship. Jeremy had been courting Daphne for over a year by the time they were Astoria’s age. And even at that it took her another six months to get him to propose. If she waits too long, all of the suitable young men will find wives elsewhere. I don’t want our little girl to end up alone.”
Something about her father’s words seemed to provoke a reaction in her mother. Not quite anger; Astoria had never known Priscilla Greengrass to show any sort of hostility toward her husband. But the deference was suddenly gone from her voice, replaced by a deep and somewhat dangerous conviction.
“Astoria is not going to end up alone. There isn’t a young man in all of Britain who wouldn’t be fortunate to have her.”
“You know that and I know that, but there are any number of fine young wizards from good families who’ve never even met her. That’s why it’s so important for her to make the most of this summer. She should be attending dinner parties and balls, not studying for exams that will never matter again once she’s married.”
The temperature of her mother’s voice dropped another few degrees. In spite of the smothering weight of her sadness, Astoria felt as though she should leave her own room.
“They matter to her, Horatio. If we wanted her to simply marry off the moment she was of age, we should have filled her head with empty thoughts and fantasies. I’ve always been proud of the fact that we didn’t make that choice. I thought you felt the same way.”
There was a long moment of silence, and in her mind’s eye, Astoria could picture her parents’ faces. Her mother was never one to glare at her father. Not only was it improper for a pureblood wife to undermine her husband in such a visible manner, but it was also tantamount to admitting defeat. Their mother had always drilled it into Astoria and her sister that if matters had gotten so far beyond a person’s control as to make them angry then that person had done a poor job indeed of managing their circumstances. Instead, Astoria imagined a look of total serenity on her mother’s face, the type of placid contentment that her father would be loathe to spoil by disagreeing. As it turned out, Astoria was at least correct about her father’s reaction.
“I think you’re right. We should call for a healer. I’ve donated enough gold to St. Mungo’s over the years. The least they can do is dispatch somebody to figure out whether there’s anything wrong with her.”
Astoria pondered their conversation as her parents’ voices disappeared into the hallway. In the darkest moment of her young life, it appeared that she had found something of an ally. In a quiet, dignified way, her mother had no problems making her opinions clear and standing up for what she thought was right. It made Astoria feel badly about wallowing in her misery, which oddly felt like a bit of a relief after spending so many hours feeling badly about how things ended with Draco.
Ended. It was such a stark, permanent-sounding word. She imagined it chiseled in stone, like a somber monument to the future she and Draco had imagined together. Did things really need to be this way? For the first time in what seemed like forever, Astoria considered the possibility that she could fix things. Apologize to Draco for her behavior. Explain herself. If her mother could find the strength to force her father to reconsider his opinions, why couldn’t she take control of her own life?
Astoria couldn’t help it, the rational part of her brain started to spin in spite of her aching heart. There were things that she could do to help make her father understand that her mother was right. Make it seem as though she was open to a compromise. Suffer through one or two dinner parties as long as her father accepted the fact that her studies were going to be the principal focus of her holiday. That’s what she’d let him believe, at any rate. Her true focus was going to be finding some way -- any way -- to mend her relationship with Draco and earn back his love. Because she felt certain that her heart would never be whole again if she couldn’t.
Slowly, she lifted her head from her pillow. Her muscles whinged from lack of use as she pulled herself to a sitting position. Recalling the events of the past twenty-four hours didn’t hurt any less, but at least she had the beginnings of a plan. Something to concentrate on instead of the hollow pain inside her chest. Besides, she had no desire to end up in St. Mungo’s. The way her luck was running, they’d probably make her share a room with Emery Montague.
“I... I can’t do it.”
Draco’s hands were shaking visibly as he struggled not to drop his wand. He looked up from the doxy frantically trying to escape from the glass jar on the laboratory bench and found the confused faces of Madam Blishwick and Reginald Penhallow staring back at him. Penhallow had been experimenting on doxies for weeks, trying to induce the same sort of damage to their central nervous systems that the Healers at St. Mungo’s found in human victims of the Cruciatus Curse. Madam Blishwick had apparently reached the limits of her patience and now she was looking to Draco to help make some headway on the project.
“Mr. Malfoy, it’s only a doxy. And you are fully authorized to use Unforgivable Curses for research on non-sentient creatures.”
“It’s not that, it’s just...”
Draco searched for the right words to justify his refusal without revealing anything more about his experiences during the war. How was he supposed to explain that the last time he’d uttered that curse, his wand was pointed toward a helpless old man who begged him for a quick, painless death to end his suffering? How could he make her understand that only his fear of the Dark Lord’s anger kept him from granting the old man’s wish?
“... It’s just that for the curse to have the greatest possible effect, you need to really want the victim to suffer. You have to mean it. I don’t really have anything against this doxy, so it’s not possible for me to cast the curse properly.”
He’d hoped that would be enough to convince her to drop the subject. He could not have been more mistaken. Madam Blishwick’s eyes lit up as though somebody had just handed her a very large package wrapped in shiny silver paper with an oversized bow on top.
“That’s extraordinary, Mr. Malfoy. The available literature on the Cruciatus Curse has no indications of any correlation between the animosity the caster feels for the victim and the efficacy of the curse. -- Reginald, are you writing this down? -- Now, let’s start with the basics. Where did you learn this?”
Draco swallowed hard. This was bad. The entire topic of conversation was very, very bad. As if on cue, his stomach came to life, threatening his esophagus with a revolting mix of half-digested food and bile. Was there anything he could say that would convince her to let it go?
“I, I don’t exactly remember, to be honest. I think I heard my aunt say that once.”
“Do you mean Bellatrix Lestrange? The witch who tortured the Longbottoms into insanity? Mr. Malfoy, your aunt is legendary among Healers who treat curse injuries. By some estimates, she’s personally responsible for fifteen percent of the patients now residing in the Permanent Care Ward at St. Mungo’s. -- Reginald, run to the supply cupboard and get a new roll of parchment. -- If I’d had any idea that you could offer first-hand accounts of your aunt’s use of dark curses, I would have spared you a week’s worth of filing duty. Now, can you be more specific about how the caster’s emotions affect the Cruciatus Curse? Does it have to be hatred or will any strong emotion suffice?”
Draco’s frustration started to rise alongside the contents of his stomach. Why couldn’t anyone in this bloody department take a hint?
“I told you, I don’t exactly remember. My aunt said a lot of things that didn’t make sense. She was almost completely mad by the end.”
Madam Blishwich and shared a quick glance with Penhallow and then her voice took on a coddling, almost patronizing tone. Draco supposed that this was how she spoke when she wanted people to think that she was being understanding, and it infuriated him.
“Draco -- May I call you Draco? -- I’m sure that things were very hectic during the war. I understand that recalling the specifics is a challenge. But your aunt’s skill with dark curses is nearly unmatched in the history of our world. You were given a unique opportunity, Draco. You were able to observe her closely.”
Unique opportunity? Draco suppressed a bitter snort of laughter and stared incredulously at his coworkers. They had no idea what they were talking about. None. He could feel his control slipping away and his voice rose as he tried once more to make them understand.
“She was mental, don’t you get it? Completely insane. She use to talk to herself and laugh out loud when nobody said anything funny. What you’re asking me to recall is nothing but rubbish.”
Madam Blishwick abandoned her attempt at sensitivity and started to lecture him instead.
“One person’s rubbish is another’s treasure, Mr. Malfoy. Just because a person is mad doesn’t mean that we have nothing to learn from them. Taken together, all of the little things you’re able to recall could greatly expand our understanding of how these curses work. There are people in St. Mungo’s who will never leave because of the things your aunt did to them. Don’t you feel that you owe it to them to at least try?”
Owe? Something inside of Draco snapped. Suddenly his wand was in his hand and it was aimed directly at the bridge of Madam Blishwick’s ugly, institutional spectacles. The curse sat on the tip of his tongue. She really wanted to know how the Cruciatus Curse worked? She wanted to understand madness? The room felt as though it was collapsing on him. What was he doing? He was so angry. He needed a way out. His chest felt as though it was going to explode. He whipped his arm around-
The doxy in the jar let out an otherworldly shriek of agony as its limbs went rigid and hurled its tiny body backward with such force that the impact of its head cracked the thick glass. For a long moment the room was completely silent aside from the doxy’s pitiful moaning. For the first time since he’d known her, Madam Blishwick seemed to be at a complete loss for words. Reginald Penhallow stood behind her with his mouth agape and his quill hovering over a crisp new roll of parchment. Draco focused on a tiny droplet of ink clinging to the tip as he struggled to rein in his racing heartbeat. Somewhere in the back of his mind, it dawned on him that he had just opened a door that he would never be able to close. As suddenly as the silence had fallen, the room seemed to erupt into a whirlwind of activity.
“Reginald, get a diagnostic potions kit in here immediately! We need to sample the subject’s neurotransmitter levels before they have a chance to normalize. Mr. Malfoy, fetch Audrina and Julian from Laboratory Number Five, right away! We need to start the dissection...”
Draco never heard the rest of her instructions nor did he bother to look for Audrina or Julian. The cacophony coming from Reginald Penhallow’s lab was certainly enough to attract the attention of everyone in the department. He couldn’t even explain the emotions clouding his mind as he stalked back to his desk. He was furious, but the anger was blunted by a horrible sense of disappointment and regret. More than anything else in the world, he wanted a drink. Several drinks, actually. He wanted to drink until Madam Blishwick’s asinine questions and Reginald Penhallow’s stupid face and especially the doxy’s horrible scream was eradicated from his memory.
Draco stormed out of the lift car and set his sights on the wall of fireplaces on the far side of the Ministry Atrium. He kept his head down and his balled-up fists jammed deep into the pockets of his robes. The security officers hardly paid him any mind as he stalked past. It amazed him how quickly the novelty had worn off of his presence inside the Ministry. A mere eight days into his new career and already the busybodies and fusspots had moved on to more interesting gossip. If they had any idea what a wreck his life had become, he felt certain that the whispers and sidelong glances would start all over again.
Alcohol had once again become a fixture in Draco’s life. Each of the three nights since Daphne’s wedding, he had warded the doors to his chambers and drank himself into a stupor. When he wasn’t at work, it was the only way he could dull the pain and anger that plagued him. Thus far, he had managed to avoid finding himself inside the Ragged Fang or any of his other old haunts but that was mostly because he didn’t want to end up sitting next to Flint, Goyle, Nott or especially Zabini, who he probably would have killed if he’d been drunk enough.
The obvious alternative was to bury himself in his work, but fate, it seemed, never grew tired of indulging its cruel and capricious sense of humor. He had never been comfortable around Madam Blishwick. Her insatiable hunger for researching the finer points of dark curses made him very uneasy. It wasn’t that she seemed especially dangerous in her own right, unless you happened to be a doxy, but she was the sort of pure academic who believed that the only bad thing a person could do with information was keep it to themselves. In other words, she was a naive fool. Given the broad discretion she’d been granted by the Minister to pursue her studies, the danger posed by her foolishness was practically unlimited.
The conversation about his aunt Bellatrix had pushed Draco past the breaking point. He had spent the remainder of the day randomly shuffling sheets of parchment from one file to another without even reading them. Madam Blishwick had been so excited to study her prize that she never left the laboratory. When he finally decided to leave work, his stomach was still twisted in knots. By some miracle, nothing happened along the journey from his desk to the Atrium that caused him to lose his temper. Fate was probably saving that for a moment when Weaselbee happened to be standing nearby.
Draco stepped in front of the nearest available fireplace and hurled in floo powder with such force that the emerald flames roared well above his head.
As the Ministry of Magic spun away in his wake, there was only one thought on Draco’s mind. He would make his way to his chambers as rapidly as possible and retrieve the half-empty bottle of firewhiskey tucked away in his wardrobe. Dinner wasn’t even a consideration; he never had much of an appetite any more. Once he lost himself in the depths of the swirling brown liquid, the knotted muscles in his back would finally loosen. The pounding in his head would cease and the barely-contained fury filling his chest would be extinguished by a wonderful, numbing haze.
No sooner had he stepped from the large stone fireplace into the great room of his family home than he realized even that dubiously beneficial comfort was about to be delayed. His mother and father were waiting for him, sitting in a pair of high-backed leather chairs. Old Lucius was trying very hard to appear stern, but his incessant fidgeting with the signet ring on his finger betrayed his nervousness. If it had been only him, Draco would have swept out of the room without a second thought. The look on his mother’s face was one of pure concern. Even when his father started to speak, Draco found that he couldn’t look away from her piercing blue eyes.
“Draco, your mother and I would like a word with you.”
“Oh, we’re on speaking terms again?”
The venom in Draco’s words had been meant solely for his father, but his mother flinched ever so slightly in response. Most people never would have noticed, so strong was her emotional control. But Draco had grown up looking into that stoic face. She was upset and he was most likely the cause. He reluctantly came to a stop. Standing before the two of them made him feel like a young boy again. He hated the feeling, but the sight of his mother kept him rooted to the spot.
His father apparently chose to ignore his angry response. Draco took this as another sign that the conversation they were about to have was not the old man’s idea.
“Draco... son, we’re worried about you. Things seemed to be going so well. You finished your education and even though I can’t imagine why you took that wretched job at the Ministry, you seemed so pleased with yourself. These past few days, something has plainly changed. I know that things haven’t been exactly cordial between the two of us recently and I know that... well, the fault doesn’t lie exclusively on either side. I’d simply appreciate it if you’d tell us what’s wrong.”
Draco took his time parsing through the tangled web of half-truths and backhanded compliments. Even though the bottle of alcohol in his chambers was calling out to him, he needed to do right by his mother. He needed to show that he was taking the conversation seriously. And making the old man wait for his answer didn’t bother him, either. It was obvious from his father’s little speech that his retreat from the rest of humanity had not gone unnoticed. He hadn’t bothered to look in a mirror for the past few days, and he wondered whether there were outward signs that he was drinking again. Perhaps he was losing weight. Aside from a few bites of lunch at the Ministry cafeteria, he realized that he’d had nothing to eat in the past twenty-four hours.
Whatever it was that had upset his mother, he couldn’t understand was why she was dragging his father into the middle of things. She knew all about the angry confrontations. The yelling had been audible from one end of Malfoy Manor to the other. Why wouldn’t she simply come to Draco in private if she was worried for him? Why risk another angry shouting match? For his mother’s sake, Draco decided to try to keep the conversation civil.
“It’s my job. The standards are high in Madam Blishwick’s department. I’m still new, so I have to prove myself. She says that I’m doing well, but it hasn’t been easy. I suppose the stress has been affecting me.”
“All the more reason to quit! I have no idea what you’re trying to prove, Draco, but whatever it is, it’s not worth damaging your health. Simply resign and we’ll all take a holiday in France. After a week of relaxation, you’ll be back to your old self again and your ancestors can stop spinning in their graves.”
Draco glared at his father as he slowly counted to five inside his head. He was determined not to lose his temper in front of his mother, but his patience was starting to wear very thin. The sheer audacity was unbelievable, lecturing Draco about his health while the old man allowed himself to slowly waste away.
“I don’t want to quit. Can’t you see this is important, father? If I’m ever going to put the war behind me and make a name for myself in the world, I need to win the respect of my peers and I can’t very well do that by giving up as soon as something becomes difficult.”
Something changed in his father’s demeanor. A spark of the old Lucius Malfoy seemed to light up his eyes. As his face twisted into a furious look of reproach, he almost appeared to grow larger before Draco’s eyes.
“Your name is Malfoy, in case you’ve forgotten. Or perhaps you think you’re too good to share a name with your mother and I any longer.”
Draco took a step toward his father. Inside his pocket, he could feel his wand vibrating with the energy of his anger. Fighting back the urge to draw it and reduce the old man to cinders, he spat out a response.
“Forgotten? I’m the one who’s trying to restore our family name to respectability. To win back what we lost by backing the wrong side during the war. In other words, I’m trying to fix your mistakes, you arrogant old fool!”
Lucius was on his feet by this point, and he gripped his walking stick in both hands, ready to draw his wand.
“How dare you! You weren’t even a gleam in my eye during the Dark Lord’s first rise to power. I made every possible inquiry, assessed the situation from every possible angle and I made the best decision for this family. Perhaps we didn’t end up on the winning side, but unlike you, I have the courage to live with the repercussions of that decision.”
A sharp, dry laugh escaped from Draco’s throat as he took another step closer. His wand was clutched in his hand, trembling between white-knuckled fingers.
“Courage? What do you know about courage? You didn’t have to stand before the Dark Lord and suffer the repercussions of your decision. I did. I was the one who was branded with the Dark Mark before I even turned seventeen. I was the one who was sent on a suicide mission to kill Professor Dumbledore. I was the one who was handed over to my insane Aunt Bellatrix for her special training. All you did was sit in Azkaban and wait to be summoned when I was finished paying for your ambitions!”
Something about Draco’s response seemed to set his father back a step. A pained expression briefly haunted the old man’s eyes. Draco couldn’t be certain whether it was the reminder of the trials he’d faced or merely the mention of Azkaban, but when old Lucius spoke, the spite was conspicuously absent from his voice.
“You think I didn’t know that, Draco? Not a day went by when I didn’t think about what might have happened to you and your mother. Before the last Dementors left to join the Dark Lord, they would occasionally drift pass by my cell. When they did, they only thing I could see was the two of you lying dead on the ground. Even after they were gone, that vision tormented me in the darkness of night. Don’t you presume to know the price I paid for my ambitions.”
Draco stood silently for a moment. His father had never spoken about his time in Azkaban except to make grandiose statements about how a lesser man wouldn’t have survived. In his own reckoning, Draco had always discounted the physical discomfort of prison by the fact that the old man wasn’t living in constant fear of death. As long as Draco continued to please the Dark Lord, he had assumed that both of his parents were safe. With the benefit of hindsight, he knew it was a foolish conceit. Nobody had ever been safe from the Dark Lord’s murderous whims. But at the time that burden of responsibility only added to the bitterness he felt. Draco filed the realization away in the back of his mind for the time being. He wasn’t finished being angry. Not by a damn sight.
“So why are you so eager to see all of us pay that price again, father? Why are you conspiring with lunatics and fools and trying to start another war? Have you gone completely mad?”
If old Lucius had looked humbled by Draco’s previous outburst, now he merely looked confused. Narcissa turned a purposeful look toward her husband, the first time her gaze had left Draco since he stepped out of the floo. Feeling the weight of their attention, the old man squared his shoulders and answered.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Draco. We have nothing to gain from another war.”
“Liar! You admitted as much, several weeks ago, in your study. Goyle, Nott, Gamp; do those names ring any bells, father? The petty torments of blood traitors and mudbloods? Powerful and respected again? Any of this coming back to you now or should we go fetch a pensieve?”
Lucius seemed to shrink before Draco’s eyes as he stared blankly at his shoes. He sunk back into his chair and rested his walking stick across his lap. Finally he shook his head and lowered his forehead into his palm before speaking softly, more to himself than to anybody else.
“Goyle, Nott... Yes, we’ve been speaking recently. The old families are gathering again. Gamp, Rowle and Travers... they’re all involved.”
“Lucius, Goyle was killed during the war. So was Travers. Nott and Rowle are imprisoned in Azkaban.”
Narcissa’s soft words caught Draco by surprise. She gently laid her slender hand on her husband’s arm, causing him to lift his gaze. There was a frightened, almost panicked look in his grey eyes.
“That’s not possible. I’ve only just spoken with them... was it last week? Maybe it was the week before. Certainly not more than a month ago. I’ll need to check my journal.”
Lucius started to stand, but Narcissa held firm to his arm, causing him to settle slowly back into his chair. She tried again, her voice soothing.
“You’re remembering things that happened before the war, my love. You haven’t spoken to any of your old friends since the battle at Hogwarts.”
The old man’s eyes flicked nervously between Draco, Narcissa and his own hands. He seemed to grow more agitated for a moment, then he focused on his wife and addressed her in a beseeching tone.
“But darling, I remember it. I remember the entire conversation. Goyle was telling us how he helped to chase away a half-blood family that had taken up residence in the village adjoining his estate. Nott was planning to demand that Millicent Bagnold step down for her proposal to allow mudbloods to serve on the Wizengamot.”
Narcissa’s voice remained calm and gentle, yet firm.
“Lucius, Minister Bagnold retired nine years ago. Kingsley Shacklebolt is Minister now.”
As his father’s eyes traveled helplessly back to his own hands, Draco stared intently at his parents, trying in vain to get his head around what he’d just seen and heard. The old man looked weak and feeble as he mumbled a series of names under his breath. Finally Draco couldn’t take the awkward tension any longer.
“Mother, what’s wrong? What’s happened to him?”
His father suddenly lifted his chin and stared at Draco, the beginnings of a disdainful sneer evident on his pale face. It faded just as quickly, however, and Lucius dropped his gaze back to his hands. Narcissa gave his arm a reassuring squeeze before turning to face Draco.
“Your father has been having problems with his memory since the war. It started when he first returned from Azkaban, but in recent months the episodes have been getting worse.”
A strange and unpleasant sensation started to well up in Draco’s chest. His throat suddenly felt tight and the room seemed uncomfortably quiet.
“What sort of problems? What’s wrong with him, mother?”
An eternity seemed to pass before his mother answered, although the deafening ticks of the grandfather clock counted off four seconds at most. She spoke very softly, as though she might somehow prevent her husband from hearing even though he sat only inches away.
“Sometimes he has difficulty separating recent events from those that happened long ago. The healers told us that this can happen to people who’ve suffered prolonged exposure to Dementors. Sometimes the problems go away on their own.
And sometimes they don’t. The implication was obvious enough that she didn’t need to say anything more. Many things flashed through Draco’s mind. All of the times that he’d quarreled with his father. The times that he’d wanted to curse the old man into oblivion and the times that he’d thought about how much better his life would be if his father simply wasn’t around any longer. In retrospect, no matter how angry he’d been, the possibility that old Lucius might actually die had never really crossed his mind. Now it filled him with a cold sense of dread unlike anything he’d ever felt.
Draco found himself pondering all of his hopes for the future. The dreams of the life that he’d wanted to build with Astoria. The love that they would have shared and the children they would have raised together, if only he hadn’t been such a fool. It occurred to him that his parents featured prominently in all of those dreams. He imagined old Lucius sitting by the fire, spinning tales of the old times for his grandchildren the way that Draco’s own grandfather had entertained him when he was a boy. He saw his mother doting over her grandchildren, spoiling them in every imaginable way. Without either one of them, the visions felt incomplete.
Dropping to one knee in front of his father, Draco took the old man’s shaking hands in his own. At first, Lucius looked surprised and even a little frightened. Draco gave him a moment to settle down before speaking.
“Father, I need you to think about this very carefully before you answer. Are you absolutely certain that the Goyle and Nott you’ve been speaking to are your old friends and not their sons?”
Lucius’s eyes snapped upward. He looked suspicious at first and then incredibly pleased that somebody finally seemed to be taking him seriously.
“Yes, I’m quite sure. Goyle’s son, he’s around your age, isn’t he, Draco? I do hope he gets sorted into Slytherin. You mustn't repeat this to anyone, but apparently the boy is rather slow. His father is worried that he might not have the cunning and the hat will place him in Hufflepuff, instead.”
Draco patted his father’s hands one final time and stood up. He found his mother staring at him intently. They studied each other for a long moment before she spoke.
“Now that you know the truth, is there anything else you’d like to tell us?”
Draco’s mind was still reeling from the revelations about his father when a new realization hit him. If old Lucius wasn’t the Death Eater that Gamp had been in contact with, that meant it was someone else. The most recent list of names from the Prophet popped into his head and a cold chill ran down his spine. They were all dangerous men. Genuine fugitives with nothing to lose. If Gamp was working with one of them, the risk of another war suddenly seemed far greater.
His mother was still staring at him, patiently waiting for an answer. He struggled to decide how much he should share with her. In her zeal to protect him, he worried that she might put herself in danger. At the same time, he also knew that she was a far more powerful and cunning witch than most people gave her credit for. Besides, he had concealed the truth from Astoria and it had cost him everything. Nearly cost him everything, Draco silently corrected himself. The battle was not yet lost. In fact, it was only beginning.
“There’s a great deal I need to tell you, actually.”
Then he told his mother everything. He told her about Gamp’s conspiracy and their plan to stage a prison break at Azkaban. He told her about Astoria and the terrible argument they’d had at Daphne’s wedding. He even told her about Madam Blishwick and her mad fascination with torturing doxies. Through it all, his mother simply listened, maintaining a thoughtful expression and nodding occasionally. After he finished summarizing the awful afternoon he’d spent relating his memories of his Aunt Bellatrix, he voiced the question that had been tormenting him.
“Before we fought, Astoria begged me to take her away from her father’s house. She was being emotional, completely irrational. I thought that she’d be safest in her father’s house. He’s a wealthy, influential man, after all, and not the type to get involved in the sort of insanity Gamp and the others are plotting. Now I’m not so sure. Her sister just married a man who’s trying to start a war. And aside from the matter of her safety, I know she isn’t happy there. Walking away from her was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. What do you think I should do?”
Narcissa seemed to ponder the question for a moment before responding with one of her own.
“I know that we have a tenuous relationship with the Ministry, Draco, but given the fact that you haven’t even mentioned contacting the Aurors, may I infer that your dealings with Mr. Gamp and the others have not been completely beyond reproach?”
Draco tried to formulate an intelligent-sounding response. Her ability to size up the situation amazed him.
“It’s rather... complicated. They’ve tried several times to recruit me. In order to secretly attend the wedding, I was forced to play along for a time. If someone asked them, they’d probably say that I was on their side. I’m concerned about how the Aurors would perceive that, especially now that Potter and half of his friends from school have joined the department.”
His mother nodded slowly.
“That is a complication, but not an insurmountable one. Many people will likely die if the conspirators manage to liberate the Dark Lord’s former followers. The information they’ve shared with you could be the key to preventing that from happening. You said before that you want to make a name for yourself and win the respect of your peers. Unless Gamp and his friends are the peers whose respect you desire, speaking to the Aurors wouldn’t be a bad first step.”
It all seemed rather obvious coming from his mother. Truthfully, Draco had to admit that even after his former housemates had threatened him and tried to drag him down into their self-destructive ring of stupidity, something still felt wrong about turning them over to the Ministry. The war had been over for more than a year and at some level he still thought of Shacklebolt and the others as his enemies. That needed to change. Even though he was never likely to be friends with those who had opposed the Dark Lord, enemies were too costly to maintain. Voldemort was the true enemy and he was dead.
His mother shook him from his moment of reflection when she spoke again.
“And Draco, if your heart’s desire is to be with her and keep her safe, she needs to know that. A proper lady doesn’t like to have to guess about such things.”
A plan quickly formed in Draco’s mind. He would go to the Aurors -- quietly -- and bargain with the information he held. Keep his family out of the shadow of innuendo and suspicion. Then he would get a message to Astoria, letting her know that he had reconsidered her request. If all went well then in three days time, when she came of age, he would present himself at the gates of her family home and give her the freedom to choose her own future.
Just as he was about to explain the plan to his mother, a loud banging rang out from the entry hall. She shook her head slightly in response to his questioning look. Neither one of them was expecting company. They heard an elf appear at the great wooden doors with a loud pop followed by muffled voices. Lucius seemed to still be lost in his own thoughts, so Draco made his way to the entry hall, followed closely by his mother.
When he turned the corner, the sight that greeted him made his breath catch in his throat. Marcus Flint was standing in the doorway, supporting an ashen, feeble-looking Theodore Nott. Nott’s shirt was soaked with blood and he clutched a saturated handkerchief tightly to his side with his free hand. As the elf fretted over the red droplets staining the marble floor, Flint caught Draco’s eyes and spoke in a demanding tone.
“Call for a healer, Malfoy. We need to get him fixed up before we floo to Gamp’s house. The plan has changed. It all starts tonight and we don’t want to be late.”
Things will get better for Draco and Astoria soon, I promise! Like any good story, the path to Happily Ever After is not an easy one.
Many thanks to my pal Jami for being there to bounce ideas off of, and to my lovely beta reader sophie_hatter for taking time out of her vacation to give this chapter a once-over. And thanks to all of you for reading! If you can spare the time to leave a review, that would be awesome!
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