Chapter 1 : Touch
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Being a fugitive wasn’t nearly as interesting as it sounded.
Mostly it was just a lot of caution and a lot of strategic hiding; an incredibly high-stakes guessing game that I had no choice but to play. Snape would have brought me to the Ministry in chains if I’d tried to show up at Hogwarts; the anti-Muggle-born policy was being enforced by any means possible. And staying home wasn’t an option either. If the Ministry was going to hunt me down, I wanted to put as much distance as possible between myself and my family. It was a really bad time to have questionable blood status.
There were no good options and no helping hands, so I started camping out in the forest, living hand to mouth. For months I thought about nothing but staying out of sight and staying alive, and in the process I became a person I barely recognized. I forgot the sound of my own voice. I stole food. I bathed in streams like an actual animal. My body was on high alert at all times; I never let myself relax, not even for a second. If I had given myself even a minute to reflect on my situation, I might have found it strange. The act of living had become work, and I had never worked so hard in my life.
And when the Snatchers found me in the forest, it only took one spell to undo it all.
I had thought I’d be prepared. The DA training was supposed to have sharpened me. My life on the run was supposed to have honed my reflexes. But at the moment when it really counted, I was too slow and the training wasn’t enough.
They brought me down with minimal effort; the Body-Bind curse left me immobile and at their mercy. I struggled against it at first because I was a Gryffindor, and fighting is what we do. But at the point when I felt my nose break under the force of a Snatcher’s boot, I stopped fighting. It was pointless.
“Tell us yer name, boy!” one demanded after dragging me across the ground to their cart. I suppressed the screech of pain that threatened to come bursting out; they’d turned me so my body was face down, scraping my face against tree roots, sharp sticks, and frozen ground. It seemed important that the Snatchers not know how much they had hurt me. But it was hard not to scream, harder than I would have imagined.
“Dean Thomas,” I panted, spitting out a mouthful of blood and hoping I sounded stronger than I looked. “Half-blood.”
I added this last part because I knew they would ask. For the billionth time, I thought about the father I had never known. He’d left before I could form the slightest memory of him, and he’d taken my blood status along for the ride. It was old news now, though. My broken nose hurt worse than the thought of him.
“Can’t prove that, though, can ya?” The man was gleeful as he snapped my wand in half; I winced at the sound of it breaking.
“No,” I said as they shoved me up onto the cart, handling me like a dog. “I can’t prove that.”
The screaming should have stopped by now, surely.
We were all tied together still, in the dungeon of Malfoy Manor. Except for Hermione, of course; she was upstairs, hence the screaming coming from both her and a distraught Ron. My face still throbbed and burned, and I hadn’t heard a sound out of Griphook the goblin. The situation, needless to say, did not look good.
At least we weren’t alone, though—we had a glimmer of hope in Luna Lovegood. It was a blessed relief to see her there, even though I never would have wished this place on anyone. She looked just the same; a little dirtier and worse for wear, but there wasn’t a trace of weariness in her voice or movements as she greeted us. I couldn’t help but return her little smile. Ron’s Deluminator had lifted some of the blackness of the dungeon. Mr. Ollivander seemed to be faring about as well as could be expected, and Luna had her rusty nail to cut away our ropes. For a flickering moment I began to believe that we might not die in this place.
And then Luna told us there was no way out.
It was like being punched in the stomach. Despair swallowed me up, and I let out a groan from deep in my chest. Luna was right there, sawing at my bindings with her nail; she must have heard me, even over the more obvious sounds of torture.
“You mustn’t give up, Dean,” she whispered, her breath hot against my ear. “Something will happen soon, I know it.”
Her empty optimism did nothing to comfort me; in fact, it got me angry. How could she say something so mindless when we were at the gates of hell? I felt a twisting dark desire, bred out of hopelessness, to shatter her quiet confidence. I wanted to make her feel as desperate as the rest of us were. Hermione was beyond reach, upstairs enduring the unspeakable horrors of Bellatrix’s imagination. Ron was still screaming at the top of his lungs, fury rendering him incapable of heeding Harry’s demands for quiet. And Luna had just said herself that the dungeon was impenetrable. We were finished. Doomed.
And yet she was acting like today was just another day. The faint upturn of her lips made me want to punch something. This settled it; Luna Lovegood was crazy. And crazy was the last thing we needed right now.
Her knuckles brushed against my wrist as she severed the last fiber of the rope, freeing me. I yanked my hand to my side, keeping it a safe distance from hers.
And then, out of nowhere, there came a deafening crack, followed by an impossibly brave elf.
The cottage was small, warm, inviting. It was like something out of a distant dream; I hadn’t even thought about a hot meal or a bed in recent memory. But now that we’d escaped the Manor and I had both, I found that I could not sleep peacefully. I pretended when Harry and Ron came into the room we were sharing; it was just easier that way. There was nothing I wanted to discuss with them just yet, and they seemed like they had a lot on their plates. Obviously.
After another half hour went by and I couldn’t stand to lie there another second, I tiptoed out of the room and down the hall. They weren’t asleep yet either, I knew for a fact, but they pretended just like I had.
The living room was pitch black; I lit my wand so I wouldn’t feel like I was floating in space. In that faint blue-white glow I could make out silhouettes of the couch, the coffee table, the fireplace, the window. When morning came, we would be able to see Dobby’s grave when we looked out from this room.
His face filled my mind as I sat down on the couch. I remembered how small he had looked in the ground. And then, to my horror, came tears. A lot of them.
I chalked it up to a loss of adrenaline, my body letting down after the months of constant tension. And not to mention the stress of the capture itself. Now that I was in a relatively safe place, with nothing to run from at the moment, I had nothing to do but sit. And wait. And think.
It was the thinking that sent it all spilling over.
Of course, there was Dobby. I thought that if he could have chosen how he wanted to go, it would be this way, in the service of the human he loved most. In fact, I had almost said so at the burial. But I’d thought better of it, highly doubting that that statement would be any comfort to Harry. He already carried far too much responsibility on his shoulders. So I had stayed quiet.
My family came to mind next, with a gut-wrenching pang of guilt. I hadn’t spoken to them since late summer; Christmas had come and gone, and I had not come home. I would have given anything for just a moment of contact, to reassure them that I was alive. Already I dreaded having to explain why, after months of silence, I was returning home ravaged by war.
But that was assuming I would actually live to tell my family about the war. And that was looking like a dangerous assumption to make.
Hogwarts was an equally disturbing thought. I tried to picture the idyllic place I remembered, before evil had wrestled its way in. But any place with Snape as the man in charge could offer no sanctuary. That much seemed certain. I thought of Seamus and Neville and the little Creevey kids (who really weren’t so little anymore), and Ginny and the twins and the bloody obnoxious Hufflepuffs. All the people I had grown up with, practically. They were all sleeping under the same roof as Voldemort’s right-hand man. Could hope even exist for them? How would any of us ever know? How could we reach them?
My vision swam for all of them, and for myself as well. I shut my eyes against the flow of tears, as if that could hold them in. But that only gave my mind the opportunity to supply the images, and I would rather have been a sobbing wreck than a victim of my imagination, of my memories. I opened my eyes at once, staring at the wall in front of me like it was a Picasso. The open cuts on my face stung as moisture fell into them, like little rivulets of fire.
It was then that I felt the couch dip under the weight of another person.
I could see Luna’s moon-pale hair cutting through the darkness of the room. I hadn’t even noticed her come in. For a frantic second I tried to scrub my face clean of tears, but the pressure of my hands on those wounds was much too painful. I had to admit that it was a waste of effort anyway; Luna had surely heard me, and it was too dark for her to really see much anyway. I glanced over at her and wrenched my eyes away, all in the same moment.
It bothered me to have her see me this way, at the weakest I had ever been. We had barely spoken at all at school. Although it sounded awful to say, the truth was that Luna had been a social danger, and I knew very few people who could actually relate to her. So I’d steered clear, and even thrown out a few “Loony Lovegoods” now and then just to make my allegiance known. And now here I was, crying like a baby in front of her, and I felt sure that she was pitying me. It was all backwards.
Those divisions seemed so shallow now, though. So stupid. I supposed social ladders had a way of crashing to the ground in desperate times. Still, it was weird that she was sitting there, just listening to me crying in the dark.
She placed a slender hand over mine, without a word. My whole body sort of twitched; it had been a long, long time since I had been touched by another person. And the Snatchers didn’t count. I never wanted to waste another thought on them, but I was sure they’d be gracing my mind with their presence for a long time.
I didn’t pull away from this touch. Luna’s palm was warm against the back of my hand.
“Sometimes, when I think about it,” she said softly, her small voice barely breaking the silence, “I feel really scared.”
It was obvious to me what she meant by it. It was everything. It was too much to pull down and condense into words. Her small, clipped voice was what made me look askance at her. I didn’t know Luna very well at all, but I had been around her enough to notice that she never talked this way. Maybe it was all finally getting to her, just like I’d wanted back at Malfoy Manor.
That felt like such a long time ago, already.
I didn’t say anything, but I turned my hand over so that our palms touched. The contact was dizzying. When I was sure she wasn’t going to pull back, I moved my fingers so that they interlocked with hers.
Everything was heightened in the dark. Luna’s breath caught in her throat and I heard it. I could feel the press of our hands together, a nucleus of heat baking between them. There was a cut near her thumb, close to the place where it bent away from the rest of her hand. I moved my own thumb over it, clinging to it like a mountain climber on a narrow ledge. And my heartbeat was deafening in the stone-cold silence of the room. Surely Luna could hear it too.
She lifted her long fingers to rest atop my own; I sighed in pure relief and forgot to be self-conscious about it. Was this what connection felt like after being isolated for so long? It was completely overwhelming, like drowning and coming up for air at the same time.
Luna’s nails had grown long, and she raked them down over the calloused skin of my fingers. My nerve endings seemed to crackle and hum. My pulse throbbed in my open palm.
I couldn’t look at her; touch was nearly more than I could handle, and I thought my head might actually explode if I lifted my eyes to her face. And I had nothing meaningful to say, nothing that would hold any weight under the circumstances. So I just wrapped my fingers around the backs of hers, folding her hand and enclosing it with mine. It was all I could do. And for the moment, it felt like enough.
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