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Chapter 6 : A Changing Tide
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Astoria’s eyelids felt heavy, glued shut. A warning tickled at the edge of her consciousness, urging her to keep her eyes closed, her breathing steady.
She sensed a presence nearby, warmth radiating from a body crouched just beside her.
Beside her...where? Her spine was uncomfortable, its ridges digging into a hard, uncompromising surface. It felt as if she were lying on the ground, but the rich rugs in her house were far softer than this, and she could could smell the familiar scent of the lemon furniture cleaner Filly, their House Elf, preferred, and heard the small crackling sounds of the fire in the grate. She was still at home.
There was only one place this uncomfortable in the entirety of Greengrass Hall--the much-despised sofa in the front sitting room. The room in which she had been interviewed by Draco Malfoy.
She felt the memories come rushing back, leaving a sting in the back of her throat and a tangy copper taste on her tongue. The Legilimency. He had read her mind.
There was no way to discern how long she had been out. Hopefully only a few minutes. He was still there, beside her--she could tell it was him without opening her eyes. But how long did she have before he hauled her in before Lord Voldemort himself? She couldn’t sit around and wait for it to happen.
Astoria didn’t give herself a chance to think--waiting would lead to tensed muscles and short breath; it would give him time to realise that she had woken. Instead, she surged up off the settee, feeling the sharp crack of skin on skin, bone on bone as her forehead smacked against some part of her attacker’s body. In a second she was across the room, her back to the fireplace and her eyes on her opponent.
For a moment, she was blind, the whole world a series of shimmering orbs of light. One was turning and moving towards her, so she focused her attention on him, blinking away the false brightness.
She moved along the wall of the fireplace, the rough edges of the stacked stones catching on the fabric of her dress. Her head spun, and she reached out to grab hold of one of the twin brass sconces that stood affixed to the wall on either side of the hearth. She had always thought it rather absurd to have a light fixture beside a fireplace, but now she was grateful for the anchor.
Hearing the floor creak as Draco took another step, she fumbled for a weapon, reaching frantically with her free hand until it collided with the stand of fireplace instruments and coming up with a fire poker, which she brandished before her like a sword.
“Don’t. Move,” she panted.
Draco Malfoy halted his step, one hand held out as if to stay any rash action on her part.
Her vision was still dancing with obscuring ripples of brightness, catching in his pale hair and adorning him with a golden halo. Between the corona of light, his harsh, sunken features, and the dark circles under his eyes, he looked like an old icon, some tortured orthodox saint reaching out to instruct the world in righteousness.
The irony was jarring, to be sure.
The lights began to fade out, leaving the room dull as a sun-bleached tapestry. Astoria realised that she was shaking and huffed out a sharp breath, tightening her grip in an effort to steady her hand. Draco’s keen eyes didn’t miss it, and he lunged for her.
She whipped up the sharp end of the fire poker, slashing him from shoulder to forearm. He stepped back abruptly as a thin line of blood bloomed and expanded along the ripped sleeve of his white shirt. Draco pressed the fingers of his opposite hand to the wound, shock clear on his face when they came back stained with crimson. Apparently his victims normally didn’t fight back.
Or at least not with a weapon so mundane as a fire poker, she mused darkly, thinking longingly of the wand tucked into her sleeve. But if she reached for it, he would reach for his. She felt a frown etch its way onto her face. Why hadn’t he already?
Her eyes darted from Draco Malfoy to his crumpled suit jacket, still lying, discarded, on the floor by the settee where she had awakened. His wand must be there, hidden from view under the pile of rumpled dark silk. Perhaps the suddenness of her waking and the blow to his head had served as momentary distractions, but he would realise soon enough.
Astoria felt a thin line of sweat creep down the back of her neck.
She could drop the poker and pull out her own wand, but that would leave her with no weapon for too long. He could tackle her to the ground before she could free the wand from her sleeve.
Or perhaps he would take that time to dive for his own wand, as any moment now he must notice its absence. Then it would be a duel.
Astoria had never made note of Draco, in particular, but her mind suddenly flooded with dim snapshot memories. Draco Malfoy, darling of the of the Hogwarts Duelling Club, sketching a quick bow after the defeat of yet another opponent. Draco Malfoy striding out of the library, Cursing an older Ravenclaw who showed too much curiosity in Draco’s reading material; the cold-eyed blonde never even opened his mouth as piercing light snapped from the tip of his wand. Draco Malfoy, lounging in the common room as fellow students fawned over him or slithered away beneath his notice.
Some of it was due to the money, of course. But it was more than that. Draco was a top student. He was quick with a wand and knew more dark spells than Astoria had probably heard of. She couldn’t take him in a wand fight, and she knew it.
So that left only one option: she couldn’t let him reach it. Subtly, Astoria shifted her weight to the right, in the general direction of the sofa, and watched as he subconsciously countered.
“I don’t advise your coming any closer,” she warned, slipping another step to her right. “I’ve never quite felt the urge to skewer someone quite as strongly as I do now.”
A corner of Draco’s mouth curved upward in a wry, jagged grin.
“Are you always this welcoming to your guests?”
Astoria matched his mocking smile with a smirk of her own, her eyes never leaving his as she took another step.
“Actually, I’m usually considered to be a hospitable and charming hostess.”
“I must admit I have trouble believing it.”
“What can I say, Mr. Malfoy?” she spat. “People coming into my home, threatening my family, and mucking about with my brain tends to have a dampening effect on my usually warm and sparkling personality.”
She had completely lost her hard-won control of herself. Astoria felt the words spilling from her lips, and she wanted them to sting. There was no real point in holding up the pretence. He had seen her mind. He knew her secrets. Civility was now just one more burden she could shed.
Besides, she needed a distraction. She felt an uncanny sense of relief as the waves of scalding vitriol gushed forth from all the hidden corners of her bitter soul, for once unchecked by the dam of a sweet, bland smile. More relief as he kept his eyes on her, and off of his missing wand.
Another step. A baring of teeth.
“The tattoo is lovely. It really brings out the colour of your eyes.”
“Oh?” He tried to move toward her, but she swiped in his direction with the fire poker, driving him back.
“I’d call them Soulless Minion grey. Pretty, but not much depth.”
She was surprised when he barked a laugh. There was no joy in it. It was the sound of shards of glass rattling in an empty jar. But still, it was more than she would have expected from someone like him.
Another step to the right. She was close now.
Astoria tensed as Draco straightened abruptly, but his gaze didn’t dart away to seek out a missing stick of hawthorn. Rather, it remained focused on her, his head tilting as his eyes--Soulless Minion Grey, indeed--ran over her, starting at her head and working their way down to her toes. She only just now realised that her low black heels lay abandoned near the coffee table, and, absurd as it was, their loss made her feel much more exposed.
However, when their stares met once more, she noted that there was nothing lascivious in his expression. He looked like a tinkerer, trying to separate a befuddling device into parts in hopes that he might discover how such a thing could work. Then, his eyes softened, and suddenly he wasn’t trying to satisfy a curiosity or to puzzle her out. He was just standing there, watching her. Astoria’s bare toes curled involuntarily. She felt suddenly, thoroughly seen.
Draco cocked his head. “You really are...an unusual sort, Miss Greengrass. Not at all what I’d expected.”
Astoria shook her head, slowly, to clear it. She...she had to remain focused. She swayed purposefully on her feet, stumbling as if she might swoon once more. Not that Astoria was, generally, the swooning type, but it got her two paces closer. Draco Malfoy stepped forward, as if to catch her again. She could only imagine that he would be considered a failure if she cracked her head open on the marble-topped table before she could be dragged before the Dark Lord and his lackeys.
Blinking as though she were searching for clarity in a wobbling world, Astoria set a hand on the arm of the sofa, feigning a lack of balance.
“Well,” she breathed, “I do like to achieve the unexpected.” And with that, she lunged forward, scrabbling on the floor for the rumpled suit jacket, her fingers desperately searching out her goal, while her free hand kept the fire poker slashing out between them.
She felt through the pockets, tossed it aside. Nothing underneath. She glanced up at Draco, who had not moved an inch.
“Looking for this?” He drew a polished rod of dark hawthorn wood from his back pocket. His wand.
Her breath stalled in her lungs. “Wh--” The question petered out into nothingness, a mere vocal echo of shock.
He balanced it between two fingers, fighting for an air of nonchalance, but Astoria still noted the ratta-tap-tap of his pulse beating in his throat. But if he’d had the wand all along, why was she still standing?
Astoria shook her head to clear it. There was no time for whys or what-ifs. She dropped her makeshift weapon to the ground in a show of surrender. She had to keep him talking. It was the only chance she had of drawing her own wand in time.
At least she’d have the element of surprise. Perhaps it would be enough. “You think you’ve won,” she challenged, her voice not as steady as she’d have liked, but it leant her words another kind of power. “You’re wrong.”
Draco frowned. “I really wouldn’t have thought you’d so cliché. The moral proselytising? The ‘power of good versus evil’?” He gave his wand a casual twirl, the effect somewhat ruined when it nearly slipped off his still-bloody fingers. He wiped them carefully on the dark leg of his trousers. “To be honest, I’m rather disappointed in the direction this has turned.”
Her eyes took on a sardonic glint as she considered her situation. “To be honest, I feel exactly the same.”
There again, that ghost of amusement flickered across his features.
“But I’m also disappointed in you, Mr. Malfoy. I wouldn’t think you’d be so blind.”
“Oh? And who is it that has whom at their mercy, at the moment?”
“Neither of us.” He cocked his head, and she qualified, “You have no mercy.”
“True.” He attempted a careless shrug, but from the way his shoulder hitched, it looked like it hurt. The blood was still seeping slowly through the crisp white of his shirt.
“And neither does your Master!” Astoria pushed her arms behind her back as if she were clasping her hands, readying herself for a self-satisfied lecture. She tried not to allow her shoulders to move as her fingertips sought out the tiny pearl buttons on her sleeve cuff.
“Do you really not see that? He doesn’t need you. He’d be more than willing to destroy you for the smallest mistake. Or perhaps merely to make a point. He hunts down Muggleborns for sport. What makes you think he couldn’t decide that you’d be entertainment just as pleasing? Your blood status?”
“You’re here, in my home, and my blood’s just as magical as yours. You should know better than anyone that you’ve no protection at all.”
He crossed his arms over his chest, keeping his wand visible as deterrent to her taking violent action. “And I’m supposed to believe that you’re worried for me? That you’re telling me this out of the goodness of your heart?” “You’re familiar with the concept of a heart?” She smirked. “I wouldn’t have guessed.”
“Oh, and I suppose it’s easy for you?” he countered, suddenly agitated. “To hold the moral high ground? To imagine that we’re all pure evil--”
“Mr. Malfoy, I don’t care to argue morals. I’m not some worthy heroine, and I’ve no pretensions to it. But at least I know what I am.”
“Do you? And what is that, exactly?”
Astoria’s jaw clenched, then loosened to allow her to spit out the words.
“I may not be good. I may not care about justice or fairness or telling the truth. And I’m probably going to die today. But at least I don’t fool myself into thinking I’m safe just because Lord bloody Vold--
He was across the room in an instant, his hand gripped around her forearm, his grey eyes burning into hers, intense. “Don’t say it,” he instructed quietly, the words heavy with the power of an order. Her eyes narrowed.
“Don’t say what?” she hissed. “Don’t say his name? Voldem--” His other hand reached forward, clamping down over her mouth, fingers wrapping around her jaw. She tried to wrench her mouth open--to bite him, to scream. When she met his eyes, she expected to see anger in them, but instead saw only wide-eyed panic.
His voice was low and strained.
“You can’t say the name. It’s dangerous. They’ll come for you...they always come.” He clenched his jaw and breathed deeply, dropping his head. Astoria swallowed. He smelled like mint and rain and tarmac. When he lifted his head once more, he seemed startled to find himself so close to her, his palm still pressed against her lips, keeping her from speaking. He jerked his hand back as if stung.
Astoria brought her hand to her cheek, but it wasn’t sore. Even in his panic, he had not hurt her.
He backed two slow steps away. Astoria rubbed her arm. Even though it wasn’t sore, it still felt odd. She spoke the first words that came to mind, to distract herself from the uncomfortable sensation.
“So it’s illegal, now? To say a name?”
Draco sighed. Her eyes wandered to the place, across the room, where his wand now truly did lay on the floor. He had dropped it in his hurry to get to her. Draco followed her gaze, but didn’t reach for the wand. Astoria didn’t know why, but she didn’t reach for it, either.
“It’s not about the name,” he explained, not looking at her as he spoke. He stared up at a vermillion dragon painted on the ceiling, its gaping maw full of wickedly-edged teeth. “It’s about what’s behind it. People who use the name are not afraid of him--or are trying to prove that they aren’t afraid of him. Either way, it’s not the kind of attitude he wants in his...”
“Subjects?” she suggested. “Slaves? Mindless drones?” Once again, she expected him to be angry, and found herself surprised when the ghost of a rueful smile tugged at the corner of his mouth.
“You really aren’t afraid, are you?” He was looking at her as though she were stupid, and mad...and maybe a bit remarkable.
She tucked an escaped curl behind her ear and shook her head.
“I’m afraid all the time. If Vol--erm...he,” she corrected, and he gave a small nod of approval, “were to walk through that door right now, I’d probably collapse into a fit.”
“No,” he contended, walking near to her once more. “No, I don’t think you would.”
“You don’t know--”
“I know better than you,” he insisted, cutting her off. “I’ve seen the people that come to him...are brought to him...nearly convulsing from the fear, willing to say anything to save themselves before a threat has even been made.” He paused to give her a calm, assessing look. “You aren’t like them. You’re different.”
And she was.
Astoria Greengrass was entirely, insanely, stunningly different. He didn’t know what had driven him to keep her from speaking the name. He hadn’t thought. In that moment, he had only known that horrible things would happen to the girl in front of him if he allowed her to continue. And, oddly, he found that to be an outcome that didn’t sit well with him.
It was then that he felt the pulse of pain in his arm, just where the serpent writhed in the shadows at the surface of his skin. And he remembered--it didn’t matter what she said. They would be here soon enough, anyways.
“Someone’s coming.” He heard the words echo through the grand room in his own voice, but it was a beat before he realised that he, himself, had spoken.
“You’ve contacted them?” Her brows raised in unison, graceful wings rising on a sudden wind. “That was fast.” Draco shook his head sharply. “I didn’t.”
Why it mattered--mattered deeply--that she knew this was just another small block to add to the enormous pile of things he didn’t know. He could feel his confusion looming above him, swaying like a child’s haphazard wooden tower. Any moment now, the heavy weight of what he didn’t know, the feelings he couldn’t understand, would come spiralling down to crush him.
Draco felt oddly helpless. And, like so many things he felt lately, he hadn’t the slightest idea why.
Astoria cocked her head, assessing his face. Perhaps she flattered herself in thinking that she could tell when someone was lying--if there was ever an exception, it would be the man before her, almost pale enough to see through and, at the same time, the least-transparent person she had ever met. However, as her eyes scanned his expression, she felt a settling in her gut. He was telling the truth.
“They were coming anyway,” she posited, and his silence confirmed her suspicion. Her mind ticked backwards until it hit upon something. “Your Mark! Earlier, when it was bothering you. They were coming then.”
She could see him easing the suit jacket off his shoulders, careful to avoid the Mark, as if it were tender. He’d admitted himself that it was hurting him. Astoria remembered her mother telling her about the symbol that identified the Dark Lord’s henchmen. As a spy, Lavinia Greengrass had not been outfitted with a Mark. As a woman well-aware of her own beauty, she was not displeased to avoid being branded by a rather unattractive symbol, but she had once or twice remarked that the tattoos made for easier communication among Voldemort’s servants. Draco inclined his head.
Astoria’s mind reeled. She chewed at her lower lip thoughtfully. “That was before the Legilimancy. We’d hardly said a thing. You didn’t know,” she challenged. “You can’t have known. Not for certain.” “I didn’t know,” he agreed soberly.
Something strange bubbled its way out of her chest. She considered tamping it down--but why bother?--and was surprised to hear a harsh peal of laughter push its way out of her throat. It was followed by another. An odd sense of relief filled her, and she shook her head, short bursts of laughter still struggling free at intervals.
He looked at her as if she had gone mad.
“What on earth can there be to laugh about?”
Astoria pushed herself up off the chair arm she had clung to, doubled over with laughter, and took three deep, calming breaths through her nose. She still felt odd, giddy flutters surging through her body, but she was under control.
“Well, it makes everything different, you see.” She reached up to pat down any unruly hairs, just out of habit. “If I failed my family because I couldn’t lie well enough to protect them, well, that’s one thing. But if they were always going to come; if we never had a chance...”
“Then you feel less responsible,” he finished for her, understanding dawning.
Astoria sniffed. “Still responsible,” she corrected, her shoulders slumped. “But yes, less.”
She slid gracefully down against the back of the uncomfortable settee to land on the ornate rug at their feet. In the little time that he had spent with her, Draco could already tell that this was highly uncharacteristic. It was as though she were a marionette, with all the responsibilities stringing her upright suddenly sliced through. In a motion that seemed almost playful, she crooked a finger at him.
Hardly knowing why, Draco crouched down across from her. She leaned her head against the hard back of the sofa, closing her eyes. Draco’s own gaze skimmed across the curve of her jawline, the curl of her dark lashes where they lay against her cheek, and he felt suddenly rather uncomfortable. He didn’t know what this new, freer Astoria might do.
He didn’t like the way his breath came short at the thought.
“Tell me,” she ordered quietly, still not opening her eyes. “What’s the motive? Spoils of war, I’m guessing?”
“Hmm.” He shook himself. “How do you mean?” She opened one bright blue eye to scrutinise him before allowing it to flutter back shut.
“Oh, come now. There’s nothing to be lost by telling me now. So, an accusation is all it takes. Guilty until proven innocent.”
“Sometimes,” he granted, unsure why he was admitting this to her. But as she said, where was the harm? He cleared his throat. “Wars are expensive.” Another short bark of a laugh. “Ah. And I imagine murdering Muggleborns doesn’t exactly rake in the Galleons.”
Draco frowned. “You should be careful of what you say.”
“Why?” she asked lazily. He had no response. Why should she watch what she said? What did she have to lose now?
“So,” she continued, “the Dark Lord has an army of followers willing to give him all they have. But most will want to be paid back for their services.” Draco nodded for her to continue voicing her theory. “And because war is ‘expensive’ he needs to be able to take from those who have the most. He needs traitors.”
The corner of Draco’s mouth tipped upward. “Most don’t figure it out that quickly.”
Astoria opened her eyes to roll them. “Yes. If only I could have bent that cleverness to not getting caught.”
Draco opened his mouth, but no sound came out.
“So, he finds Purebloods, finds reasons to declare them guilty of betrayal, and kills them and all their heirs. The money gets re-appropriated.” She ticked off the steps on slender fingers. “I presume all aren’t as guilty as I?”
Draco blew out an amused breath. “Actually, most are. Small things, but most people are less loyal than you might suspect.”
Astoria scoffed. “I imagine that the Dark Lord’s richest followers being Pureblooded Slytherins wouldn’t have a thing to do with that. Tell me, Mr. Malfoy, would you be guilty of treason if you judged yourself on your own standards?”
Draco’s expression shuttered closed, and she had her answer. Quietly, he spoke.
“It’s not like this for everyone who is accused, of course. Some are found to be innocent, some merely charged fines.” He saw Astoria’s lips give birth to a brief, flickering grin that died within the moment.
“My task is to decide who is truly a traitor and who will be spared. But sometimes...” he trailed off.
“Sometimes it’s not up to you?”
His jaw clenched. “Sometimes my compatriots become greedy.”
“How do you mean?”
Draco continued to speak through his teeth. “Politics among the Death Eaters are...more complicated than you might think.”
She snickered, and he cast an appreciative gaze in her direction.
“Well, perhaps you might think of it. I’m sent to judge, and a, well, you might call it an extraction team, comes after me, if necessary.”
“And sometimes, when their pockets are growing empty?”
“They deem it necessary.” “And, well you’re in charge, aren’t you?” Astoria asked, not baiting him, but genuinely curious. “I may not be innocent, but if someone was, if you care for that sort of thing, you couldn’t tell your team to leave off?”
There again was that wry flicker of a grin. “You can ask that. You don’t know what they’re like. My team aren’t the sort of men one simply says no to.”
There was something in his smile she didn’t like, the grinning mask on a moth’s dark wings, spreading to signal danger to anyone daring to touch it.
She swallowed. Whoever these men were--whoever it was that was coming for her--they didn’t care about guilt or innocence. They wouldn’t care about blood or bribes. And there would be no way to escape them.
Astoria felt a leaden weight drop in the pit of her stomach. Could it really end like this?
“Well,” she answered after a lengthy silence, unable to bear the sound of her pounding heart, “I suppose it’s lucky they came for me, then. You won’t be troubled by sending a false traitor to their death.”
As if he would be bothered one way or another. Rumour had it that the Dark Lord was the honoured guest of Malfoy Manor. Surely if he had ever had a conscience, the heir to the Malfoy name would have smothered it by now beneath a heap of corpses.
But still, there was something in the way he hitched his shoulders when he admitted the truth, something in the way his eyes had lingered on hers. He had stopped her from saying the Dark Lord’s name. Those were not the actions of a man who wanted to see someone die.
It wasn’t much, but it gave her just the smallest glimpse of hope. ‘Foolish hope,’ she would once have said. But she thought of Ginny Weasley, who had told her that you have to take whatever hope you can grab onto, foolish or no.
Astoria didn’t have much left. To die a fool would not be such a loss if it gave her a chance at the one thing she most wanted.
She pictured again that reluctance she had seen flitting across his face. How he’d had his wand all along and yet hadn’t harmed her.
Maybe she had a chance to do one thing, the only thing left that was truly important.
“Can I ask you something?” she murmured, opening her eyes and leaning forward. There it was again. He smelled like spring rain, but in an oddly masculine way. She bit her lip, legitimately nervous, only later realising that it might possibly help her case.
Draco blinked hazily. He nodded.
“My father...” Astoria began softly. “He’s innocent.”
Draco closed his eyes briefly, shook his head. “The Dark Lord doesn’t care--”
“I don’t need for the Dark Lord to care,” Astoria whispered fiercely. “I need for you to care.”
Draco sat there, stunned speechless. He’d been the subject of countless entreaties, any number of petitions and pleas, but never one like this. Never a girl whose demanding glare burned against his eyelids even when they closed.
“I don’t care what you do,” she insisted, her intensity drawing her further forward, closer to him. “Spirit him away. Lock him up in St. Mungo’s. It doesn’t matter. Just so long as he’s alive. Alive, and safe.”
“There is no safe,” Draco rasped. “Not in this world.”
“Please,” Astoria breathed lightly, as if it took the last her strength to push the words from her mouth. “I don’t care about any of the rest of it, about what happens to me. This is the only thing I’ll ask.”
If anyone had asked Astoria Greengrass whether she suspected her last acts on earth would involve humbling herself enough to beg, she wouldn’t even have expended the energy it would take to scoff at them. But it wasn’t her life she was asking for. Daphne--she hoped Daphne would have the sense or the luck to escape. But her father...
“Please,” she repeated, only once more, before falling quiet, staring at him in the heavy silence.
She watched the young man across from her, his expression flickering from dread, to exasperation, to an unnamable emotion some distant cousin of desperation. He shook his head as if he could expel the pangs of a woken conscience. He turned his head aside, avoiding her, but then turned back as if fighting some invisible pull. His haunted eyes stared into hers, grey as ghosts, trapped, unblinking, unable to look away.
Draco felt his stomach clench.
Those keen blue eyes stared him down mercilessly, giving no quarter. There was a power there; he had seen it from the beginning. Not the mundane sort of magic that had run in the veins of their families for centuries, but an indomitable force of will. Testing them was like shouting a challenge to the sea, its hidden currents waiting to sweep you beneath, crushing breakers rising up to slam you down beneath their weight.
They were the kind of eyes that stole from you--your breath, your sense, your train of thought. The kind of eyes that could make a man drown willingly.
They were so close, leaning toward each other, two moths to twin flames. Her forehead was only inches from his, and the sudden closeness was startling. He wanted to blink, to look away, but he found that he couldn’t. As much as he wanted to escape, he also didn’t want to miss one single moment of her nearness.
“Somewhere, Draco Malfoy,” she said, tapping him lightly on the chest, those eyes, captivating and insistent as the tide, still pouring into his. “Somewhere, you still have a soul.”
His response, however, whatever it might have been, was cut off by an deafening bang, the front doors crashing open, slamming into the walls so hard that Draco could feel the vibrations in his teeth. A Ming dynasty urn teetered from its from its position on a high shelf, wobbling closer and closer to the edge before finally succumbing to gravity with a loud crash, as though it had decided that such an end was a better fate than whatever could be coming.
Astoria was on her feet in an instant, alert and wary, miles away from the desperate girl who had sat before him only a few short moments ago. Draco hurriedly followed suit and pushed himself upright, drawing a few steps away. Heavy footsteps reverberated along the floors, scarcely muffled despite the rich oriental rugs that covered nearly every inch of hardwood from the door to the front sitting room.
Draco caught a familiar stench in the air--the stomach-churning, savoury-sweet smell of decomposing meat--and knew who had arrived even before the last shiver shot down his Marked arm, before the door to the sitting room, too, was flung open, and the enormous shoulders were hunching over, squeezing their way through the entryway. The enormous man forced his way into the room and straightened, rising half a head above Draco himself.
He leaned his head back, a cruel smile spreading across his face as he sniffed at the air, catching the lingering scent of dread, always detectable to a werewolf, even among those who were best at hiding their fears.
And this wasn’t just any werewolf, after all. This was the werewolf. The Big Bad, the monster that stole children and turned them into beasts. This was the father of a thousand nightmares.
Fenrir Greyback had arrived.
Astoria’s stomach roiled in revulsion. She forced herself to keep her breathing steady, clenching her teeth to ward off trembling lips.
Even as he sank into a half crouch, Fenrir Greyback towered over her. His hair was grey and wild, thick with twigs and leaves and...possibly those were bones. Even in human form, the werewolf seemed more creature than man, with pupils slitted and eyes glinting with the fever of starvation, though she had heard enough to know that he never lacked victims.
His was a hunger that could not be sated.
Greyback turned that esurient gaze on her, and it crawled over her skin, stinging and pricking as if to draw blood. His tongue--too long and too flat--lolled out of his mouth, and the way he licked his lips was both repellant and obscene.
“I see you’ve found our little morsel, Malfoy.”
Draco’s face was unnaturally calm, the face of a corpse.
Greyback took another step toward him, and she saw it--a flash of pure fear, writhing underneath the hard surface of his forced composure. If she had blinked, she would have missed it. Draco Malfoy was afraid.
No. He was terrified.
The werewolf failed to notice. His eyes remained fixed on Astoria, and he shifted, taking the first few steps her. She found herself astoundingly grateful for the rock-hard sofa in this, her least favourite room. It would be reduced to less than matchsticks if he decided to make a grab for her, but it afforded her some distance and, at this point, she would be grateful for any kind of security. Even the false sort.
“Looks positively scrumptious.” A thin line of spittle dribbled from the edge of Greyback’s mouth, trailing slowly down toward the carpeting. Astoria half expected it to be as acidic as his gaze, and to sizzle a hole right through the hardwood beneath.
He crept closer.
She couldn’t help herself. For all her pride, and for all that she still despised what he was, she cast a desperate glance at Draco, as if she were tossing him a rope, begging him to grasp it and pull her to safety.
She was unsurprised when he dropped it, along with her gaze. Honestly, she didn’t know why she had bothered. He was a Death Eater--no different than any of the others.
My team aren’t the sort of men one simply says no to. He might be a coward, but she could hardly blame him. This was no man at all. This was a beast, and calling him off could be no simple task.
Greyback continued to approach, and she felt her fists clench reflexively. She took a moment to be grateful for her short nails. If she had taken to the long, painted talons her sister preferred, she’d have drawn blood, and the scent of gore would probably only spur the monster before her into a frenzy.
Then she took another moment to berate herself for thinking about her nails. It hardly mattered one way or the other--she was going to die.
Astoria had thought she was prepared to die, if it should come to that, but she realised now that she was wrong. All along, she had been counting on living. If she were killed as a traitor, then what would happen to her father? Her sister? Her knees felt weak and her stomach squelched with dread. Would they be executed? Tortured? Would she?
It was hopeless. Entirely hopeless. The creature before her could crush her as easily as breathing. But even so, if there was nothing to lose, if there was the smallest of chances...
She wouldn’t go down without a fight.
Astoria eased her arm backwards as casually as she could, wrists crossed behind her back. Quick fingers blindly struggled to undo the buttons at the wrist of her left sleeve, where her wand was still tucked safely out of sight. She felt her fingertips touch warm cedar wood and paused, breathlessly contemplating her next--her only--move.
She would only get one chance.
Greyback was still salivating, licking his chops as he moved, slowly, forward, prowling in a circle around her, moving minutely closer with every round. She could taste the bitter tang of helplessness on her tongue; terror prickled at her scalp and tingled at the back of her neck.
The wolf-man was closing in. He had sighted her as prey, had caught the scent of her fear, and it was driving him mad. His nostrils flared. Powerful muscles gathered, prepared to spring. Sharp incisors peaked out from beneath a wet, thin-lipped mouth, ready to rip, to taste, to tear.
Astoria lifted her chin and forced her eyes to remain open as her fingers clutched at the wand behind her back, ready to take her one opportunity to strike.
“What do you think you’re doing?”
The voice was empty, professional. It was arrogant and abrupt and privileged, a voice that had always received precisely what it wanted.
It was the voice of Draco Malfoy.
He might have been informing a waiter of the way he preferred his meat to be cooked, for all the force he put behind it, but the words stopped the wolf in his tracks.
From the look on Fenrir Greyback’s face, he’d be happy to gobble Astoria up. Extra rare. And he was not happy to be questioned.
“The Dark Lord wants traitors brought to Lestrange. Nobody ever said anythin’ about having to bring ‘em all in one piece.” He was so close now. His fingernails--long and thick, chipped on the edges, and a sickly yellow colour--dug into her arm, and she held back a yelp of pain. It would only egg him on.
Draco’s eyes darted to Greyback’s grip on her arm, and then back to the wolf-man.
“Indeed. Traitors are to be brought to my aunt. But,” he qualified, “Miss Greengrass is innocent of her charges. We’ll be leaving her here.”
“An’ I’m supposed to trust yer word on that?”
The tall young man with the white-blonde hair heaved an arrogant sigh too large for his diminished frame, absently picking at his nails as he rolled his eyes heavenward.
“There’s a reason they entrust me with this duty, Greyback,” he drawled. “Brains over brawn, and all that.”
For an instant, it was almost as if Astoria were seeing two of him: one, a wan, hollow-eyed boy fighting for air and composure, his left fist clamped tightly around his recovered wand as if he could squeeze a casual demeanour out of the ten-inches of hawthorn wood and pull it on like a Cloak of non-Invisibility, forcing all who saw him to take note and confer their respects. Yet, there was the other boy--a young man, really, suddenly filling his suit, and the room, with a strength of presence she had only barely glimpsed. His mouth was pressed into a thin line--the type of line on which orders were written in clear and concise language, meant only to be obeyed.
Astoria knew which one she hoped the werewolf was seeing.
“She’s innocent,” he snapped, some heat in his voice for the first time since Fenrir entered the room. Draco tapped his head, “I can read her mind, remember? She’s clean. Now let’s get out of here.”
Greyback turned around slowly. Astoria noticed that he walked only on the balls of his feet, so much less man than wolf. He faced Draco Malfoy and sneered down at him. “Oh? ‘As the wee pup decided it’s time to grow some teeth?”
Draco remained unimpressed. “The pup thinks you might not want the Dark Lord knowing just how often you abuse your power. Who do you think he needs more, his lupine thug, or the backing of his Pureblooded supporters? If it gets out that you’ll be coming for them, guilty or innocent, then there’ll be dissension.”
The werewolf snarled, shifted back and forth on the balls of his feet. “I’ll rip the smug little smirk right off your face, Malfoy, and swallow it down.”
“But not today, I think,” he said calmly, reaching into his trouser pocket and pulling out an ornate pocket watch. “As I thought, I have an appointment.” He walked over to the sofa, utterly composed, and reached down for his rumpled suit jacket, laying it neatly over his arm.
“A pleasure, Miss Greengrass. I am terribly sorry for the mistake.” He gave a small bow. “I suppose we can see ourselves out.”
Astoria, dumbstruck, gripped the back of the sofa. She nodded.
“Excellent. Fenrir,” he inclined his head toward the door, and the werewolf grumbled, growled, but stooped to precede him. Draco glanced back once, but she could read nothing in his face. It was as perfectly impenetrable as her own.
“Good day,” he said quietly. Then, before she could fathom out any appropriate response, he turned and followed the werewolf out of the sitting room. She heart the front door close behind them. There were no sounds besides the crackling of the fire, the sharp inhale and exhale of her shaking breaths.
And still, the barest trace in the air of spring rain.
Draco strode confidently from the manor house, working to keep upright, his legs as shaky as a newborn foal’s. He felt sick to his stomach, and his head pounded out the rhythm of a drummer boy leading an army to war.
Why hadn’t he told?
Draco knew himself. He was no altruist. Not brave or selfless or charitable, nor was he likely to protect anyone but his own blood.
But he had saved Astoria Greengrass. Had, in doing so, committed treason.
What was happening to him?
What would he do?
Wow. So, first of all, hats of to teh tarik for her awesome beta*ing of this chapter! I couldn’t have done it justice without having her there to pick all the nits.
Second, that was quite...eventful, huh? Happy? Upset? Share your emotions with me! I’d love to know what you thought about this hugely important development. And constructive criticism! I really appreciate when y’all give that. It helps a lot in improving my writing, and the story.
So, we’re finally leaving the parlour. Where do you think we’re going to go next? Any theories?
Here’s a snippet: “Tell me you’re not doing something stupid tonight, Weasley.”
What do you make of that? Hope you enjoyed the chapter. And now, there’s more of this story to be told...
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