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Chapter 32 : Steady Ground
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"Hello," she said softly, smiling. He scrambled to his feet, the rush of the wolf behind his movements.
"Hello," he licked his lips. "Where is Harry?"
"Cutting cake. Rounding up little children. Doing silly things that little children love. He's much better at making a fool of himself for others than me - so I said I would sit with you."
His face flushed with the realization that he had probably ruined Emma's birthday. The idea seemed too embarrassing to mention and he looked away, knowing he looked the fool but not sure how to rectify it. If he had messed something up of Grandfather's he wouldn't need to worry about rectifying it - Grandfather thought apologies were worthless. There was no taking back something with him - only fixing it before he realized the disaster.
He squared his shoulders and clenched his jaw.
"I'm fine," he said. It was only when she looked at him that he realized she hadn't asked.
You're spiraling in the wrong direction, Grandfather would have said, voice soft and dangerous. Somehow, he thought, he had prepared himself to be vulnerable in front of Harry. He had expected to wake from the nothingness and have his Killing Curse green eyes looking at him - already knowing. Alexandra did not know. All she knew was he had felt so terrified of a little girl that he had started shaking. His cheeks flushed again.
"Good to know," she said, smiling. "I don't think you've even missed the cake, yet."
The idea of food in his guts made him feel hot and feverish and his stomach tied itself into a knot.
He nodded and made for the door. Just before his hand was on the knob, there was the sound of a lock clicking. He turned around to see Alexandra's hand out - wandless magic - still smiling at him.
"I wish you would tell me about what she said to you, Devlin." There was a sharpness to her expression, a firmness in her eyes, and it made him pause with caution and remember that she was more him, than even Dubhán.
His heart pounded in his chest. He wondered when he had lost his control over it's beat. When had he begun letting his body sound afraid? Words stilled in his head and froze on his tongue and all he could do was shake his head harshly.
"Devlin- if she upset you-"
He shook his head vigorously, because he knew that gleam - knew that protectiveness as the same gleam he would see in Geoffrey's eyes. If they said something to you, Geoffrey would say to him, so delicately that the air would seem to blend with his words and he would lean down so that his blue and Dubhán's green would match. I'll fix it, he would finally say, just the littlest smile that would be enough to make Dubhán know that his words weren't entirely truthful - or that maybe Dubhán hadn't then understood all the things 'fix' could mean.
"No," he made himself breathe. "She didn't upset me."
"Obviously something did," Alexandra urged, leaning forward.
His heart had calmed a little and his head had settled from the momentary whirl of thoughts and memories and he could feel his body properly again. He settled his hand on the knob, feeling the pulse of her magic beneath his palm, mixing with his own.
"Devlin," she said, and he tried not to look at her - to see the worry on her face. She was supposed to be stronger. Stronger than him. Stronger than Harry. He felt like they were in the hallway again and he knew now, as he hadn't known then, that he would never be the same if he knew she could break.
He felt it in his head first, a carefully manufactured need, to open the door. His body responded to what it felt was real and his heart picked up, his mind whirled, and he drew in a breath to make his chest flutter. Behind this need he tried to stay logical. His magic rushed through his body, waves of cold over rivers of hot, and he felt it reach his finger tips like the fist of a wave crashing onto the hot sand of the beach.
He expected the wards to waver, but he realized the second after they hadn't, that she was not him, and he had grown proficient only at his wards. A sense of childishness and weakness fluttered for real in his chest.
"Devlin," she said again, trying to calm him. He was calm. This was all his magic. All his careful engineering. All his self-manipulation, as Geoffrey would say. "All you have to do is ask me to open the door. But I want to talk to you. She's still out there. What upset you so? What were you talking about?"
"I could ask Harry," she said.
"What makes you think he would know?" He asked, defiantly; shoulder's squared, back straight, eyes narrowed just enough to make her notice. He had learned quickly under the guidance of his sharpness that when that weakness fluttered in his chest it was time to puff out his feathers and hide it under his plumage.
"You asked for him."
Was he imagining it or was there a faint hurt in her eyes? He blinked and it was gone.
"You are not making sense." It was a phrase with which Grandfather was especially fond. Others would say 'it is unfortunate I do not understand you' or 'I do not understand', but Grandfather chose his words with great care and he never felt unfortunate and it was never his fault that he did not understand.
"What did Maria say to you?"
It would be easy enough to answer, but what if she didn't feel the same as Harry about the whole thing?
"Does it matter?"
"Maria was kidnapped when she was younger but she doesn't talk about it." There was a look in her blue eyes that made Dubhán wonder if she thought he had made her tell.
"Maybe that's because none of you were ever kidnapped too," he said defiantly, his chest pulsing with fear. Idly he wondered when he had started feeling fear so freely again.
"Maybe so," she said, quietly. "What did you talk about?"
"We were talking about them. About Death Eaters. About what they do." The repetition put a sour look on her face and he smirked the smirk he had perfected with Voldemort.
"Devlin..." There was silence.
"You used to make me sick, you know," he said suddenly, and he wasn't sure why. She arched a brow. "I'd see you saying that, being disappointed, and I'd want to throw up. When it started I would run away and hide behind a tent and I would throw up. Then he made Geoffrey watch me, and Geoffrey told me no one wanted me to die, all for different reasons, and I ought to forget you and your disappointment and only remember that you wouldn't want me to die. No one wants you to die, he would say to me, and that's all you need to remember. I've done things that make me like him. But this isn't one of them."
For a moment he thought she would press, but the lock clicked open and he rushed into the hallway, away from her knowing eyes.
He could hear the party outside, a pulse of sound that felt foreign inside his head. He stood at the backdoor, looking out the window. Emma was opening presents, the wrapping paper magically folding itself into little animals after Emma had ripped it and flying above the children. Hermione was there with her wand out, and he knew it was her rather than Harry who was capable of such fine transfiguration. She was there, her eyes a little red but her skin just as clean, her hair just as perfect. Her father was standing next to her.
For one foolish moment he thought of standing here and waiting for them. Of touching her father's jacket on his way past and asking if he could talk to him. He would tell him everything, and Maria would finally be free. It would be the right thing to do, but he knew he was too much of a coward. He did not want to die. He did not ever want to die.
So he stayed there instead for a while, trying to make his face something more neutral than it was now. When he finally felt like the muscles across his mouth and brow and eyes were nothing, nothing, nothing, he stepped out the door. He did not warrant the same sort of attention here as he did at home and no one turned to look at him when he stepped past the threshold. He stood back from the crowd, fiddling with the small box in his pocket.
When she had finished opening all the presents he thought about telling her he had one of his own, but then he paused. He should have known better with that boy on the front lawn, and he promised himself now that he would know better. That he would look and see and be aware of the game. Any of these men could work for him.
He ate the cake, the sweetness of it overpowering. He drank the fizzy punch. He made little flowers for all of Emma's little friends. He did what Geoffrey would have called 'careful mingling', and he told himself he did it with the same kind of conscious effort, without an ounce of enjoyment, that he had always at the camp.
Now everyone was gone, even her. Emma was trying to convince Harry that she ought to keep all the paper animals, and Aunt Hermione was trying not to laugh at her manipulations as she and Ronald drank the last of the fizzy punch and talked softly to each other.
Almost idly, Dubhán grabbed one of the animals out of the air; a lion made out of red wrapping paper. It fit in his hand, it's paper mouth wrinkled and moulded and open in a silent roar. He could feel the magic of it against his skin; it was like a net, pushing and pulling at the paper, wrinkling and smoothing, all the while holding the paper in the proper shape. There was a scrape of forgotten paper on the ground and with a pull of curiosity that was unusual for him, he settled himself on the ground with the lion and the paper. He had never seen a lion in real life, nor really a lot of pictures. But he had seen plenty of pictures of snakes and those ones in Harry's shed too.
Dubhán had always been able to copy anything he saw; words, behaviors, movements, and magic - as long as it wasn't too difficult. He tried to remember the books he had been busy reading. His magic pulled and pushed, wrinkled and smoothed, and wherever he moved the paper, it remained as if held in place by some invisible cage.
Grandfather would not have been impressed - if there was a snake out there that looked exactly like it, it was an ugly sort of snake - but Dubhán smiled at his work. Animating it was something altogether different, and whereas the lion could prowl through the grass if he put it down, his snake gave a few spastic movements and fell stubbornly still. He glared at it harshly, urging it with magic, but it remained still.
Aunt Hermione's feet made small crunching sounds in the grass, but he didn't move. Ronald was still drinking fizzy punch. Harry had given in and was gathering all the animals with a benign sort of defeat on his face. Emma was smiling, helping. The sun was setting behind the trees at the back of the yard. Zee was sniffing for things people had forgotten on the ground.
"Is that a snake?" Hermione asked, and he doused the split-second enjoyment that she had recognized it at all. After all, how many animals were lone lines with almost undifferentiated heads with no legs at all? He stayed very still so she would know she hadn't startled him.
"Did you figure that out by looking at mine?" She asked, crouching down. Her eyes were on his snake, shimmering as if she were actually interested. Pleased, even. He clenched his jaw and his lips tightened into obedient strictness.
"Yes." He waited for the glimmer of interest to disappear. Grandfather had done fantastic things as a child surrounded by muggles; he had never needed to copy something in order to understand it.
"That's impressive," she said, still smiling, still looking at his disfigured snake settled in the green grass. He looked at her through his fringe, trying to spot deception but seeing only truth. "Can you do other things like this?"
His brow twitched and he almost told her some of the things he could do, but then he smirked instead. The information was more valuable if he was the only one who knew.
"Maybe," he said, "Probably."
She peered at him.
"Are you going to be like this with your Professors at Hogwarts?" Her tone was light, but her eyes were concerned.
"I don't know. Are they going to be boring?" His voice was flat, his eyes empty, his expression sharp. "I don't like being bored."
Her brow twitched.
"Devlin, come get a jacket if you're staying outside."
It was Alexandra, standing behind him. He rose to his feet and followed her inside. When she had shut the door, she looked at him - but he had known they weren't really coming in for a coat.
"Don't say things like that," she urged.
"I didn't say anything wrong," he claimed calmly.
"You know one doesn't need to have said something wrong to make someone feel uncomfortable."
"You're worried because I made Hermione uncomfortable?"
She leaned close.
"You're copying him. It's not an advantage here."
He narrowed his eyes.
"Nothing is an advantage here. By your standards I am tainted."
He pushed past her.
Her eyes paused on the opened box. It wasn't a toy or a book or a princess dress. It was a simple golden chain with a lily flower. A snake cleverly blended in as the stem to the flower, it's little head acting as the leaf. He had drawn it himself. Emma seemed almost perplexed at such a gift and he wondered what she would have thought of the things he had at home with Grandfather.
"For me?" She whispered, sitting up on her bed. He nodded.
"I'll put it on," he offered, and she handed it to him in a daze. Her hair was still in the braid Maria had done.
"Wow," she said, looking at it as he put it on.
"You have to keep it on. Promise me you'll always wear it," he said, trying to mask the true desperation from his voice. She nodded and he nearly sighed in relief. Another part of him felt very different - a fear had settled in his chest that nothing to do with Emma. He had planned to give her this necklace, but he had thought afterwards that he would return to Voldemort. Now, he wasn't so sure. He had betrayed the Dark Lord.
He kissed her goodnight and crept into the hallway.
He was there, of course. Black hair more disheveled than before, green eyes tired but just as brilliant, hand on a cup of something stronger than tea. Dubhán had never met someone so predictable as him.
"Do you sit here every night?" He asked, as he padded into the room.
"No," he said, putting the drink down, "just nights I figure you'll want to talk."
His head whirled. His body felt numb and disconnected from his head. Harry was doing this for him. Another thing.
He tried to make himself nod and he sat at the table.
"I wanted to know from you, Devlin," he said, serious. "Who do you want to tell your mum? Me, or you? I'll do it, if you want. Or I wont - if you promise me you will."
"Tell her what?" He knew. Harry knew he knew. They looked at each other, each willing the other.
"I obviously can't stop you," he said, dismissive. He didn't want to think of this.
"Yes, you can," Harry said, leaning forward, his gaze heavy as if he were trying to impart some deep concept without any words. "I won't tell her, if you tell me you will tell her."
A while ago he might have said "I'll tell her," and then simply not told her - because a while ago he would have known he wasn't going to be there for very long. Now - he wasn't so sure. Maybe he was going to be stuck here forever.
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