As always, that which you recognize belongs to the great JK Rowling.
The lamps flickered with an unnatural, bluish glow as Draco walked slowly down the endless hallway. The pale light failed to penetrate the suffocating darkness and it allowed shadows to consume everything except the path that lay before him. Overwhelming dread pressed on his shoulders and he felt his bare feet sinking deeper into the plush carpet. He had walked this corridor before. Whether it was in real or in a nightmare, he could not recall, but something terrible waited in the distance. His legs carried him unrelentingly forward, marching to the irregular cadence of fate.
Dampness touched his cheek, causing him to pause. Again, a soft, wet tap against the pale skin of his face. His fingertips traced the taut curve under his cheekbone. When he looked at them, they were stained crimson. Draco lifted his gaze upward just as another drop struck his forehead. A body hung upside down in the air, slowly revolving beneath a ceiling hidden in the depths of blackness. The young woman was clothed in bloody rags that hung in shreds, interwoven with the streaks of red that ran through her long, flaxen hair. The horror of her death was frozen on her face. It was the Lovegood girl. Draco remembered her imperturbable calm as she faced the harsh treatment meted out in the cellar of the manor. The terror etched in her unseeing eyes chilled him to the bone.
More bodies came into view as he walked, hanging upside down like broken marionettes. Weasley’s eyes were squeezed tightly shut. His open mouth reverberated with the silent echo of his final scream. The tattered remains of a hand-knitted jumper clung loosely to his body, slashed to ribbons by the same curses that streaked his undershirt with blood. Granger was suspended nearby. Her eyes were broken, vacant. Torn, bloody fingernails matched the long scratches that marred her face. Somebody had finished the work his mad aunt had begun.
More bodies. Longbottom. Finnegan. Weasley’s little sister. Empty stares pierced Draco, laying bare the wounds he’d long concealed. Fear, doubt and misery gripped his chest. He could hardly breathe. More bodies. McGonagall. Slughorn. Flitwick. A grotesque chandelier of death and suffering. Each dangling pendalogue was a life consumed by the Dark Lord’s insatiable ambition. Every glassy eye a reminder of his final solution to every problem.
Draco’s breath caught in his throat. The centerpiece of the macabre display hung in the air like a ghastly trophy. Harry Potter. The boy who lived. Ordinary in death, unremarkable as he wished to be in life. The oppressive weight of hopelessness grew. If Potter was dead, then the Dark Lord had won. Nobody would stop him. Nobody could. When Draco’s usefulness came to an end, he would die. His limbs struggled against the waves of despair. Nothing could save him from his fate; still he lumbered on.
More bodies. Friend and foe alike regarded him through masks of mortal terror. Blood ran down the sides of Pansy’s face from the gaping wound in her chest. Goyle’s fat face was twisted into uncomprehending shock as his head hung by a few bloody sinews from his severed neck. His feet continued to carry him over the blood-soaked carpet. More bodies. Dolohov. Rookwood. Avery. His father’s old cronies, now as lifeless and pallid as waxwork. Their fanatical devotion to the Dark Lord had bought them nothing in the end, just a few extra steps on the straight and narrow path toward death.
The next bodies made Draco desperately wish that he could turn away. His mother and father hung back to back. The burgundy residue of mortal wounds stained his father’s cheeks and seeped down into his long, white hair. A single tendril of acrid smoke arose from a blackened hole in his mother’s side. He couldn’t tear his tear-filled eyes away. They had done everything possible to help him find his way among the Dark Lord’s murderous followers, to keep him safe. Now they were gone. He was truly alone.
Draco. His name fell like a whisper from his mother’s bluish lips. He couldn’t see any hint of motion in her ashen face, but then he heard it again. Draco. His heart leapt. She had managed to survive somehow. His hands frantically swiped at the front of his robes, searching for his wand. Draco. If he could get her down, if he could get her to a healer... Draco. He fell to his knees and desperately felt around in the darkness. If he could only find it.
A terrible, shrill laugh echoed through the corridor. “Avada Kedavra!” The blast of emerald light struck his mother’s unmoving body and she lit up from within.
“NO!” Draco’s scream filled the air. He felt the long, cold fingers on the back of his neck...
In one motion, Draco whipped his wand out from underneath his pillow and pointed it at the figure sitting on the bed next to him. His mother pulled her hand away, looking deeply worried as Draco gasped for air. He was covered with goosebumps and cold sweat and his muscles felt painfully tense, as though he hadn’t slept at all.
“Draco, what’s wrong?”
Draco forced his breathing to slow, calming his racing mind. He let out a long, deep breath and collapsed back onto his pillow.
“I’m sorry, mother. It was just a dream.”
“How often are you having these dreams?”
He cherished the concern in her voice. It soothed his frayed nerves. But now was not the time. He needed much more than her sympathy, so he chose to lie.
She stared at him for a moment. Draco got the distinct impression that she didn’t believe him, but she chose to let it go. Instead, she held up a folded sheet of parchment that he instantly recognized.
“You’re serious about this?”
He nodded earnestly. She continued to stare into his grey eyes for a moment longer, then looked away.
“It would make your father and I very happy. We would do anything in our power to help you. But Draco, I need you to understand how difficult it’s been for the two of us to watch you struggle these past few months. If our hopes are misplaced, if you revert back to your old ways...”
Draco knew right away that he had spoken too quickly. The answer would have done his father proud, delivered with perfect certainty and lacking the moment of hesitation that implied actual consideration of the question. His mother gave him a knowing look. He took a deep breath and gathered his thoughts.
“Mother, I know this is going to be hard. I... I can’t do it by myself. I need your help. And I need father to change, as well. Nothing I do will make any difference if he gets himself thrown back into Azkaban.”
His mother stared at him, studying, evaluating. The seconds ticked by and he calmed himself by concentrating on the hazy memories of Astoria’s eyes and the feel of her fingertips against the palm of his hand.
“Let’s begin by addressing your own behavior. Your father is a bigger project.”
Astoria looked up from her reading when the small elf appeared in her bedroom with a pop. Madam Malkin’s had sent an owl earlier in the day letting her know that the alterations to her new school robes were complete, and Astoria admired the neatly pressed garments. She nodded to the elf, who began to fold them and pack them away in her school trunk. Astoria turned back to the Charms text sitting in her lap. Everyone told her that N.E.W.T.-level lessons were grueling, so as long as she had some time to spare, she decided to get a head start.
She felt the weight of her father’s stare before she heard him enter the room. Continuing to read, she waited for him to speak.
“Are you sure you don’t want to go back and be a First Year again? I’m not ready for my little princess to be in her sixth year.”
She smiled warmly at her father after rolling her eyes at his gentle teasing.
“You’d have to relive my fourth year all over again.”
He gave her a wry smile in return.
“This time you’d know enough to stay away from that Ravenclaw boy with the long hair, right?”
Astoria closed the text on her lap and gave him an affronted look.
“Father! He was really sweet and it wasn’t like I was planning to marry him. Besides, you never would have had to worry if Daphne hasn't grassed me up.”
Her father chuckled softly to himself as he sat down on the edge of the bed beside her.
“Now, now, princess. Your sister has always been very protective of you. She wants you to make the right choices for yourself.”
Father and daughter shared an unspoken moment of contemplation about some of Daphne’s past romantic choices. Astoria tried to keep her voice neutral.
“How are things between Daphne and Jeremy? I’ve barely seen him since the end of the war.”
It sounded as though her father was also measuring his words carefully.
“Going very well, apparently. His mother approached your mother last week at the Blishwicks’ dinner party. It seems that he’s thinking about seeking my permission to ask for her hand in marriage.”
Astoria’s hands immediately flew to her mouth, more out of surprise than delight. Her father appeared to have no difficulty reading the look in her eyes.
“Well, his mother is considering it, anyway. He has been courting her since their sixth year. I should think he’d want to get on with things. Besides, this would be good for your sister. The Gamps are a solid family with strong roots and they didn’t throw it all away during the war like many of the others.”
Astoria nibbled at the inside of her lower lip. A question had been bothering her since the day he took her shopping in Diagon Alley, but the time never seemed right. It still didn’t, but perhaps it never would.
“Daddy, can I ask you something? And you promise not to get upset?”
“What is it, princess?”
“Why were you so angry at Draco Malfoy?”
Her father stiffened visibly. He drew a deep breath and seemed to be trying to compose his thoughts.
“Astoria, you’ll hear some people say that Draco Malfoy is lucky that he’s not in Azkaban. And they’re right, but that’s not the half of it.”
The expression on her father’s face darkened. His voice gradually rose as he spoke.
“Truth is, he’s lucky to still be alive. We’re all lucky to be alive. And for what? Why did we have to suffer through not one, but two devastating wars in twenty years time? So old Lucius and his cronies could try to play kingmaker, that’s why. So they could try to put some homicidal lunatic in the Minister’s office. Do you really think this... this You Know Who would have been able to gather so many followers without the Malfoys and the Blacks championing his cause? Preposterous! The Aurors would have made short work of the whole sordid affair.”
He rose to his feet, pacing and emphasizing his words with exaggerated hand gestures.
“Why did they do it? I’ll tell you why, Astoria. It isn’t enough that they have more gold in their vaults than they know what to do with. It’s not enough that there are entire wings of their family homes that they never even visit. It isn’t even enough that they’re convinced that they’re better than the rest of us. Oh, no. They had to try and prove it. ‘Look at me, the Great Lucius Malfoy! My power knows no limits! I can pluck a raving madman off of his street corner and make him ruler of the magical world!’ Can you believe the audacity of that man?”
Her father’s face was turning red and he sounded short of breath. He had built up such a head of steam that Astoria worried he might have a fit or perhaps a heart attack.
“And look at what this war has done to the rest of us! It used to mean something to come from an old magical family. People respected you. They knew you stood for certain things. Now the words ‘pure blood’ are spoken like an insult. Ironic, isn’t it? The Death Eaters went around preaching blood purity and magical superiority and all they succeeded in doing was making heroes out of muggle-lovers and mudbloods. Our whole world is turned upside down!”
Astoria grabbed her father’s hand and managed to get him to stop pacing. He stared at her for a second and then lowered himself back onto the edge of her bed, trying to catch his breath. She really didn’t want to upset him further, but she couldn’t square the things he was saying with the haunted look she remembered seeing in those grey eyes.
“Daddy, I understand that Draco’s family did terrible things during the war. But did you really look at him? He didn’t seem arrogant or dangerous, just... lost. Maybe he isn’t really like his father?”
Horatio Greengrass took a deep breath and laid his hands on his youngest daughter’s shoulders. “You always try to find the good in people, princess. It’s part of what makes you such a sweet, wonderful girl. But please, trust me this one time. That boy is a Black and a Malfoy. Arrogance and dark magic are in his blood. If he seems like he’s changed, it just means that you haven’t figured out what he wants from you.”
Draco sat alone at a table in a small restaurant in London. It catered to magical folk, but it was quiet and away from the major wizarding areas like Diagon Alley. He tried to avoid making eye contact with anyone as he slowly stirred the cup of tea sitting in front of him. He caught sight of the waitress and realized that she was carrying a pair of mixed drinks to the table by the front window. He mentally kicked himself for not studying the menu. If he had known that they served alcohol, he certainly would have chosen someplace else.
He watched the two wizards at the table lift their glasses in a polite toast and he could feel the conflict brewing inside himself. Draco had tried, mostly successfully, to avoid alcohol since the day he met Astoria Greengrass in Diagon Alley. It was more of a struggle than he liked to admit. Crowds still made him anxious. Loud noises left him clutching his wand in a white-knuckled grip inside his pocket. Alcohol eased the symptoms, although it did nothing for the underlying problem. Still, there were times when he craved the warm fuzziness in his veins that allowed him to recall parts of the war without his chest tightening up.
Draco was still lost in thought when Blaise Zabini suddenly dropped into the chair in front of him. He reached out to shake Zabini’s hand, but his old housemate was too busy flagging down the waitress.
“Straight firewhiskey? Zabini, it’s not even one in the afternoon.”
“So? The last time I saw you, you were well on your way by now. Where have you been, anyway? It’s been, what, three months? I’m sure you’d be welcome back at the Fang if you bought a round or two for the house.”
Draco took another sip of his tea to buy a bit of time to think. Zabini’s hair and clothes were impeccable as ever, but there were subtle signs of deterioration all around the edges. Dark circles were visible under his eyes and his hands shook slightly when he wasn’t rubbing them together. There was a ragged edge to his silky smooth voice. In the depths of Draco’s mind, he could hear his mother saying I told you so.
“To be honest, I haven’t felt much like going out. I made a right arse of myself that day in Knockturn Alley and it really got me thinking. I want to get my head straight and rebuild my reputation. I’m even thinking about petitioning to return to Hogwarts after the New Year and trying to pass some N.E.W.T.s.”
Zabini’s drink arrived and he shook his head slowly before downing it in two big gulps and ordering another.
“Did you take a curse to the head or something, Malfoy? McGonagall hated you before the war. You think she’s gonna let you come back to her precious school full of blood traitors and mudblood scum?”
A couple of the restaurant’s other customers turned to look at their table, but Zabini paid them no mind. He coughed into his clenched fist and gave Draco an exasperated look.
“Why would you do that, anyway? Do you fancy ending up in some dead-end career in the bloody Ministry? What about all of our big plans for the future?”
Draco stared blankly ahead, sifting through the hazy memories he’d accumulated in the aftermath of the war.
“Blaise, we were drunk for months. We came up with a lot of really stupid ideas. None of them are worth ending up in Azkaban over. The war is over. It’s time to move on.”
Zabini’s expression turned sour. The waitress arrived with his second drink and Draco caught the scornful look in her eyes and the less than gentle way she set the glass down on their table. It was all lost on his former housemate, who took a big sip before clearing his throat harshly.
“So this is how it’s going to be? I suppose your old friends aren’t good enough for you any more. Now you’re gonna go crawling to the mudbloods and muggle lovers, groveling for forgiveness? I guess it’s true what they say about your family changing sides at the end of the war.”
Draco couldn’t quite describe the feeling in his chest. Surprise? Anger? A touch of shame? It passed quickly, replaced by simmering rage. He lowered his voice to a dark and forbidding growl.
“I don’t grovel for anyone. And if you mention my family again, I’ll show you just how much I learned during the bloody war.”
The two wizards glared at one another intently. In the periphery of his vision, Draco began to pick up on the menacing stares that were being directed at them from all around the restaurant. A hint of uncertainty appeared in Zabini’s eyes. If he hadn’t been raised better, Draco would have smiled when his old schoolmate broke eye contact and looked away.
“You’ve changed, Malfoy.”
“Yeah. I guess I have.”
A flicker of movement over Zabini’s shoulder caught Draco’s eye. A wand slipping out of a man’s pocket and behind his back. It wasn’t much, but it set his war-weary nerves on edge. The air in the restaurant was suddenly alive with tension. Everywhere, flinty stares were directed at the two of them. Draco reached into his pocket and tossed ten sickles onto the table. The clatter of the coins provided all the misdirection he needed to surreptitiously draw his wand. Zabini was oblivious to it all.
“I didn’t mean that in a good way, Malfoy! You used to stand for something. People respected you. They were even afraid of you.”
Two wizards were moving toward their table. Their posture was aggressive and their eyes were filled with anger. Even as he tracked their approach, Draco remained impassive. So long as they thought he wasn’t paying attention, he held the advantage. He raised his voice slightly, pressing his point with Zabini.
“I don’t care whether people are afraid of me and I don’t need their respect. The only person I’m living for now is myself. You understand that, Blaise?”
The closer of the two wizards pointed his wand at the side of Zabini’s head while the other took aim at Draco. His lips were stretched tightly over his crooked teeth and his voice was barely more than a snarl.
“You two have a lot of nerve, talking like that in public. People like you belong in Azkaban.”
“How dare you, you filthy-”
Draco cut Zabini off in mid-sentence, before things got really out of hand.
“We aren’t Death Eaters and we don’t want any trouble. My friend and I were just leaving.”
Draco started to ease forward in his chair, but the closer wizard swiped his wand in Draco’s direction. The waitress hovered near their table, bristling with nerves.
“Put those away and let them leave. They’re not worth the trouble.”
Zabini’s eyes were flicking nervously between the waitress, Draco and the two wizards holding them at wand point. Draco remained focused on the greatest threat. He forced his fingers to loosen their death grip on his own wand under the table, recalling the dueling form his aunt had taught him. Then he waited. The next move was theirs.
“I can’t do that, Emma. I spent two years looking away while their lot walked around like they owned the whole bloody world. You know who is gone now. It’s time somebody taught them how to behave.”
The closer wizard’s lips begin to move and Draco flicked his wand upward, sending the table flying toward their attackers. It crashed into the closer wizard, knocking him off of his feet. The wizard standing behind him had to turn aside to avoid being bowled over, and that was all the opportunity Draco needed. Stupefy. He cast the stunner wordlessly and the man sprawled limply to the floor. The first wizard shoved the overturned table aside, trying to line up a clear shot. Draco wheeled around and struck him in the center of his chest with a curse that slammed his body into the floor. The fight was over in seconds.
Zabini’s mouth was hanging open, but Draco hardly paid him any mind. His brain was racing as his eyes flicked around the room, studying faces, reading body language, looking for the next threat. The waitress stared at them with a mixture of fear and disgust. The posture of her wand hand was somewhere between neutral and threatening. Draco gave her one forbidding look and she lowered her hand to her side and fixed him with a pleading look.
“Just go, please.”
Draco eased his wand back into his pocket and caught Zabini’s eyes before tilting his head toward the door.
“Sorry about the mess.”
By the time his Galleon rolled to a stop next to the broken teacup on the floor, Draco was already halfway to the door. Zabini followed him quietly, exchanging menacing looks with the restaurant’s other patrons. As soon as they stepped around the corner, Draco grabbed Zabini’s arm and disapparated with a crack.
When the two wizards reappeared on a quiet side street near the Zabinis’ family home in Wiltshire, Zabini shook his arm free of Draco’s grasp, clearly upset about being side-along apparated. He turned his back on Draco and took a could of steps, but then stopped. Slowly, grudgingly, he spoke.
“I appreciate what you did back there, Malfoy. How did you know they were going to attack us?”
“Their body language, mostly. Their eyes. The way they were positioning themselves.”
Zabini turned back to face him, looking very serious.
“Gamp’s right when he says we need you on our side, Malfoy. This stuff isn’t just talk to you. You actually lived it. You know what you’re doing.”
Draco shook his head slowly. He stared into his old housemate’s eyes. For reasons completely beyond his comprehension, he hoped that Zabini would understand.
“You just don’t get it, Blaise. I’m not what you think. I learned the things I had to know to survive. My aunt, my uncle... I don’t know how to fight like they did. Any of them could have killed me if they really wanted to. They just left me alone because they knew the Dark Lord had a personal interest in me.”
Zabini wasn’t ready to give up. “If the Dark Lord took such an interest in you, he must have shared some of his secrets. Don’t keep us in the dark, Malfoy. We’re all on the same side here.”
Draco bit back the retort forming in his throat with the last shreds of his self-control. We are most definitely not on the same side.
“Go inside, Zabini, before the Magical Law Enforcement Patrol comes looking for us. I’ll see you around.”
Draco took a deep breath to slow his racing heart, then turned and disapparated.
First of all, thank you to everyone who read the first chapter and especially those who reviewed it. Thanks are always due to my amazing beta reader, sophie_hatter. And last but not least, thank you to Jami for the inspiration to write this story.