CHAPTER TWENTY: Either Way
"There was no sign, Albus," Poppy Pomfrey protested. "After the way he treated Miss Parkinson, I can't see how he could possibly be an empath!"
Severus Snape sneered at the woman from his seat, "Just as there was no sign he was a natural healer you mean? If you saw what I did today there would be no doubt in your mind as to the boy's abilities."
"Now Severus," Albus said from his desk, "I have to say I can understand Poppy's skepticism. Why don't you explain what happened?"
"I told you, Albus, the boy picked up on my frustration and it overwhelmed him. I was working on the Wolfsbane potion after a run in with that Gryffindor mutt…"
"Severus," Albus warned.
"…and my anger occupied my thoughts. It wasn't until he sliced his whole hand open while making the gavande potion that I realized something was wrong. He panicked when I tried to approach. I used occlumency to clear my mind of my frustration. The boy nearly collapsed in relief for Merlin's sake! What more do you need to be convinced!"
Pomfrey shook her head, "Then why didn't his empathy manifest with his healing abilities after the accident?"
"I've been thinking about that as well," Albus replied. "We know that many empaths wrongly interpret the emotions they are sensing from others as their own. The weak emotions simply fuel the empath's own emotions while the stronger ones can directly influence behaviors. Perhaps this is what is happening to Mister Malfoy."
Severus nodded, "I agree. However, I fear there is something we have been missing from the beginning. I can't explain why, but it would appear that he is working through the stages one would expect after a loss or a trauma. I believe he was experiencing some sort of shock immediately after the accident, which is why we didn't notice his unstable emotions earlier."
For once Albus looked startled, but it was Poppy who replied, "Other than the accident, there is no evidence of either, Severus, but it could have a large impact on Mister Malfoy's mental state if it is true."
"Severus, you're the boy's head of house; what possibly could have happened to the boy to explain this?" Albus inquired.
"Other than the issue with Miss Parkinson earlier this year and the accident, I haven't a clue. However, we still haven't completely explained what prompted the manifestation of Mister Malfoy's abilities. There have been reports of him lashing out in anger at other students, but he appears to be holding just as much anger and guilt for himself. As I said, I can't explain it, but I would guess Mister Malfoy has perceived a loss or failing on his part and is experiencing grief, "Severus explained.
Silence settled in the room as the three professors considered their charge. Finally Albus rose from his seat, "Well, I don't have to tell either of you that we will need to keep a watchful eye on Mister Malfoy and of course work with him so that he can separate his emotions from those of others. I will contact Mrs. Malfoy to let her know about this development. I will also inform the other professors of Mister Malfoy's unique situation in case his needs any accommodations as he masters his empathy, if that is indeed what it is. Severus, I take it you will be leading him through meditation as well as some occlumency to help him along?"
"Yes Albus, I will leave Mister Malfoy some texts to look over in the morning and then work with him after classes. I suspect now that he is aware of his ability, separating his emotions from others' will come naturally as it does with most empaths. I am sure he will be ready to attend classes again by Monday."
"I will inform Mrs. Malfoy of our plans for her son. And Poppy, you will ensure Mister Malfoy is shielded from other patients and gets proper rest?" the Headmaster directed.
"Yes Albus, I will head back now since the sleeping potion will be wearing off soon," Poppy replied.
"I will come with you," Severus added.
"Very well. I would appreciate an update in the morning. Goodnight to you both."
As the three professors left the room, a small figure emerged from behind a tapestry. Dobby worried his hands as he thought of his little Master. The professors didn't understand! They didn't know about little Master's little one. Dobby knew about little Master's letters from his boyfriend and how he agonized over seeing him. Now there would not even be a Hogsmeade weekend. Dobby could only hope that his former Mistress would somehow know how to make things right.
Draco was floating.
More accurately he was suspended in warm water. The water was pitch black except for a point of bright, but tightly contained light that shined just before him. It stayed close to him and he knew it was something precious. He carefully reached out to it and a surge of warm emotion filled him. This was his to protect and keep.
Out of the darkness came a wave and Draco felt himself being jerked harshly back and a pain accompanied it like a punch in the stomach. Through it all, he hung on to the little light. He looked at it even as a familiar pain throbbed inside him.
The light dimmed and began to sink, slipping through his fingers.
The back water was now a deep ruby color as Draco swam toward his charge. The light grew dimmer and the pain more intense the harder he swam. Suddenly the light seemed far away. It glowed brightly for a moment as if in farewell, before blinking out.
The pain was overwhelming and Draco closed his eyes and curled in on himself. Only now did he realize he was no longer floating. He opened his eyes to see he was on his knees in a white tiled shower watching blood flow down a drain.
"How could you!" a familiar voice echoed off the walls.
Draco looked up to see the cold face of his lover, "Ian, I tried!"
"You should have tried harder!"
"Forgive me! What do I need to do for you to forgive me?"
Ian looked at him hard, "You need to wake up, Mister Malfoy."
Draco shot upright so fast his vision was nothing but white specks for a moment. When he recovered enough to take account of his surrounding he saw Professor Snape standing next to his bed, one hand on the back of Draco's neck, the other hand reaching for a potion Madame Pomfrey held out to him.
He was in the Hospital Wing again. It was just a dream.
"Drink this, Mister Malfoy. It is only a calming draught," Snape prompted.
Draco complied without comment. Madame Pomfrey took account of him as he handed the empty container back.
"My goodness you're soaked! We'll get you a new pair of pajamas and change your bed clothes," the mediwitch said, bustling into action. Draco shivered as he realized he was covered in sweat. "Can you make it to the lavatory, dear?"
Words caught in his through as he remembered that white tile. He found himself shaking his head slowly. He didn't want to go in there.
"Severus, you'll have to help the poor boy," Madame Pomfrey instructed as she somehow managed to produce fresh sheets and a neatly folded set of pajamas.
"No! I…I…" Draco stopped as a shock of alarm followed by worry rolled over him. The emotions matched the expressions on the two adults' faces as they reacted to his outburst. Draco had never seen Snape show so much emotion, or maybe he was just reading it better because he could actually feel it.
"Can't I just go back to my dorm?" He started again more calmly. "I don't think I could handle the attention I would get for staying here another night," which wasn't entirely untrue. "
"That is out of the question!" Madame Pomfrey started.
"But I've been in the dorms for weeks already. It can't hurt me to stay there until I learn how to control this, especially now that I know what is happening," Draco reasoned. He was surprised at his own calm tone, carefully formulating his words in response to the emotions coming from the healer.
"Nevertheless, we shouldn't take any chances," Pomfrey replied firmly.
Draco's calm started to slip at the thought of staying here when Snape finally spoke. "Madame Pomfrey, please floo the Headmaster and inform him that I will be taking Mister Malfoy back to his house," Snape said in a bored tone.
"But Severus,…"Pomfrey started. Draco could feel her dislike for this suggestion. She was ready to argue.
"I am of the belief that staying here will cause Mister Malfoy more stress. Not to mention the way he responded to our emotions a moment ago indicates that he is already well on his way to separating his feeling from those of others. I have no doubt he will be using our emotions to manipulate us all in no time," Snape finished with a pointed look at Draco.
Despite the slight reproof from Snape, Draco looked back at Pomfrey in anticipation. In truth, he was starting to get tired from volleying his concentration back and forth between them, but focusing on them meant he could keep his own emotions at bay. Pomfrey looked at Draco and he felt her realize the truth in Snape's argument.
"Fine, but I expect you to take full responsibility, Severus."
"Of course. I am his Head of House."
Pomfrey turned and headed for her office to floo the Headmaster, leaving him alone with Snape. Draco was aware that early in the conversation the professor had reined in his emotions, much as he had during the incident in the potions room. This was a welcome break from sorting out and interpreting emotions, but it also made Snape that much harder to read. Already he was using his empathy instinctively.
Draco decided to start cautiously, "Thank you, Professor Snape."
"I'm sure you are thankful, but in all honestly, I really had no wish to deal with the emotional meltdown you were headed for if we made you stay here," Snape replied, to the point. The surprised must have shown on Draco's face, because the Professor continued, "Just because I am not an empath does not mean I can't tell when someone is about to have a panic attack. While I myself can understand not wanting to spend more time then necessary in Madame Pomfrey's company, do you mind telling me what could possibly justify that emotional state?"
Draco swallowed even though his mouth seemed suddenly dry. How was he supposed to put it into words when he couldn't even make sense of it in his head? Snape was looking at him impatiently and he tried to swallow again in preparation to speak. "I…It was a dream…a nightmare. It started the last time I was here."
Snape gave him a measured look. "Continue."
"There was blood…on the sheets. Then I was in the bathroom and there was blood there too."
"And, you are sure this was just a nightmare, Mister Malfoy?" Snape asked.
"What else could it be? Everything was back to normal when I woke up. It's just the nightmare keeps coming back. I don't feel comfortable staying here," Draco replied.
"Did anything else happen in this nightmare of yours?" Snape asked. Draco hoped it would be the last question.
"It's my fault. The blood, I mean. Everyone is there blaming me, especially I…" Draco paused and took a breath. "I have to go to Hogsmeade this weekend, Professor."
Snape stared at him for a moment. Though he was blocking his emotions somehow, Draco knew the Professor was putting together the pieces of the puzzle and that he had sensed what Draco left out. From the incident with Pansy in the Headmaster's office, Snape knew he had a love interest and would no doubt be able to piece together that Draco needed to reassure himself that this person didn't blame him for this imaginary crime in his nightmares. There was more to it than that, but Draco hoped it would be enough for the Professor to understand and let him make the trip into town. Even if he did think he was being childish and melodramatic.
"That decision is ultimately left up to the Headmaster and your mother. In the meantime, you should change into your clothes for the walk back to your dormitory. There is a short exercise in clearing your mind I want to teach you in case you become overwhelmed among the other students and it is getting late. I suggest you hurry."
With that, Snape stepped back and drew the curtain around the bed.
After coaching Draco on some simple meditations, Snape made his way to the Headmaster's office. Dumbledore offered the customary lemon drop then got straight to the point. Apparently, the hour and the complexity of the situation were getting even to him.
"Misses Malfoy is very worried that her son has been returned to the dormitories so soon. I assured her that I trusted your judgment, but frankly Severus I share her concern."
"While I admit it is common practice to quarantine strong empaths until they get a grasp on their abilities, I felt in this case that it would be less stressful for Mister Malfoy to return to his house than to remain in the Hospital Wing," Severus explained. "I believe something happened there the night of the quidditch accident that has had lingering affects."
Dumbledore's expression grew more somber as Severus related his conversation with young Mister Malfoy.
"Draco is rapidly learning to differentiate his emotions from others so I believe he will be fine in his dorm, though we may want to excuse him from tomorrow's classes. It would be more stressful to his emotional state to force him to remain in the hospital wing," Severus finished.
"I agree. And there is no indication of what might have happened that night?"
"Draco claims he woke later in his hospital bed with everything, other than his injuries, as it should be. He sincerely believes it to be a dream."
Dumbledore nodded thoughtfully, "It worries me that something so severe could happen in this castle, to one of the students, without my knowledge, but I have a feeling the truth of this matter will come out in time."
"There is one other thing, Headmaster. Mister Malfoy seems insistent on participating in Hogsmeade weekend. Of course I told him the decision would be up to you and his mother."
The Headmaster's expression lightened. "Since you mentioned it, Misses Malfoy was also very concerned that her son be allowed to go to Hogsmeade this weekend. So insistent, in fact, that she is having a carriage take young Mister Malfoy Friday evening to an Inn for the night. I have a feeling that a third party is eager to renew their acquaintance."
Dumbledore smiled as he finished and Snape surprised himself by almost returning it.
It was just after dinner on Friday and Draco was making his way down to the entry hall of the castle to meet the Headmaster. A bag for the night was packed and shrunk to fit in his pocket. He worried for a moment over whether he had everything he needed, but too much had happened for him to mistake his current tension for worry over his luggage. He was on his way to see Ian.
There was no doubt that Draco now had better control over his emotions. Snape's explanation and meditation techniques had seemingly flipped the switch that allowed him to separate his emotions from others. The Professor had mentioned that strong healer-empaths had some empathic ability even before their full talent manifested. It was possible he had dealt with juggling others emotions on a much smaller level for most of his life.
"It would certainly explain your unprecedented ability to set Griffindors on a rampage against you with so little effort," Snape had said, by way of backhanded compliment.
Draco had related it all to Blaise, for once feeling able to talk about what was going on. The other boy had subtly implied that now maybe Draco would be more himself. That maybe his emotions wouldn't be all over the place. Draco didn't know how to tell him that most of his recent emotions had been his own; their intensity merely fueled by the energy of the emotions around him. He really wasn't sure what 'more himself' meant anymore or if he would ever be back to his so called 'normal self'. A twin sensation of being hollow and yet filled to capacity made him feel like he could barely relate to the person he once was, much less anyone else. The worrying part of it was that he didn't think it had anything to do with his healing ability or his empathy.
Would Ian be able to see the difference?
Would he even be able to love him after the way he had been acting to Ben, Harper and everyone?
The litany of worries was becoming such a familiar state that Draco slipped into them as he made his way to the front entrance, almost blind to his surroundings. So blind he didn't see the first year barreling around the corner from the Great Hall until it was too late. The impact sent Draco stumbling back to keep himself from falling. The first year practically bounced off of the Slytherin and hit the floor.
The boy, a Hufflepuff, looked at him with wide worried eyes. Draco could sense his fear and it made him recoil. His mind searched for a reassurance in response to the emotion, but before the words could take form, a disturbingly familiar voice filled the air.
"Ten point from Slytherin! I should take you to the Headmaster right now. Bullying a first year!" Hermione Granger came from behind him, her mouth pinches in a scowl, her disgust for him clear.
"I am going to see him now, Granger. It was an accident. Neither of us was watching where we were going." Draco wasn't about to press his luck with the girl.
"I…I was running down the corridor," the first year said quietly. Draco was thankful for the confirmation even if the boy was only doing it out of fear of retaliation from him.
Granger looked at the boy for a long moment, "Return to your common room then. Your Head of House might be asking you about this later."
The boy, having learned his lesson about running, set off at a swift pace with a hasty shake of his head and another worried glance at the Slytherin. The child's footsteps echoing in the corridor was the only sound for a long moment.
"Were you born cruel?" Granger started in a tense whisper. "This time might have been an accident, but what about all the other times? A few people seem convinced that there's another side of you, but what is the difference either way if everything you say and do is hateful, poison! I know about the way you treated Pansy before she left and I know how you've been treating Ben and Harper who you claim to care about. You get away with it, but one of these days it will all come back to you and I hope I am there to see it!"
Granger turned on her heel and walked away, leaving Draco stunned. His brain beat a rhythm in his skull in time with his heart. The short confrontation had been an exercise in keeping her emotions from melding with his own even as the intensity of her hate for him bowled him over and sent chills down his spine.
Draco wiped the sweat off his brow as he numbly continued his journey to where the Head Master was waiting for him. The old man didn't mention it if he thought his student seemed a little stunted in his reactions. He simply relation the instruction about the Inn and the carriage and sent him on his way.
The rocking of the carriage didn't soothe his headache. The confrontation in the corridor had affected him physically and had also started a fresh wave of guilt rolling over him. Draco spent the journey to Hogsmeade trying to calm himself and hoping to find a resolution to the uncertainty surrounding his lover, his identity, and his worth.