Disclaimer: I do not own Harry Potter. If I did…well, many happy things would happen.
Author's note: Hello all. I'm alive. However, grad school's keeping me busier than I thought it would. Between classes and homework and research and job stuff - and then they expect us to socialize with other students and the professors? - it's pretty intense. But, here is the next chapter. I shall endeavor to have the next one done in two weeks, but if it changes, I'll try to let you know beforehand. My apologies for the wait.
Draco pulled back the door on the train and a blast of frigid, damp air struck him as he stepped onto the platform. He reflexively sucked in a breath and immediately sneezed.
He pulled up short, nose still itching; he hadn't planned for this. He tentatively sniffed the air. The copper, salty smell of blood hit his nose, accompanied by the rich scent of peat and tinged with the odd tickle of a freshly opened bottle of paprika. It was the smell of death, death and insanity. There was nothing evil about death, or insanity. But when death collected, like it had in Black Water, the scent remained.
In purely technical terms, it wasn't a scent exactly. It was a presence, a magical signature that manifested itself through a synthetic synestesia in the form of an odor. Not every wizard was sensitized to the presence of death. It took repeated exposure. The same with evil. Evil smelled of sulfur and burnt flesh. It didn't take as much exposure because that scent was much stronger. Most dark wizards, or those raised in dark families, could recognize the smell. Those wizards only ate their meat cooked rare, or abstained from red meat entirely. There were very few barbeque restaurants in the wizarding world.
This scent, though, complicated things. He let his mind turn the matter over as he turned back to the train. He offered a hand to Hermione who was dressed like he was, long coat, hat, gloves and scarf. She was carrying a metal case. Draco didn't offer to relieve her of the burden. He was their protection, and he needed both hands free to draw his wand, should the need arrive.
He handed Ginny down next; Bill followed with a larger metal case. The cases were the only disguise they needed. Should anyone ask, Bill was a meteorological researcher studying the effects of the large conglomeration of ghosts on the atmosphere. Hermione was his partner. Ginny and Draco were lowly interns. No one would ask though. Only two types came into town, the ones running from the law and the academics. The perpetually cold weather meant the Order members didn't even have to worry about Polyjuice or physical disguises. Everyone wore hats and coats, even indoors because the ghosts carried the cold with them.
Bill gave a sniff to the air, as if confused. Draco figured that, as a former curse breaker, he was sensitive to the presence of death. Hermione was unaffected. Draco glanced over to Ginny. He saw her take a breath, and then her eyes darkened and lost their focus. It was like she was looking inward, searching for an answer, and then she blinked. She knew the scent as well.
"This way," said Draco.
He led them off the platform, skirting the station, and coming out onto a deserted street. There was hardly anyone out. Draco guided the others down two city blocks and over one, and they passed only two pedestrians. One had thick glasses and was carrying an armful of folders, the other was dressed completely in black, glancing furtively at the quartet before moving on.
For a ghost town, Black Water was well preserved. The sidewalk was still smooth, the buildings were empty but still standing and the glass windows were still intact. Only a few pieces of litter skittered across the street, driven by the biting wind. It was the cold that helped preserve this town. No one wanted to be outside long enough to graffiti, mug or murder. Smashed windows only let in frigid air.
The hotel was the only building on this block with lights on. Draco pushed open the door and stepped into the lobby, sweeping the room over before moving further in and letting the others enter behind him. It was still cold, even indoors. Draco could feel the heating charms and circulation vents doing their best to provide warmth, but they only managed to temper the winter cold to an autumn chill.
The lobby was full of academics with their gadgets and recording equipment out. While assistants or spelled quills took notes, the researchers gathered in groups for card games or chatter. They only noticed the new arrivals long enough to raise their still-mittened hands in a greeting. Out here, in the desolate town, everyone was a friend.
Draco waved in reply and retrieved the room keys from the front desk. They took the elevator up to the fourth floor and joined the rest of the expedition in the third room on the left.
"Right on time," said Dumbledore with a smile. "Any trouble on the trip in?"
Dumbledore, Sirius, Harry and Ron had arrived yesterday. Smaller groups would attract less attention.
"None at all," said Bill. He took a seat on the couch in the small sitting area. He didn't move to take off his coat, neither of them did. Harry and Ron were in thick jumpers and hats. Sirius was in his animagus form, even though Draco didn't remember that being part of the plan. Perhaps it was warmer to be covered by thick fur than dressing in layers.
"It's ridiculously cold," said Hermione, sitting next to Harry.
"The density of non-corporeal life forms will do that," Draco said wryly. He sat on a desk chair pulled over to form a rough circle. He glanced over to Dumbledore. "We have a complication."
"We do?" Bill asked, startled, even as Dumbledore nodded.
"I noticed it disembarking as well. This town has, unfortunately for us, absorbed some less-than-desirable energies. It is unlikely that Harry and Ginny will be able to sense the horcrux from a distance due to this…interference of auras."
"What does that mean?" Hermione asked.
Draco knew she understood the explanation, and was actually inquiring on how this affected their plan.
"With a limited range, Harry and Ginny would probably have to be standing right outside the house or building that the horcrux is in," said Draco. "Unless we wanted to walk past every structure in this town, we're going to have to narrow the location down."
"How?" Ron asked.
Draco got up. "I'm going to go scrounge up a cup of coffee," he said.
"And chat with the locals," said Dumbledore, anticipating his plan.
Draco smirked and left the room.
He headed back down to the lobby and crossed over to the complimentary coffee the hotel offered. Another man was helping himself to a cup and Draco nodded in greeting.
"I'm Dan Schulyk," said the man, sticking out his hand. "Magical signature investigator."
"Drake Matthews," said Draco, clasping his hand. "Meteorology."
"Here to find a way to make this place a little bit warmer?" Dan asked.
"Merlin, I hope so," said Draco, playing the part of a friendly intern.
Dan laughed. "You're fresh off the train, yeah?"
"You'll get used to it," the researcher assured him. "I've been here four years now. Went home for Christmas and wore short sleeves. Come on and meet the rest of my team."
Draco followed him over to where a mini-lab was set up. Dan's team composed of two men and a woman who were currently enwrapped in a card game. From the five cards in hand, and three on the table, they were playing Fate. They weren't playing for money though, just small pieces of hard candy. This was one of the reasons Draco would never go into research. There was too much downtime while the machines collected data over a period of days, sometimes weeks. He would go insane.
He introduced himself to the team, making sure to be charming so that he was offered a seat. The woman, Lara, graciously offered him a handful of candies to play a couple of rounds. Draco accepted, the cards were dealt, and he was quizzed about the research he would be a part of.
Draco knew enough about weather charms to be convincing, and then he asked the team about their own research. By the fifth hand, Draco allowed himself to win a pot, and then he casually asked about any older abandoned buildings in the area.
"It's the equipment," he explained. "Along with the grant we were supposed to get a new weather tracker, but the big heads upstairs decided to be cheap and gave us a machine from the sixties. We've tried retrofitting it with ghost barriers and warming charms, but none of the spells want to stick. Do you know of any place with limited ghost activity? And preferably one where the machine won't walk off with new friends?" He alluded to the less than savory residents of Black Water with a small grimace.
"Most of the ghosts keep to themselves," said Dan. "Their deaths are still pretty new to them. What was it Jeff said?" He looked to Lara, and then, for Draco, "Jeff's the resident ghost expert."
"On average, it takes a ghost twenty to twenty-five years to seek out human interaction, disregarding relatives, of course," Lara recited.
"Still got some years to go, then," said Dan. "Most of the living residents of the town live on Crescent Street, and the ghosts keep around there."
"He could try the old library," offered one of the men.
"Too close to Crescent," Lara disagreed.
Draco took the deck of cards, as it was his turn to deal, and shuffled while the team debated among themselves. It took another three hands, but they finally decided on four possible locations. Neither of those four locations suited Draco's criteria for the possible location of the horcrux, but it was the places the team dismissed that he was more interested in, one in particular.
"You've all been a big help," he told them. "You've saved me countless hours of roaming the streets."
"We're happy to help," said Dan.
Draco gave his pile of candies back to Lara. He had doubled their number. He stood with a smile. "Thanks again. I think I better head back and check on the team."
He escaped after a few promises to join them for another game sometime, and traveled back upstairs to room 405.
"Any luck?" Bill asked.
"I think so," said Draco.
One Floo trip and ten minutes of walking, and the search party was standing outside an old house on the outskirts of Black Water. It was originally a manor of sorts, but Black Water had grown around in, eating up the land and placing a modern array of townhouses around the premises.
The manor was brick and nearly covered in climbing vines. It still appeared structurally sound though. The front garden was a miniature forest that threatened the entire front lawn and porch. The unbroken glass windows were a direct contrast to the neglect. Just what Draco was looking for.
"Why this house?" Ron asked with a certain amount of trepidation.
"Because no one who enters leaves with their right minds," said Draco. "Most people have learned to stay away. And it was abandoned when our thief fled to this town, meaning that he would have been able to stockpile his goods here."
"I'd like to leave with my right mind," Ron said.
"We're not entering with the intention to prove our mettle, or to pillage the house," said Draco. "The entities that still protect this house will know that. It will ease our passage."
"If you say so," Ron muttered, remaining unconvinced.
Draco unlatched the front gate and started up the moss-covered sidewalk. He slipped his hand inside his coat and pulled out his wand. His unregistered wand. For as much as he had spoken the truth to Ron, he had a feeling some darker spells might be called upon within the next few minutes.
He stepped up onto the front porch and waited for Dumbledore to catch up.
"On three?" the Headmaster asked.
"Your count," said Draco, raising his wand.
The door swung open with a creak.
"Because that doesn't say haunted house," said Ron behind him.
Draco's lips quirked and he started forward, but Bill caught onto the collar of his coat, halting his movement.
"Age before beauty, kid," said Bill, teasing to lighten the collective dread that had gathered on the front porch.
Draco scowled as Ron snickered. It wasn't as if he was completely unfamiliar with dark houses. In fact, he probably had the most experiences with such wards and precautionary spells. He waited with ill-grace as the adults moved into the house, casting revealing spells and shield charms. Amateurs. What they needed first was a perception filter to disguise their signatures from the wards.
"Alright, you can come in," said Bill. "But carefully."
Draco didn't wait for any further invitation. He crossed over the threshold and found himself in a large welcoming hall covered in accumulated grime and cobwebs. The house was still fully furnished though, which was a good sign. Precautions to prevent thieving meant that something in this house was worth guarding. Draco was hoping that something was Bickle's hoard of stolen goods. Of course, that also meant something was doing the guarding. Draco just hoped it wasn't a dragon.
He moved further in, the Golden Trio following behind him. It was dark in the hall. Only the dimmest of light made it through the dirt-encrusted windows and somewhere to the left, a flutter of wings sounded. Bats.
"Creepy," Hermione whispered to Harry, and her voice carried further than it should have, echoing throughout the hall.
If the house hadn't reeked of genuine decay, it would be almost laughable. It was a stereotypical haunted house.
"Where to?" Ron asked softly.
As if to answer his question, the chandelier over the landing of the stairs turned on. It was hung with cobwebs and dust and a behemoth moth took flight to hover wound the weak light. Ron shuddered.
"Upstairs, I believe," said Draco. He spoke at a normal volume, not worried about being heard. Whatever had protected this house already knew they had arrived. But what kind a creature was it? House elves were known to go a little feral after their masters disappeared. Poltergeists could become incredibly powerful, given the right environment, and Black Water definitely qualified. But it didn't quite fit. This house had been guarded and protected for years. It must be a guardian of sorts.
A brownie perhaps. Or maybe a kobold. A tomte, if it were old enough could wield considerable protective magic.
He started for the stairs, and Bill hurried to keep up.
"Merlin, Draco," Bill exclaimed softly. "How about you wait for some back-up, huh?"
Draco rolled his eyes but made no comment. The stairs turned at the landing, leading them up to another hall. This time the lights led them to the right, through a set of doors and into a large room. It was clean in here. The floor was polished wood, the drapes a deep shade of gold. The window glass was clear and the view was an enchanted beach scene. A table stood to the side, surface freshly polished. A tiny cabinet in the corner boasted a vase of fresh flowers. A matching, but larger cabinet sat on the opposite side of the room.
From the upkeep of this room, the house had a brownie. Draco grimaced. Brownies were notorious for their odd personalities and mischievous behavior. Mischievous was too kind of a word.
"Is anyone else a little confused?" Sirius asked, bringing up the rear of the group.
"I think it's in the cabinet," Harry said suddenly.
Draco looked over to see that Potter had paled slightly. His brow was furrowed and his hand was rubbing at his forehead. Draco wondered when he'd started noting the presence of the horcrux.
He stepped over to the cabinet and studied the lock. There was no key hole. Dumbledore pressed a hand against the wood.
"A vanishing cabinet," the Headmaster said in surprise. "Very rare. Unless I miss my guess, this leads somewhere else in the home."
The doors slammed shut behind the goup. Most jumped; Draco just smirked. He was similarly unsurprised when the cabinet in the corner jolted.
"What the hell?" Sirius demanded, just as the door to the tiny cabinet burst open and a little man popped out. His facial features were exaggerated and his ears large. He wore brightly striped pants, a yellow shirt, and shoes that turned up at the toes. His hair was white underneath a tiny bowler hat.
"Welcome ye unwelcomed visitors." The brownie bowed low, sweeping his hat off his head.
Draco bowed back, seeing Dumbledore do the same. The rest followed their example.
"We thank thee for the welcome," said Dumbledore. "We mean no harm to you or your home."
"Many have claimed the same," said the brownie. "What has brought you to my house?"
"We seek an item of value," said Dumbledore. "It was stolen, many years ago."
"And you are the rightful owner?" the little man challenged.
"No," said Dumbledore.
It was the right thing to say. Truth was held in high esteem with the brownies and they always knew a falsehood when they were told one.
"There is a lair," the brownie stated. "A hoard greater than that of the dragons of old, but the way is not easy."
These things were never easy. Draco exchanged a look of trepidation with Bill.
"Show us the way," said Dumbledore. "We are not short of courage."
The little man smiled and moved backwards, bowing low. "Courageous so you claim to be. Time will tell and we shall see. What do you know, it's time for tea. But a knock on the door, who could that be?"
The words were spoken in a high sing-song, ending in a giggle, and after the giggle there was a knock. And another. Harry stiffened and Sirius took a step forward. The knocking continued, it was coming from a chest in the far corner, half-hidden by the drapes.
"A Boggart," said Bill. "This house must be full of them."
Draco watched the brownie take up a wicker basket. The little man's eyes were too mischievous to make him worry, but Sirius did shout as the brownie threw open the flaps on the basket.
A large cloth flew out and settled over the table. Dishes and glasses followed next, then trays of cakes and biscuits and sandwiches, even a pot of soup and two bottles of wine, all whizzing through the air to settle on the table. A teapot was last, steam rising from its spout. The brownie had said it was tea time, but the fare was more of a luncheon.
"Courageous you must prove to be, or your prize you will not see," sang the brownie. "Prove your mettle, all you here. Gather your bravest to dine with fear."
"Why?" asked Sirius. "Is it poisoned?"
"I think he meant it literally," said Draco. "He wants us to dine with the Boggart."
The knocking started again. Draco hadn't realized it stopped until the rap sounded once more, slow and steady and methodical. Knock. Knock. Knock.
He already knew how this was going to play out, but he waited, wondering, hoping that someone else would take the initiative.
"Mine's a thunderstorm," said Ginny. "As long as we didn't mind getting a little wet…," she shrugged, letting her offer trail off.
"Mine's a Dementor," said Harry. "Probably not the best of ideas."
"Spider," said Ron. "Big, hairy, eight-legs. Poisonous, but it wouldn't really be poisonous, so if we trapped it, perhaps?"
"The difficulty lies with this house," said Dumbledore. "I thank you for your offers, but these boggarts have been living here for decades, perhaps longer."
"What does that mean?" asked Ginny.
"They can grow in power, like poltergeists," said Draco, answering for the Headmaster. "Ron, your boggart-spider might actually contain a sort of venom, not on scale like a real spider, but enough to cause harm. Ginny, your thunderstorm could get more than a little dangerous and, well, no one likes Dementors, even fake ones."
"Mine's bodies," said Hermione. She grabbed Harry's hand and Draco knew that her corpses would be those gathered here. "Bodies couldn't…get out of hand, could they?"
"But your real fear is failing those you care about," said Draco. "The bodies are just the tangible result of that failure."
"So…this super-boggart, or whatever, might actually harm all of you present, to make my fear real," Hermione deduced.
"I'm afraid so, Miss Granger," said Dumbledore.
Draco looked about the group, already indentifying each individual's fear. Sirius would be Harry's death. Dumbledore's was the same as Hermione's, and Bill's was the death of his family, real and adopted.
"Oh, bloody hell," he groaned.
"Would it be safe?" asked Dumbledore, looking towards him
"He's never hurt anyone before and Merlin knows he probably had the power to do so," Draco said, but reluctantly. "He's always been as real as he could be. I doubt this house would give him any added benefit."
"Give who benefit?" asked Ginny.
To Draco's right, the trunk lid flew off. Draco clenched his eyes shut and heard the collective gasp as his boggart sat up. At least Bill and Dumbledore had seen him before.
"Merlin, Malfoy," Ron breathed. "Is that-?"
"Yes," said Draco, his eyes still shut. "That's me."
"I most certainly am not!"
Draco opened his eyes and turned to face the damage. Lord Draco stood before him, dressed just as foppishly as before. This time it was a scarlet jacket with gold buttons and a matching gold brocade vest. The silk shirt underneath was blindingly white, an exact contrast to the black trousers. The boots were red-brown and with a riding heel to them. Draco actually remembered seeing Lord Draco wearing them before.
Lord Draco shrugged. "They're my favorite," he said, reading his thoughts like usual.
"You look like a Gryffindor," said Draco, displeased by the color choice.
"I look good in red," said Lord Draco. "Besides, I destroyed Hogwarts. No Gryffindor house left to contend with. Aren't you going to introduce me?"
Draco sighed and turned back to the group. "You already know Dumbledore and Bill."
"Bill!" Lord Draco exclaimed happily. He tripped over to the red-haired men, too high to walk a straight line, and then – Draco let out a pained breath – threw his arms around the eldest Weasley child. "I missed you. You've been dead for so long."
Bill's eyes were startled, but he gamely patted the boggart's thin shoulders.
"Glad I'm still here," said Bill.
Lord Draco pulled back. "I killed your son while your wife watched. I made you slit her throat. You weren't the same afterwards. I think you hated me."
Draco felt ill. He wanted to throw his boggart back in the trunk and let someone else deal with entertaining their fear. They should just risk it with the thunderstorm. Draco knew several good shielding charms, so what if they got a little singed by lightning?
Bill looked to Draco. "I probably would hate you after that," he said with a shrug.
Draco knew that Bill was affected by his boggart's words, but the forced nonchalance removed the knot in his stomach.
"I would certainly hope so," said Draco, not bothering to hide his grimace.
Lord Draco looked over to Dumbledore and the glazed eyes narrowed.
"Secrets, Headmaster?" he asked.
Dumbledore looked startled, eyes blinking briefly, but Lord Draco had already lost interest. He spun around and regarded Sirius.
"Sirius Black, the one who came back."
"Lord Draco," said Draco testily. "We've had enough rhymes for the day."
"Spoil my fun, tell me I'm done, don't bother to run," Lord Draco prattled in sing-song. He stopped and gave a sly smile. "For danger is already here."
There was meaning to those words, the clouds had cleared briefly and a moment of sanity emerged from the boggart. Lord Draco blinked and it was gone again.
"I'm Lord Draco," said the boggart, holding out his hand to Sirius. The man shook it warily; Lord Draco's grasp was limp.
"And the Terrific Trio," said Draco dryly. "Harry Potter, Ron Weasley, and Miss Hermione Granger."
"The Chosen One and Company," Lord Draco returned. "Hello." He gave a nod to the three and then smirked and Harry. "I'm afraid your best efforts were in vain."
"Stop gloating," Draco reprimanded. He looked over to Harry. "Apparently he rules the world now."
"Not the world just yet," Lord Draco confided to the boy-hero. "I'm having a bit of trouble with Canada, of all places. It's the damndest thing."
Lord Draco smirked again and then turned to the last of their group, Ginny. Draco took a step forward, just in case, but the response wasn't what he had expected. Lord Draco locked eyes with Ginny and stared. His face paled. Even his lips turned white. He turned wild eyes onto Draco.
"Why?" he demanded, crossing over to Draco and latching onto his coat. His voice was furious and rasping. "Why would you do this to us? Why would you bring her here? Did you want to torment me!" The last was shout and then Lord Draco shoved Draco back and stumbled a few steps away. Draco watched his boggarts' hands shake. A vial was pulled out of his jacket. The drugs were tossed back. It wasn't enough. He could see that.
He watched Lord Draco stagger over to the table and grab a bottle of wine. The boggart retreated once more, huddling in the corner across the room. He barely managed to get the cork out and bring the bottle to his lips.
"Well," said Draco, trying to remove all of the attention from his doppleganger, "the faster we drink the tea, the faster he can crawl back into his trunk."
He deliberately walked over to the table and sat, keeping his head down, not wanting to look anyone in the eye. He made no move to eat or drink though. He was sure his hands were trembling and he was feeling nauseous.
Bill took the chair to his right and Ginny at his left. He risked a glance and saw her staring at Lord Draco, an odd look on her face. The rest filtered into their chair as well, leaving the seat at the end of the table free. Lord Draco appeared to be chugging the wine.
Dumbledore poured the tea for everyone and then performed a few charms on it just to be sure.
"It appears to be safe," the Headmaster said. He looked over to the corner. "Lord Draco, you are welcome to join us."
Draco watched his boggart lower the bottle, studying them all with cold grey eyes. Then the smile was back, the half-crazed, forced smile.
"Of course, where are my manners?" asked Lord Draco. He walked to the table like he was crossing a ship in the middle of a storm, the wine bottle held tightly in his hand. He nearly sprawled on his face when he caught his feet together and laughed at himself. He dropped gracelessly into his seat and sent a smile at them all. "So, what brings you to this depleted mansion?"
Draco saw the way his boggart avoided looking in Ginny's direction. Lord Draco helped himself to a sandwich and then served Bill. He surveyed the table with mocking eyes when no one answered.
"Horcrux," Bill finally supplied.
"Ah, the last one," said Lord Draco. "The goblet, yes, that would make a worthy prize." He looked over to Dumbledore. "How does it feel, Headmaster? To be so close to the end, yet have it just out of reach?"
"We are dining with you," Dumbledore said evenly. "It is not so far."
"If you say so," said Lord Draco. He then looked to Hermione and Harry. He smiled. "I knew you two were going to get together. I could see it from first year. The idealist and the hero. So cute, so naïve, so… dead."
Harry looked to Draco, the question in his eyes.
"I killed you," Lord Draco supplied. "After bringing down the Order. Then, through a series of brilliant political moves, became Minister at the tender age of twenty-one after assassinating my predecessor, Percy Weasley. He was getting too suspicious."
Percy Weasley. That was a new name to add to his list. Draco saw Bill turn to him, but made no move to answer.
"After England, the world," said Lord Draco. He shrugged and fiddled with his silverware.
"So," said Ron, turning to Draco. "This is you off the deep-end?"
"I'm him living to his potential," Lord Draco answered. "But, they say that power corrupts, and I've never liked people telling me how I should behave, always second-guessing my every motive and preaching about morality and other such trivialities." He sent a sideways glance to Bill then picked up the bottle of wine again. He nearly sloshed half of it down his shirt because his efforts were uncoordinated and his hands were trembling.
"And you're afraid of him?" Ron asked, still looking at Draco.
The wrong thing to say. Draco heard some nervous titters and simply braced himself for whatever came next.
Lord Draco lowered the bottle, setting it down gently on the table.
"Afraid?" he asked, staring at the youngest Weasley son. His eyes were glassy and red-rimmed. His face was haggard and pale and his lips were chapped. Lord Draco laughed, a harsh, grating chortle that made Dumbledore across the table lower his hand to his lap. He was readying to pull his wand. He needn't have bothered. Lord Draco wasn't a physical threat. The worst dangers never were.
"When I tore apart the Order," said Lord Draco, in a low, deadly voice. "it wasn't through an attack. I hope you realize how easy it was, how precious little I had to do. People… people are like animals. They act in predictable ways if you understand their motivations. I started with you Ron."
Ron sat back, looking to Harry for support.
"Rather," said Lord Draco, "I started with you, and Harry, and Hermione. You see, the cracks in the foundation were already there. I just drove the wedge a little deeper." His lip curled. "Did you really think your trio could survive a couple?"
An awkward silence fell. Draco had wondered how well the friendships were maintained with regards to the relationship between Harry and Hermione. Apparently, not as well as it appeared, not if he, in some dark, troubled reality, had used that to split the entire Order.
"How does it feel, Hermione, to be wanted by two boys?" Lord Draco continued. "Don't worry. Lily Evans went through the same predicament."
Harry's head whipped around to Lord Draco at the mention of his mother's name.
"Lord Draco, stop it," Draco commanded.
His boggart looked over, a sneer twisting pale lips, the grey eyes lit with vicious pleasure.
"You picked me," he said. "You picked me because I was 'safe', because I posed no real physical threat to any of you. Did you really think that would prevent me from causing any other sort of damage?"
"We need the horcrux, Draco," said Harry. "We understand."
"He understands," Lord Draco mocked. "He doesn't, not really. It's in his blood to be the winner, to get the girl. He doesn't know what it's like to play second string. Isn't that right, Sirius?"
Oh, Merlin. Draco knew, of course, that Lily Evans had been a popular girl. He'd read about her, her and James Potter because it wasn't everyday a child was born who survived the Killing Curse. He needed to know everything he could about Harry Potter, including his parents. Most of the information he gathered from yearbooks and listening to his relatives talk. After all, most were Death Eaters, and Harry was a hot topic. Through that, he'd learned a lot about the past students of Hogwarts and he was a master at inference.
"You liked Lily too," Lord Draco told Sirius. "How could you not? She was influential at school, not afraid to speak her mind, and she was easy on the eyes."
Merde. Draco pinched the bridge of his nose, wanting this to be over.
"Too bad she liked James more, but that never stopped you from wondering, did it? Just how would things have turned out if you'd been the one to make the first move? You think that too, don't you, Ron?"
And now Lord Draco turned back to the youngest Weasley boy, grinning maliciously.
"And Hermione, do you ever feel guilty for choosing one over the other? Lily had it harder, you know, she had three men to choose from. James, Sirius, and one Severus Snape, her childhood confidant."
Ron gaped. Hermione gasped and Harry stared. Sirius, his face redder than normal – from embarrassment and anger – simply looked away. Lily choosing James had been the deciding factor for Snape, Draco knew that much. He knew it wasn't really Lily's fault. Snape had been horrid, torn between the girl he loved and a place of belonging.
And that was enough. His boggart had no right to start dredging up secrets from those who weren't even present. Hell, he shouldn't even be attacking the others. It was his boggart, his responsibility. He could handle Lord Draco's taunts, the rest should be spared.
Draco turned to his boggart and let out a scathing laugh.
"Gossip, Lord Draco? Is that what you're reduced to?"
Lord Draco met his gaze and his lips curled, mirroring Draco's expression. They both held it for a few moments, then Lord Draco grinned.
"Challenging me, Draco?" He sat forward. "You know what I could tell them, don't you? All your nefarious plans, the thoughts you can't help but think, the way you imagine the world if you would only get your hands the slightest bit dirty. It isn't really murder, if it's for a good purpose, is it? Like Dear Aunt Bella. You were going to murder her."
"They know that," said Draco.
"And Bill," said Lord Draco. "You were going to wipe his memory at the end of sixth year, to protect your little secret."
"I didn't," said Draco.
"You were going to kill Tierney," said Lord Draco.
"Please," said Draco scornfully, "I was merely considering the benefits of assassination." He looked over at the rest of the table. "Purely last case scenario. All options had to be considered."
Lord Draco smiled. "Sometimes you're grateful your mother cursed you as a child, or else how many tears would you have shed when Lucius abandoned you for yet another business venture? You would have cried yourself to sleep every night. The lonely prince who had everything except his father's love."
Draco took a sip of his tea, trying to force casualness, trying to pretend that the words from his boggart's mouth meant nothing.
"Well, you didn't have Narcissa's love either, but she hardly counts. Always drunk. Usually high. She locked you in your rooms to keep you away, sometimes for days at a time. Rather similar to Potter here, except you had room to breathe. I wonder if the space you had makes a difference, or is the locked door all that matters? Of course, it was only his aunt who locked him away, not his own mother. You can bet his mother would have never slipped him Angel-Flight to keep him out of the way."
Draco refused to react to the words. He pulled up every mental shield and hid behind the walls where he could tend to his wounds without being seen.
"Does Bill know how easy it was for you to start caring for him? All he had to do was keep your secret, show a moment of camaraderie and you were ready to replace Lukas, your own brother. Lukas, the only one who ever truly, undeniably, cared for you.
"If Lucius had shown you any sort of undeniable affection, if he had ever said the words 'I love you', you would have taken the Dark Mark. You would have been his willing apprentice, worshiping his every move like poor, spineless Wormtail."
Draco stared at the tablecloth, his stomach churning again. His hands had curled into fists underneath the table.
"Maybe Lucius would have listened," said Lord Draco. "Maybe if you had just told him, showed him what you were, all that you were capable of, maybe that could have changed things. After all, he left you everything. He even reinstated you as his heir. But you kept your secrets. And then you killed him. We're not so different after all, are we Draco?"
There, something he could respond to. Draco looked up at his boggart, his lips quirking in a smirk. He looked over at the bottle of wine held in Lord Draco's hand and raised an eyebrow. He could see a big difference between them.
Lord Draco paled with anger, his grey eyes burning.
"Fils de pute," he spat.
Draco shrugged a shoulder. "No argument here."
Lord Draco's face went blank. Draco had never been one to cede an argument, so he knew Lord Draco wouldn't give up, not just yet. He waited, wondering what was next.
Lord Draco turned to face Ginny.
Draco took a breath, wondering what would come out of his mouth next. Would it be details of her death? How he had wooed the darkness in her soul, and when he couldn't turn her, when he couldn't extinguish all of her light, he had extinguished her instead.
"Ginny," said Lord Draco, his face twisted in anger. "Ginny."
But it was gentler that second time. Lord Draco's expression smoothed.
"My darling Ginevra," Lord Draco began again, trying to force nonchalance. He failed, badly, and then fell silent.
Draco looked over in surprise. He had been ready for a strike, ready to flinch and bleed as the true horrors of his mind were displayed for all to see. Now Lord Draco seemed to have lost his words. Instead he stared at Ginny, grey eyes drinking her in with an intensity that Draco guarded fiercely. He knew he looked at Ginny like this on occasion, but never with anyone else watching, much less Ginny herself.
"Ginny," said Lord Draco again. "Gorgeous Ginny. Funny Ginny. My Ginny."
Draco could see Ron turning an odd shade of red, ready to stand up and knock Lord Draco's head clean off his shoulders for saying such things. Bill was looking quite concerned too, but he was looking at the right culprit. He was looking at Draco. Ginny, however, simple gave a small smile.
"My Lord Draco," she returned.
And Lord Draco pushed his hand out on the table, reaching in her direction. It was a pale, thin, trembling hand and Ginny leaned closer, stretching past Draco to brush fingertips with his boggart.
"Ginny," said Lord Draco softly. "When he tells you, I don't know when he will, but when he finally admits that he loves you, he means every word."
Draco blinked and stared at his boggart. Since when did boggarts actually say nice things? Since when did they stop leveling threats and dire consequences? Yes, Lord Draco had the ability to regret, but this was entirely different.
To the side, the door to the vanishing cabinet clicked open. No one moved though, they were too busy staring between Draco, Lord Draco, and Ginny. The latter two were only staring at each other and Ginny twisted her hand, so that she was holding onto Lord Draco's fingertips. Her expression was focused, intent, as if she was waiting for the boggart to realize something. Draco didn't think either of them were breathing.
Lord Draco suddenly reeled back in his chair.
"I didn't kill you!" he exclaimed. He turned to Draco, something akin to light forcing its way past muddled, glazed grey eyes. "How could I have?" he asked to only one who would understand. "How do you destroy salvation?"
"Well, I don't," said Draco. "But I rather thought that you, as the impersonation of my darkest fear, would have found the depravity to do so."
"Oh, sod off," Lord Draco exclaimed. "Where do you get off, dictating my every move? Why do I have to do the exact opposite of you every bloody time? You know what, if I want to do good someday, I will. I'd like to see you stop me!"
"By the wand of Merlin," Dumbledore whispered, staring at Lord Draco. "He's self-realized."
Draco looked from Dumbledore to Lord Draco in disbelief. Is that really what had happened? Had this manor lent his boggart enough power to take his fear one step further? Only it had backfired. Lord Draco had always been more real than any other boggart, simply because Draco was able to fear so vividly. Now, with this additional power, Lord Draco had embodied that realness and become, well, more human, with a separate, individual consciousness from Draco.
Draco Malfoy had always thought for himself, had rebelled against authority simply because he was smarter, more intelligent. He had never listened to his elders. If he had obeyed, it was simply because he agreed with their assessments or to further his own purpose. Lord Draco, with his own mind, would not be held to Draco's demands.
Draco stared at Lord Draco, amazed. A voice called his attention. It was the brownie.
"Did you have fun playing with your boggart, Draco?"
Draco's head snapped around at that tone. It was the tone, not the voice, that was so familiar. The voice was the brownie's, but the tone was sensual and scathing.
Draco pulled his wand and jumped to his feet. At the head of the table, Lord Draco mirrored his actions perfectly.
The brownie was contorting, growing. One leg ballooned, then an arm stretched, then the neck was lengthened. It was grotesque, but Draco couldn't look away. He knew who it would be.
Green light shot from Lord Draco's wand to the twitching, morphing frame. The body fell but continued to transform into the seductive features of Claire Jameson.
"You killed her!" Ron yelped, jumping to his feet.
Several things happened at once. A dusty clock fell off the wall and a chair in the corner spasmed. The area rug on the floor rolled up and began to twist into a humanoid shape.
"Into the cabinet!" Draco commanded, pulling Ginny to her feet. The Order members scrambled from the table and made for the now unlocked door of the vanishing cabinet. One by one, they crammed inside and disappeared.
Draco waited for the others to enter, but Dumbledore motioned him ahead. He stepped into the cabinet, felt an odd tingling sensation, and then stepped out into another room. It was just as abandoned as the rest of the house, with dust and cobwebs covering every surface. Even the paintings and candelabras and vases that covered the long tables. Even the monstrous pile of galleons in the corner. Even the wooden trunks stacked three high alongside the windowless walls.
Draco turned as Lord Draco then Dumbledore appeared. Dumbledore immediately began casting wards on the cabinet and Draco joined him, adding a few complementary dark wards.
"What was that?" Ron demanded.
"Death Eaters," said Lord Draco. "They arrived yesterday but killed the brownie, thinking that would let them into the cabinet. When the door remained locked, Claire figured you would show up and finish the task. So she plotted an ambush."
"Thanks for telling us now," said Draco, rolling his eyes. He stepped back from the door, having cast enough to keep the Death Eaters at bay for now.
"Hey, I'm your boggart, not some Gryffindor do-good," Lord Draco snapped.
"Draco, Lord Draco, please," said Dumbledore. "We need a plan."
"Find the goblet, get out, run like hell," Harry supplied.
"I like it," said Draco.
"Clear, direct, I'm in," said Lord Draco. "Except, of course, the army of Death Eaters outside the door might hinder that. And, no, there isn't another way out."
Draco turned to survey the room, but Lord Draco was correct, as he expected him to be. They were in a safe room. The only way in was through the vanishing cabinet.
Draco looked over at his boggart and raised an eyebrow. Lord Draco stared back belligerently.
"Since when am I your errand boy?" he sneered.
"Since the fact that if I die, you die too," said Draco.
"I hate it when I'm smart," said Lord Draco. He sighed, affected a put-upon air, and walked over to the cabinet. He melted into a grey shadow and disappeared.
"What is he doing?" asked Bill.
"He'll buy us some time and provide a distraction," said Draco. "Now, let's find the goblet?"
There were benefits to being a boggart. Far more detriments, but a few benefits none the less. One of said benefits was the shadow-mist of the boggart's true form. It could move quickly and silently and remain largely unnoticed. It could even seep through a vanishing cabinet and right by a posse of Death Eaters without any of them noticing. Of course, the fact that the Death Eaters were in general chaos, cursing the door to the vanishing cabinet, contributed to his general invisibility.
Lord Draco regained his human shape outside of the room. He cursed the fact that his killing curse had done nothing more than a common 'stupefy'. It wasn't fair that he was the only one with the moral ambiguity to kill that bitch of a student teacher while she was defenseless and the only one who didn't have the magical power to do it.
Well, who said he had to use magic to kill Claire. Lord Draco paused for one moment, all of the possibilities flying through his sharp mind. Merlin, but he loved possessing the brain of Draco Malfoy.
He started down the hall again a moment later. It wasn't really his problem. He would seize the opportunity if it presented itself, but his first priority was getting the horcrux and getting the members of the Order out of Black Water. Ginny in particular.
Lord Draco walked downstairs, running his fingers along the wall. He was still a bit unsteady on his feet. The Angel-Flight, while not real in a chemical sense, was still a little hard to shake.
He paused again as he felt the wall brush back against his fingertips. He tilted his head to the side and pressed his hand flat against the wall.
Voices sounded in his head, murmuring and whispering, and he felt invisible hands touch his mind. Incredible. The house was…well, not sentient. But through the house he could connect with the other magical creatures who lived within the wards. Creatures that no normal human would be able to contact, much less understand and communicate with, but then again, Lord Draco wasn't exactly normal.
A predatory smile pulled at his lips. Really, the creatures weren't terribly harmful, but he was Lord Draco. If he could take over the world, then he could run a few Death Eaters out of his house.
Again, I apologize for the delay. Please leave a review. Also, the French that Lord Draco uses means 'son of a bitch'; hence, Draco doesn't try to contradict him.