You Can Breathe Now

Disclaimer: Everything you recognize is not mine. No profit is being made.

AN: First chapter of my first attempt at a major AU. A historic moment indeed. Suggestions and constructive criticism are much appreciated.

Chapter One: A Mother's Prayer

She stood alone in the drawing room, a slender figure cloaked in silk robes and shadows. Under the marble mantelpiece, a few embers glowed weakly, smoke rising and curling into the air, remnants of a newly-extinguished fire.

There was a corpse on the table (the magnificent, ornate table that had been in her husband's family for generations, which she ordered the house elves to polish everyday until its wooden surface gleamed like a mirror). The corpse lay in a pool of drying blood, staring at the darkened ceiling with empty sockets, its ribs glistening like ropes of pearls in the few rays of moonlight streaming through the window.

(Nagini had not been hungry enough to devour all the organs, to pick all the flesh clean from the bones.)

She clenched her wand tightly, shoulders squared, spine ramrod-straight even as a sob tore itself loose from her throat, momentarily breaking the silence. Embarrassed by the outburst (for she had been raised to act with dignity at all times, even in private; every little unladylike sin was scrutinized and tallied by cold, unforgiving eyes), she fought the urge to cringe, and tried to clear her mind.

Clean up. I must clean up. A simple Vanishing Spell would do, or perhaps she could Transfigure the body into something small and insignificant and dispose of it. The Tergeo incantation would siphon off the wet blood, but she didn't have the faintest idea how to remove the stains that would undoubtedly be left on the tabletop. She was a far cry from well-versed in household spells; elves had always been in charge of cleaning and mending and cooking, all her life.

So she simply stood and stared at the half-eaten corpse, the faint beginnings of panic stirring in the pit of her stomach, not moving a single muscle until she heard someone say "Mother" in a questioning tone of voice, upon which she took a deep breath and turned around.

"Draco. It's late; you should be in bed."

"What are you doing here?" her only son asked from the doorway.

"I… there is some unfinished business I must attend to."

His wintry gaze traveled from her to the dead body on the table, and he flinched. She longed to cover his eyes and tell him not to look, but it was too late for that, much too late. He had already seen everything an hour ago.

(Everything. Things so young a boy should not see.)

"Why don't you tell the house elves to do it? It's what they're for, after all."

She shook her head. "The Dark Lord was very specific, Draco. I am to take care of this mess personally."

Punishment, she thought as bitterness welled up inside her, fast and fierce and strong. We let him use our home as headquarters. I have given my only son to his service and I must tend my husband's wounds every night, but still he sees fit to punish us. When will it end?

Draco hesitated, then moved towards her. As he came nearer she could see the bags under his eyes and his sunken cheeks, thrown into harsh relief by the interplay of moonlight and shadows. Her heart ached for him, for this boy who had been forced to grow up too soon.

"You don't have to," he said softly. "He isn't here anymore."

"You must not speak like that!" she hissed, lowering her voice to a whisper. "The Dark Lord knows everything. If we disobey him, he will find out."

Fear flickered across his sharp, aristocratic features, and then it was gone, replaced by uneasy determination. "I could teach you Occlumency, Mother, I'm good at it. You could keep him out of your mind---"

"Stop it!" She grabbed his shoulders, frantic and afraid. "If anyone hears you talking like that--- Draco, you must dismiss such traitorous notions at once. We are on thin enough ice already as it is--- if you incur his wrath again--- I couldn't bear---" And because she would die if she lost him, she held him to her, as tightly as if he would disappear at any moment.

Stiffly, he allowed her to embrace him for a few fleeting heartbeats, then took a step back.

(He did not like to be touched. His father had trained him well.)

"All right, I won't mention it again."

He watched silently as she Vanished the corpse and did the best she could with the leftover blood, ultimately resorting to scrubbing the table surface with a rag she conjured from thin air. Her cheeks burned with humiliation as she did so. To be reduced to such filthy Muggle behavior in front of her son! Oh, how her ancestors must be turning over in their graves…

When she was done, she made the rag disappear in a puff of smoke and straightened up to survey her handiwork.

Well, it could be worse, she reflected. The house elves will polish the table again tomorrow. Everything will be fine.

Except nothing was going to be fine. As long as Harry Potter remained at large, as long as skirmishes between Aurors and Death Eaters continued, as long as the War stretched on, she would always be living in a cloud of uncertainty and fear. The fear that one day her son or her husband would not come home…

"Draco."

"Yes, Mother?"

She could not bring herself to meet his eyes. "You use it, don't you? Occlumency. You block your mind."

There was a pause that seemed to go on forever. Finally, he said, "I do. Not all of it, not too much to make him suspect. But enough."

She looked at him then. He returned her gaze solemnly.

"It's the only reason I'm still alive, Mother."

At seventeen, he already towered over her, but tonight he looked so young and so lost, so like a little boy who had finally realized and was bewildered and hurt by the dangers and complexities of life, and was desperately trying to hide it, that it made her yearn to weep.

"Draco…" I'm sorry. This was not the life I wanted for you. "Be careful." How I wish I could protect you and keep you safe always. Would that you had a better mother or any other name...

He slipped his hand into the pocket of his robes, a sure sign that he was feeling uncomfortable. "I'll go up to my room now, Mother. Good night."

She waited until he was gone, waited until the heavy wooden door had slid shut. Then she slid limply into the nearest chair and gave in to the fear that had clawed at her insides since that fateful night in August.

(Bellatrix threw a shaking, white-faced Draco down on the carpet, satisfaction and triumph sparkling in her mad eyes. "He survived the Marking. It is done," she proclaimed, over the boy's ragged gasps and whimpers of pain.)

She sat alone in the drawing room, hugging herself in an effort to ward off the chill that had suddenly pervaded her bones, but because she was Narcissa Malfoy, she did not cry.