Chapter Fourteen: If But a Single Grain Should Shift
"Be present, little brother."
The whisper at his ear might as well have been the blare of trumpets, coming as it did out of the maw of stillness that had swallowed him. Draco startled into a blurred and stinging focus.
Pox. He'd been asleep. Stupid to let that happen. Shouldn't have given in.
Dredging his eyes with the heels of his hands, he squinted through sticky lashes, struggling to throw off the heaviness of sleep.
Stronger a little, the light and, thank Merlin, there was even color… or at least an edge of what seemed some sort of yellow dawn. Well, almost yellow—looked a bit like buttermilk carelessly dribbled across the floor. Something for an elf to—
But there'd been…sound. Sound that woke him, which meant something was here… HERE. The wind and water, he could hear those —he could— muffled but definitely there, and there'd been words, too… Some one had been speaking. Some ONE. He should move. He should do that now…Right now…NOW. Get the bloody fuck UP.
Frantic for footing, Draco clutched at the sedge, scrambling gracelessly in the shifting sands, his awareness boiling over. His fingers clawed at his thighs, his arms, his chest. Son of a hag, no wand, still no god-forsaken wand.
Dreaming. He'd been… A woman's voice, steady, calm, quietly incanting. She'd sounded sorry. Something about flowers… One flower… One…
"Resting from your crossing is wise, little brother. Staying too long in the dreaming is not, unless you choose this place as your forever."
The whispering voice that had shouted him awake… It was close. Hardly more than a shiver of the air, but it was real. Oh, very real indeed.
A fluid weight, smooth and cool, something that didn't feel at all like sand, shifted across the naked arch of Draco's foot. With a strangled gasp, he staggered back, sprawling against the dune, staring down the length of his outstretched leg.
Nothing there. Maybe it had been just the sand, after all, chilled and damp from the receding fog.
"Observance? Evasion? Never taught you? Disappointing. I'd have thought… "
Again, the voice. To his right this time, his wand side, for all the use that was.
Draco bolted to his feet, pivoting in place, shifting his gaze rapidly from point to point but finding only sand, sea, and sedge within his range of sight. The fact that he'd been caught unawares did not sit well. He didn't much care for the stab of panic between his ribs and even less for the sense of being studied and found wanting by something—or someone—he'd yet to even see.
In anticipation of an enemy or acknowledgement of an ally, present the bearing of a Malfoy-born and a Slytherin-sorted. Reveal only your lineage of blood and breeding. His family's example, his House's expectation.
Draco cringed at the heart-wound that tore open from a sudden, piercing memory. Far into the dreaming… His mother outside the Hogwarts gates, abandoning example and expectation… On her knees in the dirt, clutching and wailing. Shrieking like some mad thing for McGonagall to come to her—bloody well demanding it. Merlin, how she pleaded… for him… for him… God, the shaming, terrible joy of knowing that she would do such a thing… again… still.
But only mothers, fools, and dead men unmask so plainly. Blood and breeding, keep to that, blood and breeding.
"All that I'm observing is a sorry lack of manners," he managed to drawl. "Why don't I set the example then, shall I? I am Draco Lucius Ebenus Malfoy. And you would be?" Praying that the curl of his lip was convincingly unconcerned, he shook back the matted tangles of his hair and shoved his hands deep into his pockets. It wouldn't do for their tremors to be visible. "Since you've obviously seen me, you might take the bother of introducing yourself properly. Or are you afraid, that if I see you, I'll hex your own evasions straight out of you?"
As if he could actually threaten or produce any sort of harm to anyone or thing in this place, other than to himself. But, better to preserve at least the guise of holding the upper hand for as long as possible.
"Courtesy, little brother, or I will neither show myself nor greet you, properly or otherwise." A sting of irritation had darkened the voice, coming, now, from behind him. "Easy enough for me to leave you here to make your way alone."
Draco affected a shrug with enough nonchalance—or so he hoped—to make a worthy show.
"My apologies, but you can hardly blame me. You make no sense at all. I'm no one's brother, not that it should be of any concern to you or anyone else."
Except to a memory he couldn't even claim to truly hold…
Allowing his focus to wander a moment for effect, Draco waited, casting with a Seeker's instincts for an edge of shadow, the sigh of someone slipping in stealth across the sand. He could hear only the thrumming of his own blood in concert with the singing of the rising wind and tide. Too much sound, now, a damn cacophony of it. The silence had almost been better. If he lay down again, he could probably slip back under. Far easier that way… Peaceful. Painless. Finished.
But there—just at the periphery of his sight, a bit behind and to his left—five or six broom-lengths distant— something… Damn and hex, why the left, his slower side. Bastard Potter always used that against him on the pitch.
Draco could hear a long-drawn hiss of breath hovering on the wind. A scaled column of buff—as though the sand itself had taken shape—was rising as high as his waist, swaying atop a pedestal of its own looping coils, with a broad, flat head, ringed at the throat in a jagged band of darker gray—and great black eyes, fixed on him.
A serpent, and nearly the thickness of his branded arm. Not even a decent irony to that, was there?
"Are we, now, properly met, having seen one another, young Malfoy?" A narrow ribbon of tongue darted and retreated. "Shall we speak in good faith or bad?"
Parseltongue—the living speech of serpents—and every word, Draco realized, was distinct and understandable. To know the Tongue was a subtlety of magic that few could claim, other than the formal greeting every Slytherin-bonded child was taught from infancy. How in Hades had he managed to miss so profound a point until just now? And the serpent understood him equally well?
Deceived into madness by the senses of his mortal flesh? Maybe that was so. The Blade… That had to be the means for this. How else could this be?
The serpent reared higher, and Draco hastily nodded his acknowledgment, embedding his nails into the palms of his hands, willing himself to not give ground. God, how he craved a wand, absolutely any wand. A first year Hufflepuff's would do.
"Sufficient manners for the moment, I trust, little brother?" came the question as the snake's body began to slowly uncoil. "If you are appeased, we should proceed."
Madness of his senses, it had to be. He'd dreaded being alone so badly that he'd somehow summoned… What exactly was it that he'd called into being?
"Yes, but I've offered my name, so what's yours, then? And kindly don't say 'elder brother'. Are you from my House? Someone I know or knew… from before? An Animagus or something like…" Draco's thoughts flashed through a catalogue of faces, flickering over those that haunted him and the one that was only an imagination. Little brother—Lyra might have called him that. Never did, never had the chance… but might have.
"A Slytherin nestling, aren't you?" Again, Draco nodded, and the snake slithered closer. "Surely, you know the Beginnings, then. We Drakon were of the First." The snake's tongue flickered between fangs as translucent as petals. "We shared the oldest of the Ways with those wizard-kind who wished to know—called their magic, woke their wands. Your name honors more than stars, nestling."
Silent and swift, the snake stretched its length atop the sand, sweeping into one sinuous arc around Draco who froze in place, swallowing hard against the tightening of his throat.
"The oldest of all the magics, little brother," the serpent hissed, "cast for your consideration."
"Your first lesson, my darling, is the Circle." Draco fled into the memory of a mid-summer afternoon, the languid air spiced with fruit and flowers, the song of bees and peacocks making him drowsy. He could recall the childish distraction of knowing that Turtlefoot, setting out tea on the shaded terrace, would have a special treat of almond milk and unicorn cakes, just for him. He'd always loved to save the spiraling sugared horn for last. His mother, smelling of roses, taking his face between her hands, urging his attention. "You must learn to do this well, my heart. Above all things, there is the Circle to give you power and protection. You may cast for yourself, and if needed, for another if they cannot."
Having left the imprint of its body in the sand around him, the serpent fixed Draco with its gaze. "You wear the Darkness, is that not so, little brother?"
Despite the lingering chill of the air, Draco could feel the sudden slick of sweat under his shirt, as he drew his left arm tight against his side, resisting his need for its ache to be soothed against his heart. When the Dark Lord fell, his father had imagined for the space of a breath that the Mark might leave them both. Hardly that. Faded, yes, a mere wraith of itself—burning in ice, now, instead of flame, but not gone. Never gone. Not even here.
"Are you going to trap me here or kill me if I step outside this circle? Because I bear the Mark? The questions broke free before Draco had even fully shaped them in his thoughts. "The Blade's supposed to let me move freely Between and not have to die." He cringed a bit at the note of strain to his voice that he couldn't quite keep hidden.
"Your death may be waiting for you here, but not by my fangs. If there is purpose for your Blade, then we both have elsewhere to be. Will you journey on with me? This is not my forever and I will not stay much longer." the reply came. "Look more closely, nestling. You have seen me often and you know me. Before the Death Singer bound me to Him and shaped His Mark in the image of my kind, my name was strong with the Ways. It would please me to hear it spoken again. "
Abandoning the pretense of swagger, Draco sank to his knees in the sand, careful to keep within the circle, studying the serpent's face for all he was worth. Suddenly sick with memory, he fought the wash of bile in his mouth, tasting its sting on his tongue, shaping the sharpness into a name.
"Ah, fuck no, that's not even… Are you Na—Nagini? You're not… You're not the same. You're so much smaller…"
"As are you, little brother… far smaller than you ever thought to be."