He could sense the other boy's presence without lifting his head. It was a nice day - the sun's light made his skin warm and there was a light breeze that kept the air from becoming muggy. The newcomer edged closer, seeming not to know what to do with himself before finally taking a seat on the bank next to him.
Gregory still did not look up, but Malfoy had apparently lost his ability to take a hint. It was their eighth year at Hogwarts and although Greg's mother had warned him it would not be easy, he'd insisted on accepting the Headmistress' grace. Slytherin would be empty this year, they had all said. With so few Slytherin students returning, they had been mostly right. Except it was empty enough already without Vincent.
Malfoy was apparently affected by the same loneliness. True he was a social pariah like Greg, but Malfoy had it easy. He had an excuse to hide behind - his family would have died if he hadn't followed Riddle's orders. Gregory had followed the Dark Lord's cause because he and Vincent had been good at it. Vince had liked the work. Greg had learned to. They'd been praised, rewarded, held up as examples.
Never in Greg's life had anyone of authority given him a pat on the back, or even an encouraging word for his effort. To be suddenly raised on such a high pedestal - without Malfoy's help, without anyone's - had been intoxicating. Thus, they had fallen.
Malfoy was silent next to him, either working up the nerve to speak or not planning on saying anything at all. Gregory wondered if Malfoy was thinking about gratitude. If he was thinking Greg should be loyal and humbled that Draco had chosen to keep Greg from the flames and not Vincent. (Who had burned - oh Merlin, the smell had been in their clothes and it had never come out.)
Greg shuddered involuntarily and turned to stare across the Great Lake. Draco made a noise, as though he were about to say something soothing and then had forgotten it. He had not yet left Gregory's side. Why, he had no idea. He hadn't spoken to Draco once over the summer - though his mother had said there'd been a couple owl posts with his name on them.
Gregory hadn't bothered to read any. He'd been too busy remembering.
He'd been eight when he met Vincent. Their parents were both in the same Potion's store and Gregory had been snitching salty newt eyes from the bin and popping them in his mouth like olives when neither the shopkeeper or his mum were looking.
It was his mother who'd exclaimed Mrs. Crabbe's name, her shrill voice startling the goods from Greg's fingers and onto the floor. He'd kicked the eyes under the counter hurriedly and followed his mother, wiping his hands on his breeches. As the women chatted gaily about the latest gossip, Vincent had glanced at him. Greg offered a tentative smile back and was surprised to see it returned.
"Oh, my son is going there as well!" Mrs. Crabbe had said, nodding her head so that her crescent moon earrings swung. "An excellent choice - goodness what they teach now in common schools. My son won't be going to any schools with Muggleborn children - he already knows what a wand is, for Merlin's sake, and I'd be wasting good money for some teacher to explain it all again. I really can't see why they don't sort them all into separate schools, Winifred."
"Most don't bother at all - they just sit back and let the Hogwarts letter explain everything. Irresponsible louts. If you're going to shack up with a muggle, you should take responsibility for whatever comes out of it. Hogwarts used to be more pure, in my day," Mrs. Goyle replied and paid the shopkeeper who was giving her a sour look. "Gregory, did you hear that? Young Vincent is going to the same intermediate school as you are. Perhaps you two should talk for a bit."
It was a kindly dismissal; Goyle's mum was forever trying to get him to make friends. Leaving his mother and Mrs. Crabbe to talk about more 'adult' things, he made his way over to Vincent, who had retreated earlier from the conversation. He was examining a live scarab who was stuck on its back in the bin. Its legs wriggled wildly and when it had almost righted itself, Vincent nudged it back into its prior helpless position.
"Hallo," Greg said. Vincent smiled again, looking away from the beetle. "Erm, are you going to Hecuba's Establishment for Underage Wizards too?" Greg ventured. "My name's Gregory Goyle."
"Vincent Crabbe," the boy said, and his voice was much softer than he looked. He stuck out his hand and Greg shook it. "My mum told me to make friends there with someone worth my time. I think she means someone rich. My father said the same thing."
Greg looked down. "Oh. Well, I'm not really rich . . . I mean, I'm not poor either," he added hastily, feeling awkward. Vincent laughed.
"Don't worry. I don't really care, it's just what Mum said. We're not rich either. And you look like you could pop anyone who tries to give you trouble. I like that."
Gregory was a big boy at eight years old, not unlike Vincent. "We could both pop somebody, I reckon. If anyone gave us reason to."
Inevitably, there had been plenty.
"Goyle? Did you hear me?" Malfoy said. Greg glanced at him.
"No," he answered flatly. Then, because Malfoy was staring at him expectantly, and a little outraged, Gregory sighed. "Yeah?"
"I asked if you wanted to go get a drink. It's the weekend. We could go to Hogsmeade."
"Oh. Rosemerta's?" Greg muttered. He felt satisfied and guilty all at once at the look on Malfoy's face. The boy looked away. He could not go to Rosemerta's place, not after what he'd done sixth year. Both Greg and Malfoy knew that.
"Nevermind," Malfoy said quietly. Gregory went back to ignoring him.
The war had ended years ago, but remnants of it still remained - most particularly in the minds of children. Children heard about it from parents when parents believed children were not listening, and it was thus safe to let opinions and ideas flutter loose above their heads.
Children had very little idea of what the War had entailed. So they had made their own ideas instead, and taunts to go with it:
Death Eather, Death Eater,
Flying straight to Hell
Behind you on your broomstick
The Dark Lord's on as well!
Fly faster, Fly faster
Fast as you can
Fly him to the Devil 'lest
Hell spits him out again!
If Greg and Vince learned only one thing their first day, it had been this taunt by heart, it being the most popular in the schoolyard.
Very few of Mrs. Goyle's old school chums had sent their children here, it seemed. That, or they were keeping themselves well-hidden when the children were outside. Greg stuck by Vincent, while the latter attempted to make more friends and failed. Vincent gave up eventually and the two ignored the taunts as best as they could. Their one comfort from all the bullying bluster was that nobody dared approach them for a fight.
It may have gone on like this all term, save for the one morning when the hateful song started again, louder in chorus than ever before. Vince and Greg were just barely in earshot; it wasn't for them. "Come on," Vincent had said, abandoning his post by the fence. Gregory followed, reluctant to be alone and just as curious.
A thin boy with white-blonde hair was encircled on the asphalt by a ring of children. He was pink in the face and shouting something angrily, but the song rose above his voice. Gregory watched as he tried to press his way out of the ring, only to be shoved off his feet back into the center. He landed hard on his rear with a undignified yell.
Trapped and well past the verge of tears, the boy pulled his legs to his chest and looked around at the jeering faces. The song only got louder. Vincent was moving toward the scene, as if compelled.
"What're you doing?" Gregory asked, alarmed. He wanted no part of it - as bad as he felt for the smaller boy. But his friend had gone ahead and pushed his way into the thick of it all.
The song was still loud, even as Vince offered a hand to the boy. Wiping his face quickly, the boy ignored it and struggled to his own feet, glaring at the rest of the children defiantly. He stood shoulder to shoulder with Vincent and together they looked uneven, incomplete. Then Greg marched in, pushing aside a freckled girl and standing at the blond boy's left. He crossed his arms and hoped to Merlin he looked passably tough.
The chanting was dying down a little, and a brown-haired boy named Eustace Vingolf came forward, scowling. He had been the one who'd shoved the blond to the ground. "All three of you then? With Death Eater scum for fathers? I should have figured you'd band with your kind eventually, Malfoy."
"Shut your mouth, Vingolf! At least my father doesn't come to pick me up smelling like booze."
"My father is a barkeep!" Eustace yelled, face reddening. "Of course he smells like liquor, you twit!"
"Oh, I see. Where does he keep the bar then, in his belly?" Malfoy asked smoothly, chin raised. All traces of his earlier tears were gone and his face was like chiseled stone.
Greg's mind raced, trying to place where he'd heard the name Malfoy before - and the image of a tall pale man with long hair and a snake-shaped cane appeared at the front of his thoughts. He'd been at his parents' house once before then, Malfoy's dad.
"Shut up! You're father's a killer and a murderer! At least my dad's making an honest living!" yelled Vingolf.
"My father was bewitched. That's been proven. Here's hoping your father doesn't too often stumble his way to another bed instead of your mum's."
Gregory felt his jaw drop a little. It was like listening to liquid poison. As most of what Malfoy had just indicated flew straight over the heads of some children, it seemed to strike Vingolf in a particular sore spot. Instead of more verbal abuse he launched himself at Malfoy with a shout, fists raised to strike.
Before Greg could move, Vincent's own meaty fist met Vingolf's nose and sent the boy sprawling backwards. The boy choked and coughed, face a mess of blood, and began to wail. A tin whistle pierced the silence that followed and children scattered. Malfoy's hand was on Greg's wrist, pulling them swiftly out of the line of fire.
They watched from the cover of a willow tree as an instructor attempted to soothe Vingolf, who was sputtering and crying too hard to name his attacker. Malfoy turned to look at them then, appraisingly. Greg felt more like a prize bull than anything else by the time the pale boy stuck out his hand.
"Malfoy. Draco Malfoy," he said. Vincent introduced himself, shaking the boy's hand automatically. Malfoy's dad had looked rich and maybe this was the opportunity he was looking for. Gregory shook Draco's hand too and mumbled his own name.
"Don't talk much, do you? That was brilliant, though. I'll never forget that git's stupid bawling face when you hit him." There was a tone of gratitude in Draco's voice, though he never actually said 'thank you'. Judging by Vincent's elated expression, it was more than enough.
"We might get in trouble for that," Greg muttered, fearing his friend was soaring too close to the glass ceiling of Malfoy's praise. With a reluctant frown, Vince crashed back down to earth.
"Yeah," he muttered, unhappily.
"Oh, I'll make sure my parents tell yours how you defended me from that bullying son of a drunkard," Malfoy said, casually. "And if the school tries to punish you, my father will have some words with the Headmistress about what sort of riffraff she allows in her schoolyard."
His grey eyes were cold, but he had a disarming smile. As Vincent beamed, Greg found his own reluctant grin tug at the corners of his mouth. Draco wasn't the kind of boy he'd expected to become friends with. All things considered, he was glad not to be an enemy.
"The castle looks better," Malfoy was saying. Greg, pulled out of his reverie, lifted his head and looked at him. "They've fixed the dungeons last, but there's been some improvement over the summer. Wouldn't you say? All the gargoyles are back up at least."
He was rambling, not really looking at the other boy. Trying to make small talk. Malfoy, making small talk. With him. Gregory stared back, stupidly. Was he supposed to say something?
Malfoy didn't seem to expect it. The boy kept his gray eyes to himself, pulling at a piece of loose thread on the knee of his trousers. Malfoy remained quiet and Greg turned back to the lake, somewhat relieved.
The rain outside had led the instructors to declare a free period indoors.
Draco was writing something. Greg learned that much as he approached him, but once Malfoy heard his footsteps, he covered the parchment with his hand and scowled up at him - cheeks faintly flushing. "What?"
Gregory shrugged. "Just curious. What're you doing?"
The pale boy glanced to the desk where Vincent was holding a tome on magical theory with a forbidden comic book in between the pages. Then his eyes flicked back to Gregory. "A letter."
"A letter to who?"
"Don't you have something to read?" Draco almost whined. He bent over the parchment to conceal it better and gave Gregory a sharp look.
"Already finished," Greg lied. "Come on, let me see. It's not for a girl is it?"
"No!" sputtered Draco, crushing the parchment to his chest. "It's just . . . It's just practice, alright? Nothing bloody important, my father just wants me to practice writing letters. To important people."
Vince looked up from his comic, frowning a little, then went back to it. Draco didn't see.
"Why do you need to do that?"
"I . . . my family is . . ." Draco looked lost for a moment, then his features looked more determined. "It's beneath you to understand if I just explain it. But I'll show you." He beckoned the larger boy closer, irritated, then lifted his hand from the letter.
Gregory made out the addressee's name; it started with an elegant cursive H and went on to spell a name that he had never heard mentioned favorably in his household. "What you doin' writin' to him for? Nobody even knows where he is anyhow."
"I told you it's just practice," Draco hissed and stuffed the letter in his desk. He looked as though he were regretting his choice to tell Greg about it. "Of course nobody knows where he is. He'd be all over the newspapers if they did."
"Why you writing to him at all?"
Draco's expression was first contemplative then his face took on a mask of indifference. "He could be useful. As a friend. If he goes to Hogwarts, maybe we could play nice with him. It would look good on our families, wouldn't it, if we were friends? Everyone would stop talking about Death Eaters and stupid Dark Lords and whatever else those ignorant sods like to taunt us about."
Vince was actively listening now, watching Draco. "Suppose he doesn't want to be friends?"
Draco looked down. "He will be. If I write to him, maybe he'll see we're not all bad. It wouldn't work if my father wrote to him. Every adult's going to write to him anyway, trying to get some favor out of it. We're just kids - he'd understand us, I think. It's not fair we still get Howlers at breakfast for something that happened when we were all just babies."
"My mum says to just ignore those," Vincent supplied. "We got one yesterday. She sped it up super fast with her wand, and made it all warbly and high-pitched. Then it exploded. It was funny."
Greg laughed at that. Draco did not.
"Funny is it, when you can hear your Mum crying about it later?" he shot back. Vincent looked at him and then back down at his comic, saying nothing. Draco leaned back in his chair and folded his arms.
"Things will be different someday. You'll see." His voice was smooth as though to apologize for snapping. "If Potter's such a great person like everyone says, he'll listen to us. He wouldn't let stuff like this go on."
Vince was silent, but Gregory thought about the sobs he'd sometimes heard through the walls late at night and decided to believe him.
"I'm sorry about Vince."
The words were abrupt - too abrupt to really sound like they were meant. Greg felt his neck muscles stiffen and his fists curled on his lap. He didn't look at Malfoy for fear he'd actually hit the boy, and keep hitting and hitting until there was nothing but blood and pulped bone.
Gregory had hit people before. He used to have much better control over it - over how much he wanted to hit people. Before Vincent had died.
"Why?" Greg asked. It could have meant a lot of things. Why was Malfoy sorry since Vincent never liked him, why had Malfoy not been able to save both of them, why was Vince the one that had to die out of the three of them? It was Malfoy's fault Crabbe even knew the spell - if he hadn't defied the Carrows . . .
"Because he was my friend too. I'm sorry I kept you out of things. I couldn't tell you what I was doing that year. I wanted to, but if I had -"
"I don't care."
"Greg, please -"
"I said I don't care! Don't need you to apologize to me. Don't want you to. It's all done with," Gregory spat, and he was surprised with how easily the words came. Usually his fists did the talking, but Greg kept those to himself this time. Maybe he was just too tired to hit Malfoy. Yeah, maybe.
"Do you care about anything anymore?" Draco asked, after what sounded like several painful tries to speak.
"I don't know. Just . . . just shut up for a while," he grumbled.
Silence was his answer.
Gregory's finger was bleeding. Harry Potter hated them. Weasley's rat had probably given him a disease. He would have sucked on his finger to ease the pain, but it was this last thought that kept him staring fearfully at the wound.
Draco was by the window, knees pulled up and staring stormily out at the passing scenery. "I should have known. He thinks we're Death Eater scum like everyone else. He probably never bloody looked at anything I wrote to him."
"Maybe he never got it," Vincent supplied. He pulled Greg's hand into his lap and examined the bite. Greg bit back a whimper. Vince was angry, he knew. Angrier than Malfoy, though he wasn't showing it. He could tell nonetheless and he wanted his hand back.
"Probably saw my name and tossed it into the rubbish. Did you hear him? 'I think I can figure out the bad sort for myself, thanks', " Draco mimicked, then scoffed. "Pretentious git. He's been in the Wizarding World for all of one day I bet, and he's already made up his mind about who we are."
Though Draco insulting Potter's parents afterward certainly hadn't helped, Goyle thought to himself. Vince must have shared the same opinion, for he frowned deeply. He murmured a simple incantation to lower the swelling in Goyle's finger. Despite his apparent anger, his hands were gentle and the spell surprisingly didn't blow his finger off.
Malfoy kept his dark mood all the way to the Castle. He barely spoke to either of them, and Vince muttered under his breath more than once. Greg asked him to repeat it, but Vincent only shook his head, glowering at Draco whenever the boy wasn't watching.
When the majestic castle of Hogwarts came into view, taking his breath away, the only thing he was able to get out of Vincent was a grunt. Draco just shrugged dismissively, though he didn't really look at anything else as their boats sailed over the Great Lake.
A disappointing experience, all in all. Greg found himself growing angry at Potter, both for upsetting his friends and for having quashed his own excitement at the new experiences. He longed to talk to Vincent about the strangeness of the Sorting, and about the moving staircases.
He tried to start conversation during the Feast with Draco, but the boy was cool and distant and didn't deign to talk beyond introducing the three of them to other Slytherins.
It was not until that night while following Prefects to their dungeon dormitories that Vince and Draco stirred out of their extended sulks.
"Hey, Dragon," a boy called. Malfoy didn't turn around until a towel hit him in the side of the head. "It is Dragon Malfoy, right?"
Malfoy's eyes narrowed to slits. "Draco," he said, coldly.
"Like I said. Dragon. Or didn't they tell you what your name means?" the older boy grinned. A fifth-year girl snickered.
"Stop picking on the poor thing, Flint. He can't help his parents having horrid taste in names. So your dad and mum must've been really fond of the school motto, then?"
"There is nothing wrong with my name," Draco snapped. He threw the towel back at Flint, nearly hitting the boy in the face, which prompted laughter and raucous catcalls from his friends. Greg could see that Draco was trembling with rage and his normally pale face had gone pink.
"Right then, everyone! Go down to your rooms. Boys on the left, girls on the right. The Head of House will speak to you in the morning." A Slytherin prefect started to usher them further in.
"Yeah, quit 'drag-on' your tail," crowed another fifth-year. Laughing, they started into the Common Room ahead of the first-years. Before he followed, Flint snapped his towel at Draco, who seemed to lose his temper and his control all at once.
Greg expected him to start flinging insults but what Draco flung instead was himself, a pale blur of fists and white hair. He took Flint by surprise, striking him in the back of the knee with a snake-fast punch. Flint squawked, losing his balance and then Draco was all over him - hitting, scratching, biting. Vincent and Gregory gawked, mouths open. By the time the prefects had pulled Draco off the bleeding Flint, Professor Snape had arrived to sort out the commotion.
"Mister Flint, this is a refreshing new perspective. Usually it's another student groaning on the floor," The Professor drawled, sounding utterly amused. Then he turned his black eyes on Draco, who was scrubbing angrily at a red mark on his cheek. Flint had got at least one blow in. "And what might I ask is your name?"
"Draco Malfoy," the boy muttered. "Sir," he added.
"Named after the constellation? A fine pureblood tradition that I'm glad your parents upheld. But you seem to be interested in acting like the more plebian translation of your name." Snape's eyes narrowed. "I'm sure your Father would not approve."
Draco looked abashed and a little afraid. "Please, don't tell him. It won't happen again, sir."
"See that it does not, Draco. Mister Flint, if you would kindly accompany me." Snape swooped down on Flint and pulled the older boy up by a hold on his ear, marching him to his office.
Vincent blinked as Draco turned to go into the Common Room. "That was brilliant," he whispered and Draco held his head a little higher.
"Fat lot of good you did me back there, the pair of you," Draco shot back, but Greg saw that he was trying hard not to smile.
Vincent didn't scowl like Greg expected him to. He seemed to have found a new respect for the pale-haired boy and was now in a much better mood. "I think we ought to keep him around after all," he muttered to Gregory. "He might be useful."
Greg let Vince go ahead, frowning to himself. Useful? What did usefulness matter; they were all friends, weren't they? He wondered if his friend was joking and followed him.
The sun was lower over the Lake now, getting ready to set. Malfoy was no longer beside him, or anywhere around. He must've given up on talking to Goyle, and Goyle was not sure how he felt about that. At least it meant he didn't have to talk about Vince.
He avoided a knot of second-year and third-year Ravenclaws out on the grass studying and headed toward the Great Hall. A certain urge detoured him to the nearest boy's bathroom and he ducked in to take care of his needs. Scarcely before he was finished, a white shape floated out of the wall before him. Gregory cursed and did his pants up, glowering as the shape took a more recognizable form.
"Oh, it's only you," the ghost said, adjusting her spectacles. "Pity, I was hoping to find someone useful."
"And what the hell's that mean, then? Who're you looking for?" Goyle spat.
He couldn't believe the Muggleborn ghost was still here. The Carrows had complained about her presence until Snape noted calmly that she had been Voldemort's first Muggleborn victim. It might anger the Dark Lord to remove evidence of his purifying efforts from Hogwarts. Satisfied by this, the Carrows dropped the issue and Moaning Myrtle had stayed at the castle.
"Someone to stop that awful row going on in one of the bathrooms upstairs! They're all picking on him like usual. I tried to stop them but they won't listen! And nevermind a teacher helping; half the time they're never good for anything except handing out bad marks and detentions."
Goyle stared at her, bullheaded. "Why would anyone care if there's a row in your sodding bathroom?" He started to wash his hands.
"You see, that's why it's a pity I ran into you and not that Longbottom boy. He'd at least try to do something noble, no matter who was in trouble." Myrtle folded her arms and perched on the edge of the sink. She sighed, deeply. "I don't like it when my friends get beat up. There he was minding his own business, and they all came crowding in - the big bullies. I wouldn't have left to find help, but he told me to just get out."
"Yeah, well, you sound awfully calm about your friend getting beat up anyway," Goyle noted.
"Oh, I'm used to it by now," the ghost snapped bitterly, raising her voice. "Let's all pick on Myrtle's friends, since we can't lay a hand on good old Myrtle herself! And I'm not surprised you don't seem to care, actually. You're not really his friend anymore, are you?"
Greg stared at her, faltering. "Malfoy? He's the one getting beat up? He's your friend?"
"Why is it so hard to believe that I'd have friends?!" Myrtle ranted stridently. "Yes, he is, and I don't care if you don't like it! You can just go on standing there with your mouth open like a great big dumb fish for all I care --"
"What floor is he on?" Greg snapped, so suddenly that Myrtle's tirade was cut off. She blinked and pushed her glasses up on her nose again.
"Third floor, boy's bathroom - next to the statue of Sir Erginus of Pigeons. And what's it to you anyway?" Myrtle shouted, but Greg was already running out of the bathroom and toward the stairs.
He didn't know why he was doing this, force of habit maybe. Not like Malfoy was going to yell at him if he didn't come to the rescue. Not anymore. He banged open the bathroom door.
Draco was trying to get to his feet, looking rather worse for wear. He glanced over his shoulder at Goyle, peering through a swelling eye. "You missed the party. Pity, that," he said, but without venom.
Goyle watched as Malfoy pulled himself over to the sinks. He didn't ask for any help and Goyle wasn't offering. "This why you tried to make up with me earlier?" he couldn't help asking. "Cause you knew this would happen?"
"No," Draco muttered, miserably. He spat red in the sink. "No, that's not why. Just leave me alone."
Gregory watched in silence as Malfoy tried to wash the blood off his face with shaking hands. Was this really the same boy that had attacked Marcus Flint in first year? That had faked an injury to get a teacher fired, tried to knock or scare Potter off his broom repeatedly? Broken Potter's nose in sixth year?
The Carrows had broken him - perhaps in that one night, or maybe Voldemort had done it himself. His father told him the Dark Lord had let Draco live for failing to kill Dumbledore, but that Draco had been punished. Whatever it had been, Malfoy was broken thoroughly now, and Goyle didn't feel much like picking up the pieces. He had enough on his plate.
Goyle folded his arms and wondered why, if that were true, that he'd run up three flights of stairs in such a hurry.
"Enjoying the sight?" Malfoy hissed, not looking at him.
"No," Goyle said, grudgingly. "Came to see if you were alright."
"Well, I'm not."
"What do you want me to do about it? Suppose you want revenge, then?" Greg asked. He still believed Malfoy was after protection from his tormentors and little else.
"No," Draco said, too quickly. He looked suddenly sick. "I don't."
"Then what do you want?"
"You're the one who's here, Goyle. You tell me what it is you want," Draco snapped. He stood upright shakily and stepped toward the door, knocking shoulders roughly with Goyle as he passed him.
Typical Malfoy, Gregory thought. The pale boy wasn't one for second chances, not once he'd been rejected. He probably wouldn't try to speak to Goyle again.
Which meant Draco would finally leave him alone and stop taking control of every little part of his life. He'd stop apologizing, stop attempting to make Goyle forgive him for something that was never his fault to begin with. Everything Goyle did from here on out would be his own choice. His own way.
Which suited him just fine, really. Just perfectly. Because nothing was going to go back to the way it had been before, no matter what either of them said or did.
The larger Slytherin stared quietly at the mirror, wondering why that thought unsettled him.