The Quill, the Portrait, and the Sor
13. The Quill, the Portrait and the Sorting Hat
For the first time since he had been forced to watch the Dark Mark burn its way through his skin, when Draco awoke late the next morning, not only did he feel blissfully well-rested, but he noticed almost immediately that his left arm was painless. Reveling in the sensation of a forearm no longer ablaze with the curse of the branding, an unbelievably welcome idea slid into his mind: Was it possible that the dreaded Dark Mark had disappeared? When he moved up his left sleeve, however, he found that it remained etched in his skin, somehow bolder and clearer than ever. And yet, unable to feel its burn, he stood from the bed and looked idly around his bedroom.
It was a smaller room, by far, than his bedroom at Malfoy Manor, the paint somewhat worn on its otherwise bare walls, and the bed stood alone on a rather dusty floor. Still, the even dustier curtains were open, bathing the unkempt spare bedroom in brilliant daylight.
The fear from the night before had dispersed overnight, and Draco didn't even flinch when he heard a knock at his door across the room. Hopeful that it was his mother who wanted to see him, he went to open the door, only to find it already ajar. "Hmm," he mumbled in his curiosity as he pulled it the rest of the way open.
"Morning, Draco," Ginny said brightly, looking relieved. "Good to see you're finally awake. Your mum's been up for hours; you might want to let her know you're not ill or anything. It's already past noon!"
Draco blinked and chuckled at the advice, but noticed with a hopeful heart that she was conversing with him much more freely than she had been while at the Burrow. "Good morning to you, too…" he answered, the amusement still evident in his voice.
Ginny laughed, too, but a moment later, her smile dissolved into a look of concern, and her voice took on a hush. "Are you feeling any better? I hoped you would after… well, you know… after a good night's sleep." As she finished speaking, Draco noticed she looked almost shy all of a sudden, as though she had said too much. He nodded to try to reassure her, but she wasn't looking very reassured. Instead, she was looking at his arm. "Does… Does it still hurt?" she asked quietly.
Draco looked from his left arm to Ginny's face. "It was you, wasn't it?" he breathed, realization dawning on him. "You healed me…?" Not knowing how to react or even what to think, he stared at her in amazement.
She nodded. Without warning, without even trying to stop himself, Draco took both of Ginny's hands in his. "Thank you," he said earnestly, his silver eyes locked on hers of deep amber. Now she, too, gazed back at him with something like wonder written in her eyes. Slowly, gently, he stepped closer… She closed her eyes in cozy anticipation…
But barely a second later, Ginny pulled back from him and ran upstairs, leaving Draco standing there solemnly, watching her disappear up the stairs and through a door. Instinct told him to follow her, aching to know why she had gone, and against what he knew might just be his better judgment, he did.
Most unfortunately, when he was halfway up the stairs, he realized Ginny had not simply run off to be alone. Ron's voice, followed by Hermione's, could be heard from the doorway through which Ginny had gone.
"Ginny? What happened?" Ron said carefully, sounding more concerned for his younger sister than he had throughout Draco's stay at the Burrow. For half an instant, Draco thought twice about hating him quite as much as he did, but quickly snapped himself out of it.
When Ginny apparently hadn't answered, Hermione joined the conversation. "Are you all right?" she asked gently.
"I—I'm okay, I just…" Ginny cut off. Draco took a few more steps toward the scene, but stopped before the landing.
"Is it Malfoy?" Ron guessed. He barely gave her time to answer before he went on. "What did he do to you? Did he hurt you?"
"No!" she replied forcefully. Then her tone softened, and even shook somewhat. "I don't know. But no, Ron, he didn't do anything to me. Except somehow… I guess… he did…" Draco held his breath, now straining to hear them, wondering what she'd meant by that.
"What did he do, Gin?" Ron repeated.
"I don't know…" she said again. "I'm just so confused! I never thought… Oh, Ron, please don't…"
A sudden creaking of floorboards told Draco he had only seconds to prepare an explanation for Ginny's unexplainable state. And as expected, within the next five seconds, Ron appeared, his face contorted in rage. Draco stumbled down a step, knowing full well that no words could prevent the impending, violent reaction from Ginny's protective big brother.
"YOU SNAKE!" Ron bellowed, aiming his wand at Draco's face. "WHAT THE HELL DID YOU DO TO MY SISTER?"
"Ginny…" Draco whispered, not daring to take his eyes off of Ron's wand. It was the only word in his mind – What else could he say? He hadn't done anything; he hadn't even had the chance to kiss her when she was with him.
"No, Ron, stop! Don't hurt him!" Ginny cried out, but Ron didn't lower his wand so much as a half-inch.
"If this Death Eater feels any pain, he can know it's his own fault!" snarled Ron, undeterred. Draco could tell the Gryffindor was debating in his head over which spell to cast on him. He could only hope the Cruciatus Curse would not cross the boy's mind.
Just then, Ron's gaze fell to the stairs on which Draco stood, and he appeared to have arrived at a most satisfying decision. Draco had a vague idea of what was coming, but knew he ought not to wait around and find out if he was right. He spun around and sprinted down the steps at top speed, but he couldn't outrun spells…
Draco coughed a little as the spell hit him in the back, causing him to stumble, and finally to fall, face-down, on the bottom steps; his hands had slipped on the stair, and so had failed to break his fall properly. His jaw began to throb where it had hit the rough, dirty wood, and a second later, he tried to push himself up, but a sharp, sickening pain in his ribs kept him immobile for the moment. He heard indistinct, angry shouting from the landing above, and quick footsteps soon afterward; the next thing Draco knew, both Ginny and Hermione had come to his aid.
"Draco…" Ginny whispered, in too much shock to keep her voice steady. "Are you all right?"
He lifted his head and nodded, but he knew he was far from 'all right'. He could hardly breathe, and he knew the longer he lay there, the harder it would become for him to get himself off of that filthy floor.
Hermione was thankfully more perceptive than he had guessed she would be. "Is he even breathing?" she asked Ginny with a tone of genuine concern.
Draco fixed Ginny with a look that he hoped would give her the message his lips could not send: Help…
Ginny seemed to understand, for she took action immediately. A quick sweep of her wand brought Draco rising from the bottom of the staircase into the air, making breathing a slightly easier task for him. "Come on, Hermione, he'll need your help, too!" she explained.
Draco kept his eyes on Ginny as much as he could. Would she go so far as to heal him a second time? He wondered this almost hopefully, but shuddered in the meanwhile from the powerful sting of being placed back on his bed. His lungs felt like steel balloons: once again, breathing was impossible. His eyes ached now, but he locked them on Hermione as she neared him slowly, as though expecting all of this to be merely an act. Please, he pleaded in thought, please, now, help me now! I need air…
Hermione looked anxiously over her shoulder at Ginny, who nodded urgently back. Then, she turned back to Draco, the schoolmate whom she had come to hate most of all over the years; the same Slytherin who, ever since his sorting into every Gryffindor's least favorite Hogwarts house, had seemed to make her his favorite candidate for bullying, calling her a Mudblood whenever the chance arose; the only person at whom she had ever been angry enough to strike, as she had done in her third year at Hogwarts; and positioned her wand a few inches above his chest…
Immediately, Draco's broken ribs seemed to move back into place before finally mending themselves, and he felt remarkably as if he had never been hurt at all. His starved lungs filled with great gulps of sweet, sweet air until he was able to speak again. "Tha— Thank you," he heard himself whisper just before passing out.
When he woke up again a moment later, Hermione was staring at him with angry tears in her eyes. "Why did I do that just now?" she asked herself aloud, her voice hard and cutting.
Draco stared at her, took a deep breath, and sighed, never daring to let his eyes off the source of the question. "Do you honestly regret it that much?" he asked. "Would you rather have let me die?" Secretly, he dreaded the answer he was most expecting.
Hermione stared back, bewildered. Before long, her eyes narrowed very slightly, giving her the appearance of one who knew exactly how to respond.
"I don't know, Malfoy. Would you have saved me?"
Draco's first instinct would have been to look away at once, but this was no time for instinct to take over. He knew honesty would do little for him now, but she would surely have seen through anything else. He was about to answer her directly when, suddenly, he had a better idea. "I couldn't say, exactly. But if I hadn't come looking to Harry for help, do you really think you would have healed me, either? It's a matter of perspective. A month ago, you saw me the same way I saw you: as someone to despise. But times have changed. I'm not your enemy anymore, not unless you want me to be. By coming here, I made my decision. What's yours going to be?"
Hermione was struck wordless, and she looked over her shoulder at Ginny, who looked back, waiting to hear what she would say. Finally, Hermione simply shook her head and left. For some, it appeared, forgiveness was not quite so easy.
Draco frowned. It seemed Ron had found the backup he had been hoping for. The odds of him and his family remaining safe were steadily shifting for the worse. Ron clearly had McGonagall and Hermione on his side now, and goodness knows who else would join up against him.
He had been forced into the stagnant darkness of loneliness before, but he had gotten through it, and he knew how. He had always had the pages of his diaries to blend himself into. Again, he knew the simple, comforting practice of writing would get him back into daylight. But this time, his quill sat uselessly in his pocket, and he took it out just as Ginny followed Hermione out of the room.
Watching them leave through the corner of his eye, he felt as if he were falling down an endless staircase, with no one to stand him back on his feet. With a small sigh, he pulled the bed sheets up over his head and closed his eyes, too hopeless to move another inch.
A few minutes later, a soft knock sounded at his door, but he didn't budge. But another came, followed by Narcissa's voice. "Draco, are you in here?"
He stayed put and gave no answer. He didn't want her to see him like this, and yet he knew he needed her more than anything. But he forbade himself to move, to make any noise, no matter how many times she asked him to.
He heard the door opening, and his mother walked in. "Draco, are you honestly still asleep?" she asked her son, aghast at finding him lying in bed in the middle of the day. "I have something for you…"
At that, Draco stirred, and hoping she had a few rolls of parchment to give him, pushed the sheets towards the foot of the bed just enough to see what she was talking about. He found to his disappointment, however, that she was instead referring to a corned beef sandwich. Draco wrinkled his nose and went back to pretending he was asleep, but being presented with it quickly reminded him that the pancake breakfast of the previous morning had been the last thing he'd eaten. Then again, he hadn't had much chance since then to dwell on mealtimes. Besides, an empty stomach didn't faze him as much as it once had.
"Darling, why are you acting so stubborn all of a sudden?" Narcissa urged him when he hadn't stirred for a while. "You'll make yourself sick this way."
As much as he hated himself for letting her talk him out of his depression, he gave a heavy sigh, sat up, and took the plate from her. He eyed it with a look of measured distaste, but took a bite nonetheless, if only to give his mother what she wanted.
"That's it," Narcissa sighed happily. She placed a hand on his head in a characteristic, adoring gesture, and left him to his thoughts. Deep down, he wished she hadn't left, but he didn't feel up to calling her back. Gloomily, he finished his lunch, but instead of laying back down as he had expected to do, he felt compelled to venture out of his room once more.
When he did, he soon found himself heading upstairs again, despite not wanting another run-in with Ron or Hermione. Not knowing what it was he sought, he kept walking until the sound of voices was noticeable, further down the main corridor.
"…believes he's the only one who can get rid of You-Know-Who for good? He's only a boy!" cried McGonagall, her voice slightly raised.
"If I recall correctly, in two weeks' time, that will also change. And as I've come to realize, Minerva, destiny waits for no one."
Draco stood, frozen in his tracks. He knew that voice well; it had been that voice which, in its final moments, had beckoned him, lured him into this place with seemingly impossible promises of protection and forgiveness.
But hadn't Dumbledore died? Hadn't Draco seen him murdered, watched him fall limply from the Astronomy tower that very evening? And yet, had his voice not just reached Draco's ears, sounding as if that frigid scene had never taken place?
"Albus, he hasn't even finished school…" Minerva protested. "You could have charged any of us with this responsibility! Surely you don't expect Potter to take it on alone?"
Draco resumed and doubled his pace toward the conversation. Harry, being burdened with a task he might not be able to handle… it sounded all too familiar.
"Rest assured, I believe Harry to be exceedingly well-prepared for the risks he is sure to take in the near future. Need I remind you, my dear Headmistress, that he is a highly intelligent young man, and quite capable of fulfil—"
"But he is only a boy…"
Dumbledore paused briefly, then answered her in earnest, "Speaking truly, Minerva, I disagree. He has risen to the occasion countless times as the need has arisen, and has grown more into a man each time I've seen him. I believe Harry is as capable of defeating Lord Voldemort as any great wizard before him, if not much more so. I realized this when I showed him his prophecy over a year ago, and I know it even more surely as I speak to you now."
Draco had slowed to a stop beside the door from which the voices came. As he continued to listen, however, old feelings of raw jealousy were unearthed. How he longed for such words to be spoken of him! Draco closed his eyes and leaned back against the wall while his heart danced, his mind teasing his most desperate wish with bright visions: for once, his hand had caught the elusive Golden Snitch; for once, he had saved the Wizarding world from mortal peril; for once, he was proud of himself, for the world was proud of him! How wonderful, how blissful the feeling as he saw his mother and his father rushing up to embrace him…
"Ah, Draco. What a pleasant surprise."
Draco felt the world around him shatter as he opened his eyes and reality took the place of his daydream. All he could see was grey; grey walls, grey floor, grey ceiling. Swallowing hard to repress the disappointment overtaking him, he stepped slowly into view, only to realize he was being addressed by the portrait of the late headmaster. He felt himself sink into the floor as if it were quicksand. Dumbledore had not survived as Draco had hoped.
"Professor Dumbledore… I…" he stammered, still trying to will his vision out of his mind. Dumbledore watched him mildly, and inclined his head brightly in acknowledgement of his arrival.
"I don't suppose you'd be willing to tell me what you're doing here, Mr. Malfoy?" McGonagall hissed, clearly still distraught from her argument with Dumbledore about Harry's future.
Draco stepped back. "Was I to be confined to my bedroom, Professor?" he asked, but he immediately wished he hadn't.
Minerva's eyes flashed with outrage. Draco could practically hear her thinking, How dare you speak to me that way! Luckily, before she had a chance to say it out loud, Dumbledore asked her kindly, "Minerva, my dear, would you mind terribly if I were to speak with Draco unaccompanied?"
With that, McGonagall seemed to lose her steam, and after glancing worriedly at the portrait, turned on her heels and left without another word. Draco watched the doorway, half expecting her to return any second, but she didn't.
"Draco, I must first tell you how pleased I am to see you here," Dumbledore told him with more than a note of empathy. "You have come a long way already."
Draco looked down at his shoes and didn't answer. He didn't know how. Was it possible that the aged wizard, though deceased, had somehow seen through the wall, straight into the boy's vision? Further realization told him that not only was it possible, it was how Dumbledore had known Draco had been standing there in the first place. Why else would he have given the youth a tiny taste of the praise he wanted so badly?
"Shall I assume that your mother is here with you?"
Draco nodded. "Yes, sir…" he replied. The words felt awkward as they left his lips, but he decided that after essentially clearing the way for Severus Snape to kill this man, it was the least he could do. Meanwhile, the portrait seemed to study him for a moment, and Draco knew better than to try Occlumency against the man he had tried to kill.
Dumbledore shook his head slowly as he addressed his disarmer, "It is my mercy, and not yours, that matters now."
The words thundered in the young Malfoy's mind, reverberating off the walls of its prison.
"Dumbledore cornered! Dumbledore wandless! Dumbledore alone!" Amycus cried out in excitement when he saw Draco with his wand aimed at his professor. "Well done, Draco, well done!"
Draco heard this again as vividly as if it were happening for the first time. But the next words spoken came not from within.
"No, Draco," Dumbledore told him gently. "it was not you who caused this to happen. Amycus was, as he has been many times before, incorrect in his judgment. He, like many of Lord Voldemort's other followers, assumed that you were eager to kill me. But you were neither willing to accept the job, nor the one to complete it."
Draco's eyes blurred behind half-shed tears of shame. "I want to believe that…" he began, his voice scarcely his own. "You know I do."
Dumbledore smiled at him and asked simply, "Then what's stopping you?"
Draco swallowed hard and answered hesitantly, "The same things that always stop me."
Dumbledore gave him a small, understanding nod. "And may I ask you what those are?"
Draco couldn't take the pressure any longer. He had tried so hard to fight it all back since he'd gotten here, but standing before the portrait of his former headmaster, approaching the excruciating subject of his father, and the incurable self-doubt that years of torture and fear had instilled in his heart… He hated himself for letting those tears slide down the sides of his face, but he knew just the same that he could not keep them hidden, not from the Legilimens who sat before him, centered neatly in his solid gold frame, saying nothing of his student's weakness.
"Had I not been confined to this canvas," Dumbledore sighed regretfully, "I would have been better able to console you. My dear boy… it seems such a long time ago that we first spoke, on the night you were Sorted."
Draco remembered that evening well. He and the other new Slytherins had finished their first Hogwarts feast, and were following their Prefects out of the Great Hall to their common room, when he slipped through the crowd, seeking out another destination entirely…
Draco looked over his shoulder as he parted from his housemates, watching as they and the Hufflepuffs went downstairs to the dungeons while the Ravenclaws and the Gryffindors went up to their respective towers. It didn't trouble him at all that no one had bothered to notice he was missing; in fact, he was both used to being left behind, and counting on it to happen again. Once they had each disappeared around a corner, Draco's heart flooded with excitement. In his book, he had yet to be Sorted, for the Hat's shout of "Slytherin!" had been forged. It had taken no magic spell to confuse the Sorting Hat into putting him safely in his father's house. After all, all he had done was gather his determination and, with his thoughts, scream the name of said house as soon as he felt the old hat touch his hair.
Chuckling gleefully to himself at his success thus far, he glanced around once more before darting back down the wide corridor toward what he hoped would be the headmaster's office. During the feast, he had nonchalantly asked a third year where the Sorting Hat was stored after the ceremony was complete, to which the older wizard had replied, his mouth ungracefully full of mashed potatoes, "Dumbledore's office."
Just when Draco's luck seemed to be fading, he saw a vaguely familiar face, one whom he remembered seeing at the staff table during the Sorting Ceremony and the feast. Perhaps it would be too bold to approach the man at this late hour, he decided, but he hoped following this dark-haired, darkly-clad professor would be somewhat helpful to his search.
Quite suddenly, however, an unseen someone behind him gave him away. "Aren't you supposed to be in your common room, young man?"
Draco's heart jumped into his throat, and he spun around to find a very wide ghost standing – or rather, floating – there, his transparent eyes scolding the boy. Meanwhile, the professor he had been following turned his head to look at the young wanderer, and began to walk towards him.
"I'm not out here to break the rules!" Draco said quickly, hoping to be spared whatever punishment was in store for students caught out of bed at this time of night. "I just wanted to…"
"Yes, Mr. Malfoy?" prodded the professor, crossing his arms over his chest impatiently.
Draco flinched at the man's apparent knowledge of his students. "You know who I am, Professor?"
The man stepped closer, and Draco had a hunch he'd seen him before arriving at Hogwarts. "Yes, Draco, I know you."
Draco remained silent, studying the man. His voice, his features, the expression he wore… They all seemed so familiar… But who was this wizard? And why couldn't Draco put a name to it all? He hated feeling stupid like this… Finally, he grew tired of guessing games and asked plainly, "Where's Professor Dumbledore's office?"
The professor pursed his lips as though debating whether or not to give Draco a direct answer. "I suppose I had better take you there myself. First years should be in bed at this hour," he added with mild disdain.
"Thanks," Draco said, feeling secretly relieved, even hopeful. "It won't happen again."
They didn't have to walk very far, but there were a few twists and turns along the way, and overall, Draco was glad to have enlisted his new professor's help. When they arrived, the man addressed the two gargoyles guarding the door in a firm, clear voice: "Honeydukes."
With a loud thud, the gargoyles jumped out of the way, and the heavy doors behind them swung open. Dumbledore was seated at his desk; he looked up pleasantly when he heard them coming. "Ah yes, good evening, Severus," he said, and Severus inclined his head in an unspoken greeting. "I see that one of our new students has lost his way trying to find his dormitory… Well, the more the merrier, am I right? Pumpkin juice?" he offered the boy as, with a wave of his wand hand, he conjured a goblet and filled it with the thick, orange liquid.
Draco shook his head, still rather full from the feast, but felt a bit more at ease after the headmaster's bright greeting. "No, thanks," he said, smiling just a little.
With a nod, he looked back at Severus, "I will see him safely to his common room after a little chat. Good night."
Severus hesitated for a split second, but decided to comply. "Good night, Headmaster," he replied almost awkwardly, and left. Draco watched him walk away as the doors closed by themselves.
"Shall I assume, my dear boy, that you did not break school rules within hours of entering Hogwarts without a good reason?" Draco turned back to the headmaster, half-expecting him to be angry, only to find that he looked no more so than when he had first welcomed the youth into his office.
"I was just…" Draco tried, but he hadn't a clue how to explain what he wanted to do, much less why he wanted to do it.
But Dumbledore made it easier on him. "…looking for something?" he suggested with an air of light-hearted amusement.
Grinning mildly, Dumbledore pointed to a shelf not far from where he sat. "Is that it?"
Draco turned his head to look at what Dumbledore was referring to, and gasped. There in the bookcase, on the fourth shelf up from the floor, was exactly what he had been looking for! "The Sorting Hat! But… how did you know?" Barely waiting for an answer, he hurried over, grabbed the Hat by the point, and placed it on his head then and there.
"Okay, Hat," he thought, "this time you get to make up your own mind. Go on, Sort me for real."
"Slytherin didn't suit you, then?" it answered indignantly into his ear.
Draco thought back, "I had to get into Slytherin the first time. Father would have had my sanity if I was sorted anywhere else."
"Then why do you want to be placed differently now?" it asked.
"Because I'm not like my father."
"Ahh," it seemed to sigh, "very well. Hmm… Very interesting indeed. A Malfoy, yes, but one's soul is far greater than their blood… Yes, I do believe…"
As suspense gnawed at him from within, Draco began to consider the possibilities, and the consequences that would come with them. Gryffindor would have gotten him the worst reaction imaginable from his father… Hufflepuff was unthinkable for any Malfoy… Ravenclaw seemed better, at least, but he would most likely still be punished for breaking family tradition… but, Merlin… Slytherin just felt wrong…
Dumbledore applauded politely, as he had done for each new student at the Sorting Ceremony, and while Draco replaced the Hat back on its shelf, his heart soared. He may have broken the Malfoy code, but he felt as if he'd been let out of a tiny cage, finally free to be what he wanted, the way he wanted it.
Dumbledore stood and walked around his desk to where Draco stood. "If that is all, then let us set off to our dormitories, shall we?" With that, he led Draco to his common room where, to his relief, no one appeared to be looking for him. "Wizard's gold," the professor told the seemingly empty wall, then nodded to Draco once more. As the wall slowly uncovered a hidden passage of its own, which Draco started to make his way through, the headmaster turned to leave.
"Good night, Draco."
Remembering his second Sorting was almost soothing for Draco. Taking a deep breath, he recalled the sense of pride he had experienced that night when he had realized he wasn't the spitting image of Lucius.
"Professor," he began, mildly curious, "did you ever tell anyone about that?"
From his portrait, Dumbledore smiled knowingly at his student. "No," he replied, "I did not. I decided that, should you wish anyone to know about it, you might have preferred to tell that person yourself. Was I right?"
Draco nodded. "I didn't even tell Mother about it," he admitted.
Dumbledore raised an eyebrow in what might have been surprise. "Now, Draco, do you mean to tell me that after nearly six years, your mother still believes you to be something you never were to begin with?"
Putting it that way unsettled Draco a little. "She never asked…" he mumbled.
"I see. Were you worried she would be upset with you if she knew? Afraid, perhaps, that she would think less of you?"
Draco bit his lip at the thought. "I don't know… I suppose I… I just never thought much about it until now…"
"I will, though," was his earnest reply. "I'll tell her."
"Very good. It's been my experience that your love for your mother, and hers for you, is built on a foundation too strong to be shaken by a mere change of your house at Hogwarts."
Draco nodded and turned to leave the room, but paused before he got to the door. "P-Professor?" he said, looking back hopefully.
"Yes, Draco?" Dumbledore answered kindly.
"How long before everyone starts to realize I'm not a danger to them?"
Dumbledore sighed; his pleasant expression had become melancholy. "That is a very good question," he said, "but alas, one which I fear I cannot answer."
Draco's gaze fell once again, and with a heavy sigh, he went back downstairs without another word.