Little Draco walked down the hall, lost again. There were no windows where he was, only the enchanted light pouring with deceitful cheeriness from the wall sconces providing illumination, meaning he was somewhere in Hogwarts’s interior. Which narrowed down his location not at all. With a place as big as Hogwarts, whole towns could fit in its interior, and his common-room was only one room. This hall looked much like any other, broad enough for a river of students and tall enough to make the pale-haired Draco look smaller. He’d already been small – his father had said that the bone-structure of a true Malfoy aristocrat was elegant and sleek, and that Draco would have the greyhound strength of his father when his growth-spurt hit. That growth-spurt was still a bit ahead of the young first-year, unfortunately, making him nearly the smallest of his class.
He sighed again, feeling as though the giant emptiness around him were a void pulling him apart. It must be in the middle of classes for any hall to be so deserted, although he wished dearly to hear the muffled sound of a class behind doors – because at least then he could duck his head in and ask a professor about where he was. Of course, that would be more embarrassment than he could probably survive, but he was already doubtlessly in trouble for missing class.
And Draco’s first year had already started out badly enough, with his reputation preceding him so fully that he was suffocating on it now. He wanted to finally get away from home and become himself, but all anyone seemed to know and think was that he was the spoiled son of Lucius and Narcissus Malfoy.
It wasn’t his fault that Crabbe and Goyle had successfully put a Magicseal on him pretty much the first day, so the pervasive spells of the shifting, labyrinthine school flew right over him! But unless he wanted to complain and prove that he truly was a whiny, pompous pureblood, he’d have to keep his mouth shut and deal with it.
Everyone else was learning the minor magic of coordinating the castle, but Draco was stumbling through a puzzle that he quite frankly did not have the key to at the moment. He’d also probably fail at most of his classes, too, or at least some of the finer points of spellcasting. It felt…it felt like being blind, or not having a sense of smell, thus missing out on things that others barely noticed. The castle tested all of her students, making them learn how to use their magic like a child getting used to its legs in baby steps: the halls shifted, the staircases obviously moved, and one path was never the same even from one hour to the next. But with a little bit of magic – nearly subconscious, never very hard – the students were soon getting to and from class and meals with only occasional stretches of being lost. It was the first step to becoming a wizard.
But those were students who could reach their magic. Draco was rather crippled in that respect. Even now, he could feel the Magicseal, a heartless tattoo beneath his skin and invisible to the world but unforgettable to him – it was cruel and he’d never heard of it before, but now he knew irrevocably that it wrapped one’s magic in steel wool or numbed it like lidocaine. Crabbe and Goyle had bullied him into a corner and said he deserved it, even though Draco knew that he didn’t. Still, he hadn’t expected the two large boys to wrap him up in a spell that hurt him so much. Draco was a pureblood and a Malfoy, but people didn’t seem to understand that that still made him absolutely nothing when his metaphorical magical fingertips were numb to the touch.
Or maybe they knew that perfectly, and that was exactly why no one had stopped Crabbe and Goyle when they’d hit him with the Magicseal.
He was late. Late enough, in fact, that there was little point in trying to get to Configurations at all. If he had wandered too far from the main halls, however, then he’d miss the tidal flow of students as they exited class, and then supper would be a lost cause, too. The little boy’s stomach growled, and he frowned down at it, pausing in the broad, tall hallway like a silver minnow in an ocean.
He saw fidgeting motions off to his left, and that was when life changed just a bit for the unfortunate heir of Malfoy.
Students ignored the paintings that littered the walls of Hogwarts. First-years found them fascinating, obviously, and those lucky paintings that guarded House common-rooms were never to be trifled with lightly, but beyond that they were mere novelties. People saw them, awed at how they moved, and occasionally tossed out farewells and greetings when they passed in swarms beneath the most familiar paintings in the most-used halls. But that was the extent of it. What was the point of talking to paintings, after all? They were animated by magic, but they were locked in a different world, and not technically alive, with perhaps the exception of the paintings of past Headmasters.
Not so for Draco Malfoy, however.
Crabbe and Goyle were still maintaining the Magicseal with sadistic glee, but Draco refused to show that he was afraid of them. He still walked into the common-room every day, holding his head high and imagining he was his father. And then he refused to cry when the same bullying happened all over again, and that vicious magic sank like claws into his bone.
While Draco – with much determination and effort – could force his magic to respond to blunt, sloppy commands, he was still completely blind and deaf to the subtle magic that he was supposed to learn within the corridors. Other students hardly got lost at all now, as navigating the gentle currents became second-nature. With the Magicseal twining around his core like barbed wire and chains, however, Draco spent each and every day within a labyrinth. Every morning was like waking up and finding oneself on trial yet again.
So he fumbled along and learned to follow other students, and when that didn’t work…when that didn’t work, he found himself kneeling at the side of the deserted hall, looking up at a painting and chatting softly in the quiet. Peace was hard to find in a common-room that thought you were detestable, but remarkably easy to find when your only company was a painting that got very little attention from anyone otherwise.
“Draco, dear, you’re not lost again, are you?” the matronly nun asked with an admittedly hopeless voice, clearly already knowing that answer as surely as nearly every other painting in Hogwarts did. Draco was becoming a familiar face to them as no student ever had before.
The ivory-pale hair fell in the first-year’s eyes as he dropped his head, but then he sighed and swiped the pale strands away. The painting was called ‘In Her Cell’ and Draco had just taken to calling its patron figure ‘Nunny’. All of the paintings had their own names, often choosing their own, but they seemed touched and delighted with this small, fine-boned child giving them nicknames like he actually cared about them.
He did. Obviously. They were the only ones who helped him without judging him or making him feel like less than what he was. The fact that they could give him directions in the moving halls helped, too.
“I was late out of the common-room and got left behind before I knew it,” he explained with a sigh. In reality, he’d been avoiding Crabbe and Goyle, but it made him feel a coward. He knew that his father was brave, and wanted to find some of that bravery himself, but he seemed to lose his grasp on it over and over again.
Draco tried a wan smile that, even when he wasn’t trying, had a roguishly prideful glint in it that was pure Malfoy. He even tilted his head in an imitation of the prat everyone expected him to be. “But it doesn’t matter, because Blaise left his chocolate frogs lying around last night, so I had them for breakfast instead. No one will ever know where they went – they were left unprotected in a room full of first-year boys, after all.”
The painted nun tried and failed not to giggle, even as she modestly hid the smile behind a pastel hand. “Oh, by Mordred’s own heart, you are a rascal!” she chastised, but not without a heavy helping of warmth.
Draco allowed himself a small laugh that no one else ever heard, unaware how small and vulnerable his voice sounded as it echoed down the empty hall. He got lost like this all the time, and relied heavily on the paintings to direct him now. Without magic, they were honestly the only roadmap he had.
If anyone knew how often the Great Heir of Malfoy sat in a puddle of robes beneath a painting when the halls emptied and he was hopelessly lost again, they perhaps might have rethought all that everyone supposedly ‘knew’ about aristocratic pansies and prats.
If anyone had known just how close he had grown to all of Hogwarts’s hundreds of animated paintings, they might have been surprised. No one alive and breathing really realized that Malfoy had no friends outside painted people now that he’d reached Hogwarts.
If they’d known just how protective all of those paintings were becoming of their ‘little serpent,’ everyone else just might have grown a little nervous.
“Now, Draco, child,” Nunny coaxed, leaning forward a little in her painting to look down at the first-year kneeling under her frame, “That’s hardly a good breakfast.”
“Yes, well…” Draco started proud, talking like his father, but then his eyes dropped again and he seemed to get smaller. Biting his lip in embarrassment, the young boy admitted with more openness than he showed normal human beings, “…That’s all well and good for someone who can find the Great Hall, but I couldn’t this morning.”
“Dearie, you need to tell someone about this,” Nunny sighed, sounding deeply sad.
Draco’s head shot up and he lost his hesitancy. “No! You can’t tell anybody! I told you that already!”
He’d told the same to all of the paintings. While they could not leave their frames, paintings were remarkably well-connected, and had secretly gotten together many times to talk about the persecuted young Slytherin heir who so often talked to no one but them. All respected him and felt sad for him, but had thus far held their silence at his desperate, determined behest. Truthfully, they were uncertain whom to tell. After all, he was the son of a past supporter of Voldemort, so even teachers were not intrinsically fond of him. Perhaps Snape would have been, but Snape was…well, Snape. He got along with no one, paintings included. He was loyal to and protective of his Slytherins to the death, true, but he also happened to be out of Hogwarts on business at the moment.
“Nunny, you can’t tell anyone,” Draco continued to remonstrate her with the stubbornness that only a few children ever know, the children who are both single-minded and far braver than anyone knows, “You can’t tell anyone because that is what everyone expects me to do! To just…just…bend and call for help!”
“Draco, my dear,” said the painting with the softness of a mother, reaching as if she wished to touch him, “Asking for help is not a bad thing.”
His eyes, turned up to her, grew wet with tears so that they glistened like mercury, but he didn’t cry. “I ask you and the other paintings for help,” he went on in a voice almost too quiet to even be heard in the silent hall, his tone striving to be positive, “and you help me all the time!”
“With finding classrooms,” Nunny reminded him. Her voice grew sterner, hinting at the intense hatred she – and the other paintings – felt for the people that were hurting their Little Serpent, “But what you need is someone to take off that horrid Magicseal that those evil boys are maintaining on you!” Any professor could do it, even Snape, although it might be a bit more difficult than expected, since it had been sloppily performed by two first-year boys – rather like trying to undue a knot that had been tied by an amateur sailor, and therefore looked more like an impenetrable ball of rope than a knot. Draco’s magic was at the center of that knot, and the paintings worried themselves sick every day wondering just what was happening to the magic in the grasp of those strangling bonds. A few of the more daring paintings had given up what knowledge they knew to Draco, telling him how to fight it, but few of the paintings knew much about magic, and those that did weren’t supposed to share – in the same way that a person should not teach dangerous skills if they themselves are not sure how. But they knew that the threat to Draco now was greater than any mismanaged teachings they could offer, so they broke their silence and did what they could for him. Some of the paintings were very old, and knew spells that probably hadn’t been heard in generations. Still the Magicseal prevailed, and still Draco asked – demanded…pleaded…begged – that they tell no one.
He was looking the painted nun right in the eye as he explained again with the determination of a dragon, “If I call for help, then it will just prove to everyone that I’m the spoiled brat that they think I am. I’m not just the rich son of Lucius and Narcissus Malfoy!”
For someone so small, as delicate as a silver kestrel, he was fierce now. Spots of color had appeared on his cheekbones as emotions flushed his pale skin. “I am Draco, and I will prove that I can do things on my own, and that I do not need the shield of my heritage. I will become my own shield.”
The nun – lovingly called Nunny by the one student who cared for her and the other paintings – wanted to argue, but instead she opened her painted lips and then closed them again. She and the other paintings had seen many a child walk Hogwarts’s halls, and so they knew the many nuances of the young heart and mind. It was obvious that what Draco said was not foolishness – it was a matter of personal pride that went deeper than frivolous emotions. If Draco could not prove this to himself…then he’d die a little on the inside.
Being his own person meant more to him than his magic, or his safety, or even his happiness. Happiness would come when he was sure – and whenever everyone was forced to admit – that he was more than his glorious heritage.
Nunny sighed because she was afraid that doing this would cost Draco dearly. It already was.
“Those Crabbe and Goyle boys are doing something to you which is monstrous.”
“Y-Yes.” Draco’s voice faltered, and he lowered his head in frustration at his own shaky tone. He remembered how his father talked and refused to be cowed, and regained control again so he could look up and declare stoically to the painting, “But they will not make me give up and whine. I’ll show them! Eventually they will know that they can never beat me.”
Nunny could see that, once again, there was no changing Draco’s mind. To tell anyone what was happening was to betray him, and the silver-haired boy had all of the paintings too wrapped around his little finger for that. None of them would even consider betraying him. So the nun sighed again and gave up.
If Draco asked the paintings to get the moon for him, they would do it, but if he told them not to help him…then they would obey him in that, too. He was their Little Serpent. “Go just down this hall, Dearie, and the Limping Shepherd will give you the next set of directions. To Herbology, you said? We’ll get you there before the second bell.”
The halls were dark and the halls quiet, and this time Draco wasn’t in the hallway because he was lost. He was in the hallway because it was the only place he didn’t feel heart-crushingly alone.
The Limping Shepherd – an old panting done in sharp brushstrokes and blunt colors, making an impression of an old man and his crook – leaned down within his painting, acrylic eyes dark and soft as a night sky in the shadowy, deserted hallway. He looked down with calm compassion at the silver-haired child curled up against the wall beneath him. In the shadow of the painting and the loneliness of the vast hallway, a young Slytherin cried into the small alcove of his own body. With his knees drawn up and his thin arms wrapped around them, he was a miniscule figure in black and green robes. Although, in the darkness, he was nothing more or less than a boy crying.
“I am me!” he sobbed, voice a thin plea in the darkness. It reached no further than the painting, but then again, Draco had gotten used to talking to paintings and their attentive, listening, painted ears. “And the me I am is strong and smart and a respectable wizard all on my own! I’m not my father, I’m not my heritage, and I’m not all that money and power my name brings! I’m Draco, and Draco on his own is not weak.”
“No, young wizard,” the Limping Shepherd said with his low, unflappable voice, a voice that talked to very few students but rolled like thunder over an open field, “you are not. You are surviving the tests and trials of your peers when what they are doing to you is unreasonable and cruel.”
It was part praise, part gentle chastisement, because the Limping Shepherd also wished to tell Dumbledore – or, honestly, anyone – about the sadism of Vincent Crabbe and Gregory Goyle. But Draco still refused to bend, because even a little bending would break the tentative self-respect he had been growing within the walls of Hogwarts. At home, he was loved and respected, but he’d come out into the world with the hopes of growing as himself. Sometimes it was nice to be the Malfoy heir, but sometimes – always – Draco strived to learn just how strong he was beyond the comfort and protection of his family.
He was finding out now, but no matter how strong he was, he still found himself alone and imploding beneath the shadow of a painting.
He grew angry, frustrated at his own weakness so much that all of his aristocratic manners fled and he snarled into his knees, hands fisting. “Why can’t I do this?!” he railed at himself in vicious fury.
The Limping Shepherd must have been painted to epitomize calmness and gentle strength, as he simply continued to stand within the smudged greens of his field and look down at the boy below. “A broad question, young wizard. The reason you cannot break the Magicseal is because it is beyond your schooling – far beyond your peers’ schooling, if they had not been perusing forbidden areas of Dark libraries.”
Draco sighed hard, catching his breath from sobbing, and argued without lifting his head, “I’m not talking about that. I don’t need to prove that I can break a Magicseal – I need to prove that I can be a good wizard and a person to respect despite it. Magic doesn’t make a wizard good.” However, Draco seemed unable to say precisely what did make a wizard memorable and praise-worthy, and he sputtered into silence. The crying had faded to tears and sniffles, but still he didn’t leave.
He could have asked the Limping Shepherd how to get back to the common-room. Instead he asked, “Can I stay here? Is Filch anywhere near here?”
Silence. Draco knew without a thought that the image would be fading into the painting, walking to another, asking Draco’s question. The other paintings, by now, would answer without hesitation. Soon the boy could hear the limping shuffle of the figure returning. “Filch is elsewhere.” There was a pause, and then an additional answer said with unswerving surety, “He will not come down this hall tonight.” No one realized it, but the paintings could be cunning if they wanted something. Right now, they wanted to help Draco.
“Oh.” Draco could have asked the painting whether any of the professors were alone, alone and willing to listen to a young boy who had been secretly crippled by his peers. He could have at least asked if Snape was back. Instead he asked, “Can you tell Lady in Black where I am? So she doesn’t worry?”
Lady in Black was the imposing Renaissance painting that guarded the Slytherin common-room entrance. She was aloof and standoffish, and talked less to Draco than the other paintings did. Still, she deserved to know where he was.
“I already told her.” The Limping Shepherd was an imposing painting, stark and radiating stillness and rugged life. He was also incredibly efficient, and secretly understood far more than most people would think for a gruffly-done painting. Draco thought that the Limping Shepherd was the most dependable of all Hogwarts’s paintings, and definitely the Shepherd thought for himself the most.
Draco dragged in a shaky breath, not relaxing but perhaps losing some of the desperate tightness in his arms and legs. “So I can stay here?” he asked again in a small and pleading voice. It was muffled by his robes, as his face was still buried in his knees, only his pale, silk-soft hair visible.
The answer came with an air of sadness with no hesitation. “Of course, Draco.”
The little Slytherin – whom everyone called prideful, whom everyone heard was a prat – curled up on the floor and slept the whole night in the hallway. Had anyone seen this, it would have been eye-opening and also heart-breaking.
To the paintings, it was worse.
They knew that this happened all the time.