Harry’s eyes were closed in slumber, his breathing easy, and Ginny was content to simply perch on the edge of the mattress, the candle on her lap, and watch over him, Ron, and Hermione. The trio slept on modest twin beds in a small room above the local pub, and from what Ginny could see from the window, the town itself was quite tiny as well. Ginny doubted that they found the Horcrux in such a place, but hoped they at least discovered some clues.
She yearned to speak with at least one of them, but whatever magic the candle employed, it continued to keep her from communicating. Even so, watching Harry’s face in the flicker of the flame did wonders for her overly frazzled nerves. She knew she needed to be getting back now that she felt calmer—she was not only breaking curfew, but shattering it to pieces by this point—but Malfoy had gotten her so wound up during their detention earlier that she needed the time to cool off.
She frowned, remembering that whole trying affair. She’d been such an intense combination of humiliated and irate that she could hardly stand to look at him, let alone work productively along side him. Her palms now bore little half-crescents where her nails scored the skin in an effort to hold back an inventive barrage of hexes.
The sprites, at least, had been impressive. They were indeed miniature women made of light, but so much more as well. Their green luminescence was a rich, vibrant emerald, blazing against the nighttime backdrop, their wings a glittering patchwork of whorls and spiral snow-white webbing, delicate and intricate as lace. The breathtaking vision they created was the night’s one redeeming quality…well, that and the fact that Malfoy stayed relatively quiet after his initial, degrading stunt.
They were back in the castle by ten and warned sternly by Professor Pierce to go straight to bed. But Ginny’s temper still simmered dangerously close to the surface, and so without really planning on it, she’d found herself here. Wherever here is, she thought, smiling wanly as she raised her eyes to the window.
She glanced down to Harry’s relaxed face again, reaching vainly towards him with phantom fingers, and murmured, “Where in the world are you?”
She sighed, then rose with the candle and made her way to the window. It was thrown open in an effort to stave off the summer heat, and she leaned out to feel the breeze on her face. The stars were in rare form this night, salting the sky in a dazzling display, and she leaned even further forward to get a better view. A particularly strong wind swept down as she did, though, and before Ginny could cup a hand around the candle, the breeze extinguished the flame.
The crushing nothing Ginny associated with the candle’s transition time slammed down around her, still a nerve-shattering shock to the senses after all her experience with it, then almost as quickly lifted again to leave her kneeling in the glass-walled tower room. Muscles still feeling more like water than anything solid, she crawled over and placed the candle in Colin’s makeshift hiding spot.
She stole a quick look outside at the nighttime Hogwarts, sprawled around her on all sides, and figured it to be close to midnight by now. She cringed inwardly, sending up a fast prayer that no one would be patrolling the corridors back to Gryffindor. The last thing she needed was another detention on her second night back to the castle.
She moved over the stone floors as stealthily as possible, holding her shoes in her hands to help minimize the noise. She made it surprisingly far in this manner without encountering another soul, but just as she was about to pass by the stairs to the dungeon, the sound of speaking up ahead froze her in her tracks. At first she assumed the voices belonged to teachers on late-night hall duty, but as she held her breath with her back pressed tight against the wall, she quickly realized that they actually came from students arguing around the corner.
“What do you mean it’s a terrible idea?” a high, petulant voice demanded.
“I should say it’s pretty self-explanatory, Pansy,” a much deeper, male voice drawled, and Ginny would know who it belonged to anywhere. Malfoy obviously didn’t obey the “go straight to bed” order, either…and by the sound of it, Pansy Parkinson wasn’t paying any more mind to McGonagall’s stern warning than they.
“What’s wrong with it?”
“Nothing, if you don’t mind getting expelled this close to graduating.”
“Well, obviously we won’t let anyone know who did it.” Pansy’s voice was growing even whinier than usual in frustration.
Malfoy laughed cruelly. “Pansy, even you can’t be that thick. Who else would it be? The second even a handful of students on the Dark Lord’s shit list go missing, they’re going to look to Slytherin first. And guess who went and got herself a pretty tattoo on her arm last summer?”
“He’ll protect us.” Pansy was obviously trying to sound firm, but her voice wavered. “Especially if we can pull this off. He’ll be so pleased that we’ll breeze through the ranks.”
“I’m not interested. You can do whatever your idiot heart desires.” Malfoy’s tone was final.
There was a long stretch of silence then, and Ginny, still frozen against the wall, imagined the two of them staring each other down. Finally, Pansy spoke.
“What’s the matter with you, Draco?” she demanded.
“At the moment?” he asked innocently, and Ginny could easily envision the pointed glare he was probably leveling on the dark-haired girl.
“You never talk about business with the Dark Lord anymore, or want to help with any of the missions, or take any interest in advancing or anything. And no one knows what the hell happened with you last summer…no one even saw you again after that day, not until school.”
“And you can see how devastated I am by that,” Malfoy said sarcastically.
“That too!” she cried. “You…you don’t even act interested in me anymore.” She said it as if that was all the proof needed to prove something was seriously wrong.
“You’re right,” he stated bluntly. “Glad we could clear that up. Now if you’ll excuse me….”
Ginny’s heart sprang into her throat as the sound of footsteps neared her corner. Any second now he would be rounding the bend, and there she would be, standing like a moron with her back pressed against the wall. Her eyes searched frantically, Pansy’s very vocal protests distracting her, but all she could see that offered any cover was an ancient granite statue of a dragon. Desperate and with no other options forthcoming, Ginny sucked in a breath and dashed across the hall behind the stone dragon.
A heartbeat later, Ginny peeked out to see Malfoy storming by her hiding spot.
“Draco!” Pansy called for perhaps the dozenth time, “wait! Draco!.”
With an exaggerated huff of frustration, he stopped mid-stride and spun on her, directly in front of Ginny’s statue. “What, Pansy?”
Pansy’s pug-like features were arranged in a pout, her eyes darting all over his face. “Just…just talk to me. Like you used to, remember? Why are you so different?”
Malfoy rolled his head back for a second in annoyance, then brought it back up to stare hard at the girl. She squirmed under his intense gaze, but wouldn’t falter completely, and he sighed. “Look, it’s just…” he trailed off though, something distracting him. Ginny’s heart nearly stopped when he seemed to look right at her.
“Draco?” Pansy prompted, sensing her near victory slipping away.
He stared for another couple seconds at the dragon statue, and Pansy turned to look curiously as well. Finally, he blinked and turned his attention back to Pansy. “It’s just none of your business,” he finished lamely, then turned on his heel and continued down the hall.
Pansy released an odd sound somewhere between a muffled scream and a groan, then hurried after the blond boy. Ginny remained behind the statue long after both students receded from view, her pulse slowly returning to its usual rhythm, and then spent several minutes more processing what she’d just heard.
Malfoy not interested in Death Eater business? Ginny vividly recalled Harry’s account only one year earlier of Malfoy bragging to his heart’s content about the important role he would play to Voldemort. Pansy was right—why the change, if indeed there was one? Harry also told her that Malfoy quite willingly allowed Pansy to fawn all over him then, but apparently now he no longer cared for the girl’s attentions.
Ginny cautiously left the granite dragon’s protection wearing a frown of concentration, trying hard to create a mental checklist of everything the Slytherins mentioned, seemingly important or no. She remembered Pansy saying something about last summer, something that happened on a particular day after which no one saw Malfoy again until school. She also remembered Malfoy insinuating Pansy’s arm bore the Dark Mark with his “pretty tattoo” remark. And there was the troubling implication that Pansy wanted to pull some dangerous prank or another. But the gist of the whole conversation was that Malfoy was significantly different, lacking interest in any of his former passions. Ginny frowned harder, thinking that she certainly noticed no change in the great prat.
Her footsteps slowed at that last thought, and she suddenly remembered something she never really took the time to consider before. The first time she saw him up close this year was outside the kitchens where Professor Pierce came upon them. He caught her out past curfew and hanging about the kitchens, perfect grounds for detention and point deduction which he, as a Prefect, was completely within his bounds to issue. Even if he wasn’t meant to be on patrol, it would have been only too easy. In the past it would have been like Christmas come early for the Slytherin. But instead he’d chosen to walk away. In fact, Ginny mused, had she not spoken up from shock at his deviation from normal behavior, both of them probably would have gotten off clean that night. Even after she foolishly reminded him of punishment, he didn’t act as if he planned on doing it. That certainly fell under the “drastic change” category Pansy was sniveling over.
Well, one advantage of his apparent “change” was that Ginny doubted Pansy would act on whatever imbecilic idea she was concocting. The girl loved nothing more than getting up to no good, but she wasn’t a leader. That was always Malfoy’s role. Without him, Ginny didn’t think there was much to fear from her. Still, she remained more than a little anxious. Maybe it was time to talk to McGonagall. But then there was the issue of proof, of which she had none, and it would also lead to an awkward explanation of how she had occasion to overhear the conversation at such a late hour in the first place. But still, if Pansy did grow a backbone and someone got hurt….
She stayed so busy working through the suddenly complex puzzle of Draco Malfoy that she arrived at the portrait of the Fat Lady without any memory of the journey there. Shaking her head, she spoke the password and climbed in like a zombie, mind still occupied with theories and speculations growing wilder by the second. She walked up to the girls’ dormitory and slipped into bed mechanically, but her thoughts were such a furiously whirling hurricane that sleep would not come easily, and by the time the first rays of morning sun crept through the open window, she felt more tired than rested.
She went through her morning routine sluggishly, scowling at the puffy circles under her eyes every time she glimpsed her reflection, and even considered trying some of the make-up Lavender was always harping about. She shrugged off the idea, figuring she survived sixteen years without it just fine and didn’t need to start messing with the stuff now. Maybe when she wasn’t so tired. Or cared more.
A glance at the clock told her that breakfast was nearly over, and the idea of frantically shoving food down her throat not sounding very appealing at the moment, she decided to just start heading to class early.
The corridor was deserted with all the students still packed into the Great Hall, so when the sound of shoes clicking against the stone floors reached her ears, Ginny was a little surprised. In these echoing halls, though, she could not immediately discern where it was coming from and glanced curiously over her shoulder. Nothing but empty castle met her eyes, so she shrugged to herself and simply kept going. Seconds later someone had her wrist in a vice like grip and gave it a rough tug, spinning her around.
She gave a little squeak of surprise, which turned into something more like a growl when she identified her attacker. “Malfoy,” she spat, wrenching her captive wrist free. “What do you want?”
By the looks of things, he didn’t benefit from much sleep the night before either. He was still as immaculate as ever, but Ginny didn’t miss that his normally clear, mercury eyes were a little bloodshot, and his perfect posture slouched just a bit. He crossed his arms over his chest. “I know you heard,” he said with no fanfare whatsoever.
Her breath caught in her throat for just a second, a short burst of panic racing through her mind, but she quickly recovered and raised her chin stubbornly. “That you’re a slimy git? Yeah, I heard, but it wasn’t really news.”
He narrowed his eyes. “Last night. I know you heard Pansy and I talking.”
Ginny presented an innocently puzzled face. “You and Pansy? You mean last night after the detention? Malfoy, I went to bed…you know, like we were supposed to.”
Malfoy rolled his eyes, uncrossing his arms. “I bloody saw you behind that statue.”
“What statue?” she asked, continuing to play dumb even though she was getting a sinking feeling that it wasn’t going to work.
He sighed. “Weasley, stop it, you’re embarrassing yourself.”
Ginny shook her head. “How can you be so sure that was me?”
He smiled mockingly. “That hair is about the most conspicuous shade in nature, and seeing as you’re the only weasel left, I think it’s pretty safe to assume who it belonged to.”
“Listen, Malfoy, I don’t have time for this. I’ve got Herbology first and I still have to go all the way out to the greenhouses. I told you I was in bed, and that’s where I was.” She turned around and started walking, fervently praying that he would just let the matter drop.
No such luck. He instantly braced his palm against the wall, his outstretched arm effectively blocking her path. “I don’t know how much you heard,” he hissed, “but I don’t want to find out that the Weasley girl is spreading gossip about me. Understand?”
Ginny made a noise of disgust. “Is that what this is all about? Please, I don’t gossip, Malfoy.”
He lowered his arm slowly. “Then you don’t have anything to worry about, do you?” He stepped back. “Oh, and Weasley? I ever catch you spying on me again, and I promise you’ll regret it.”
He started to walk away, and here Ginny was again, with the perfect opportunity to just let him leave and be done with it. But could she swallow her pride enough to follow that much wiser plan? Of course not. “I don’t know who you think you are, but I’m not scared of you, Malfoy!”
He stopped and turned, an eyebrow raised. “Excuse me?”
She advanced on him, cheeks warm. “You act like you can just push me around whenever you feel like it, but I’m not afraid of you, and you can’t,” she snapped. “I don’t gossip, but if I did, then I would bloody well tell the whole school exactly what I heard no matter what you threatened me with!”
He took one step forward, placing himself close enough to tower over her. “Perhaps you should be scared, Weasley,” he said quietly. “Maybe you’re being very stupid right now.”
Ginny felt a thrill of intimidation run up her spine, but fought it down with a mighty effort and met his eyes. “Like I said a couple nights ago—you’re nothing but talk, Malfoy.”
He tensed, but before he could respond someone else spoke, and it was like déjà vu as they both whipped around to see Professor Pierce standing in the middle of the hall.
“You two just don’t stop, do you?” he asked tiredly. The glass box of Forest Sprites were cradled in one arm, several books and some parchment in the other.
Ginny blushed and lowered her eyes. “Sorry, Professor,” she mumbled.
Malfoy said, “Ginny and I were just talking, Professor.”
She looked at him sharply. Ginny? Since when did he know her first name? Or perhaps the bigger question, since when did he use it? His words from the night before came back to her—Slytherins never do anything just because.
Pierce raised his eyebrows. “I can see that, Mr. Malfoy. I trust you two can manage to keep it just at that? You know, civil?”
Malfoy nodded. “We really weren’t fighting, sir. Just a bit of a disagreement, that’s all.” He indicated Pierce’s armload with a wave of his hand. “What are you doing? Anything I can help with?”
Pierce’s eyebrows climbed just a tiny bit higher, his lips twitching in amusement at the corners. He gestured behind the two students to the door. “That would be my classroom, Mr. Malfoy. As for help…” he cocked his head to the side, “you do have Defense with me first, don’t you?”
Malfoy nodded. “That’s why I’m here.”
“Good, you can help me set up, then.” Ginny didn’t think Malfoy looked very happy about that. “We’ll let Miss Weasley get to her own class.”
Ginny correctly interpreted that as her cue to leave and nodded once to the man, merely darting a quick look in Malfoy’s direction. Then she turned and walked off before she could get herself in trouble…again.
Pierce watched her go feeling like there was something he was missing about the girl, something significant. It was there, just out of reach in his mind, and he strained towards it until Malfoy coughed softly, shifting his weight. Blinking a few times, Pierce silently promised to think on it later and fumbled for his wand, unlocking the door with a murmured word and nodding for Draco to go first.
“So, Draco, do you enjoy Defense Against the Dark Arts?” Pierce asked casually, dropping the books to his desk with a thump and setting the sprites beside them. “Don’t feel you have to lie for my benefit,” he added. “I promise my feelings won’t be hurt if you hate it.”
Draco leaned against a table and lifted one shoulder up and down, eyes never leaving him as he started organizing his things. “If it’s taught right.”
“Ah. And how would one go about doing that?”
Draco allowed a small, ridiculing smile. “Are you asking me how to do your job?”
Pierce chuckled. “I suppose it sounds that way, doesn’t it?” He tossed a book in a drawer and closed it with a snap, then stepped back to look at his desk. “No, I’m just curious what sorts of things you’re interested in.”
Draco’s expression never changed, but Pierce thought he saw a sharper awareness glint in the boy’s eyes. “Any particular reason?” he asked carefully.
He’s a quick one, Pierce realized, and his respect for the younger man mounted just a bit. He produced the false smile that could look so sincere, the one that got him out of so many tight spots. “No, no, nothing like that. Just making conversation. Would you grab those note cards for me?” he pointed to a short stack in the back of the room.
Draco’s gaze lingered for just a minute before he pushed off the table he was leaning against and went to retrieve the cards.
Pierce, reminding himself to tread easy, decided to try again. “You didn’t sound overly enthusiastic about my class,” he observed, “so which one is your favorite?”
“I don’t really have a favorite subject,” Draco replied as he handed over the pile.
“No? Not an academic man, then.”
Draco only shrugged.
“Is Quidditch more your thing?” Pierce inquired, aware that this “conversation” was beginning to sound more and more like an interrogation with Draco’s lack of participation.
“I play,” was all Draco would offer.
Pierce mightily battled off a frustrated sigh. He certainly wasn’t going to make this easy for him, was he? Pierce laid one hand on the back of his chair, leaning his weight in a casual, unthreatening manner. “Well, Draco Malfoy, you must be passionate about something. We all are.”
Draco went back to resting against the front tables, crossing his ankles in front of him. “Is that so? Then may I ask what you’re passionate about, Professor?”
Pierce watched that face turn smug and had the sudden urge to draw his wand and blast it into submission. His fingers flexed near the pocket of his robe, and it took a great deal of effort for him to produce the smile on his lips. He forced his rage down, then realized he needed to come up with something convincing in reply, because he sure as hell wasn’t going to tell the truth. “I know the right answer here is that I’m passionate about molding young minds or some rot,” Pierce began finally, not missing the look of surprise that crossed Draco’s face at the frank admission, “but I suppose really, I just like being challenged.”
“Being challenged,” the blond repeated.
Pierce smirked and spread his hands. “Why else would I request Hogwarts’s only ‘cursed position’ and take over Slytherin after what happened with the last Head of House?”
Draco stared at him unblinking for a long time, and Pierce got the distinct impression that the teen was trying to figure out just that. A hundred curses raced through his mind as Pierce realized he might have just inadvertently hurt himself by introducing an idea Draco might not have considered before. The tension didn’t break until the door opened and students began trickling in. Draco let his stare linger for just a moment longer, then showed a sudden, unexpected smirk. He nodded shortly and took a seat near the back of the room.
Draco left Pierce feeling very disconcerted, an emotion he was not at all accustomed to. He found he didn’t enjoy it in the least. What he really wanted was to rest and regroup, to write down everything he could remember of that conversation and mull over any not immediately apparent clues. Some damage control would be needed, as well, he was certain. Instead, he had a classroom full of students pulling out parchment and waiting for him to occupy their time for the next hour.
And Draco Malfoy sat in the back of the room through it all, not talking to a soul even when anyone tried to approach him, quill tapping and expression bored. Pierce knew in that moment that he hated the boy. He liked things going smoothly according to plan, absolutely despised when they didn’t turn out as intended. Earlier had been the furthest thing from the truth he could have said—he resented challenges, and he hated Draco Malfoy for being one.
Shuffling around parchment to buy time to regain control, Pierce closed his eyes, cleared his mind, expertly put on his most sincere grin, and looked up at his students.
“Sprites,” he began, indicating the beautiful caged creatures on his desk. “Everyone knows they’re nice to look at, but what a lot of people don’t realize is that they can be quite useful, too. You can find different variations nearly everywhere, and they see and record everything. If you know what to do, they can be invaluable for information gathering. These particular sprites are Forest Sprites, hence the green coloring. Does anybody know the trick for communicating with them?”
The only response he received came in the form of vacant stares, which Pierce interpreted as a resounding, “No.”
“Right, well, they can’t speak in the traditional sense, but that doesn’t mean they can’t tell us things, and they’re more than capable of understanding everything we say. For instance,” Pierce carefully removed one sprite, holding it around the middle, “let’s say I want to know who’s passed through the woods. All I have to do is ask, and she’ll find a way to tell me. The catch? Sprites are naturally mischievous things, not outright cruel, but certainly wicked. They’ll try to confuse you and lead you astray. They’ll lead you into danger if they can help it. Your job is to learn how to see through their tricks to the true answer. Watch.”
Pierce laid out three of the cards that Draco had fetched for him earlier, and held up one of them, which bore the Hogwarts school crest. Then he held up the other two, which were blank. Laying them all face down, he took out his wand and with a short tap, the cards scrambled up at lightening speed.
“Now, obviously, those shuffled too fast for the human eye to follow,” Pierce said. “The human eye, mind. Sprites have sharper senses, another reason they make such excellent sources of information.” He held the sprite up before him and asked, “Which card has Hogwarts’s crest on it?”
He released its midsection, and the thing immediately began to hover, delicate wings a blur of snow-crystals in the air. Suddenly, it streaked to one card and spun like a ballerina atop it, indicating it to be the right choice. As Pierce moved to reach for the card, though, the sprite stretched out one slender hand and made a different card glow with an emerald light. With a point of its toe, a large arrow of green light pointed to the final card. The sprite giggled.
“You can see the problem,” Pierce said, smiling. “If this were a situation where picking the wrong card would mean death, this could turn very ugly very fast. Here’s what you do.”
He raised his wand, then forming something like a figure-eight, clearly enunciated, “Evanesco Praestigiae!”
The sprite’s giggles abruptly stopped, and it hopped over to the glowing green card as if burned, the arrow on the other one sizzling out of existence. Moving the grumbling sprite aside, Pierce picked up the glowing card to reveal Hogwarts’s crest.
“And that’s how it’s done.” He laid the card face down again. “Right, form lines and try for yourselves!”
He only half-watched as the students jostled each other to the front of the room, going through the motions but most failing miserably. He was too distracted to really force himself to concentrate, especially when he couldn’t care less whether or not they ever learned to control the fiercely tricky sprites. He had to at least put on a show, so he helped out the ones who were having a particularly trying time, but his interest never really sparked until Draco took his turn.
His face lacked the nerves that most of the others’ showed, but this was Lucius’s son, and Pierce suspected that Draco learned early on how to make a mask of his features as impenetrable as stone. The cards shuffled. Draco asked the sprite which one had the crest in that drawling voice of his, then after the sprite tried its tricks, he raised his wand without hesitation and cast the spell.
All the lights and indicators, save the ones on the far right card, instantly vanished. Draco picked up that card, then with a tiny, triumphant quirk to his lips, flashed the Hogwarts crest at Pierce. He’d managed it on the first try. Not only that, Pierce knew, but he managed it instantly. The sprite didn’t hesitate for a second to reveal the true answer.
Pierce watched Draco stroll back to his seat, and his hand curled into a fist.
- - - - -
A/N – that spell for the sprites is just Latin for “vanish illusion” or “vanish deception.” Keep in mind, I’m just using a free online translator since I’ve never taken a day of Latin in my life, so if it’s not perfect grammar or the right usage or something…well, that’s why lol.
Thanks for reading!
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