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Not Quite Fate by Hearts Cadence

1. Things Change, Life Goes On by Hearts Cadence

2. By Candlelight by Hearts Cadence

3. Slytherin Ethics by Hearts Cadence

4. Conversations by Hearts Cadence

5. The Idea by Hearts Cadence

6. Schemes and Confessions by Hearts Cadence

7. Unfriendly Competition by Hearts Cadence

8. An Eventful Evening by Hearts Cadence

9. A Little Home-Brewed Assistance by Hearts Cadence

10. Found Out by Hearts Cadence

11. Answers...Sort Of by Hearts Cadence

12. Matters of Trust by Hearts Cadence

13. Draco Finally Explains by Hearts Cadence

14. Dark Omens by Hearts Cadence

15. Guilt by Hearts Cadence

16. Misplaced Faith by Hearts Cadence

17. The First Move and an Epiphany by Hearts Cadence

18. Naomi by Hearts Cadence

19. Jewels and Disruption by Hearts Cadence

20. Questionable Motives by Hearts Cadence

21. A Little Chat Overheard by Hearts Cadence

22. Invitations All Around by Hearts Cadence

23. Meeting the Parents by Hearts Cadence

24. Unthinking by Hearts Cadence

25. Missing by Hearts Cadence

26. Watching by Hearts Cadence

27. To Cross the Line by Hearts Cadence

28. A...Slight Complication by Hearts Cadence

29. Desperate by Hearts Cadence

30. Deal With the Devil by Hearts Cadence

31. Rescue by Hearts Cadence

32. Love Lost by Hearts Cadence

33. A New Guest by Hearts Cadence

34. Discoveries by Hearts Cadence

35. Improvising by Hearts Cadence

36. The End by Hearts Cadence

37. Epilogue by Hearts Cadence

Things Change, Life Goes On by Hearts Cadence
A/N – I’m back! Haha I finally wrapped up my other projects, and this plot bunny has been running rampant in my head for ages, so I’m finally following up on it. I hope you like it!

Things to know…
Title: Not Quite Fate
Summary: Destiny knew better than to bring these two together. One man, determined to draw back an errant Malfoy, is not so wise, and Ginny soon finds herself caught up in events that are not quite Fate.
Rating: PG-13 (for occasional swearing)
Spoilers: This does actually follow HBP, so be forewarned.
Disclaimer: I really don’t think these things are necessary, but no, I am not J.K. Rowling, and no, I’m not getting paid for this. And that covers the entire story.

Okey-dokey, without further ado…

- - - - -

Prologue

Guttering torches provided the only light for the underground complex, filling the space with forbidding shadows. Large stone blocks lined the walls, and here and there whole chunks bore large cracks, so bad in some places that entire sections had fallen away, piling up as rubble on the floor and exposing the raw earth beneath. It was cold, damp, and smelled distinctly of mildew and age. Jonathon Pierce decided that he much preferred the last hideout over this new one, more secure or no.

“I can handle my own son.” Lucius Malfoy’s voice was as controlled as ever, his face the perfect mask of calm, but Pierce didn’t miss the angry glint in the man’s pale eyes.

Lord Voldemort, sitting erect in his chair at the head of the long table, regarded Lucius through unreadable eyes the color of blood. “The incident this summer would say otherwise, Lucius.”

There was a definite flash of rage in Lucius’s gaze this time. “I assure you, my Lord—that matter has been dealt with. Thoroughly.”

A cruel smile curled the corners of Voldemort’s thin lips. “I do not doubt that, Lucius. Nevertheless, I cannot take the chance.”

A hush fell over the table, and Pierce glanced around at his fellow Death Eaters, seeing the same disbelieving look on each and every face.

“So he’s to die?” Lucius finally asked, shattering the quiet with the low-spoken question. “My only heir is to be forfeit?”

Lord Voldemort laughed unexpectedly, the sound mirthless and cold. “Be realistic, Lucius! Too much work has gone into the boy to give up so easily.”

Lucius wore the same confused look Pierce felt. “Lord, forgive me, but I don’t understand. If Draco isn’t…disposed of, and he isn’t willing….”

“Isn’t currently willing,” Voldemort corrected, folding long, ghostly hands before him on the rough wood. “I believe you’ll find that every man can change his mind, and every boy as well.”

Lucius shook his head. “I’ve already tried, my Lord. He’s too stubborn to see reason, no matter what I say or do.”

“Precisely why you will not be handling the matter, as I believe I have already made clear.”

Pierce was quite proud of how well he managed to hold back his smirk at the look of utter frustration on Lucius Malfoy’s normally impassive features. This meeting was proving rather entertaining after all, he thought.

“May I ask,” Lucius began in a deliberately even voice, “who, then, will?”

Lord Voldemort inclined his head ever so slightly, then abruptly shifted his eyes over to Pierce’s, making his heart skip painfully. “Jonathon.”

Pierce’s shock could not have been more complete, and over Lucius’s sputtering he asked, “Me, Lord?”

“But he just got initiated! He’s hardly one of us!” Lucius raged before Voldemort could answer, little pink splotches marring the marble complexion of his cheekbones. “You would place my son’s fate with him?”

“I suggest,” Voldemort murmured, crimson eyes narrowed, “you learn some restraint, Lucius. Before I see fit to teach you.” The color rapidly drained from Lucius’s face, and he clamped his mouth shut with a short nod. Voldemort turned to Pierce. “And yes, Jonathon, you.”

Pierce wasn’t sure exactly how he felt about that, but he did know that he now balanced on a very thin wire indeed and chose his words carefully. “I do not question your judgment, Lord, and I am only too happy to do as you wish. But, I have to wonder…why me? I’ve never even seen the boy.”

“Your expertise lies in the manipulation of others, Jonathon,” Voldemort explained, serpentine gaze taking in all assembled, “and perhaps even more importantly, you are new. No one suspects your allegiance to me yet.”

“What does that matter?” Lucius spat, then seeming to realize his less than respectful tone, added a meak, “My Lord.”

Voldemort stared hard at him for a long moment, causing the other man to squirm uncomfortably. “Two reasons, Lucius. One, Draco will not listen to anyone he suspects associated with me.” He turned to address Pierce. “That means you must act discreetly and with absolute subtlety at all costs. I doubt that will be a problem for you.” Pierce shook his head that it would not—the Dark Lord’s earlier statement that manipulation was his special talent was no exaggeration. Voldemort nodded and turned his attention back to Lucius. “Second, Jonathon will need to remain in near constant contact with Draco without raising suspicion. No rumored Death Eater could achieve that.”

Before Lucius could open his mouth, Pierce asked, “How exactly will I manage that?”

Lord Voldemort looked to a Death Eater sitting further down the table, and the other man’s dark eyes stared back from behind a tangled curtain of greasy black hair. A smirk pulled at Voldemort’s mouth, and he said, “Severus, your old job still needs filling, does it not?”

- - - - -

Chapter 1 – Things Change, Life Goes On

Ginny Weasley stood on tiptoe and gave her mother one last hug goodbye, forcing herself to smile when she pulled away.

“You’re sure you’ve got everything, then?” Molly asked for perhaps the hundredth time.

“As sure as I can be,” Ginny said, eyes lowering to the trunk at her feet.

Molly tilted Ginny’s face back up to hers with a finger hooked under her chin, smiling sadly. “I know you don’t want to go back alone, Ginny dear, but you understand why you must, don’t you?”

Ginny pulled free of Molly’s loose grasp on her chin, staring at a point over the woman’s left shoulder. “I could have helped them.”

Molly gave a great sigh. “We’ve been over this, Ginny—”

“But Ron—”

“Will still be completing his education with a tutor and taking his NEWTS as soon as he, Harry, and Hermione all come home,” Molly interrupted firmly.

“And I still don’t see why I couldn’t have just done that too!”

“Because I already had to let one of my children walk into danger,” Molly snapped, tears swimming in her eyes. “I won’t let my baby girl run off too.”

A wave of guilt flooded Ginny at the sight of her mother’s distress, but it couldn’t quite wash away all of her lingering frustration. “Hogwarts wasn’t so safe last year! And that was with Dumbledore alive!”

She regretted the words as soon as she spoke them, and a rush of shame had her casting her eyes downward. To her shock, though, Molly made no admonishment, and a long period of silence drifted between the two Weasley women. These silences were a common occurrence for everyone since Albus Dumbledore’s death—a time of reliving painful memories, mostly.

Finally, Molly said softly, “There’s nowhere left that’s completely safe anymore, Ginny. Hogwarts is as good a place as any, certainly safer than where your brother and Harry are going, and you need to learn all you can. Especially now. Please, Ginny, I’m asking you—just go, and behave.”

Ginny’s eyes slid shut, and she took a slow breath before nodding. “I will, Mum, I promise. I’m sorry.”

Molly folded her youngest daughter into another tight embrace, squeezing the air from her lungs. “You won’t be the only one going back,” Molly promised. “Who knows? Maybe you’ll make some new friends now.”

Ginny knew what Molly really meant by ‘make some new friends.’ She was referring to Harry. The two of them were separated now, for her own safety and for Harry’s peace of mind, but they had sworn to one another before he left in search of the final Horcrux that the moment things settled down, they would pick up right where they left off. For some reason, though, Molly always seemed uncertain where their romance was concerned, and had dropped subtle hints all summer that perhaps it was time for Ginny to move on. Ginny pointedly ignored every one of them—she was in love with Harry, always had been, and she would wait for him to the end of the world.

She didn’t feel like picking another fight just now, though, when only minutes remained before the train left and she wouldn’t see her mum again for months, so she simply smiled and gave a small nod. “Maybe,” she said, then, “Bye, Mum,” and she bent down for her trunk and started off. Just before disappearing through Platform Nine and Three-quarters, she turned, gave a little wave, blew a kiss that Molly returned, and then she was gone.

The platform wasn’t quite what she always remembered from the past, more subdued now, less a bustle of activity. The change didn’t surprise her in the least, though. She knew full well that many of Hogwarts’s former students would not be returning after what happened last year. Even so, the place was still crowded with teenagers hunting down friends or struggling to climb aboard. Shouts and laughter floated through the air, and the smell of the train’s exhaust reached her nostrils. Despite herself, Ginny felt a warm rush of nostalgia at the familiar sensations, and a smile found its way to her lips of its own accord. Taking a moment to breathe it all in and prepare herself, Ginny took the first step, and then the next, and soon she was heaving her trunk up the stairs and flopping into an empty compartment. The Creevey brothers were the only ones to eventually share her compartment, and after a brief greeting the two of them pretty much kept to themselves. It made for a boring ride, but Ginny supposed there were worse things.

They arrived at Hogwarts that evening without a hitch, and the Creevey brothers decided to ride with her in the carriages up to the school, as well, if she didn’t mind. She didn’t, and a short while later the yawning mouth of the Entrance Hall was swallowing them up as they stepped into its warm glow. Following the stream of students, she turned right and made her way to the Great Hall.

The room was entirely different yet blessedly the same all at once. Familiar decorations still adorned the walls and tables, all of which were exactly where they should be, and minus a handful here and there, a surprising number of students sat catching up, their excited chatter flooding the air. It was only when Ginny examined the Head table that the awful difference struck her.

Dumbledore was absent. Instead, Minerva McGonagall sat in the Headmaster’s chair, though Ginny supposed that now it would be called the Headmistress’s chair. Professor Slughorn still occupied the Potions professor’s seat, but someone new resided in the infamous Defense Against the Dark Arts chair, and Ginny studied the man with more than a little curiosity.

Her first thought was that he didn’t look the part at all. He looked almost comical, in fact, though still attractive in an unconventional sort of way. He was really very gangly, tall and thin and slightly awkward, all of his features exaggerated and framed by longish, sandy-blond hair that Molly Weasley would have condemned as exceedingly unkempt. Ginny thought it quite fetching, actually—the tousled, in-need-of-a-trim look suited him. His eyes were round and open, a friendly warm hazel shade that complimented his sand-colored hair nicely.

“All right, settle down!” McGonagall’s sharp voice cut through the din, and instantly the Hall fell silent. Her stern gaze swept over the assembly, ensuring its full attention before beginning. “As you all know, some changes have been made to the staff this year. To begin with, I am, of course, now Headmistress. However, I will still be teaching Transfiguration and acting as Head of Gryffindor House, at least until a suitable replacement can be found.”

A quiet murmur rippled through the students at that, and Ginny felt her own admiration for the tough old woman grow. Shouldering both responsibilities would be no easy task.

McGonagall gave the noise a second to die down before she went on. “Secondly, I would like to introduce you to your new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, Mr. Jonathon Pierce.” The man waved, a boyish grin worn easily on his mouth, and was met with polite applause. “Professor Pierce,” McGonagall continued, “will also be Slytherin’s new Head of House.”

This time even Ginny’s quiet exclamation joined the surprised whispers erupting through the room. If she didn’t think he looked like the type to be defending against any Dark Arts, he certainly didn’t look like a Slytherin of all things. He was smiling, for Merlin’s sake!

A pointed clearing of McGonagall’s throat and an arch look calmed the gossip—for the time being—and she said in a notably quieter tone, “I don’t think I need remind you of what sort of times we are in. The rules will be strictly enforced, and I expect each and every one of you to honor them to the letter. No leniency will be granted, on any grounds, under any circumstances. Curfew is at nine o’clock sharp, no exceptions, and passwords will be changed at least every other day…and never written down for any reason.” Her hawk-like eyes passed over a flushing Neville Longbottom at that. Then she looked back over the Hall, and something in her seemed to grow weary and strengthen all at once. “I understand that the events of last year are still with all of you—as well they should. We must never forget; we must always keep the memory of Albus Dumbledore alive. For simply returning, I commend you. It is my firm belief that we can make this year a good one. Hogwarts will not be so easily defeated.”

She was quiet a long time then, and not even the rustle of fabric could be heard in the huge room. Finally, she nodded firmly and said, “Well, I believe I’ve kept you from your meal long enough! Enjoy the feast!” Her hands clapped together once, and a dozen, mouth-watering scents exploded into the air as every table was instantly laden with food. Ginny’s stomach rumbled loudly in recognition of a plate of steaks, but her fork froze just short of the destination. From the corner of her eye she caught sight of something that instantly claimed her appetite—a flash of platinum hair at the Slytherin table.

Colin Creevey, still by her side since the carriages, looked from her hand, white-knuckled around the fork and hovering over a steak, to her face, which was quickly escalating from shock into something like rage. “Uh, Ginny?”

She didn’t immediately respond.

Colin glanced to Dennis, who merely shrugged and suggested, “Poke her.”

Colin rolled his eyes and tried more loudly, “All right there, Ginny?”

Her fork suddenly slammed down into the steak, splattering everyone within a three-foot radius. “Malfoy?” she spluttered, dark eyes blazing.

Colin winced, wiping away little droplets of spray from the steak’s vicious stabbing. “Ah, Ginny...”

Draco Malfoy?” she continued to rage, completely oblivious to her rising volume, or anything else but a certain white-blond head across the room. She was fast gaining an audience, and not just from the Gryffindors, either. The Hufflepuffs were already twisting around in their seats to see what the commotion was, and Colin knew if he didn’t act soon, the Ravenclaws would be next, followed by the Slytherins. And considering the source of Ginny’s ire, he knew that once the Slytherins were involved, all Hell would break loose.

“All right, Ginny, it’s okay,” he said soothingly, laying a hand on her forearm.

She wrenched free, banging her fist on the table. “No, it bloody well is not okay!” she nearly shouted.

Colin knew full well what could happen if the Weasley temper reached its full potential, and hers seemed to be climbing steadily by the second. He was just beginning to grow frantic when Dean Thomas jumped up and strode over, gripping Ginny firmly by the arms and dragging her off the bench.

“Come on, Gin-girl,” he said, “Time to go.” He turned his body so that he blocked her view of Malfoy, and she twisted around wildly in an attempt to see again. Dean’s superior size won out, though, and he managed to get her out of the door. Colin hesitated just a second, then told Dennis, “Stay here,” and hurried after the pair, feeling countless eyes on his back as he did.

He slipped through the doors into the Entrance Hall just in time to hear Ginny yell, “That was Draco Malfoy, Dean!” and she pounded a fist against the boy’s chest for emphasis.

“You mentioned that,” Dean remarked, firmly steering her towards the staircase.

“And it doesn’t bother you? That’s Dumbledore’s murderer in there!”

Dean kept his features impassive, his voice even. “That was Snape, Ginny, not Malfoy.”

“It might as well have been!” she cried. “It’s all his fault—all of it! And besides, it’s not for lack of trying that he didn’t actually do it himself! He nearly killed my brother trying!”

“I know, Ginny. I know.”

“No, you don’t!” It seemed to Colin that she was getting more hysterical by the second, and he was very grateful Dean was there to pull her along. “You don’t, or you wouldn’t be so calm about it!”

Dean suddenly stopped right there on the middle of the stairs, gripping her by the shoulders and spinning her around to face him. “What do you want me to do, Ginny? Don’t you think I’m as angry as you? Don’t you think I hate him just as much? Well, I am and I do, but come on Ginny, use your head! The only proof anyone really has that Malfoy actually was responsible for last year is Harry’s word, and when you have the kind of money and power that Malfoy does, one person’s word doesn’t mean a damned thing.”

Ginny’s eyes were bright and fierce, her jaw set. “It isn’t fair.”

“It isn’t,” he agreed. “But that’s just how it goes, and we’ll have to deal with it. All right?”

She stared at him hard for a long time, then seemed to sag as if under a huge weight. “Yeah.”

He studied her a moment. “Are you okay?”

She nodded and repeated, “Yeah.” A pause, then she murmured, “Thank you, Dean.”

He sighed, looking away from her face, and noticed Colin standing a few steps down for the first time. “D’you want to take her up the rest of the way, mate?” he asked.

Colin blinked. “Oh, uh, yeah. Yeah, sure, I can do that.” As he stepped up and moved to stand somewhat uncertainly on her other side, he hoped that he could.

“I can take myself there, you know,” Ginny grumbled, pulling her arm out of Dean’s grip.

“Get some sleep, Gin-girl,” was all he said in reply, then with a short nod to Colin, jogged down the steps to go rejoin the feast.

Ginny watched him go, blowing out a great huffing breath. Then she turned back to Colin and said, “I mean it—you don’t have to walk me.”

He shrugged awkwardly. “I don’t mind. I ate too much on the train to enjoy the feast anyway.”

She managed a smile, though her heart wasn’t really in the gesture. “Suit yourself.” Not bothering to wait for the boy, she started up the stairs once more, wrapping her arms around herself to ward off a nonexistent chill in the muggy summer air. They made the relatively long trip in silence, Ginny lost in her thoughts and Colin content not to disturb her.

When they finally reached the portrait entrance, the Fat Lady regarded them with no little curiosity. “You dears are a bit early, aren’t you?”

Colin darted a look to Ginny, but she didn’t even flinch. “I wasn’t feeling well,” she lied easily. “Too many sweets on the train, I think. Colin was making sure I made it up all right.”

The Fat Lady shook her head disapprovingly. “Tut, tut,” she clucked. “Why, I remember a time when sweets were a treat, not something children could just gorge themselves on whenever the fancy struck them! That’s the problem wi—”

“I’m really not feeling well,” Ginny interrupted, making a show of holding her midsection.

The Fat Lady harrumphed. “Well? What’s the password, then?”

“Peruvian Vipertooth.”

The portrait swung open to admit them, and the Fat Lady’s grumbling over the vices of today’s youth followed them all the way through until she slammed the painting shut again.

“Bloody difficult woman,” Ginny mumbled, collapsing heavily onto her back in a great squishy sofa and throwing an arm over her face.

Colin shifted uneasily on his feet. “Do you want to talk?”

“What about?” Her voice came out muffled by the crook of her elbow.

“Anything.” He eased himself into a chair. “Whatever’s upsetting you.”

Her arm came away. “Malfoy is what’s upsetting me.”

“Okay. Do you want to talk about that, then?”

She regarded him a moment, then brought her arm up over her eyes again. “I think…I think I’d just like to be alone right now, actually. If that’s all right.”

He hesitated just a moment, then stood up. “Yeah, of course. I’ll just be in the dormitory. If you need anything….”

She nodded without looking at him. “Thank you, Colin.”

He waited a moment longer, just to be sure, then moved off towards the stairs leading to the boys’ dormitories. Ginny waited until the sound of his footsteps receded completely before letting her arm fall to her side, eyes staring up at the ceiling. She really did want time alone, but it only seemed like a few minutes passed before the portrait was creaking open a second time and a stream of Gryffindors began trickling in. She could feel their curious stares, and uncomfortable with the attention, got up and wandered into her dormitory.

The circular room was still empty but for the trunks, and she went through the motions of finding hers and unpacking the things she would need without enthusiasm. It just wasn’t right at all. She knew the world wasn’t fair, but this went beyond that. She was suddenly very glad Harry decided not to return after all—she didn’t want to know how he would react to Malfoy’s presence.

“Hi, Ginny!”

Ginny, on the floor retrieving a dropped jar of ink from under her bed, jerked up and smacked her head with a crack.

“Oh! Sorry!” the same voice cried.

Ginny crawled out from beneath the bed, rubbing at her head with one hand, and forced a smile for Audrey Hamilton, one of her other three roommates. “Hey, Audrey.”

The petite girl cocked her head to the side, straight brunette hair slipping over one shoulder. “Why’d you leave the feast so early?”

Ginny turned around to stuff her ink back in the trunk. “I just got a bit upset.” A quick glance over her shoulder told Ginny that Audrey was considering pressing her further, but then the door opened again and the other two girls of their year barged in on a wave of laughter. Ginny took advantage of the distraction by slipping off her uniform and donning her nightgown, promptly crawling into bed and closing the curtains around her. She knew she should be making an effort to catch up with the girls, but she just could not bear the thought of faking good spirits.

Audrey and that lot stayed up for what felt like ages, but finally their laughter and whispering died down and the sounds of bed curtains being pulled tight reached Ginny’s ears. She exhaled gratefully, thinking she would be able to get some sleep, but after several minutes’ of tossing and turning, she realized the girls’ noise hadn’t been the cause of her restlessness after all. She groaned into her pillow to muffle the noise, then pushed herself up and noiselessly slipped out of bed, grabbing up her robe and carefully easing her way through the door.

The common room was deathly silent, an unusual occurrence Ginny knew, but there was still a warmth to the place. She arranged herself cross-legged in the middle of the sofa, hands folded over her robe in her lap, and gazed around the familiar surroundings. The fireplace was banked tonight, the hot summer air needing no encouragement, so that the only light originated from the moonlight outside the window. By that cool, silvery light, Ginny could see the chairs that the Golden Trio had almost always occupied before the fire. She remembered sitting in the one on the right with Harry, his arms strong and secure around her. She remembered the teasing brush of his lips against her ear or neck when Ron wasn’t looking, and the little patterns he used to trace on her back where no one could see.

A wet sensation trailing down her cheek jarred her from her trance, and she wiped away the tear stubbornly. For Merlin’s sake, she was acting like it was all over or something! He was just doing what he had to do, and when he came back she would still be here waiting for him, and it would be like nothing ever happened. They would pick up right where they left off, just like they promised.

It was a comforting thought, but it couldn’t ease the pain of separation completely, and this empty room was only bringing back memories better left buried until Harry’s return. Besides, her stomach was beginning to complain, reminding her that she never did end up eating anything. She looked to the time—ten thirty—and frowned, remembering McGonagall’s warning about strict rule enforcement and curfew at nine sharp in particular. For another minute Ginny debated what to do, but then an especially loud growl from her stomach decided the matter. Covering her nightclothes with the robe as she went, she snuck through the portrait hole.

The cool stone floor felt good under her bare feet, and after a quick inspection proved the hallway deserted, she ran to the stairs. The quiet slap, slap of her feet was the only mark of her passage, and she managed to make it to the Entrance Hall undetected, only forced to hide once somewhere around the third floor when a patrolling Prefect trudged by. From there she found another staircase leading down, the one the Weasley twins had long ago showed her went to the painting of a bowl of fruit that she came upon moments later. She reached up and tickled the pear, smiling when it giggled, and grasped the handle when it appeared.

At first glance the place seemed totally void of life, so taking care not to disturb anything, she tip-toed forward. Then a sudden burst of blinding white light exploded in front of her dark-accustomed eyes, and she only just managed to hold in her startled scream. Clutching at her chest, she found herself staring into the wide, watery eyes of Winky.

Ginny took a deep breath. “Winky—”

“Miss Weasley isn’t being allowed down here!” the house-elf shrilled, waving a half-emptied bottle of butter beer around angrily.

“I know, I know, but look—”

Winky shook her head emphatically, floppy ears slapping at her face. “No! No buts! You isn’t being allowed!” she insisted.

Ginny was just starting to panic when another miniature figure appeared from around the corner. “Dobby,” she breathed in relief.

“Miss Weasley!” he squealed, clapping his hands together in delight. “You came to see Dobby?”

“Er,” she glanced from Winky’s irate face to Dobby’s joyful one, “yeah. I wanted to say hello,” she lied.

“She is not being allowed here!” Winky snapped to Dobby, pointing an accusing finger Ginny’s way. Ginny was beginning to wonder if the elf was capable of saying anything else.

Dobby frowned. “But it is only being Harry Potter’s friend…”

“No!” Winky declared firmly, which came out rather comical in her high-pitched squeak. “Headmistress is saying no students allowed! No students,” she repeated triumphantly.

Dobby’s frown deepened, and he pulled Ginny aside while Winky took a healthy swallow from her butter beer bottle. “Winky is being right,” he whispered conspiratorially, “but if Miss Weasley is leaving right now, Dobby can distract her before she is tattling.”

“Oh, would you? Thank you, Dobby!” Ginny whispered, then she bent down and brushed a kiss over his head before sprinting to the door, belly still empty or no. The painting serving as a door swung open easily, and she continued running right on through it—and right on into someone else.

They both went down heavily, though Ginny didn’t suffer much harm since the stranger cushioned her fall. The other person, however—a boy, Ginny realized—hit the floor with a thud that had Ginny wincing in sympathy, the breath whooshing from his lungs from both the impact on his back and Ginny’s weight on his chest.

“Oh my, God!” Ginny cried. “I am so sor—” but the apology died on her lips because when she pushed herself up onto her arms, she saw who she was laying on top of, and time froze as she stared into lifeless gray eyes. Ginny thought rather wildly that this was the closest she’d ever been to Draco Malfoy, and wondered if his eyes always looked so hopeless and dead.

In the end it was Malfoy who gathered his wits first, grasping her waist and shoving her roughly off of him so that she sprawled gracelessly to the floor. He rolled up to a sitting position and lowered his head to his bent knees, where he spent a good half-minute coughing and trying to regain his breath. If it were anyone else, Ginny knew she’d be feeling terrible right now—it wasn’t anyone else, though, and instead she was frankly quite pleased with herself. She stood and crossed her arms defiantly over her chest.

“Gods, Weasley,” he gasped, “watch where the bloody hell you’re going!” He rose carefully to his feet, unable to hold back the occasional grimace of pain. Ginny could only imagine the black and blue mess his back would be tomorrow. She wouldn’t be surprised if it was one massive bruise. Despite everything, she found she was actually experiencing a tiny trickle of guilt after all.

“Well maybe you shouldn’t have been out past curfew!” she retorted, ignoring her annoying conscious…and the fact that she was out late as well.

He paused in the task of brushing imaginary dirt from his robes, raising his eyebrows at her. “I’m on patrol,” he said, indicating the Prefect’s badge gleaming on his breast. “You, on the other hand….”

Ginny glared, feeling such a rage boil up within her like nothing she had ever known before, not even when the twins had singed off half her hair during their fireworks experimentation. This spoiled rotten little boy was the reason that Dumbledore was dead, that Harry was not here, and now he was going to get her in trouble and there wasn’t a thing she could do about it because, damn it all, he was right.

To her absolute shock, though, he simply walked past her without another word. She stood staring incredulously at the empty spot he’d just occupied, then spun around to continuing staring with just as much disbelief at his retreating back.

“What the hell are you doing?” she demanded, the back of her mind screaming, Stop it! What’s the matter with you?, but unable to listen to that particular voice due to the sheer level of fury and confusion whirling around up there.

He looked over his shoulder without turning. “I’m finishing my rounds, Weasley, what does it look like?”

“You’re not taking me to McGonagall? Or at least deducting points or something?” That little voice in the back of her mind was shrieking at a fever pitch now, calling her all sorts of insulting names that she knew were all completely true.

Now he did turn, his expression a cross between incredulity, annoyance, and mild amusement. But—understandably—mostly incredulity. “Would you like me to?”

No. I just can’t believe an evil git like yourself would pass this up,” she snapped.

He crossed his arms and studied her a long, tense moment, expression inscrutable. “Let me get this straight,” he finally said, slowly, “you’re insulting me for letting you off the hook? Gods Weasley, I knew you didn’t have much in the way of brains, but how thick can you get?”

Even as that one, logical part of her hollered, He’s right, you idiot!, the other part seethed. “What are you doing here, anyway?” she practically snarled.

His eyebrows rose at the degree of hostility in her voice. “We’ve covered this—my rounds.”

“I mean in the castle,” she clarified through clenched teeth. “At school at all.”

He rolled his eyes. “Well, you see, there’s this tradition where you go for seven years, and—”

“You know what I mean, you bastard!” she interrupted, whipping out her wand with tears of pent up frustration standing in her eyes. The wand trained at his head, she whispered hoarsely, “You killed him.”

Malfoy’s entire body seemed to tense up at once, fists curling, so that he resembled something on the verge of exploding. His eyes darkened a few shades, and a muscle near his jaw twitched. “I don’t know what you’re talking about…and neither do you,” he said at last, voice very quiet.

A tear slipped down her cheek now, but her face was hard and her wand arm remained steady. “I think we both do, Malfoy, even if they can’t prove it. He’s dead, and it’s all your fault—”

“Turn around, and go back to bed, Weasley,” he warned, voice so low Ginny felt a touch of cold fear at her spine. The knuckles of his fists were turning white, the muscle at his jaw jumping erratically, and he took a menacing step forward.

She ignored the danger signs, the flood gates opened and her words spilling forth beyond her control. “You’re the one who deserves to be dead! You’re nothing but a rotten Death Eater, and you’re not even a good one!” Dimly, she was aware that twin spots of pink were rising on his pale cheeks, his face clouding with rage, and that he was advancing on her. But months of pain and built-up anger were being released, and she was powerless to cut short her outburst now. “Where do you belong, huh? You don’t have enough morals to be on our side, and you’re too much of a sniveling coward to do a decent job of being evil! You’re all talk, and—”

Malfoy was right in front of her. His wand flashed out and pointed right between her eyes as he roared, “Enough!”

And then it was a stalemate. Both stood with wands drawn and trained on the other’s face, arms crossing each other just a hair’s width apart. Malfoy was breathing heavily with barely controlled fury, and Ginny’s dark eyes still shone with tears even as every other line in her face and body stood strong and unyielding. Neither would back down, they both knew it, and it only remained a matter of who would make the first move.

Then a third voice came from behind them. “Well. What do we have here?”
By Candlelight by Hearts Cadence
A/N—thanks to all the reviewers! I’m really grateful for the support, and I sincerely hope I can live up to expectations lol. Thanks again!

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Chapter 2—By Candlelight

Jonathon Pierce sat in his quarters staring at the empty bottle of Ogden’s, wondering blearily where it all had gone to. His eyes shifted to the half-filled whisky glass balancing on his knee, and he thought surely he hadn’t drunk that much. With a mental shrug, he tossed back the remaining liquid and slouched down, rubbing at his temples with a drawn-out groan. Merlin, how did he get himself into this mess?

Oh, that’s right, he thought sarcastically, I didn’t. The “Dark Lord” did. He rolled his eyes to himself—Dark Lord indeed. Didn’t anyone else realize how ridiculous that sounded? What kind of bloke hoping to strike fear into anyone’s heart allowed a nickname like Dark Lord? And the kicker of it all was that the crazy bastard managed it! People couldn’t even say his real name out loud, which, ironically enough, Pierce knew wasn’t his real name at all.

He dragged his palms over his face then dropped his hands to his lap, turning over his forearm to expose the blackened skin where the Mark now resided, the skin around it still slightly pink and ragged where it hadn’t quite healed yet. He figured it’d be another few weeks, at least, before the process finished. He squeezed his eyes shut against the sight, then opened them again to gaze longingly at the bone-dry whisky bottle. He reached out and twirled it around a few times by the neck, then plunked it back down on the little wooden table by his chair, standing abruptly. He had a feeling he was going to need a lot more of that stuff if he planned on surviving the week.

Moving through the dungeons from his quarters, just a short distance past the Slytherin common room, he mused that the underground halls were exactly the same as they were in his youth—uninviting and cold, despite the humid summer weather. He couldn’t recall them ever having felt any differently, and he couldn’t help but appreciate the irony of his situation—the one place he couldn’t wait to get away from was exactly the place he ended up. Only now he was the one in charge, he supposed, which was some small solace at least.

He emerged from the dungeons into the Entrance Hall and hesitated a moment, debating where to try his luck. He figured the kitchens must at least keep some wine in storage for cooking, and so he skirted the wide staircase to the first floor in favor of the smaller steps leading down below the Great Hall.

He didn’t know the time, but he knew it had to be late by how deserted Hogwarts was. What was the curfew, again? Nine? So it was past that, at least. That was one small blessing—his false pretense of good cheer was extremely effective in gaining trust and loosening tongues, but it did grow exceedingly tiresome to maintain at times.

“Where do you belong, huh?”

Pierce froze at the sound of the hostile female voice, thinking at first that the demand was directed at him. Then he realized it was coming from up ahead, and the girl’s voice continued, growing ever louder, “You don’t have enough morals to be on our side, and you’re too much of a sniveling coward to do a decent job of being evil!”

Pierce bit back a groan and ran a hand through his hair tiredly. Perfect, just what he needed, to deal with quarrelling students when he was half-drunk. Heaving a sigh, he squared his shoulders, slapped his face lightly in an effort to bring things into sharper focus, then strode forward purposefully just as the girl was saying, “You’re all talk, and—”

But her rant came to an abrupt halt when a second voice, this one male and presumably the source of the girl’s ire, shouted, “Enough!” Pierce rounded the corner then, giving himself a moment to decipher the scene, and experienced a remarkably sobering shock when he realized that the boy was none other than Draco Malfoy. His wand was drawn and pointed at a girl with a shock of red hair and a healthy dusting of freckles. She, too, stood with her wand arm extended and feet planted wide in a dueling stance.

“Well. What do we have here?” Pierce asked mildly.

Both students jumped guiltily and spun around, the red-haired girl hastily shoving her wand out of sight while Draco simply lowered his to his side, a look of annoyance crossing his haughty features. Like father like son….

“Well?” Pierce crossed his arms expectantly.

He could see the girl thinking fast, but before she could decide what story she wanted to tell, Draco spoke up, saying, “I was out on patrol.” He gestured vaguely to his Prefect badge. “Weasley here was busy breaking curfew and decided to attack me when I caught her at it.”

The girl—Weasley, did he say? Like Potter’s chum, Weasley?—whirled on Draco so fast Pierce was honestly impressed. “You lying son of a—!” Pierce cleared his throat pointedly, and she stopped short, glancing over at him. “That’s not true,” she snapped instead.

“Oh? So you weren’t breaking curfew?” Draco asked.

Her mouth opened, then snapped shut again, her eyes darting to Pierce. He sighed, the situation fairly obvious; now all that remained was what to do about it. He didn’t need Draco mad at him already, but somehow Pierce knew the boy wouldn’t respect weakness either, and thanks to bloody McGonagall, the consequences of breaking curfew were clear.

“So what we’ve got here,” he said, keeping his voice light so as not to come off as too strict, “is a case of breaking curfew and fighting in the halls, am I right?”

The girl’s only response was a cross between a pout and a scowl, but Draco gave an affirmative nod.

“Right, I guess that’s detention for both of you, then,” Pierce said. Then, after a moment’s consideration, added, “And 20 points from each house—and that’s being nice.”

Draco’s expression suddenly turned far less bored. “Did you say both of us?”

“That’s right.”

“But I didn’t do anything!” he protested. “Like I said, I was on my rounds.”

And for once, Pierce’s smile was completely genuine, because he knew something that clever young Malfoy hadn’t counted on—the Prefect schedule. “You are Mr. Malfoy, am I right?”

Draco eyed him warily. “Draco Malfoy, yes.”

“Huh,” Pierce remarked, tapping a finger against his chin contemplatively, “because as I recall, you had the night off, and therefore should be following the curfew like anyone else.”

The girl made no attempt to stifle her snort as Draco’s eyes narrowed. Pierce could see the wheels turning behind those pale eyes, and then almost instantly a look of confusion surfaced on the boy’s face. “Really? I could have sworn I checked the calendar and it said I was on duty. I must have read it wrong.”

Again, Pierce’s smile was wholly a result of true amusement. Young Malfoy was a clever one, he’d give him that…but Pierce was smarter. “Ah, an honest mistake?”

Draco nodded, looking appropriately forlorn by the “mistake.”

“Well, that really is a shame, Mr. Malfoy,” Pierce said, false sympathy creeping into his tone.

The first hints of suspicion appeared in Draco’s eyes. “What do you mean? …Sir.”

“Unfortunately, this mistake’s going to cost you detention with Miss Weasley, here.”

“But—!”

Pierce held up a hand. “I’m sorry, Mr. Malfoy, I truly am. If it were up to me, I would let both of you go with only a warning, but I’m new, and I can’t afford to go disobeying my boss on the first night, right?” He showed his most charmingly regretful smile, and the Weasley girl gave an understanding nod, if a resigned one, but Draco didn’t look convinced. Pierce wasn’t surprised—Lucius didn’t give a damn about anyone but himself, either. “Besides, your wand was drawn as well,” Pierce reminded him.

“Fine,” the boy snapped, finally jamming his wand out of sight. “What’s the detention, then?”

Pierce fumbled, though he played it off as a cool consideration instead. His mind scrambled for anything McGonagall might have said concerning appropriate detentions, but his training had been last minute, a hasty affair to say the least. In fact, the Headmistress had been so desperate when Pierce first contacted her for the positions that she had hired him on-the-spot. It seemed no one was interested in the Defense Against the Dark Arts job, or in being affiliated with Slytherin these days. Go figure. In any case, all he could recall the woman saying was that many professors issued detentions that would help them with their lesson plans.

Oh, bugger. Lesson plan. He was beginning to feel the effects of the alcohol again, and the more he thought, the more he found he had yet to sort out. Like that bloody lesson plan, for instance. The teenagers were staring expectantly, and so still uncertain of what exactly was appropriate, Pierce simply said, “I’ll inform you of the specifics tomorrow. For now, I think we should all be getting back to our beds.”

Draco nodded shortly and started stomping off in the direction of the dungeons. Pierce’s eyes followed him for awhile, then he turned back to the red-haired girl and remarked dryly, “He’s certainly a pleasant sort, isn’t he?”

She laughed. “And that was him being polite.” She sighed, glancing at the kitchens before turning back and showing him an apologetic smile. “I’m really sorry about all this, Professor.”

Pierce nodded and watched her go before turning his attention back to the matter of stocking up on the alcohol that he suddenly needed far more now than when he originally left his quarters.

At the opposite end of the castle, Draco walked into his common room with about as much enthusiasm as a man mounting the gallows. It was finally empty now though, thank Merlin, and he sank into a chair in front of the cold fireplace. He stared into that dead hearth for a long time, a question playing through his mind on an infinite loop: “Where do you belong?” Where indeed.

The next morning, seven floors above them both, Ginny’s nerves still felt taut from the previous night, and the feeling stayed with her all through breakfast. Professor Pierce was waiting for her when she tried to leave the Great Hall, leaning casually against the wall with his hands in his pockets and an easy smile on his face.

“Morning, Miss Weasley,” he greeted, offering her a nod.

She returned his smile somewhat uneasily, knowing this was about her detention. The twins were her brothers, the Golden Trio her friends—and in Ron’s case family—so she was not particularly unaccustomed to trouble, but she still hated it. At least Professor Pierce didn’t look upset. His round hazel eyes were as friendly as ever, and again Ginny was struck with just how unlikely his role in Slytherin seemed. It was a miracle the House turned out someone so decent.

“Good morning, Professor,” she returned.

“About your detention, do you think you can meet me around nine o’clock at the edge of the Forbidden Forest tonight?”

For a minute she didn’t know what to say, trying to figure out if he was joking or not. “The Forbidden Forest? At nine? But the forest’s off-limits. And nine is curfew.”

He flashed a mischievous grin. “I know, but I want to put you two to work for me, and it’s something you can only do in the dark, and only there. Don’t worry, it’s been cleared by the Headmistress.”

Curiosity thoroughly piqued, Ginny gave a slow nod. “Uh, yeah, all right then. I’ll be there.”

“Excellent.” He looked over her head at the students, most of which were beginning to finish up. “I’d better go,” he said. “I’ve still got some things to finish up. See you tonight!”

He pushed off the wall and left with one last wave. Ginny looked over her shoulder to the Slytherin table, finding Malfoy already watching her. Rather than glance away like most, he caught and held her gaze. She looked meaningfully to the doors where Pierce just exited, then raised her eyebrows at him in silent question, hoping to find out if Malfoy knew about their detention already. His eyes followed hers to the doors, then apparently catching on, he nodded. She mimicked the gesture shortly, then spun and left without a backward glance. Just that short exchange with Malfoy left a sour taste in her mouth, and she wondered how she would ever survive tonight.

She was just turning towards the stairs when she heard the call, “Ginny! Hang on a minute!”

She slowed to a stop, turning around to see a flushed Colin running after her.

“Colin…?”

“I want to show you something!” he told her. “I found it this morning looking for Professor Vector. I got lost and then it was just there!” He was babbling, but he didn’t seem to notice, eyes bright with an eager light.

Ginny smiled uncertainly. “That’s great, Colin. What is it?”

He snatched her hand and started dragging her towards the stairs, calling over his shoulder, “You’ve got to see!”

“Colin! We’ve got classes—!”

“Not in the morning,” he interrupted, not to be deterred. “Don’t worry, it won’t take long. And anyway, trust me, this is worth it!”

He practically sprinted up the steps, and after awhile Ginny lost count of how many flights they left behind them. She was in excellent shape, but the trek had her panting for breath, and Colin took so many unfamiliar twists and turns Ginny wondered that he ever remembered the way. He finally stopped before a wholly unremarkable battered wooden door.

“This is it!” he announced, literally bouncing on the balls of his feet.

Ginny eyed the door doubtfully. “It is?”

But he was already jiggling the handle, giving the wood a hard shove with one shoulder. It opened then with an alarming cracking noise, followed by a drawn-out squeal that made Ginny wince. He grabbed her hand again, pulling her into the room. Ginny looked around in fascination.

The room was octagonal in shape, and all eight of the walls, minus the one with the door, were a giant window. A thick layer of dust and grime covered the glass, tinting it brown, but Ginny could still see through it to some degree, and the sun managed to filter through as well. Curious, she took out her wand and muttered, “Scourgify.”

Instantly the magic wiped the glass clean, making it sparkle like crystals and flooding the room with morning sunlight. But that impressive sight wasn’t the one that had Ginny sucking in her breath; it was what she could now clearly see through the windows. Hogwarts and its grounds spread out around her on all sides, rolling hills of green, forests with treetops swaying in the breeze, and the lake reflecting the sun in a dazzling prism of glittering light. The one solid wall faced northwest, so she couldn’t see the Quidditch pitch, but everywhere else sprawled out around her, and she could even make out Hogsmeade off in the distance.

“Oh Colin,” she breathed. “It’s beautiful.” She searched her memory for a previous glimpse of this towering spire, but couldn’t recall even one. Though with Hogwarts’s impossible jumble of towers and turrets, that wasn’t saying much.

“Hmm?” Colin, on his knees in the middle of the room, followed her gaze. “Oh, yeah, that too—but have a look at this!

Ginny, still awe-struck by the stunning view, tore herself away from the windows, turning her head last of all. “What’s better than that?”

Colin wrapped his fingers around one particular stone in the floor, screwing up his face in concentration as he heaved it up. It clattered noisily against the other stones when he dropped it, leaving a dark hole behind in its wake. He pointed down into the opening. “That.”

Throwing him a quizzical look, she knelt down and peered inside. Sitting there was a perfectly ordinary candle in an equally unexceptional, wrought iron candlestick holder. “A…candle?”

“Pick it up!” he urged.

Wondering if Colin was finally losing it, she obligingly leaned down and wrapped her fingers around the metal handle of the candlestick holder. She held it up before her face, then raised her eyebrows at Colin. “I hate to break it to you, but I think I’m more impressed by the view.”

Before he could reply, the candle wick suddenly burst aflame, causing Ginny to jerk it away from her before it caught her long hair on fire. She blinked at it, off balance, and started to ask, “What…?” But the thought faded before she could finish it, her attention being absorbed fully by the little tear-drop of orange flame. Its heat seemed to melt away her surroundings, but she wasn’t very much concerned as none of it seemed all that important anymore, not like this solitary candle glowing so enticingly just for her. Soon even the candle and its holder dissolved, and all that remained was the flicker of light perched at the end of a blackened wick.

Then, quite suddenly, the flame winked out, and Ginny was left alone in the dark. Panic crawled over her skin like a million tiny insects, a silent scream locked in her throat. She could not feel the sensation of gravity anymore, and things like “up” or “down” held no meaning; hot and cold didn’t exist, and the air simply ceased to be, but she didn’t miss it because her body was gone now as well and no longer required such things. Ginny Weasley hung suspended in a vast, infinite stretch of…nothing.

Madness was just beginning to sink its grimy claws into her brain when the glorious fire bloomed right in front of her like the most spectacular flower ever. It seared through the abyss and steadily began spreading its glow, dissipating the nothingness inch by inch until the candlestick came into focus, followed by her fingers still tightly wrapped around the holder. Ginny nearly wept at the sight. Slowly the rest of her hand appeared, and then her arm, and so on until Ginny was fully restored. So gradually she almost missed it, she began to notice the feel of wooden floorboards beneath her feet, and the temperature was warming by degrees. Then, quite suddenly, the blackness all around her swirled and lifted away like so many wisps of smoke in the breeze.

Ginny stood in a house. The fireplace crackled and popped merrily, the smell of wood smoke drifting through the air, and Ginny noticed carved pumpkins on the mantelpiece; little bat decorations dangled from the ceiling. The sound of a baby crying pierced the quiet, drawing her attention towards a closed door on her left, a yellow glow pooling around the crack beneath it. Feeling like she was in a dream, Ginny readjusted her grip on the candlestick holder and stepped forward uncertainly. Her free hand reached out and turned the door knob, silently opening the door.

It was a nursery, the crying baby on its back in a crib over by the corner. Ginny was just debating whether or not she should go to the child when footsteps sounded behind her. She turned and saw a woman with hair as red as her own running right for her. Ginny’s eyes widened, but before she could step out of the way, the woman ran through her as if she was as insubstantial as air. Ginny stood in frozen shock for a second, then looked down and laid a palm flat against her stomach. She felt solid enough to her.

Confused and uneasy, she raised her eyes to see the red-haired woman bending over the squalling baby, cradling it close and murmuring quietly. Ginny sensed a presence behind her, turned, and nearly tripped over her own feet when she found herself face to face with Harry—a Harry that was very much grown up. She gazed at him in wonder for a moment, then remembering the other woman’s striking red hair, felt her stomach lurch. Was she spying on her own future?

“What’s wrong?” Harry asked, brows furrowing as he leaned against the doorjamb.

She shook her head. “I don’t know. He’s been fussy all night.”

After studying the cooing woman for just a few seconds, Ginny knew that her guess couldn’t be right. The face was all wrong for her and the body too tall and willowy, not to mention this other red-head had eyes so emerald green they seemed to glow. Ginny’s were a rich dark brown. Upon closer inspection of the man, she realized that he couldn’t be Harry, either. For one, he was missing the tell-tale scar on his forehead, and his eyes weren’t the right color. Harry’s were more like that other woman’s…just like them, actually.

And then everything fell into place, realization dawning on Ginny with a sickening certainty. The Halloween decorations, the older Harry look-alike and the woman with his eyes—these people were James and Lily Potter, which made the infant Harry…and it was the night of Voldemort’s attack.

Ginny’s mind whirled. She had to warn them, had to act, had to do something!

“Hey!” she yelled, and when that garnered no reaction, she screamed again, “Hey!” louder this time, to no better result. Desperate, she rushed forward and tried to grasp at James’s arm, but her hands passed through him, and he gave no indication that he felt her phantom touch. Frustration swelled in her, and she shrieked, “Listen, damn it!”

But neither of them would, and before Ginny could try something else, her vision grew darker and hazy as if tendrils of black smoke were wrapping around her head. “NO!” she cried, but the smoke only thickened until it blotted out everything, and Ginny choked on a sob.

When the darkness receded this time, Ginny didn’t immediately care to look around, simply huddled up in a ball instead and buried her face. Wherever she was, though, the wind howled mournfully, the pounding of heavy rainfall making her feel like she was in a giant’s drum. Finally, curiosity got the best of her, and she lifted her head.

This house was considerably less cozy than the last—more of a shack, really—with freezing temperatures only made worse by the storm’s buffeting against the thin walls of the place. It was nighttime, but by the glare of the occasional flash of lightening, Ginny could tell she was in the living area. Great, grunting snores from the sofa reached her ears in between peals of thunder and the whistle of wind. Climbing slowly to her feet, she realized she still clutched the candle, and now she held it out before her as she walked towards the sleeping person.

It was the fattest little boy Ginny had ever laid eyes on, drool trailing from his wide-open, beefy lips. Beyond that less than appealing sight, Ginny looked up to see a far more welcome one lying on the floor. It was Harry, really Harry this time, but when he was much younger. This was the Harry she first saw as a young girl, before she ever began attending Hogwarts. He was staring intently at the fat boy’s digital watch, and before Ginny could get his attention, a knock suddenly sounded at the door. She froze, Harry’s head whipped around, and two figures—a large, red-faced man cradling a rifle and a stick of a woman—rushed down the stairs. The obese boy jerked awake, muttering, “Where’s the cannon?”

The knocking continued, but no one moved to answer…so the door quite simply crashed in. A huge frame filled out the gap where the door used to be, and Ginny realized with a start that it was Hagrid. He was holding an umbrella in one hand, and Ginny, remembering Harry recount the story, realized this was when Harry first discovered he was a wizard.

She was fascinated and wanted to stay and watch the rest, but for the third time blackness claimed her, this time dissolving away again shortly to reveal a new setting. Now Hagrid showed Harry Diagon Alley for the first time, and here a lost Harry couldn’t figure out the train platform, and there he met Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger.

The events flashed by faster now, seemingly every significant point in Harry’s life snapping in and out like a slide show—the struggle for the sorcerer’s stone, the Burrow, the Chamber and Tom Riddle, Sirius, Cedric’s body in a graveyard, wands locked with Voldemort, their first kiss, and finally Draco Malfoy, standing over a weakened Albus Dumbledore, then being pushed aside by Snape, who delivered the killing blow as Harry stood helplessly by. The smoky black closed around her again.

Ginny felt overwhelmed, and this time she didn’t mind the nothingness so much. Nevertheless, just as before, the candle’s glow eventually knifed through oblivion, whisking away the smoke until she was left standing in what appeared to be old castle ruins lit by morning sunshine. She turned slowly, squinting her eyes against the brightness. This was no past of Harry’s, she decided, or if it was, he never told her about it. A flicker of light stood out against the rest of the crumbling and apparently deserted stones, and Ginny walked towards it.

Three figures sat around a small blaze, using it more for the heating of a thick slice of ham than for warmth since the weather was quite hot all on its own. As she got closer, she felt a jolt like an electric charge at the sight of a boy with the distinct Weasley-red locks. A head of frizzy curls bushier than ever rested against his shoulder, and finally, unmistakably mussed jet black hair came into view. She neared until she could clearly see Harry’s features, the familiar green eyes behind round glasses, his strong jaw and lean body. Ginny had come home.

“Harry! Ron, Hermione!” she cried, running to them. They didn’t even glance in her direction. Feeling her heart drop so sharply it physically ached, she slowed to a walk until she stood directly in front of Harry, and she waved a hand in front of his face. He didn’t blink. She tried to touch his cheek, but just as she suspected, her fingertips passed through.

“Oh, Harry,” she whispered, dropping to her knees beside him. At such a close range, she noticed for the first time how thin he looked, how exhausted and worn. Ron and Hermione looked in little better shape, and Ginny wondered what brought them to such a state.

“Today,” Hermione suddenly said, voice quiet. “I bet today’s the day we have better luck.”

Ron snorted. “Right. Because we’ve found all sorts of clues so far, right?”

The girl frowned, lifting her head away from him. “When we get to the next town—”

“You said that about the last town.”

“And we found a man there who helped, didn’t we?” she snapped.

Ron rolled his eyes. “Hermione, did it ever occur to you that he was lying? We’ve been walking nearly three days! The bloody town might not even exist.”

Hermione bristled. “Of course it does! Why would he lie?”

“I don’t know, Hermione,” Ron said, irritated. “Why do any of the wack-jobs out there do what they do? All I know is I’ve never heard of any Wizarding town around here.”

“Guys,” Harry interrupted, sounding profoundly tired. “Please, not again. We’ve come this far—we’ll keep going. If we find the town, then we find it, and maybe the Horcrux too. If not…then we’ll keep looking. That’s all.”

Ginny realized with mounting excitement that what she was witnessing was not some previously unheard of past, but the present. This was where Harry, Ron, and Hermione were right now, looking for the Horcrux. A surge of pity shot through her as she looked around their meager shelter in these abandoned ruins. Couldn’t they have apparated or at least gotten a ride somehow? Found somewhere with an inn or something along the way? Or were they just keeping a low profile? She longed to ask Harry all her questions, to reassure him that she was there. He looked so run-down, so ragged….

A strong breeze kicked up suddenly, blowing their hair around wildly, and for the first time, Ginny’s candle went out. This time the inky black of oblivion did not come slowly. It slammed down on her like the falling of a fist and she nearly choked, the complete lack of anything substantial so sudden and so all-encompassing that it overwhelmed her. Then just as suddenly it was gone, and Ginny was staggering back against a glass window that stretched the length of the wall, bright morning sunlight blasting into her eyes and momentarily blinding her.

When the spots faded, the first thing she saw was Colin grinning eagerly at her.

“You saw him, didn’t you?” he asked, practically bouncing. “You saw Harry.”

She didn’t answer right away. Her fingers still clutched the candlestick holder tight, and when she tried to pry them loose, they ached terribly. Shaking, she moved forward on wobbly legs and lowered the candle back into the hole.

“I met a girl over the summer, you see, but she’s a Muggle, so I had to leave her behind,” Colin was explaining, positively bubbling with excitement. “But when I picked up the candle, I sorta got…I dunno…sucked in, and I saw her! I wasn’t going to tell anyone, but then I thought of you, and knew you must be missing Harry worse than I miss Kaitlin—that’s the girl—and I figured if it worked for me…you all right there, Ginny?”

“Colin,” she said slowly, “how did you find this?”

“I told you,” he said, looking a bit put out by her lack of enthusiasm, “I had to find Professor Vector, but he wasn’t in his room, so I kept looking and got lost. The candle was just sitting out when I got here, but I found that loose stone and hid it when I left…just in case, I guess.”

“What is it?”

Colin shrugged. “Dunno, really. But like I said, it showed me who I missed, so I thought it might show you Harry since you miss him so much too. I don’t know if that’s how it really works or not, but I thought it was worth a try.” He hesitated. “Did it? Show you Harry, I mean?”

Ginny nodded, gazing down at the candle nestled in the hole in the floor, still feeling a little dazed. “Yeah. Yeah, it did.”

Colin seemed a bit perplexed by her mood. “I just thought you might appreciate it, what with him being out there and all….”

Ginny blinked up at him, then gave a small smile. “I do, Colin, really. Thank you so much. Sorry if I don’t seem grateful, I’m just a bit dazed still, I think. That was…quite the experience.”

He bobbed his head knowingly. “It gets better,” he assured.

Ginny cocked her head. “What do you mean? You’ve used it more than once?”

“Yeah, again just before I went to get you. I wanted to make sure it wasn’t just a fluke or something.”

“So that’s all you have to do?” Ginny asked, interested now that her mind was kicking back into gear. “Just…pick it up and wait for it to light?”

“And then blow out the candle when you want to come back,” Colin affirmed. “Took me ages to figure that out.” He suddenly looked a bit sheepish. “Sorry, I forgot to tell you before you picked it up. Excited, I guess.”

She smiled. “It’s okay, it worked out.” She paused a moment, staring at the deceptively nondescript candlestick. “We should cover it back up,” she decided. She didn’t know what it was, exactly, but it was certainly something she wanted kept safe…and hidden. “Like you said earlier—just in case.”

Colin agreed, and together they moved the stone back in place.

“Ginny?” he asked after that was done. “How is Harry?”

She looked at his face, so hopeful for good news, and knew that the truth of Harry’s situation would only upset him. So she lied—just a little white lie, just to keep hope alive, she reasoned. “He’s doing really well. All of them are. I think they’re really close to finding whatever they’re looking for.”

Colin grinned happily. “That’s great! I figured they would be.”

Ginny smiled sadly and nodded.

“And now you can see him any time you want!” Colin added, climbing to his feet.

Ginny rose as well, directing one last glance at the loose stone. And as Ginny closed the door behind her, she knew it wouldn’t be long before she returned to do just that. Not tonight—she had her detention—but very soon indeed.
Slytherin Ethics by Hearts Cadence
A/N – Well, personally, I had fun with this chapter. It should answer some questions, too. Hope y’alls like it! And of course, as always, thanks for the reviews!

- - - - -

Chapter 3—Slytherin Ethics

Dusk claimed the land quietly, its dim light softening even the sharp angles of Draco Malfoy’s face. Leaning against a tree at the edge of the Forbidden Forest, he spotted Ginny’s glaring red hair before anything else, the wind whipping long strands of it wildly around her head like a signal flag. She had on faded denim jeans, secondhand judging by the way they kept slipping low on her hips before she tugged them back up, and a white t-shirt that seemed to glow in the twilight. For his own part, Draco wore all dark colors, simple black slacks and a shirt that matched his gray eyes.

She stopped well outside arm’s reach, using both hands to catch up a fistful of scarlet hair and holding it back from her face. She didn’t bother to acknowledge his presence. He planned to do the same, but every time she lifted her arms to tame that hair, the hand-me-down jeans slipped alarmingly low, drawing his gaze to the bared skin despite himself. He could only ever catch a glimpse of pale hip and smooth stomach though before she dropped her hair in favor of yanking the jeans back up, then repeated the whole maddening process over again.

Finally, he could take no more. “Can’t you just tie that stuff back?” he snapped, waving his hand at her head.

She blinked at him, a strand of hair falling over her eyes as she did. “Why? It bothers you being down?”

“It bothers me that you can’t stand still because of it,” he snapped.

She smiled, just a small smile, but filled to bursting with wickedness. Draco cursed mentally—he knew that expression; it was the look of someone who just discovered a pet peeve.

“Terribly sorry, Malfoy, but I left my hair bands back in the castle.” She didn’t sound very sorry in his opinion. Her jeans slid down a few inches, and she quickly dropped her hair to snatch them back up again.

Draco’s eyes lingered for a split-second at the curve of her hips, wondering if it was his imagination, or if he actually just saw the elastic band of Ginny Weasley’s knickers. He shook his head, annoyed with his thoughts, and annoyed with her for making him think them. “I know you’re too poor to buy brand new clothes that actually fit,” he drawled, “but can’t you even afford a belt?” There, now he felt vindicated again.

Her only answer was in the form of a hate-filled glare. The truth was that her last good belt lay buckle-less in her trunk, but she would never admit it to the great prat. She eyed him sourly, irritated with his standard pristine appearance. She couldn’t find a single wrinkle in his clothes, and even his hair seemed to flow in the breeze rather than thrash about uncontrollably like hers. She wondered in passing if his back was ever anything but ram-rod straight.

The crunch of booted feet nearing carried her gaze over to the approaching Professor Pierce. His sand-colored hair blew in his face as well, but he didn’t seem to notice. His teeth gleamed in the night from a wide grin. “Evening!” he called, raising a hand as he easily covered the last few feet on those long legs of his. Ginny noticed an odd, rectangular box made of glass at his side.

“Evening, Professor,” Ginny answered politely.

Malfoy nodded.

“Well,” Pierce began, clapping his hands together in a business-like manner, “let’s get right to it, shall we? Tonight I’d like you to collect sprites for me.”

“Sprites?” Ginny asked while Malfoy examined his nails.

“Forest sprites, actually. I need them for a lesson tomorrow,” Pierce explained, squinting into the woods behind them. “Basically, they just look like miniature, winged women made of green light, which is why we had to do the detention here after dark. They’re quite useful, really…but I’ll save the lecture for class. No need to bore you twice.” He showed a lopsided grin. “Either of you have any experience catching them?”

Ginny glanced to Malfoy, who went on studying his hands. “Er…experience?”

Pierce chuckled. “I’ll take that as a no.” He paused, hunting around in his pockets for something. His hand came out holding a hand-carved wooden whistle. “No worries, it’s not too difficult. Just walk a ways until you’ve got a good ring of trees all the way ‘round, then give this a good hard blow.” He handed the whistle over to Ginny, as Malfoy still refused to acknowledge anything going on around him. “They should come right to you. Then just pop them in here.” He held up the glass container she’d noticed earlier. “Any questions?”

Ginny slipped the whistle into the back pocket of her jeans—she noted curiously that Malfoy followed the motion with his eyes—then carefully took the transparent cage in both hands. “Uh, I don’t think so.”

“Excellent.” Pierce’s hazel eyes flicked over to Malfoy, and for just a second, Ginny could swear she saw a flash of frustration in them. In the next instant they cleared, though, and she couldn’t be sure. “Best of luck, then. I wish I could stay, but I’ve got all sorts of catching up to do.”

Just as Pierce turned to leave, Malfoy said in a bored voice, “Yeah, I’ve got a question.”

Pierce stopped and faced them again, the lightest of smiles resting easily on his lips. “Yes, Mr. Malfoy?”

“Suppose we get attacked out here,” he stated conversationally. “What do you expect us to do then? This forest isn’t forbidden for no reason.”

“Remembering your last detention in the woods, Malfoy?” Ginny asked sweetly.

He sent a glare her way fierce enough to make any First Year whimper, but she only grinned innocently, just barely containing her laughter. She would mention something about the girlish shriek Harry described from that incident, but with the professor standing by decided not to press her luck.

Pierce shook his head. “That won’t be an issue. The Headmistress did me the favor of setting up a magical boundary. As long as you stay inside of it, you won’t be harmed.”

“And if we don’t?” Malfoy prompted.

“You won’t have to worry about it. Professor McGonagall created the boundary to keep all the nasties out, but it’ll keep you lot in as well. Quite solid thing, that barrier.”

Malfoy didn’t look overly convinced, but he shrugged his indifference anyway.

“If that’s all…?” Pierce asked.

Ginny nodded. “Think so.”

Pierce nodded to each in turn. “Right, then. I’ll be back in one hour.”

Ginny, still cradling the glass box in both hands, watched until the night swallowed up Professor Pierce.

“I don’t much care for him,” Malfoy commented then.

It took Ginny several seconds to get over the surprise of Malfoy speaking conversationally before she actually paid attention to his words. “Why not?” She was growing quite fond of the man, herself.

Malfoy frowned in the direction he’d gone. “I don’t trust him.”

Ginny rolled her eyes. “What, because he’s a Slytherin who knows how to smile?”

Draco gave a small, half-smile of his own. “He’s certainly done a good job of charming you, hasn’t he?”

Ginny narrowed her eyes. “What’s that supposed to mean? I think he’s nice, yes.”

“Think on this, Weasley,” Draco said, locking stares with her. “The man’s a Slytherin, whether he looks or acts like it or not, and if there’s one thing that’s true for every Slytherin, it’s that they never do something for nothing. There’s always a personal agenda, and it’s usually a hidden one. But no matter what, they don’t do anything ‘just because.’”

“So what are you saying?” A sinking, sick sort of feeling was curling in her gut.

“That dear Professor Pierce doesn’t fit the bill, and you can bet that he knows it. It’d be easier for him to just conform…but he doesn’t. Curious, no?”

“Maybe he’s just got a friendly personality, Malfoy,” she snapped defensively.

He shrugged. “Maybe. Or maybe he’s hiding something behind that friendly personality.” He smirked at her troubled expression. “Just something to think about.” He held out his hand abruptly. “Be a love, hand over the whistle thing.”

Her thoughts were still swimming, but she retained enough sense not to trust him with something so important. “You can put your hand down. You’re not getting it.”

He rolled his eyes, but didn’t argue the point. Instead, he simply turned and started striding towards the forest.

“Hey, Malfoy!”

He stopped, looking over his shoulder expectantly.

“If all Slytherins have hidden agendas, how come he’s the one you don’t trust?”

He turned around all the way, smiling bitterly. “I don’t trust anybody, Weasley. He’s the one I don’t like.”

She crossed her arms impatiently. “Okay, why don’t you like him then? Seems smarter to like the nice one, even if you don’t particularly trust him.”

Malfoy seemed to honestly consider this a moment. Finally, he answered, “I respect honesty. Most Slytherins aren’t nice, and they don’t bother hiding it. But Pierce plays at being a real fine fellow, when I’d be willing to bet he’s ten different kinds of bastard under all that charm.”

Ginny’s face was doubtful. “I don’t think so.”

Malfoy shrugged. “Think whatever you’d like.”

“No one’s that good an actor,” Ginny insisted, trying to convince herself as much as Malfoy.

He cocked his head to the side. “What year are you again, Weasley?”

She blinked. “Huh?”

He smiled a slow, amused sort of smile—but not an unkind one. “What year? Sixth, yes?”

She eyed him suspiciously. “Why?”

The smile remained comfortably on his lips, and Ginny decided it was actually attractive without the usual twist of cruelty in it. She immediately berated herself for thinking anything about Malfoy was attractive, but didn’t have much time to worry about it, because he started moving closer. He approached carefully, like a man afraid to startle a wild animal, and with all sorts of alarms going off in her head, Ginny backed away just as slowly.

“I haven’t seen your brother around. Or Potter,” Malfoy remarked. “Where are they?”

Her eyes narrowed to slits, hackles raised. “Like I would tell you. What do you care, anyway?”

“I don’t, not really,” he answered truthfully. “I was just thinking that it must be lonely for you.”

She faltered, confusion flickering in her dark eyes. “What?”

He shrugged. “You used to hang about them quite a bit, didn’t you? Weren’t you and Potter an item even?” She only glared, so he gave another shrug. “It just seems to me that you’d be lonely, is all.”

He was still edging closer, and Ginny backed away more quickly. Then her back hit a tree, and her pride wouldn’t allow an all-out, obvious retreat, so she simply stood straight and tall, raising her chin defiantly. “I’m fine,” she snapped.

He finally stopped directly in front of her. He leaned one arm against the tree next to her head, so close that Ginny could actually smell him—a not unpleasant mix of cinnamon and something earthier.

“Malfoy,” she said quietly, not knowing for the life of her why she spoke so softly, “I suggest you get away from me right now, before I hex that pretty-boy face of yours right off.”

He smiled attractively again, this time even flashing his teeth, and Ginny hated that she thought it made him seem almost pleasant. “You know, I don’t doubt that you would,” he admitted. “That’s what I think I find most irresistible about you.” Ginny’s eyes went very, very wide. Malfoy didn’t seem to notice. He went on, voice reduced to a murmur, “So passionate….” He reached out and trailed a finger of his free hand down her cheek.

“Malfoy, get your hands off of me,” Ginny warned, voice dangerous. She wanted to slap him, or at least get out from beneath him, but she felt frozen and nerveless and her body didn’t respond.

He ignored her, his cool eyes intent on watching his finger trail over her skin. He dragged it on past her cheek to her throat, collar bone, and shoulder, where he laid his palm flat and ran his hand down her arm. “I’m lonely too,” he said in something just above a whisper. “Maybe….” His hand found the side of her waist, slid around to her back.

“What are you doing?” Ginny demanded harshly.

His eyes met hers, and in the next instant, his hand slipped smoothly into the back pocket of her jeans. That finally shocked her out of whatever trance he’d put her into, and she pulled back her arm to deliver the hardest slap of her life. Before she could follow through, though, he backed swiftly out of range, a smirk on his face so smug Ginny wanted to use her wand to blast it off his face.

“What the hell did you think you were bloody well doing?!” she shouted instead, feeling the flush building from her neck all the way up her face. “You slimy, filthy, disgusting ass! How dare—

Her rant came to an abrupt halt, because between his thumb and forefinger, Malfoy held up the whistle from Ginny’s back pocket. The smirk on his face looked like it might become a permanent fixture. “Like I said, Slytherins never do anything just because.” He pocketed the whistle. “And remember this little demonstration next time you think that ‘no one’s that good an actor,’ because if I can pretend to take an interest in you to get what I want, Professor Pierce can certainly fake a smile or two.”

- - - - -

Her honey-blonde hair shone in the pale morning light. From her seat across the table, she turned her fine-featured face towards him, and he was struck all over again by the beauty he never really appreciated until these long separations began. She deserved to be on the arm of a king, with a prince for a son. She deserved all the happiness in the world. But her crystalline blue eyes glittered with unshed tears. And they were because of him.

Her gaze collided with his, and he found he couldn’t look away. “You’re not one of them,” she whispered, refusing to blink despite the tears—she would not release his eyes, not now that she caught them. He so rarely met her eyes these days. It was just too hard.

“You know that I am,” he answered without emotion. This conversation was old and dry, and he lacked the energy to really argue it through anymore.

She shook her head slowly, rays of sunshine bouncing off her head. “You’re a smart young man, Jon. Clever enough to come up with the craziest schemes and just sneaky enough to pull them off.” She smiled faintly. “Remember when you were just a little boy, and you got into the cookie jar?”

He did. His mother put it way up high on the counter so his stubby arms couldn’t reach, but he knew it was right next to where she kept the first aid kit, since she always swore that the kitchen was the most accident prone room in the home.

He’d done a very simple thing, really—he went into the study, found the sharp letter opener, and cut his hand. Just big enough so that his mother would make that scared gasping noise, but small enough that it wouldn’t take too long to heal. Then he ran to the kitchen, real tears already glistening in his eyes from the pain, and began to bawl. Just as he predicted, his mother rushed in, made the gasping noise, and promptly lifted him up on the counter to put on the bandages. When she wasn’t looking, he leaned over and snatched a cookie right out of the jar. She never would have known, either, if not for finding the blood-stained letter opener he hadn’t thought to clean and forcing a teary confession from him.

“That’s why you were thrown in with that bunch,” his mother was saying, conviction still strong after all the years. “Because of that cunning determination. But for all that, you’re not cruel, Jon. You have a heart, and it’s still in there, I know it. It’s a little harder now, maybe, but still beating.” And then she repeated again, “You’re not one of them.”

He stood so abruptly that the chair grated noisily against the floor, and he turned his back to her, unable to bear looking at that face for another second. The face of his mother…the face of his first real test. His fingers wound around the wand hidden beneath his robes.

“You don’t have to do this,” she whispered. He heard the catch in her voice and the sob in her throat that she was too strong to release. “You could just walk away.”

He shook his head. “You have no idea what you’re talking about. Where would I go? Where is there left to turn?” He squeezed his eyes shut. When he spoke, his voice was barely audible. “You should’ve left it alone, Mother. You should’ve never gotten involved in Death Eater business. You should’ve just let the damned thing be.”

“I should have let all the innocent children in that orphanage die? Is that what you’re saying?”

“They were only Muggles,” he mumbled.

“Jonathan!” she scolded. “I taught you better than that! Their being Muggle does not make killing them okay!”

He spun on her so suddenly that she visibly flinched. “Better them than you, you idiot woman!” he shouted, voice cracking.

She stared at him for a very long time before slowly straightening in the chair, drawing her shoulders back. “My conscience is clear,” was all she said.

He laughed. It was not a sound of mirth, or even of cruelty, but the sound of a madman. In it, his mother could hear all the makings of desperation and hysteria. It was the sound of a man who had reached his limits. He lifted his wand and took aim, his hand trembling violently.

She did not even glance at the wand tip pointed at her point-blank. “If you do this,” she warned quietly, “your heart won’t survive it. You’ll prove to them once and for all that you are one of them.”

For only the second time in years, Pierce met his mother’s crystal blue eyes. “That’s the point, Mum,” he whispered. And then he cast the spell, and sickly green light flooded his vision. But he could still see her eyes, intensely blue and wide and clear…and utterly lifeless…

Jonathon Pierce jerked awake with a gasp, sitting bolt upright in bed with a cold sweat running down his back. He swallowed thickly, fighting for air, and pressed his forehead against his knees. Years. That was years ago, and it still plagued his rest. Several minutes passed before he could bring himself to lift his head again.

The bedroom was pitch black, but he didn’t particularly care to see his own reflection just then anyway, so he swung his legs over the side of the bed and found the dresser in the dark. He started reaching for a comb when the hairs rose on the back of his neck, and he knew he wasn’t alone. His hand kept moving towards the comb without faltering, but at the last possible second darted to the side and snatched up his wand instead.

He whirled and shouted, “Lumos!” When the spots from the burst of light faded and Pierce saw who was at the other end of his wand, he rolled his eyes and lowered his arm. “Merlin Severus, don’t you ever announce yourself like any normal person?”

Severus Snape, at home in an armchair before the cold and dead fireplace, smirked. Ignoring the other man’s complaints, he remarked, “Still having the nightmares, I see.”

Pierce laid the wand back on his dresser, rubbing his palms over his face. “Every so often,” he admitted.

“The same one?”

Pierce nodded. “Every time.” He lowered himself into the chair opposite Snape. “It’s nothing. What are you doing here?”

Snape’s black eyes studied him a long moment before glancing away. “Seeing for myself what you’ve done to my rooms,” he joked dryly. “I kept them a bit tidier, myself.”

“You kept them Spartan,” Pierce retorted. “I had to add a little clutter just so it wasn’t so gloomy down here, you overgrown bat.”

“If you were anyone else, I would be forced to use an Unforgivable for that mouth.”

Pierce chuckled. “Ah, lucky I’m not then, hmm?” He sighed. “Why are you really here, Severus?”

Snape tilted his head. “How go things with Draco?”

Pierce made a face. “Time for my first check-up already?”

Snape shook his head. “I’m not here on behalf of the Dark Lord.” Pierce forced himself not to roll his eyes at mention of the name “Dark Lord.” “Just myself.”

“What? Bored with no children to torment this year, Sev?” Pierce grinned.

Snape snorted. “Hardly. Merely concerned…and curious. I know better than anyone how stubborn the boy can be.”

“He is that,” Pierce agreed. “To be completely honest? I haven’t made any progress whatsoever. Only ever talked to him a handful of times, and then I was dealing out a bloody punishment.”

Snape raised his eyebrows in question.

Pierce waved his hand. “Fighting in the halls, breaking curfew, that sort of thing. But other than that whole mess, nothing.”

“Why not?”

Pierce let his head fall back against the chair. “I don’t know where to start with this kid, Severus. You know me—I already look nothing like what I am, and then with the cheerful act I put on, people usually take to me like that.” He snapped his fingers. “It’s why I’m one of Voldemort’s best spies.” He ignored Snape’s frown at the disrespectful use of Voldemort’s first name. “But I get the feeling that he’s not impressed, and I don’t want to do anything to raise any suspicion before absolutely necessary.”

Snape settled back, crossing his arms. “So instead you haven’t done anything?”

Pierce shrugged tellingly.

“Good Lord, Jon, you know better. You’re telling me you can spend two years stealing top secret documents from right under the Minister of Magic’s nose, but you can’t employ a little persuasion on a boy?”

“I seem to recall someone else unable to persuade a certain boy last year,” Pierce shot back.

Snape wasn’t fazed by the barb. “My talents are as an Occlumens and a Legilimens, which aren’t much help when it comes to this. You, on the other hand, have made your name playing on emotions. You’re in your element, Jon. Act like it.”

Pierce was beginning to feel real frustration. “It’s not so simple—”

“What tactic have you told me time and again you’ve always used before?” Snape interrupted.

Pierce frowned. “What’s that got to do with—”

“Just answer the question, Jon.”

Pierce shut his eyes and slumped, then dutifully recited his own mantra, “Figure out what they hold most dear, because that’s their greatest weakness. Use it any way you can—hold it hostage, blackmail with it, or bribe with the promise of more of it.” He took a breath. “Find what they can’t live without, and you find their greatest vulnerability.”

Snape nodded approvingly. “It’s never failed you yet.”

Pierce allowed a bitter smile. “Ah, but see that’s what makes this case so hard. What does Draco hold dear? Does he care about anything anymore? I mean, if last summer is any indication, he doesn’t even value his own life all that much, and that’s usually what I fall back on when all else fails.”

“I guess that’s what you need to figure out, then,” Snape stated simply, picking absently at the hem of his sleeve.

“And if I can’t?”

Snape gave a bored shrug. “Give him something to care about.”

“Oh, is that all?”

“No one said this would be easy,” Snape reminded him pointedly. “But the Dark Lord has faith in your abilities.”

Pierce gave a sarcastic smile. “Oh, well then, if the Dark Lord has faith in me….”

Snape’s eyebrows furrowed over a deep frown, and he was quiet a very long time. “It’s a dangerous game you play,” he said finally.

“And what game would that be, Severus?”

“Advancing so high in his ranks when it’s painfully obvious you hold so little loyalty for him.”

“It’s not as if I’m loyal to anyone else, either,” Pierce argued, not bothering to deny the observation. “And anyway, only obvious to you. I’m careful around the rest.”

Snape sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Did you ever consider that it’s not wise to place so much trust in me?”

Pierce raised his eyebrows. “Are you saying you plan on betraying me? After all these years? Oh, Severus, that’s just not nice.”

“Stop it,” Snape ordered harshly. “This is serious. Remember when you were first sorted into Slytherin? How naïve you were? I saw potential in you so I took you under my wing, but even with all your success, you never grasped the first thing I always told you, again and again—trust no one.”

“I don’t—”

“You do,” Snape growled. “Me.”

Pierce narrowed his eyes. “Just what are you getting at, Severus? Do you plan on betraying me?”

Snape sighed. “No, Jon, I don’t. But the Dark Lord is no fool, and if you stay so central in his attentions, he’ll eventually catch on to the fact that you hold no allegiance to him, or even any real respect. Then it won’t matter how talented you are or how valuable to the cause—he demands no less than absolute devotion from his followers.”

Pierce flapped his hand impatiently. He knew all of that already. “I don’t see what this has to do with trusting you.”

“Just this—I’m a Slytherin above all else, Jon, and that means my own skin comes first. Right now you’re an asset, but don’t delude yourself into thinking that the second you fall out of favor with the Dark Lord I won’t secure my own position by whatever means necessary.”

Pierce felt his insides go cold. “What exactly are you saying?”

Snape stared down his hawk-like nose at Pierce. “I’m saying I would hate to hurt you should the Dark Lord figure things out. Do not give me more ammunition with which to do that.”

Snape stood abruptly, producing a vial from some hidden pocket of his robes. “Dreamless sleep,” he explained, setting the potion on Pierce’s bedside table. “For the nightmares.” Then he tossed an invisibility cloak around his shoulders, and Pierce was left alone with Snape’s warning echoing around darkly in his head. It fully hit him then what he’d really known all along—that his survival depended on him alone, just as was true with any Slytherin.

He didn’t resent Snape for the reminder, but a steely determination overcame him not unlike when he was a child scheming for a cookie—or a young man carrying out the first, terrible order from his new Master. He would make himself invincible…and he would use the “Dark Lord” to do it. He would make himself so invaluable that an insult to Pierce would be synonymous with an insult to Voldemort himself.

And he would start accomplishing that right now—with Draco Malfoy.
Conversations by Hearts Cadence
Chapter 4—Conversations

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.

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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!
The Idea by Hearts Cadence
A/N – You have no idea how hard this chapter was to write lol. I haven’t the faintest why, but for whatever reason, it was quite the struggle. Hopefully it’s all right after all that.

And as always, thank you so much for the reviews!!! It’s what keeps me going when I hit the unavoidable rough spots—like this chapter lol.

- - - - -

Chapter 5—The Idea

The Great Hall filled with tense silence, every pair of eyes turned to the curious, sandy-haired little boy who gave the Sorting Hat so much trouble.

“Slytherin!” the hat finally called out, splintering the quiet so abruptly that more than a few jumped. For a long time, no one responded to the judgment. The little boy could always read people’s faces—Mum said it was a special gift and he could use it to help people; to see when they were hurting when most couldn’t—and now he saw the same thought written across every one: Slytherin? Him?

He was sort of thinking the same thing. Mum would never talk badly about anyone, of course, but he’d still heard things about that House…nasty things. His legs trembled as he slid off the stool, and he had to keep his hands in his pockets so that no one would see them shaking. Scattered applause reached his ears at last, but it just made him sad because he knew they didn’t mean it. He searched the faces of his new housemates, and all of them read the same thing: you don’t belong.

He was just beginning to feel like he might cry when one face stood out from the rest, not looking particularly sympathetic, but not openly hostile, either. Curious, mostly. Eleven-year-old Jonathon Pierce made a beeline for the boy with the unwashed looking black hair.

“Hullo!” Jonathon whispered. “My name’s Jon. What’s yours?”

The older boy regarded him with an amused arch to one eyebrow that Jonathon didn’t understand. “Severus Snape,” he answered at last.

“Happy to meet you!” And young Jonathon stuck out his hand just as Mum taught him.

Severus looked at the hand and rolled his eyes. “You’re not going to survive a day,” he concluded. “Why’d the Sorting Hat put you here, anyway? Did it say?”

Jonathon dropped his hand awkwardly. “Um…it said I was clever. And determined.” He made a face, trying to remember the last part. “And that my talents would be best developed in Slytherin.”

Now Severus looked a tiny bit more interested. “What sorts of talents?”

Jonathon shrugged. “Dunno. That’s all it said.”

Severus was studying him, but then the picture blurred and rippled, and Severus’s face got older, the hair longer and greasier, the nose more prominent and the eyes harder. When he spoke, his voice was deeper too. “You know you’d be perfect for this, Jon!”

Jonathon, who now went by the name of Pierce except to a select few, frowned. “I don’t know.” His voice was deeper too.

“What don’t you know? They say he’s the most powerful wizard alive, and he’s only getting stronger. He wants followers, and you can offer exactly the kind of qualities he’s looking for!”

“He sounds bloody mad, if you ask me.”

Snape waved his hand impatiently. “That’s all relative. Just think of the power, Jon!”

Pierce saw the hunger in his friend’s eyes, and understood he was looking for a way to get even with all his past and present bullies. “What would we even do for the bloke?”

“Spies,” Snape said without hesitating. “Or at least that’s what I’m going to sign up for. I’d be excellent at that, and so would you, even if you never quite got the hang of Legilimens.”

Pierce snorted. “I don’t need Legilimens.”

“Exactly! See? You’d be perfect.”

“I don’t know….”

“What is it? Too soft to handle the thought of killing a Muggle or two?” Snape sneered.

“No!” he denied hotly. “I haven’t been weak like that in a long time, and you know it.”

“So what’s the problem?”

But before Pierce could reply, the image grew watery, shifting and changing again, and now he sat across from his mother in their home with the sunny yellow walls. Her face, by contrast, was grim.

“They’ve changed you, Jonathon,” she said in that soft, lilting voice. “I don’t even know you anymore.”

“It’s nothing,” Pierce muttered.

She shook her honey-blonde head. “No, those people in that House…they made you hard. I can see it in your eyes. You’re not the same person. You’re darker now. Colder.”

Pierce tried to stand up, but she caught his hand and held fast. “You’ve hurt people, Jonathon. Haven’t you?”

“No one who didn’t deserve it.”

The woman’s blue eyes shone with unshed tears, making them look even more crystalline than usual. It gave her a tragic beauty that made Pierce’s soul ache. “What happens when you hurt someone just to get ahead? What happens when you become remorseless?”

Pierce finally broke free and started pacing. “Remorse is for the weak. If people get hurt, it’s only because they weren’t strong enough to protect themselves. It would be their own fault.”

Her face turned angry. “Is that what they taught you? Is that how they define strength? By being merciless and cruel? Did they brainwash you into believing those things are true?”

She kept going, but her voice grew faint so he couldn’t hear, the walls dimmed, and now Pierce was kneeling in front of a cloaked figure, the man’s face hidden by a cowl so that Pierce couldn’t read him.

“Our raid on the Muggle orphanage was hindered, Jonathon,” the man said in a very quiet, controlled voice.

Pierce stared straight ahead. “I know.”

“Of course. And do you also know because of whom it failed?”

Pierce swallowed. “She…she must have found the address in my things and figured it out. She’s smart, she—”

“I don’t give a damn,” the man hissed, then immediately calmed down, his voice returning to its soothing murmur. “She interfered, you see, and I can’t have that. People will think that sort of thing is acceptable.”

Pierce closed his eyes. He knew what was coming, had known since the moment he was summoned.

“She’ll have to be silenced.”

With a powerful effort, Pierce managed, “Yes, Lord.” Then, “What do you need from me?”

“I haven’t given you a task yet to prove that you’re truly devoted to me, Jonathon. And you know how important loyalty is.”

“Yes.” His voice was hoarse.

“I think I just found a way for you to prove yourself.”

Then this scene faded out, and Pierce saw again his mother’s sad, resigned face, and she was telling him that there was something in him that could still be saved…but he knew it wasn’t true. He knew that part of him was sucked dry a long time ago. And then there was just his mother’s dead, staring eyes….

Pierce crashed to the floor, cracking his elbow against the bed frame on the way down and jarring his spine terribly on impact. His sheets were still tangled around his legs, the blanket thrown over the edge of the mattress, and his head felt like someone was whacking it repeatedly with a hammer. Cursing fluently, he rolled to his knees and came up staring at his nightstand and the bottle of Dreamless Sleep he’d forgotten to take. He swore again, using the nightstand as leverage to stand the rest of the way.

It took a minute of blind fumbling in the dark before he found his wand and used it to light several of the torches in their wall sconces. He peered at the clock, groaned when he saw it read only three a.m., and stood for a minute in the middle of his chamber. He glanced at the bed but knew trying to sleep now would be pointless, so he walked over to the liquor cabinet instead. There wasn’t any good Ogden’s in there, but he did manage to dig up a few bottles of wine from the kitchens that would have to do.

Merlin, today’s going to be hell, he thought as he slumped down into an armchair with his wine. He took a sip, then stared at the way the torchlight played off the glass. Last night he’d promised himself today would be the day he would make progress with Draco, too…not that he ever came up with a plan, per se. How did you hurt a man, even a young man, who cared for nothing?

That concept was really just over Pierce’s head, if he was honest with himself. Everyone had something to live for, or else how would they roll out of bed every morning? But as far as he could tell, Draco honest to goodness didn’t give a damn about anyone or anything. It was like the part of his brain in charge of “hopes” and “desires” stepped out on a permanent strike, and the rest of him just went on functioning like some kind of machine. Just going through the motions of living without really doing it. Pierce almost felt sorry for him…almost.

Come to think of it, the only time Pierce saw any kind of reaction at all out of the boy was when he argued with that Ginny Weasley bint. Then his eyes got all aflame and there was some good old fashioned emotion in that face—something Pierce could read, something he could work with. But the rest of the time he was blank and unreadable as plain parchment, which was probably the most infuriating thing of all.

The Weasley girl was getting rather annoying herself. It was nothing she was personally guilty of, but that feeling of something important about her would not leave, nor could he figure out what the something might be. It felt obvious, too, like it was staring him in the face but he was wearing dark glasses that wouldn’t permit him to see. Jonathon Pierce was fast becoming a very frustrated man.

He realized his glass was empty, so he got up to pour himself another. And another. Before he knew it, the clock was chiming that it was time to start getting ready, and Pierce was no closer to any answers. He walked to his classroom in a foul mood.

The door was closed, but Pierce saw through its small window that Draco already sat in his customary seat at the back. Pierce glowered, wondering if the universe enjoyed playing pranks on him like this. The boy had his feet propped up on the table, his fingers laced together over his stomach, and he was just staring straight ahead at nothing at all.

Pierce heard someone walking up behind him and turned to see Minerva McGonagall approaching. He immediately sketched a small bow. “Headmistress.”

She nodded. “Good morning, Jonathon. How are you?”

He plastered on his usual smile with an effort. “Wonderful, thank you. Is there something I can help you with?”

“I just thought I would pop by and see how you were getting along,” the woman explained. “I know how trying teaching can be.”

He inclined his head slightly. “That it can, but no, I’m doing fine so far. Thank you for checking.”

McGonagall looked over his shoulder. “Is there any trouble?”

“Trouble? No, why do you ask?”

“You weren’t going in your room.” She raised her eyebrows expectantly.

“Oh.” Pierce glanced inside. “A student got here early and I just wanted to see what he was doing. Not an issue.”

She moved up beside him to look through the little window, then pursed her lips when she saw who it was. She was quiet a long moment before saying, “Sometimes I wonder if things might have been different with that one.”

Pierce looked at her, surprised by the uncharacteristic admission. “How do you mean?”

“Albus always stressed the importance of love. He said that it was what made a life worth living.” She smiled bitterly. “I’m sure love is something Draco Malfoy experienced very little of at home, and his House here at Hogwarts…well, don’t be offended, Jonathon, but I think you can agree it’s not exactly a nurturing environment.”

Pierce only stared through the window.

“I just wonder if things might have turned out differently if he had known love in his life,” McGonagall continued. “Who knows? Maybe there’s still hope for him. Albus certainly believed in second chances, and if Mr. Malfoy can find a little love in his life, maybe even just some sympathy…” she smiled tightly. “Or maybe I’m just an old woman who’s letting her head drift in the clouds.”

Pierce looked through the window and silently agreed that Draco could use a little love in his life. Not for the boy’s sake, of course, but Pierce’s—he knew from experience that a man in love was almost pitifully easy to manipulate.

“Well!” McGonagall clapped her hands together, all business as usual. “You’re sure there’s nothing I can help you with?”

Pierce shook his head, producing an obligatory smile. “Thanks, though.”

As she walked away, he turned her sentiments over in his head, thinking again what a shame it was that Draco didn’t have himself a girl. It would make things infinitely easier. Unfortunately, the stubborn little bastard didn’t seem to want interaction of any kind with his housemates, including even idle chit chat. It really blew the possibility of romance to smithereens. Besides, Pierce thought himself reasonably familiar with the Slytherin students by now, and he could not fathom a single one of those girls holding Draco’s interest for long. They just lacked a certain essential something—perhaps something as simple as a challenge.

“Professor Pierce?” someone said, breaking through his haze.

He looked around, and it took a mighty effort not to curse when red hair and freckles greeted him. Merlin, he just couldn’t escape his aggravations today! “Miss Weasley,” he said, forcing a smile and knowing that it probably looked forced too.

“Are you alright? You seem a little…out of it.”

There it was again, that nagging idea that something about her should be registering with him. Still distracted by his conversation with McGonagall and now with whatever was amiss about Ginny, he managed, “Yes, I’m fine. Just a little...” he trailed off then, though, because it suddenly hit him. It was like taut rope in his mind that used to hold apart the pieces to the puzzle suddenly snapped, and by doing so freed the pieces to slam into place, making a picture clear as glass. Exactly that abruptly, Pierce knew the solution to the Draco dilemma—and Ginny Weasley was the key.

“Professor?” Ginny asked, her forehead crinkled in concern.

He couldn’t believe how obvious it was. Maybe he was losing his touch—he would be worried if not for feeling so elated. All this time Pierce was thinking that if Draco found someone, it would be in Slytherin. Not once did he consider a girl out of the boy’s House, and especially not one out of his caste. Now though, Pierce remembered thinking how the only time Draco showed any emotion at all was around Ginny Weasley, and he couldn’t believe it took him this long to realize the implications of that. For how many times did adults witness children arguing and smile to themselves, understanding that young love was blossoming?

“Professor? Everything all right?” Ginny tried again, glancing around the hall.

Yes, she had everything—fire, strength, compassion, intelligence, and she would be precisely the challenge Draco needed, because even from the little Pierce knew of her, he doubted she would ever submit to anyone.

Professor?

He blinked, then an honest grin spread from ear to ear. “Oh, right. I apologize, Miss Weasley, I was just thinking. You know how it goes when your thought process gets on a roll.”

She smiled back a little uncertainly. “Sure. Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt or anything.”

“Not at all,” he waved it off, mind beginning to catalogue everything he could remember of her, and then he realized something. “I thought you had Herbology first?”

She cocked her head a degree. “Yes, that’s right.”

“Then where are you off to? The greenhouses aren’t this way.”

She grinned. “I’m signing up for Quidditch tryouts really quick. They’re in a week, you know, and I’m hoping to take Harry’s place as Seeker this year.” She gave a sad, reminiscent sort of smile. “He helped me practice all summer. He says I’ve got a real shot.”

She made a little sighing sound at the memory, and Pierce remembered hearing rumors that the two of them were involved last year. He wondered idly how that was working out with Potter off traipsing the countryside or whatever the hell it was he was up to (rumor had it that Dumbledore’s murder affected the boy so strongly that he couldn’t bring himself to return—much to Lord Voldemort’s glee. Pierce couldn’t care less one way or the other.)

“Seeker, is it? That’s Draco’s position as well, isn’t it?” Pierce mentioned, watching closely for her reaction.

Instantly her features twisted into a scowl. “Yeah, he’s been Seeker for awhile…ever since his dad bought the entire team top-of-the-line brooms, in fact.” She let the unspoken accusation hang.

Pierce’s soaring spirits fell an inch or two. Here was one little snag—Draco Malfoy and Ginny Weasley hated one another. Draco showed emotion around her, true, but it wasn’t exactly the happy sort. For just a second Pierce’s conviction wavered, and he thought of writing off the idea as a lost cause, but then Snape’s words echoed in his head: “Give him something to care about”. His determination returned tenfold as he decided he would do just that—he would give Draco something, or rather someone, to care about. It couldn’t be that hard. After all, wasn’t it always said that there was a fine line indeed between love and hate?

“Professor?”

“Hmm?”

She smiled. “Your mind went somewhere else again.”

He looked her over, and decided that besides the whole Draco-hated-her issue, she would be perfect. Certainly pretty enough—not gorgeous, but then she wasn’t made-up like most girls her age. Anyway, the unadorned face made for a simple beauty he thought Draco would appreciate, especially when everyone else in his life hid behind so many masks. Her brown eyes, startlingly dark against the pale skin, definitely provided a good measure of appeal, and her smile was brilliant…if she ever gave Draco occasion to see it. That rich, long red hair was unquestionably stunning, and it gave her character as well. And as he already considered, her personality more than qualified—fierce, unrelenting, indomitable, but still sweet and empathetic.

He grinned widely. “Sorry, guess I’ve got a lot to think about this morning.”

“Doesn’t look like bad thoughts, at least,” she observed with amusement, referring to his cheerful face.

He shook his head. “No, nothing bad at all. But you should be getting on if you want to sign up and still not be late for class.”

She gave a start. “Oh, right! Bye, Professor!” She turned and jogged down the hall, bright hair streaming behind her like a banner.

A much lighter Pierce than before turned back to his classroom and pushed inside, mind already busy figuring out ways to implement his plan. Draco, still half-reclined with his feet propped up, didn’t even bother to turn his head, just glanced over and said a wholly unenthusiastic, “Morning, sir.”

“Good morning, Mr. Malfoy. Eager to get to my class, I assume?” he joked.

“I think everyone in the common room was on sugar pills this morning,” Draco explained dryly. “And I’m not a morning person.”

“Ah.” Pierce walked over to his desk, laid down his things, then regarded the younger man. The first step, he decided, was getting the two of them around each other more often—and for longer stretches of time. His mind drifted over his most recent conversation with Ginny, and an idea occurred to him. “I thought you would have been signing up for Quidditch.”

Draco raised his eyebrows. “Why’s that?”

“You said you played,” Pierce reminded him.

“And?”

“Oh, I just saw a student rushing off to sign up for her trials. I assumed you would be playing again this year, too.”

“I guess I didn’t really think about it.”

“Not interested in Quidditch anymore?” Pierce inquired, silently thinking surprise, surprise.

Draco merely shrugged. “Like I said, I didn’t give it much thought.”

This was no good at all. Quidditch would have been a perfect opportunity for the two teenagers to interact, but if Draco wasn’t even going to cooperate to that extent….

“Well, that’s a shame. I was looking forward to seeing how you held up against the new competition,” Pierce commented off-handedly, betting everything on the spirit of competitiveness that, according to hearsay, once thrived in the boy.

The tease must have sparked Draco’s interest, because he turned his head for the first time. “New competition?”

“Yes. I heard the showdowns between you and Potter were something to behold, so I admit I was a tad eager to see how you handled his replacement.”

“Who is it?”

“Well, I suppose we won’t know until after the trials, will we?” Pierce paused for effect, making sure he had the boy’s attention. “But I do know that Miss Weasley is quite interested in the position…apparently practiced with Potter all summer.”

Draco’s feet came off the table, and he sat up straight. “Weasley?

“Mmm.” Pierce knew Draco was hooked, and now all that remained was to drive it home. And he knew exactly how to do it—through a quick stab at the ego. “Of course, you two don’t get on very well, do you? And that one is intense when she’s riled up…it’s probably a good idea if you didn’t play.” Pierce chuckled. “It wouldn’t be a pretty sight.”

Draco’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean by that?”

“Oh, I’m not saying she would hurt you intentionally,” Pierce hastily explained, pretending to misinterpret Draco’s reaction. “Just don’t want to see you knocked off your broom in the heat of the moment is all.”

Draco’s lips pressed into a very thin line for a long moment. Finally, he asked, “Did you say she went to sign up just now?”

Pierce nodded. “I imagine you could go and still make it back in time.” He showed a sly smile. “Besides, even if you’re late, I’m sure I could…overlook it. For the sake of the House, and all that.”

Draco’s eyebrows rose. “Sake of the House?”

“Let’s put it this way.” Pierce leaned against the wall, folding his arms. “Miss Weasley’s got spirit, and after working with Potter, probably some talent too. I would hate for my team to lose to a little girl from Gryffindor.”

A faint smirk traced itself on Draco’s lips, and Pierce might have been mistaken, but he could swear he detected a glint of approval in the young man’s eyes.

“Well, I suppose I’m off to sign up for Quidditch,” Draco announced, pushing out his chair.

Pierce gave a satisfied nod, watching him stride through the door with a purpose in his step for the first time all year. That, more than anything else, confirmed for Pierce that this idea would work. After all, it was readily apparent that Ginny Weasley already gave Draco something to live for—all that remained was to turn it from hate-inspired competition to passion-inspired romance.

Because after Draco was “in love,” the rest would be almost laughably easy. Just the way Pierce liked it.
Schemes and Confessions by Hearts Cadence
A/N – thanks for all the support!

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Chapter 6 – Schemes and Confessions

Ginny finished her last sentence with a flourish and sighed in relief. She glanced up at Professor Pierce, who sat at the front of the classroom fully absorbed in some text or another, and thought that for such a friendly personality he definitely held no qualms over assigning work.

Forestalling the sluggishness she felt coming on after all that writing, she leaned down and plopped her bag in front of her. In went the newly completed essay, not actually due until tomorrow, followed by her quill. Most of the other students were still furiously scratching away, which Ginny took as a sign that there was still a bit of time left before the period ended, and she debated for a moment what to do. Finally she settled on a bit of recreational reading, since she didn’t think her brain could handle getting that head start on Transfiguration.

Ginny had to force aside all the day’s assignments and textbooks to reach the novel buried at the bottom, and when she pulled it out, she noticed a small, round object fall onto the desk with a light ping! It only took a second for her to realize what it was, and her breath stuck in her lungs. She relaxed a fraction after two pounding beats of her heart, but just when she was about to release her pent up breath, the entire table and surrounding floor exploded into brightly colored vegetation.

Everyone jumped, and someone even screamed. Several seconds of stunned silence passed, then a boy near the back snorted in laughter, and soon more students were joining him. Ginny could feel her cheeks blazing with embarrassment.

“Miss Weasley,” Pierce said, standing now with eyebrows raised, “what on earth just happened?”

Words falling out of her mouth so fast they sounded jumbled, she said, “Sorry, sir! I promise I can clean it up!” She frowned. “I think….”

Pierce gazed at the array of plant life surrounding her, nonplussed. “You’re going to have to stay after class, I’m afraid.”

She nodded meekly, pointedly ignoring the sniggers of her classmates. The end of the period couldn’t arrive fast enough, and Ginny stalled while everyone else packed up their things to leave, throwing looks both sympathetic and amused her way. When only Pierce and Ginny remained, the former walked over to the wide variety of greenery sprawled over desks and floor, arms crossed loosely.

“Explanation?”

Mutely, Ginny held out her hand. Nestled innocently in her palm was an identical, tiny sphere.

Treating it like a bomb, Pierce took it. “What exactly am I looking at here?”

Ginny gestured miserably to the impromptu greenery. “This. In condensed form.”

His eyebrows rose.

“They’re called Portable Gardens,” she explained. “A variation on the original Portable Swamps Fred and George invented.”

Pierce held the miniature ball closer, brow creased. “Fred and George…I’ve heard of them somewhere.”

“Founders and owners of Weasley’s Wizarding Wheezes…and my brothers,” Ginny admitted.

“Ah, of course. The infamous Weasley twins. You said this was called a Portable Garden?”

She nodded. “The Portable Swamps were so successful that they decided, for Mum’s birthday, to make her a Portable Garden. They figured she’d appreciate that more than a swamp.” She grimaced. “Anyway, they couldn’t quite get it right, so they gave me what they had and decided to put the project on hold.”

Pierce still studied the object between his thumb and forefinger. “What was wrong with it?”

Ginny smiled wryly. “Too unstable.”

Pierce chuckled. “Yes, I would say so.” He lowered his hand, staring once more at the miniature garden in his classroom. “Did you say you could…reverse this?”

“Um, I could try.”

Pierce waved her on. “Please do.”

It took several attempts and one curse slipping out, which Pierce thankfully chose to ignore, but she finally managed to clear up the mess. “Sorry,” she said afterwards, hanging her head. “It won’t happen again.”

“Let’s hope not,” Pierce agreed. Ginny stared at him expectantly, and when he didn’t continue, he shifted awkwardly and asked, “Something the matter?”

She blinked. “Oh, no, I was just, uh, waiting for my punishment.”

“Oh,” he frowned, “right.” He considered a moment, taking out the Portable Garden and gently rolling it around in his palm. “Tell you what,” he said suddenly, closing his hand around the little ball, “I’ll make a deal with you.”

Ginny hoped her incredulity didn’t show on her face. “A deal?”

“That’s right. I won’t assign a detention or take away any points, and in return…you fix whatever’s still not right with these for me.”

“Fix them?” This time Ginny knew her surprise showed. “But…why?”

“My Mum’s a gardener herself.” He said it lightly, but Ginny caught the strange look that passed over his face and wondered at it. Maybe he and his mum had an awkward relationship or something. “I think she’d like one.”

“Oh.”

“Do you think you could do it?”

She nibbled on the inside of her cheek. “I might,” she finally offered. “I don’t know how much luck I’ll have if the twins couldn’t figure it out, though. I’ve got a lot of their knack for inventing, but they’re still much better.” She smiled. “’Course, they really weren’t giving this their all either…they’re more interested in stuff that’ll make a nuisance.”

Pierce smiled. “Excellent. Will you need anything? Like a space to work?”

“Uh…I guess I’d probably need permission to work in the greenhouse. And maybe the Potions lab.”

“Done,” he said without hesitating. “What time, do you think?” She wondered why he would need to know that, and it must have showed, because he was quick to explain, “Sprout and Slughorn may want to know.”

That sounded reasonable enough, so Ginny said, “Um, well, I could do homework before supper…and I usually try and get in a little flying practice right after while it’s still light…sooo probably anywhere from seven thirty on. On weekends anytime between lunch and supper would work.”

Pierce strode to his desk and scribbled the times on a scrap of parchment. He slipped it into his pocket, walked back to her, and stuck out his hand. “Then I do believe we have a deal, Miss Weasley.” She accepted his hand, and he added, “In the future, just try and refrain from spontaneously growing gardens in class, hmm?”

A light blush bloomed on her cheeks, and she gave an embarrassed smile. “Yeah, of course. I really am sorry.”

He took back his hand and waved it in dismissal. Just then a knock sounded at the door, and they both turned to see Malfoy walking in, a wrapped and bound stack of parchment tucked under one arm.

“Ah, Mr. Malfoy!” Pierce greeted. “Right on time. You can set those on my desk.”

Malfoy glanced at Ginny, and she got the uncomfortable feeling of being measured in some way. Then the moment passed and he moved to unload his pile, leaving her wondering what that was all about.

“McGonagall said these are just copies, so you can keep them as long as you need to,” Malfoy told Pierce.

“Fantastic.” He walked over, took out his wand and, touching the tip to the knot holding the wrapping in place, murmured a word under his breath. The coverings fell away, and he picked up the top sheet to scan. “Fantastic,” he repeated, nodding his approval. “I’ll just pop these in the back. Don’t need other students stumbling across their peer’s records.” With that, he scooped the stack up and lugged them into the office attached to the classroom.

Draco kept facing the door even after Professor Pierce disappeared behind it, trying very hard to ignore the fact that Weasley was staring at him. It drove him crazy, though; he didn’t even have to look to know she was doing it. He could feel her eyes burning into his back.

Finally, he whirled and boldly met her stare. She blinked in surprise, but to his disbelief, didn’t so much as glance away.

“Problem?” he snapped.

Her eyes narrowed and her lips pressed together. For a second he thought she was going to say something, but then she simply turned around and started shoving things into her bag like the thing offended her. The last book wouldn’t fit, and he could see by her rather violent efforts to mash it in that she was getting frustrated.

He rolled his eyes. “Weasley, aren’t you forgetting something?”

She looked up, and a fiery tendril fell in her face, framing the one side. She blew it away impatiently. “What are you talking about?”

“You’re a witch.”

She seemed to wait for him to expand, and when he didn’t, she replied sarcastically, “You don’t say.”

He sighed and walked over, taking out his wand. Hers instantly flashed out as well, held warily before her; he raised an eyebrow but said nothing. Instead, he pointed at her bag and said, “Engorgio.” Instantly, it expanded just enough to fit the offending book, which he took from her slack hands and placed neatly on top before closing the bag.

She stared for a minute, cheeks coloring a not entirely unattractive rose shade. “Oh.”

He smirked. “It’s amazing, isn’t it? Almost like magic.”

She ripped her bag out of his hands, creating a short burst of rope burn-like pain in his fingers. “Very funny, Malfoy. I just have a lot on my mind, all right?”

He leaned back against the table, arms braced at either side of him. “I can’t imagine what could possibly be that distracting in your life.”

“What are you talking about? You don’t think I have things to worry about?” Her dark eyes seemed to catch on fire.

“Not like,” he caught himself, “…some people do.”

“Who? You?”

He shrugged.

“What’s so anxiety-inducing in your life? You’re bloody rich, your marks are good, you get everything handed to you on a silver platter, and your boyfriend isn’t miles away!”

He smiled dryly. “I should certainly hope not. That would make me a pouf.”

Ginny glared. Draco decided that for someone so slight, she certainly could manage to look fierce. Probably growing up with that uncivilized brood of, how many brothers was it? Twenty? That would toughen anyone up. “You know what I mean. And the rest apply.”

Draco crossed his arms. Oh, if only you knew, Weasley, he thought. Aloud, he said, “Whatever you say.”

She stood for a minute, staring and looking on the verge of shouting with annoyance. He met her intense eyes coolly, but he experienced an odd sensation—an urge to prove himself. He couldn’t fathom why, but for one, crazy moment, he almost blurted out everything, just to show her, just so he could say, So there! The muscles in his jaw tightened, and his fingers on the table gripped tighter, but then the impulse faded and he relaxed. The clock chimed in the new hour.

“You’re going to be late,” he said into the silence that followed.

She spared one last second to give him a truly hateful look, then stomped off. He had only a second to wonder why she was bothering to walk all the way round behind him, since it would have been much faster to just go straight for the door, and then the question was answered for him when the desktop suddenly jerked out from beneath him. He threw his arms out, but it was no use and he connected with the stones square on his tailbone.

“Sorry!” she sang, then skipped out the door.

Draco seethed for a couple minutes on the floor, struggling to regain control, then climbed back to his feet cursing heavily through the whole process.

“Something the matter, Mr. Malfoy?”

Draco spun and was struck with the sudden feeling that Pierce had just witnessed everything somehow. The man certainly looked amused enough.

“Nothing,” Draco mumbled, pulling the desk back into place.

Pierce raised his eyebrows, but didn’t comment. He looked to the door. “She’s certainly something, isn’t she?”

Draco looked up. “Who?”

Pierce nodded towards the door. “Miss Weasley.”

Draco snorted. “Oh, yeah, she’s something, that’s for sure.”

The older man cocked his head. “I’m curious, what happened between you two?”

“What do you mean, what happened?”

“It seems like something must have made you hate her so much.”

Draco studied the professor, suddenly alert. Pierce was actually beginning to grow on him lately. He still doubted the man was really as cheery as he put on, but everyone had things to hide. Now, though, suspicion flared at this new line of questioning. “I don’t know. Does it matter?”

Pierce shrugged. “Not really, I suppose. I just thought it might be wise to figure out what’s behind this whole affair with her.”

Draco sat down, dropped his chin into his hand. “Why would it be wise, sir? If you don’t mind my asking.”

The professor stared at him for a long time, and Draco thought it looked like he was trying to make his mind up about something. Finally, he too sat down and said bluntly, “I’m going to level with you. Remember I said I lived for challenges?”

Draco nodded. He did.

“I said that’s why I took this position in the first place. Well, I want to go one better than just adequate. I want to carry our House to the top. I’m rather determined to, in point of fact.”

Such fierce resolve shone in the man’s pale hazel eyes that Draco found it difficult to be skeptical of that. He didn’t really share the ambition, but he supposed he could understand it coming from this man. “All right. What’s that got to do with me, and especially Weasley?”

“Well, for one, if you two keep getting into spats, we won’t have very many points left, will we?”

Draco couldn’t help but show the ghost of a smile, and he inclined his head.

“And then there’s Quidditch.”

“Quidditch?”

Pierce nodded, leaning forward. “You could never best Potter. Or so I hear.”

Draco tensed, his fingers curling. “Potter’s not here, in case you forgot.”

“No, but the girl he spent all summer training is, and according to the grapevine, she wasn’t half bad before that. Apparently she stood in as Seeker a time or two already?”

Grudgingly, Draco admitted all that was true. “So you’re saying I’m doomed to failure? Thank you for your overwhelming confidence, Professor.”

He chuckled. “Never said that. I just think you need to come to terms with your emotions before you’ll ever be able to clear your head enough to play a decent game.”

Draco was skeptical, and it must have showed.

“Look, you were always brilliant except when it came time to play Gryffindor, am I right?”

“I s’pose.”

“Did you ever wonder why? Or did you just assume it was because they were better?”

Draco shrugged.

“Well, here’s what I think. I think you were so distracted by your hate—justified or not, it doesn’t matter—that it took your focus off the snitch.”

“Been thinking about this a lot, have you?”

Pierce sat back, lifted one shoulder and let it fall. “A bit.”

“So what do you suggest?”

“Start by getting to the root of the problem. Figure out why you hate her so much. We’ll go from there.”

Draco considered this. “Where are you hoping to go?”

“Ideally, we’ll at least bring down your loathing a few notches.”

He made a face. “Why would I want to do that?”

“It’s like fibbing,” Pierce said. “If you make your face a mask, even if you manage to hide the truth, the other person still knows you’re hiding something. If you can fool yourself into believing the lie first, though, and let that show through, it’s much more convincing.”

Draco was beginning to catch on. “You don’t think just suppressing my emotions is enough. You want me to actually not hate her.”

Pierce grinned. “Right in one. If you can train your brain into thinking she’s not despicable after all, then all that extra energy you used to use fighting down hostility will be free for other things—like pounding Gryffindor into the dust.”

Draco settled back, crossing his arms. The man had a point…or at least, it sounded logical enough in theory. “You do realize you’re asking a lot. This is century old family dispute you’re dealing with. Might as well convince Peeves that torturing the First years isn’t amusing after all.”

“Not quite. You and I have one advantage over that particular challenge. Or, I believe we do, in any case.”

“What’s that?”

“You’re willing to try. That’s the most important thing. Wanting it.”

Draco frowned. “I don’t know about that.”

“You want to destroy her on that pitch, don’t you?”

“Yes, but—”

“So if you want to destroy her, first you’re going to have to like her. Or at least trick yourself into tolerating her.”

Draco, despite any lingering doubt, couldn’t help but feel his admiration for the sly professor climb a degree or two. “Easier said than done.”

“One step at a time,” Pierce said, all easy confidence. “Just a step at a time. First, figure out what’s behind all this enmity. Don’t worry about anything beyond that.” He paused, letting that sink in. “What do you say?”

Draco frowned slightly, staring at the space between the desk and his knee. He remembered her hexing him a few years back, and pulling the desk out from under him minutes before, and a hundred other such instances. He exhaled very slowly. “Okay.” He met Pierce’s eyes. “For the sake of crushing one’s enemy, right?”

Pierce flashed his teeth, but Draco thought uneasily that it looked more like a dog baring its fangs than a smile. “My sentiments exactly, Mr. Malfoy.”

- - - - -

“Quidditch trials are in a few days,” Ginny told Harry’s sleeping form. She lay stretched out on the ground beside him, the candle standing in the grass between them, its yellow glow illuminating Harry’s face. It seemed like she only saw him at night when he slept, but slipping up to the tower undetected was just so much easier for her after curfew. It wasn’t like he could hear her anyway, so it was just as well, she supposed. Right now, the Trio was apparently traveling by foot again, as they were camping in this meadow beneath the stars.

“I think I’ll be fine, especially after all the practice last summer, but you know me,” Ginny smiled weakly, “always nervous about these things.”

She always talked to him like this. Once she reflected that the practice wasn’t much better than talking to a stuffed animal or something, as both the toy and Harry were equally oblivious to her stories, but she shrugged the thought away. Ever since the incident with the Chamber she couldn’t bring herself to touch a diary again, but keeping everything bottled up made her edgy. Letting it all out this way helped significantly.

“Let’s see, what else?” She plucked free a few blades of grass, rolled them between her fingers. “Oh, yeah, you remember those Portable Garden things Fred and George played around with for awhile? One of them went off today during Defense Against the Dark Arts.” She laughed and tossed her elbow over her eyes as if to block out the memory. “Oh, Lord it was humiliating. Everybody laughed. Professor Pierce didn’t give me detention or anything, though. And get this—he made a deal with me instead.” She outlined the agreement to an unaware Harry.

“Weird, huh?” she concluded, propping herself up on her elbow. “But then, he’s just an odd sort all around. You would have liked him. Even if he is a Slytherin. He definitely doesn’t act like one.” Ginny fell silent then, wondering at the peculiarity of that truth, and remembering with a frown Malfoy’s lesson about Slytherin agendas. She shook her head and collapsed back down flat on her back.

She was quiet a long time before she finally broached the subject that really brought her here this night. “I’m just so lonely without you,” she said tremulously, the stars blurring into snowflake-like patterns above her from unshed tears. “Colin seems to understand, and he’s been great about trying to keep my spirits up—he’s the one who showed me this whole candle thing in the first place, you know—and Dean and I are talking more, especially since we’re both trying for Quidditch. But it’s awkward with Dean still, and Colin…I don’t know. I just don’t see us ever being more than casual friends. And that’s how I feel about my roommates too.”

She paused, swallowing back tears. “I understand why you had to go. I’m not saying I need you to come rushing back to keep me company, but…,” she closed her eyes. “I just need somebody I can talk to again, really talk to. Like I said, everyone’s been great, but if I have to sit through another conversation about the weather, I think I’ll scream. And I definately can’t take any more sympathy. It makes me feel like a freak. I know that’s horrible; they’re just trying to be nice, but,” she sighed, “maybe that’s the problem. They’re too nice. I just want to be treated like normal again.”

She wiped angrily at her eyes, annoyed with her own weakness, helpless against it. “I’m just so lonely,” she repeated in a whisper.

Ginny waited, but the only reply to her secret admission came from the whisper of the grass and the song of some lone cricket. She imagined that cricket out there in the field, isolated and calling for company but totally ignored, and thought, You and me both, little guy. Then she leaned over and blew out the candle.
Unfriendly Competition by Hearts Cadence
A/N – well school is starting up again, which cut my free time drastically. That means I can’t necessarily guarantee frequent updates, but I’ll try my best. Just thought I’d warn you – it may be a bit longer of a wait from now on.

As always, thanks so much for reading and especially reviewing!

- - - - -

Chapter 7 – Unfriendly Competition

“I didn’t say it was a brilliant reason.” Draco was sitting comfortably behind a desk in the front row, his long legs stretched out as Pierce regarded him from behind the teacher’s desk. They were alone in the classroom, the door closed and warded.

The professor shook his head in wonder. “I just can’t believe that so much trouble all boils down to ‘our families have always hated each other.’ There’s nothing else?”

“Well, I mean she’s hexed me a few times, the arguments, mean pranks here and there. We’ve always given each other hell. But that’s not why I hate her. Those things are a result of hating her.” Draco took out his wand and started twirling it between his fingers.

Pierce leaned forward, resting his cheek against one hand. “That’s just mind-boggling. Nothing else? You’re sure?”

Draco rolled his eyes. “Yes, I’m sure. She’s a Weasley. I don’t need any other reason.”

“Hmm.” Pierce sat back. “Well, actually, that works to our advantage.”

Draco performed a complicated maneuver with the wand. “That so.”

“Yes. It means there’s nothing wrong with her as a person. All you’ve got to do is learn to look past her name.”

Draco snorted. “I’m sorry, no disrespect intended, sir, but you have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Pierce folded his arms. “Oh? Enlighten me, then.”

Draco sighed, tucking his wand out of sight. “I can’t just ‘look past her name.’ She is her name. She is a Weasley, just like I’m a Malfoy, and you might as well tell a dog to look past the fact that the cat across the street is a cat, because there’s nothing wrong with it as a person...animal…whatever.”

“I see. So we’re dealing with some seriously deep-rooted prejudice here.”

“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.”

“And there’s no particular reason for it other than that’s just the way it is.”

“No more than that dog has a reason for hating the cat. It just does, and there’s no changing it. It’s the same thing.”

Pierce shook his head. “Not quite. For them it’s innate. Your prejudice was learned. Albeit from an early age, but still learned.” He smiled wryly. “And let’s not forget, thousands of homes have both dogs and cats that live together quite peacefully. If those animals can overcome centuries of biological, animal instinct, surely you can rethink your father’s biases.”

Draco frowned. “Why do you say that?”

“Say what, Mr. Malfoy?”

“That they’re my father’s biases. Why not my Mum’s, or just in general?”

Pierce’s expression never so much as flickered, but Draco could swear something passed behind his eyes. “I just assumed, I suppose. Most young boys tend to take after their fathers.”

The explanation was sound enough that Draco chose not to pursue it, but he couldn’t help wondering just how much Pierce really knew about his relationship with Lucius. “Well, I still say it’s hopeless.”

“You’re right, if you keep that attitude. You have to really want it if we’re going to succeed, Mr. Malfoy. I’m not saying it won’t be work, but you can learn to tolerate anyone. Even a Weasley. People do it all the time.”

Draco waved his hand impatiently. “I know, I know. I guess that’s the problem. I don’t want to like her. I quite enjoy hating the bint, thank you. I'm good at it.”

Pierce sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose lightly. “Need I remind you why we started this in the first place?”

“So you can be some outstanding Head of House?” Draco offered bluntly.

Pierce smiled, but his eyes flashed annoyance. “That’s why I’m bothering. You want to beat her. You want to show everyone once and for all who’s really better: a Weasley or a Malfoy?”

Draco scoffed. “As if it’s even a competition.”

“You think? Prove it.”

Draco glowered at the desktop. “I don’t have to delude myself into believing I can stomach her to beat her.”

“Don’t you? Have you ever beaten her before?”

“I’ve never played her before. The only time she stood in as Seeker was versus Ravenclaw. I didn’t even watch that match. I was…preoccupied at the time.”

“She was still trained by Potter,” Pierce pointed out. “And she won the match.”

Draco shrugged. “It still doesn’t mean I can’t beat her. I think all of this nonsense is unnecessary, honestly.”

Pierce hid the impatience in his face well, but Draco still detected a hint of it. After remaining quiet for several moments, the man opened his mouth, but then a knock sounded at the door. Pierce darted a clearly annoyed look in that direction, then bid Draco wait a moment as he got up and lifted the wards. “Yes?” he inquired as he opened the door, revealing a young girl.

Her eyes were wide, growing wider when she peeked past Pierce to see Draco sitting there. “Uh….”

“I’m in the middle of something,” Pierce said, and it was the closest Draco ever heard the man come to snapping. “Can I help you?”

“Um, it’s time for class…” she trailed off uncertainly.

Pierce raised his eyebrows and twisted around to see the clock. Draco noted with interest that he cursed under his breath—he was used to a much easier going professor than this.

“I apologize. You’re right,” Pierce finally admitted, stepping back to let the girl in. Timidly, she inched past him and chose a desk as far from Draco as possible. Pierce said, “Mr. Malfoy, we’ll have to continue this later.”

Draco nodded, rising with no hurry. “Yes, sir.”

As Draco walked past him, Pierce caught his arm and said in a low voice, “If you’re not going to take my advice, I suggest you make sure you’re right. If you were ashamed of Potter beating you, can you imagine what you’d endure if a younger girl did too?”

Draco pulled out of the man’s grip and left without another word.

- - - - -

Ginny’s breath came in ragged pants, sweat making her clothes stick uncomfortably against her heated skin, but she still wore a triumphant grin.

“I made it!” she cried happily, broom still in hand as she ran up to Dean and impulsively threw her arms around him in an exuberant hug. “You are officially looking at Gryffindor’s newest Seeker!”

Dean laughed, pulling her off of him. Ginny stepped back, blushing with momentary embarrassment, but then her excitement took over again and she ignored the lingering awkwardness between them.

“Congratulations,” he said. “You certainly deserve it after that flying. You were a demon out there.”

She grinned proudly. “Thanks. What about you? Do you know if you made Chaser yet?”

He nodded. “Found out just before you came over.”

“Good job!”

He showed a wide smile, his teeth shining extra white against his dark skin. “Yeah.”

Something behind her caught his eyes, and he lifted his hand to wave. Ginny turned to see Seamus jogging over.

“Well?” the boy demanded, just a little breathless from the trip.

“I’m in,” Dean announced.

Seamus let out a whoop and slapped his friend on the shoulder. “Then let’s go celebrate, mate!” Dean instantly agreed, but almost as quickly stopped and looked uncertainly to Ginny.

She forced a smile and made a shooing motion with her hands. “Go on, don’t worry about me. I’ve got something I have to do, anyway.”

“You’re sure…?”

“Positive,” she said firmly. “Now go. Have fun. Don’t get in trouble.” She gave Seamus a pointed look, to which he grinned innocently.

With a sigh, she watched the boys race each other off the pitch. Her muscles ached a little from the effort at the trials that ended only moments before, and the familiar pang of loneliness stung more acutely than usual, but despite it all she still felt good. A lot of training went into her ambition to become Seeker, and now that she finally had it, a victorious rush was pumping through her veins.

She realized that everyone was already gone now, and that she was alone on the Quidditch pitch. Hoisting her broom over one shoulder, she was just starting towards the locker rooms when a gold blur in the corners of her eyes caught her attention. She stopped, frowning curiously—funny, she could almost swear that looked like a…

The smear of gold flashed on her other side, and with reflexes only hours of training could instill, her hand lashed out and closed around what was, sure enough, the Snitch.

“What the…” she began, but was cut off by a familiar drawl.

“Care for a round?”

She gripped the Snitch tighter and turned. Malfoy stood just a few feet away, decked out in Quidditch gear with his broom at his side.

“Excuse me?”

“I said, care for a round?” He enunciated the words carefully, as if she were either very deaf or very dense.

“You want to play me? Right now?”

“That’s usually what the question implies, yes.” He stepped forward and plucked the Snitch from her hand. “We’ll be up against each other this year, it seems.”

“And you want to find my weaknesses now, before an actual match,” Ginny reasoned.

He only smiled mysteriously. Locking eyes with her, he lifted his hand and, never looking away, released the Snitch into the air. Then he mounted his broom in one fluid motion, and as he lifted off the ground said, “Standard game: whoever gets the Snitch first wins.”

“I never actually agreed,” she felt it pertinent to remind him.

He smirked. “Please, Weasley, we both know you wouldn’t pass this up.”

Then he was off. Glaring fiercely after him, Ginny wasted only a second debating before she hopped on her broom to speed after him, sore muscles or no. In moments they hovered at the same elevation, Malfoy already scanning the pitch. Ginny, never one to stay still, took up a basic grid search pattern, soaring along at a fairly leisurely speed to make sure she wouldn’t miss the elusive twinkle of gold. For his part, Malfoy climbed a few feet higher and simply held position.

A long time seemed to pass, and Ginny began to grow acutely aware of the afternoon sun. She switched up the grid-box pattern for a more intricate, spiral type search that involved flying higher and lower by intervals, while Malfoy continued to imitate an immobile sentry. She was growing bored and just beginning to have trouble keeping her mind on the goal when she spotted it: just a barely perceptible glint on the far side of the field.

Her impulse was to rocket over and snatch it before she lost sight of it again, but she knew Malfoy’s tactics well enough—he was watching for the Snitch up there, but he was also watching her. So, much as it pained her adrenaline fed nerves, she forced herself to continue the pattern she started, keeping track of the tiny ball as inconspicuously as possible as she made her way to the other end of the pitch. The urge to glance up at Malfoy was almost as strong as the one to sprint forward, but she didn’t dare lose sight of the Snitch. She only prayed he wasn’t catching on to what she was staring at.

It was close now, achingly so—only a few yards away. Her fingers reflexively tightened on the broom handle, and the muscles in her thighs kept tensing, craving to push her forward in a burst of speed. But not yet. Malfoy might still beat her to it if she gave up the game now.

Suddenly, a rush of air so strong it swept her a few inches to the side whooshed by, and Ginny cursed loudly as she saw Malfoy speeding past her. Swearing again, she finally granted her straining muscles the permission to thrust her forward as she raced to catch up to the Slytherin. She pressed herself flat to the handle, minimizing wind-resistance as much as she could, and urged her broom on for all it was worth. It gained her a few feet, but not near enough to beat Malfoy to the prize.

Ginny felt her stomach sinking and her temper rising. If she kept this up, there was no way she would get that Snitch. Grimly, she made a quick decision to try something drastic. After all, what did she have to lose?

Still speeding forward, she pulled up on her broom and started to climb. A sweat broke out along her hairline, and she gritted her teeth in an effort not to act too early. The timing had to be perfect. When she was as positive as she could be that she was high enough, she suddenly angled her broom sharply and dove forward and down.

The idea worked. Gravity’s natural pull combined with her exertion on the broom gave her the extra boost of speed she needed to level with Malfoy. For one breathless heartbeat they were exactly even, both reaching forward as far as possible. Then Ginny spotted an ever so subtle shift in Malfoy’s posture and knew he was about to try and knock her aside. She had only a second to react—it was enough.

At the last possible moment she pulled up hard, nearly bringing the broom to a complete stand still. Malfoy had no choice but to follow through with his sideways shift, but without her there to rebound off of, his momentum carried him further off course than intended—just far enough to give Ginny the time to level out her broom and shoot past him with a final, impressive effort. Her fingers closed around the Snitch.

She hovered in midair, sporting a huge grin even as her chest rose and fell rapidly in its labored attempts for breath. She held up the Snitch. “I win.”

He sat on his broom, staring at her with something like amazement. He seemed to recover after a few seconds, and his expression turned hard, eyes narrowing and lips pressing together. “Enjoy it while you can. It won’t happen again,” he snapped, then turned and flew away.

Ginny descended more slowly, exhausted but proud, feeling more accomplished after that one round with Malfoy than she did after an entire day of trials. She idly wondered if he would challenge her again and realized that she hoped he would. The thought immediately shamed her—in her mind, she shouldn’t want to be around him for any reason—but still…there it was, irrevocably and undeniably. He would never go easy on her, which was exactly how she wanted it. And something no one else could guarantee her.

That recognition—that Malfoy had something to offer that only he could—disturbed her more than a little, and by the time her feet finally touched ground, her mind felt like one massive paradox.

- - - - -

Draco barged into Professor Pierce’s classroom with no warning whatsoever, slamming the door behind him.

“I want to beat her,” he announced to the professor who currently sat bent over his desk, quill poised in one hand. “And not only do I want to beat her, I want to humiliate her by it.”

Pierce slowly set down the quill and leaned back. “Yes….”

Draco took a deep breath. “And I’m willing to try your way. Really try.”

The man blinked, regarding him for a silent moment. Finally, he asked carefully, “Something happen to change your mind, Mr. Malfoy?”

Draco made a pfft noise and tossed himself into a chair. “That’s got nothing to do with anything. The important thing is I’ll do it. Any way you say, as long as it bloody well works.” He seemed to remember himself then, straightened up and added a perfunctory, “Sir.”

“Any way I say?”

Draco shifted. “Well, within reason.”

Pierce shook his head. “Not good enough. I want your complete cooperation.”

“Why?” Draco’s internal warning signals were going off again.

“Easy. You’re not going to like a lot of the things I may suggest. You’re going to think it’s idiotic, and you’ll probably spend most of your time resenting me for what you’ll view as inane exercises in stupidity. I’ll need to know you’ll do them anyway.”

“You sure know how to convince a bloke,” Draco remarked dryly.

The corners of Pierce’s mouth turned up just a little. “I’m doing you a favor, Mr. Malfoy: I’m being honest with you. Now, do I have your word?”

Draco appraised the professor for a tense moment, and he had the disquieting feeling of standing at the edge of a very steep cliff; there would be no stopping his fall should he take one more step. He exhaled. “It’s yours,” he finally agreed. He could almost swear he experienced a bout of vertigo from the dive over the edge of the proverbial cliff.

Pierce flashed an almost feral smile and leaned forward. “Excellent. Question for you, Mr. Malfoy: you’re gifted in Herbology, correct?”

- - - - -

Ginny rubbed her forehead against the back of her arm to stop the sweat from dripping into her eyes; there was nothing to be done about the way her uniform clung to her sticky body. She decided then and there that she officially hated greenhouses. Also, she realized she positively abhorred plant care in general, and that she had surprisingly little skill in the area.

She sat cross-legged on the floor in the midst of a miniature garden (the latter part quite unintentionally) with a few tiny spheres all resting on a broad leaf in front of her. She scowled hatefully at the things. Her legs itched from the vegetation that currently buried them. She glanced up out the windows, praying it was time to head in, but the sun had hardly moved since her last check.

“Just brilliant,” she muttered. She picked up one of the Portable Gardens and narrowed her eyes at it. “I really loathe you, you little bugger,” she informed it. As if in answer, the thing exploded in her hands, burying her in another several inches worth of plant life. She screamed in frustration, collapsing back into a bed of daisies.

“Having fun, Weasley?”

She shot up, heart lodged in her throat. She rolled her eyes when she saw who it was. “You know, Malfoy, I’m really getting tired of you.”

“You wound me,” he drawled sarcastically, then put his hands in his pockets and cocked an eyebrow at her. “What are you doing, anyway?”

She glared. “None of your business, that’s what.”

He ignored her. “Looks to me like you’re making a right mess.” He moved closer and crouched down beside her. She instantly tensed, which he apparently noticed by the way he raised his eyebrows at her, but he chose not to comment as he examined a wayward lily. “I’m assuming this is your ‘punishment’ from Professor Pierce?”

She looked at him sharply. “How did you know about that?”

He smirked. “Please Weasley, gossip spreads through this school like wildfire. I’d had to have been deaf not to hear about it.”

Ginny felt vaguely sick to her stomach. “Oh. Lovely.”

“I found it rather amusing,” Draco agreed.

“That’s because you’re a sodding git,” Ginny replied in a falsely sweet voice. She thought she detected the beginnings of a sneer on his lips, but then he seemed to check himself and smiled (albeit tightly) instead. That was odd…she couldn’t help but think.

“Tsk, tsk, Weasley. Show some manners.”

“You first,” she sang. Malfoy rolled his eyes at that and continued to examine the various plant life. Ginny frowned at him. “So did you just come in to make fun, or what?”

“Partly,” he admitted. “But mostly I was just curious.”

“Curious,” she repeated, sounding unconvinced.

“Well, when you walk by the greenhouse, after class hours, and hear someone inside cursing like a sailor, you tend to wonder about it.”

Ginny flushed. “Well now you know,” she pointed out. “So, it’s been just lovely chatting with you, but…”

“Not having much luck, are you?” he observed, ignoring the obvious hint.

Ginny pulled her shoulders back haughtily. “I’m doing just fine, thanks.”

Malfoy smirked. “Ah. Is that why your bottom half is completely covered by garden?”

“Why do you automatically assume that’s not exactly what I wanted?”

“Generally people don’t swear like that when things go ‘exactly the way they wanted.’”

Ginny humphed and primly pulled away a vine of ivy currently wrapping itself around her left arm. “Maybe not exactly as planned, but I’m managing quite all right, Malfoy.” A second later, she added sarcastically, “Though I’m touched by your concern, really.”

Again, he chose to ignore her attempts at getting a rise out of him, which profoundly baffled Ginny. Since when did he ever pass up an opportunity to work out that scathing tongue of his? Instead, he said, “Let me see one.”

“See one what?”

He sighed. “The things that make this disaster.” He gestured to the vegetation.

Ginny’s eyebrows came together in a mixture confusion and distrust. “Why on earth do you want to see one? No, actually, and for the second time, what the hell are you even doing hanging about at all? And don’t try that ‘I’m just curious’ bit again, ‘cause I’m not buying it.”

Malfoy held out his hand impatiently, palm facing up. “I want to see one because I think I might be able to figure out a way to fix it, that’s why.”

Ginny was growing very annoyed with his habit of simply disregarding whatever he didn’t want to address. “And you’d want to do that out of the goodness of your black heart, right?”

He smiled faintly. “You know, it’s not a good idea to insult the person who’s offering to help you.”

Her eyes narrowed, and she studied him for several silent moments. Finally, she bluntly announced, “You’re up to something.”

Malfoy raised an eyebrow. “Am I?”

“I remember your little stunt in the forest,” she reminded him waspishly. “So that’s all this is again. You’re acting because you’re after something.”

He smirked at that memory, then sat back on his haunches contemplatively. “Mm hmm. Impressed as I am that you remember my…lesson, I have one question for you: what could I possibly be after?”

Ginny frowned. “I don’t know. But I’m sure you are. ‘Slytherins never do anything just because,’” she mimicked in his lazy drawl.

Malfoy seemed to measure her up a moment before speaking again. “All right, there’s obviously no reasoning with you. But you’re being far too Gryffindor, I hope you know.”

She glowered. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You’re stubborn as a mule, for one,” he told her casually, and before her splutters could form a coherent thought, he continued, “and who cares if I’m after something? Not to say that I am, particularly, but hypothetically. Does it really matter?”

“Of course it matters!”

He cocked his head. “Why?”

“Because!”

“Yes, because why?”

She hesitated, and suddenly found herself floundering. “Because…” she saw him smirking, and she suddenly spat, “because I don’t like like you, and I don’t want you to get anything!”

He nodded. “Exactly. See? Too Gryffindor.” He absently picked up a dandelion and blew the fluff of white seeds into the air.

Ginny distractedly waved away the plume of dandelion now in her face. “How is that ‘too Gryffindor?’”

“You’re letting your emotions rule you. You’re missing out on opportunity because you can’t think clearly.”

She scoffed. “What opportunity?”

“I’m good with Herbology, and I’m voluntarily offering to help you. I’d call that one hell of an opportunity, if I were you.”

“Only because you want something,” she insisted.

He made a noise of exasperation. “Okay let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that I actually do have an ulterior motive. So what? You’ll still get what you want, and there’s nothing you want to keep from me, so you’re just acting out of sheer spite. That is what I mean by letting your emotions get the better of you. It’s stupid.”

She glared. “And that’s Gryffindor, is it?”

“Definitely.”

“Slytherins don’t have emotions, then? They never feel?”

He snorted. “Of course we feel, Weasley. Just as much as you do. We’re not dead inside. We just learned how to ignore those feelings if the profit is greater.”

Ginny hated to admit it, but she was intrigued, and all thoughts of the garden started to fade. “So you can just turn off your emotions whenever?”

Malfoy frowned just a little, mulling that over. “Not turn off. More like…push aside. Like when you hurt yourself in Quidditch but you still keep playing. The pain doesn’t go away or anything, but you put up with it to win.”

“And you do this all the time?”

He chuckled. “I can’t believe you’re this fascinated by the concept. You Gryffindors wouldn’t survive a day in Slytherin.”

Ginny drew her knees up to her chest, folded her arms across the top, and set her chin on her forearms. “You always make it sound like you lot are some cult or something. Like you’re separate from the rest of the school. But then you say that you feel just like us. You don’t make a lot of sense.”

Malfoy shrugged, plucked free another dandelion and twirled it. “We do feel just like you. We just think differently.”

“As in….”

“As in, the result always justifies the means. We play dirty if that’s what it takes to win. We ignore impulses and calculate. We use each other on a daily basis, but no one takes offense because it’s mutual.”

Ginny made a face. “Mutual?”

Malfoy flicked the dandelion away, igniting a mini explosion of ivory fuzz. “Right. Everyone’s got a reason. You use a person, but always at the risk of being used yourself.”

“You use each other then, basically,” she reasoned.

“The trick is judging whether or not what you have to gain is worth what you may or may not lose.”

Ginny dropped one arm and started fiddling with a blade of grass. “What do you mean?”

“For instance, in this situation, what you have to gain is a shortened punishment. You’re convinced I’ve got an agenda of my own, but you can’t think of what it might be, and you can’t think of anything you’re especially afraid of me getting in any case. So, based on what you know, you have more to gain by this than you have to lose.”

“And you and yours play this game on a daily basis, do you?”

He smirked lightly. “Well, it’s never laid out quite so nicely, but then we already know all of this anyway. But yes, pretty much.”

Ginny propped her elbow on her knee, resting her head in her hand. “Doesn’t it get exhausting? Always calculating and being on your guard like that?”

“I imagine not anymore exhausting than always riding a wave of unrestrained emotion.”

She smiled. “Maybe we’ve both got it wrong.”

“There is no wrong,” he said without hesitation. “We don’t choose how we react to things. We just are the way we are.”

“Do you really believe that?”

“Don’t you?”

She thought it over. Finally, she answered, “No, I don’t actually. I think there’s always a choice. I think sometimes it’s hard, but you can always change.”

His mouth curved into a small smile, but the expression carried a healthy dose of bitterness. “But you don’t really believe that.”

She glared. “Yes, I do actually.”

“So that means you believe I can change? If I told you right now that I want to give up all my sneaky, underhanded ways and convert to Gryffindor-ism, you would believe me and actually think it was possible?”

She hesitated, opened her mouth, closed it again. Her brow knit together.

“Thought not.” He settled himself more comfortably, then held out his hand again. “Now, are you going to let me see one of those damned things or not?”

Ginny tilted her head curiously. “Why did you tell me all of that just now?”

He just raised his eyebrows and waggled his fingers meaningfully.

Ginny stared at him hard for a long moment, and their eyes met. His were as impenetrable as the steel they resembled, but she detected some underlying layer. She remembered bumping into him her first night back and thinking his eyes were lifeless, but she also remembered his words just now: Of course we feel, Weasley. Just as much as you do. We’re not dead inside. Now, she wasn’t so sure it was lifelessness in his eyes after all. Now, she rather thought it was more like a profound sadness. More confused than ever, she looked away.

Then, digging carefully through the leaves and flowers, she produced one of the tiny spheres and laid it gently in his palm.

She couldn’t help but think, At least he didn’t mention the weather.
An Eventful Evening by Hearts Cadence
A/N – I really am sorry for how long this took. I just can’t believe how fast things got so insanely hectic! I have honestly never in my life been so busy—most days I’ve had about 45 mins of free time, and I spent that making and eating my supper lol. It’s crazy. Anyway, FINALLY, here’s ch. 8.

And as always, thanks so much for the support (and patience, in this case).

- - - - -

Chapter 8 – An Eventful Evening

Weasley was out flying again. Draco, leaning against a balcony overlooking the Quidditch pitch, decided that she didn’t seem to do much else with her free time, even when it was practically dark out like now. She was either in class, working in the library, eating…or flying. He would know—he’d been watching her lately.

His newfound awareness was unintentional, really. He never made a conscious effort to seek her out, that was for damned sure. Pierce’s infuriating little exercises involved a lot of things, but stalking the girl wasn’t one of them. It was just that whenever Draco walked into a room, something in his brain automatically searched out the signature splash of red hair, and where before if he heard mention of her name he would have ignored it, now his ears pricked up instantly. Draco had learned a great deal about the youngest Weasley in the past few days.

There were the mundane things like her schedule (he knew about half of it), but what Draco found most surprising was how much male interest she kindled. He vaguely remembered Pansy mentioning something about it on the train beginning of last year, but he never really noticed how deep it ran. Even boys in his house snickered to each other over her. With all of her rampaging brothers out of the castle and Potter off wherever he was, more than a few swore they would be “making their move” any day now.

Watching her now, Draco shook his head. All right, so she was …attractive. It took an effort, but he could admit that much, if only ever in his own mind. Even so, the thoughts of lowering himself to one of her social standing and family history were beyond him, looks or no looks.

He shut his eyes and muttered a curse. He wasn’t supposed to think things like that—one of Pierce’s imbecilic ideas. The man’s warning that Draco would believe most of his suggestions were “exercises in stupidity” was a gross understatement. This particular one stipulated that Draco not consider her background at all. It was supposed to lessen his biases and help him to see her as a person. Or some rot like that, anyway.

Sighing, Draco turned away from the balcony and started walking through the halls. His musings of a certain troublesome redhead absorbed most of his concentration, so when a small figure stepped out of a corridor in front of him, he nearly bowled the person over. He swore and only just managed to avoid a collision by rising high on his toes, arms going out wide for balance.

Falling back to his heels, his features hardened as he finally noticed the dark hair and pug-like face. “Damn it, Pansy, watch where you’re going!” he growled, smoothing imaginary wrinkles from his robes.

“Sorry,” she muttered unconvincingly, then crossed her arms. “I was looking for you.”

Draco looked up from his robe-smoothing. “Congratulations, you found me.” He grumbled under his breath, “Unfortunately.”

She either didn’t hear or chose to ignore the latter. “Yes, and it only took me all morning,” she said sarcastically. “You’re never around anymore.”

He shrugged. “I’m busy.”

“With what?”

“That’s none of your concern, now is it?”

She peered suspiciously at him. “It’s her, isn’t it?”

“If I say yes, will you go away?”

“Don’t try and sidestep the question!” Pansy snapped. “Is it?”

Draco started walking and rolled his eyes when she instantly followed. “I don’t even know who you’re referring to, Pansy, so I really can’t say.”

Her,” Pansy stressed. “That Weasley girl.”

Draco nearly stumbled and only just maintained his composure. He stopped and turned on her. “Excuse me?”

“Come on, Draco,” she said, a hint of anger sharpening the words, “your little obsession is pretty obvious. It’s really pointless to deny it.”

Obsession? What the hell are you on about?”

“You’re always staring, and the only time you pay attention to anyone is when they’re talking about her. I even saw you follow her once.” Pansy folded her arms over her chest as if to say, So there.

“Have you gone round the bend?” Draco demanded, managing to appear sufficiently insulted even as his insides twisted in apprehension. “How many other people think this?”

Her tightly crossed arms slackened just a little. “I don’t know. I mean, I’ve kept my mouth shut about it, and I haven’t heard anything….”

Draco was honestly surprised. “You mean to tell me you really didn’t run your gob to every girl in your little circle?”

Pansy drew herself up indignantly. “That’s exactly what I’m telling you! For reasons beyond me, I still haven’t quite given up on you yet!”

He rolled his eyes and started walking again. “You really should. I don’t know why you’re so hopeful, anyway. It’s not like you’ll be getting any part of the Malfoy fortune. Last summer made sure of that.”

“Believe it or not,” Pansy almost snarled, “that’s not the only reason I…well, you know.”

Draco chuckled. “Oh, come now. You had no trouble confessing your undying love for me in front of a roomful of our mates, but you can’t repeat it now in private?”

Her cheeks flamed. “That was before—”

“You knew you wouldn’t get filthy rich by me,” Draco interrupted conversationally.

“I already said that wasn’t the only reason!” Pansy protested hotly.

He smirked. “Just the most important one, right?”

She scowled. “Maybe I actually had real feelings for you. Did that thought ever cross your mind?”

“Not really.”

“Well, maybe it should.”

“You’re really not going to get any of the fortune,” Draco reiterated.

She glanced up at him with annoyance in her eyes, but didn’t say anything for a long while. When she finally spoke again, she muttered, “I don’t know why I bother.”

“Mystery to me,” Draco agreed.

Ignoring him, she said, “And Lucius might change his mind. You never know.”

“Au contraire,” Draco drawled, “I happen to know perfectly well that he won’t be changing his mind. He’s quite stubborn when it comes to these things.”

“Maybe if you just talked to him, told him you’re willing to reconsider….”

Draco smiled ironically. “Ah, but there’s a flaw in your plan there, Pans.”

“Being?”

“I’m not willing.”

She stopped abruptly, stomping her foot. “Why the hell not? What happened to make you such a damned coward?”

Draco laughed, but it came out empty and harsh. “Coward? You’re joking, right? Pansy, if I was afraid, this is the absolute last thing I would be doing.”

Poorly hidden confusion surfaced on her face. “What do you mean?” she finally asked.

He closed his eyes, impatience beginning to creep up. “I know a lot, Pansy. A helluva lot more than you do, even with that Mark of yours. You honestly think he’s just going to let me stroll about, minding my own business, with all that knowledge?”

Her face blanched as understanding dawned. “You mean….”

“It’s basically only a matter of time,” Draco finished with a shrug.

“Oh, Draco,” she breathed. “How…how can you be so calm about it?”

He smiled coldly. “I suppose that’s just what happens when you stop giving a damn.” He turned his back on her and continued on his way. He scowled when the sound of her footsteps slapped up to him.

“When did you change so much?” she demanded. “Or better yet, why? ‘Cause of Dumbledore? Because the Dark Lord would forgive you for not really pulling it off, you know that. I don’t see—”

Draco spun on her, fists balled. “Pansy,” he said very softly, “I strongly suggest you shut that bloody hole of yours before I eliminate your ability to speak myself.”

Her mouth snapped shut, but her eyes were hard and her face defiant.

He exhaled slowly. “Much better. Now, if that’s all…?”

She shook her head right away. “No, actually, I had a reason for finding you.”

“Brilliant,” Draco groaned.

“There’s a meeting for all the Slytherin prefects,” she went on. “In the common room.”

Draco frowned. “I don’t remember any announcement for a meeting.”

She shrugged. “It’s an emergency one, I guess. Something about improper conduct on patrols. I don’t know the specifics, I just volunteered to go fetch you.”

“How thoughtful,” Draco said dryly.

Pansy sniffed. “Well, I thought it was. Now come on, they’re not going to be happy if they have to wait too much longer.”

“Yes, and what a tragedy that would be.”

Pansy ignored him and started towards the dungeons. Stifling the urge to slip away and skive off, Draco followed sulkily.

The common room looked, in a word, eerie. The only light emanated from the low burning, emerald colored flames in the hearth and a few strategically placed candles, also glowing a sickly-looking green. Several people sat around a deep mahogany table situated dead center in the room, obviously summoned up specifically for the occasion. Draco recognized most of Pansy’s gang, Blaise Zabini, Theodore Nott, Crabbe and Goyle, and a few others of his year. The entire scene struck him as distinctly off. It took less than a second for him to figure out why it seemed so familiar.

“Pansy,” Draco said slowly, “any particular reason you lot decided to take decorating tips from the Dark Lord?”

“Why don’t you just take a seat, Draco,” she suggested quietly.

He blinked, then swept his gaze over the all too recognizable set-up. “I’m sorry, I must be mistaken. I thought you said prefect meeting, not Death Eater meeting.”

“Just sit down, Draco,” Pansy repeated, more firmly.

Draco fought down the urge to wipe his hands against his robes, instead curling his fingers ever so slightly. Was this it, then? The Dark Lord was having Draco’s own peers do the dirty work? It was certainly just sadistic enough for him. “Why don’t you tell me what exactly is going on, first?”

Millicent Bullstrode, sitting furthest away from Draco and looking none too happy about being there, whined, “Oh just sit your arse down for Merlin’s sake. You’re fine, it’s just an intervention.”

Draco’s eyebrows shot up and he turned to look at Pansy, who was currently leveling a truly terrifying glare on Millicent. “An intervention?” he repeated, addressing Pansy.

Reluctantly, she dragged her deadly stare from a nervous looking Millicent and said, “No, not an intervention. A chance to talk things over. Clear some things up. That’s all.”

He crossed his arms. “So you just want a chat, is that it?”

She nodded, smiling in a way that was meant to be charming but made Draco wince. “Exactly. We just thought it might be a good idea to sit everyone down and talk things through.”

“Everyone?” Draco flicked his eyes over the other occupants of the room and guessed the answer to his own query. “Everyone who was there last summer.”

“Well, yeah.”

Draco closed his eyes and drew in a steadying breath. His jaw tightened. “Look, you lot are wasting your time…and mine. So I’ll just do us all a favor and cut this little affair short.” With that he turned about, but was stopped by Pansy nearly throwing herself in his path.

“No!” she cried. “Draco, you haven’t even given us a chance!”

“Move,” he snapped.

“I told you it was useless, Parkinson,” Theodore Nott put in from his seat, slouching in a manner that suggested boredom. “Some stupid intervention isn’t going to suddenly change his mind after what he did.”

“It’s not an intervention!” Pansy insisted while Draco nodded in agreement with Nott.

“You should listen to him, Pans,” he suggested. “It sounds like Nott’s the only one who knows what he’s talking about.”

The girl shot Nott a hateful look. “You aren’t helping,” she snapped.

He smiled ironically. “Damn, and you almost had him, too,” he replied sarcastically. Draco snorted in spite of himself.

“Look, Draco,” Pansy tried, a note of desperation straining her voice, “I’m just trying to help. You said it yourself—you’re in danger. The Dark Lord would—”

But a soft cough interrupted the girl, and everyone whipped around to see a familiar, lanky man standing in the doorway.

“Professor Pierce!” Pansy cried, trying and failing to sound innocent. “What are you doing here?”

The man raised an eyebrow. “I overheard a few of the younger students talking about an unscheduled prefect meeting in the common room, and I thought I’d better look into it.” His hazel eyes traveled over the scene. “Though I must admit, this isn’t exactly what I was expecting to find.”

Pansy laughed a little shakily to cover up her nerves, but there was no hiding the sudden paleness to her skin. “Just fooling around, you know,” she shrugged with a falsely sweet smile. “No harm in a little redecorating as long as we put it back when we’re done, right?”

Draco watched the episode unfold with interest. He knew Pansy was betting everything on the hope that Pierce didn’t know the standard set-up for a Death Eater gathering, and by looking at the man, he could understand why she would take such a gamble. Jonathon Pierce did not appear the type to know much of the Dark Lord’s ranks; the idea was almost laughable. Even so, Draco caught a certain glint in Pierce’s eyes—of knowledge, or maybe suspicion, or maybe neither—that made him think twice.

Pierce was quiet a long time before finally remarking, “Odd tastes you’ve got if this is your idea of ‘redecorating.’ I would have imagined something a bit less…dark.”

Pansy shrugged again, regaining much of her composure as the surprise wore off. “We got bored of the same old classic décor. Figured we’d give something new a go.”

Now Draco was positive there was a definite knowing in Pierce’s gaze as he stared Pansy down. He wondered if the man planned on calling Pansy’s bluff, and perhaps even more so, how he knew what the “décor” represented in the first place. The first speculation was answered when Pierce, completely dismissing Pansy, turned to him and said, “Are you very involved in this, Mr. Malfoy, or can you spare a moment?”

“I was just leaving,” Draco assured him hastily, grateful for the rescue. “It’s no trouble.”

“Excellent.” Pierce turned back to address the room’s other occupants. “You can finish up your meeting, but see to it that come tomorrow this place is exactly as you found it, understood?” They all nodded, though Pansy did so stiffly and with fire in her eyes; in return, Pierce flashed a trademark smile of farewell. Draco, more in-tune with the professor’s expressions by now, recognized it as a disguised warning rather than anything genial.

As soon as the portrait swung shut behind the pair, Draco put his hands in his pockets and asked, “So what did you need to talk to me about?”

“Nothing in particular.”

Draco glanced up, a little off-balance. “But you said….”

Pierce smiled again, though this time it was of a much warmer quality. “A blind man could have seen you wanted out of there.”

Draco blinked, a little disconcerted with the thought of being so easily read. He mulled it over for a minute before replying with conviction, “I wasn’t that obvious.”

Pierce chuckled slightly, taking a turn Draco knew led to his office. “All right, perhaps you’re right. Maybe I overheard a bit as well.”

Draco looked at him sharply, every muscle tensing. “Oh?” Then, as casually as possible, he added, “How much?”

Without removing his eyes from the corridor ahead, Pierce answered quite calmly, “Enough.”

A tide of emotion swelled up in Draco—first panic, then anger at Pansy for being so ignorant, then determination not to be carted off somewhere. For just a second he struggled with the sudden intensity of it all, but then years of practice took over and he crushed it all down in an instant. In his mind it felt like hours, but in reality only a few moments passed before he said, “I’m sure whatever you heard, it’s not what it sounded like. I—”

Pierce held up a hand to cut him off. “Spare me the excuses, Mr. Malfoy. I’ve no interest, and quite honestly, I thought you above all that nonsense.” He slanted his mouth in the barest hint of a playful smile. “Wouldn’t want to prove your ol’ professor wrong, would you?”

Draco, quite honestly, was at a loss. All his life, interaction between fellow Slytherins had been a game of cards involving smooth talking, sharp wits, and most importantly, never ever showing one’s hand. Pierce’s frank approach threw the cards out the window completely, and left Draco totally out of his element.

Thankfully, Pierce didn’t bother waiting for an answer before he continued, “It’s not as if I’ll be running to the Headmistress.”

Draco knew better than to ask why not, as that would basically assert his guilt, but the curiosity raged in him. The question kept bouncing around inside his head as the two walked in complete silence, until he was pretty sure this was what madness felt like.

Finally, Pierce glanced down and asked, “You’re not curious?”

It took considerable willpower not to snort at that. “I don’t have any reason to worry,” he said instead.

Pierce chuckled. “Smart boy. I’m sure you really are curious, though, so I’ll do you a favor and save you the sleepless night—I wouldn’t tell because I believe everyone’s allowed at least two major blunders in their life, as long as they try and fix it afterwards.”

Draco just stared straight ahead, unwilling to risk being tricked into accidentally giving himself away.

“You don’t agree?” Pierce inquired lightly, taking his silence for disagreement.

“It’s not that,” Draco said after some consideration. “I mean, I know everyone makes mistakes and all that.”

Pierce nodded. “You’re having trouble with the ‘fixing it afterwards’ part, then?” he guessed.

Draco only shrugged.

“You think you messed up too badly to put things right,” Pierce ventured again. “Am I right?”

“I already told you—”

Pierce rolled his eyes. “Yes, yes I know. You’re innocent.” He sighed. “Just hear me out…even though you ‘didn’t do anything.’ No one screws up so badly that they’re beyond redemption. There’s always a way. Sometimes it’s just harder to see.”

The speech rather made Draco want to retch, so he decided to change the subject. “How did you know what all that was?”

“Come again?”

“Pansy’s ‘redecorating.’ You recognized it. I could tell.”

Pierce smiled mysteriously. “You’re not the only one with secrets, Mr. Malfoy.”

Draco could feel his eyes go wide, and honestly didn’t care. “You mean…?”

The man looked over at him and burst out laughing. “No, I’m not a Death Eater,” he assured him through his laughter. It eventually died down to quiet chortles, and he said, “Can you imagine? Me, a servant of the Dark Lord?”

Draco couldn’t hold back his own soft laugh. It was rather preposterous to consider. When it became clear Pierce would volunteer nothing more, he found himself saying, “Look, Professor, I didn’t…I mean, I’m not—”

Pierce held up a hand. “I don’t need any explanations, Draco. Whatever you did or did not do in your past, it’s just that—in your past.” He paused a moment, then added, “Of course, if you ever wanted to come to me with absolutely anything, I would be thrilled to listen. I’m always available. But I don’t want to hear anything because you feel obligated. Understand?”

Draco couldn’t say that he did. They came to a halt outside Pierce’s office, the professor clearly waiting for some confirmation, so even though it wasn’t true, Draco said, “Yes, sir. Of course.”

Pierce nodded once, offered a lazy salute and a friendly smile, then disappeared into his office.

What the hell? was the first thought to cross Draco’s mind, and one that kept running through his head again and again as he walked aimlessly away. People of his house did not behave this way, much less make such charitable offers as Pierce just did. That kind of talk was saved for sentimental sods like Dumbledore. It was totally unprecedented and inappropriate.

The thing that really puzzled him, though, was that he wasn’t totally disgusted by it. In fact, the professor’s stupid talk had actually made him feel better. Did that mean he was getting weak? Desperate? Or was he reading entirely too much into all of it?

He didn’t realize where he was going until he found himself standing in front of the greenhouse. He blinked, a little surprised that this was where he ended up, then decided a little work on Weasley’s “punishment” might clear his head. Technically he was supposed to work with her (as far as she was concerned, so that she could answer any of Pierce’s questions should he ask afterwards, but in reality, it was part of the professor’s plot to tone down the hatred between them) but ah, well. These were extenuating circumstances, after all, and he wasn’t particularly keen on spending time bonding with the littlest weasel anyway.

He took out his wand to unlock the door, but to his surprise, the handle turned easily without it. Debating his next move only a moment, he stepped soundlessly inside to find the place dark, though a dim golden glow in the back told him he wasn’t alone.

Annoyed that someone was mucking up his plans, he pulled out his wand and moved soundlessly past the rows of tables. There was a sort of wall made from the thick leaves and vines that wrapped around a trellis at the far end of the greenhouse, and the light, which grew steadily brighter as he neared, spilled out through the spaces in the vegetation. He walked right up to the living wall and around it to see who already occupied the space.

It was Weasley. Of course it was. Whatever forces controlled things in this world seemed to get a special kick out of watching him suffer, so why wouldn’t it be Weasley? Currently, the girl sat cross-legged and bent over something in her lap, muttering to herself occasionally. He assumed she was trying to figure out the volatile Portable Gardens by herself, and he was proved correct when one exploded around her, followed closely by her cry of frustration.

“That’s why you were supposed to wait for me,” he remarked.

She jumped and twisted around; her wide, momentarily panic-stricken eyes quickly narrowed at him. “What are you doing here so late?”

“I could ask you the same,” he pointed out, moving around to her front and perching on a stool.

“You could,” she conceded, “but you didn’t. I did.”

He ducked his head to hide the tiny smile tugging at his mouth. Lord, did she ever turn off? “I saw the light,” he lied when he could control his features again. “I thought I should probably look into it.”

“What’s the matter?” she asked, falsely sweet. “Didn’t make anyone cry today? Wanted to try and snag someone out where they shouldn’t be?”

Nope, he thought, fighting down another smile, she definitely never turns off. “That’s exactly right, Weasley,” he answered calmly. “You caught me. My day wasn’t complete without making at least one person miserable, so I dragged myself all the way out here—because the greenhouse is such a hotspot for curfew-breaking students, you know—with the sole intent of issuing detention to whoever I came across.” He rolled his eyes.

She glared and opened her mouth. Draco knew that whatever she planned on saying, it would be insulting, so he quickly cut her off by asking, “So what are you doing out here?”

Her mouth snapped shut and formed an angry pout. “Trying to get this stupid punishment over with.”

He appraised the tangled greenery around her. “Not having much luck, I take it.”

She sighed heavily. “None. I should’ve just taken the detention. I don’t care, this isn’t worth it. I’m starting to seriously resent Professor Pierce right about now. I mean really, I’d like to know exactly what was going through his head when he decided that this would be a good idea.”

Before he could think better of it, Draco commented, “He’s really not such a terrible bloke.”

Weasley cocked an eyebrow in a way that Draco found eerily resembled himself. “What happened to ‘never trust a Slytherin,’ and he’s just ‘faking the smile’ to hide something, and all of that?”

Draco frowned. “I’m not saying I trust him…”

“But now you like him?” she persisted. “I thought he wasn’t honest enough about being the dirty bastard you seem to think he is deep down.”

“I didn’t say that either,” he protested, growing defensive.

“Okay. What are you saying, then?”

He opened his mouth, but realized too late he had no answer. As the silence hung between them, a look Draco could only place as actual sympathy crossed her features.

“It’s getting to you, isn’t it?” she asked quietly.

Wary of the foreign expression she wore (or, at least foreign when directed at him), he immediately put up his guard before speaking. “What do you mean?”

“All the mind games. You know, how you said everyone’s just using everyone else and you always have to be on your guard and stuff.”

He stiffened imperceptibly. “Nothing’s getting to me. I’m fine.”

Weasley watched him intently, giving Draco the uncomfortable feeling of being analyzed. “You don’t act like you’re fine,” she finally concluded.

“Oh? And how do I act, Weasley? Enlighten me.”

She shrugged, looking away. “I don’t know. You seem confused…or distracted. Maybe a little stressed out.”

Draco rose abruptly from the stool, crossing his arms and turning his back to her. “Well, you’re wrong. Like I said, I’m fine.”

She didn’t immediately respond, and after a while he heard the rustle of leaves as she assumedly untangled herself to rise. “If you say so,” she said. Then, “I’m going in.” Still refusing to turn, he heard the sound of her footsteps passing him, but then the sound stopped, and she spoke again. “When you’re ready to admit that it is getting to you…well, my advice is to find someone to talk to. Someone you can actually trust for once. People need people, Malfoy. Even you.”

By the time the words fully sank in and he whirled around with an angry retort ready on his lips, Weasley was already walking through the door, leaving him alone in the dimly lit greenhouse. Staring blankly in the direction she’d gone, all the events of that evening replayed in his mind—Pansy’s ambush, Pierce’s rescue and subsequent peculiar behavior, and now Weasley with her inane theories and her “advice.”

He closed his eyes against the onslaught, but still it remained. People need people, Malfoy. Even you. In the silence of the night, an unfamiliar ache settled deep in the pit of his stomach…it took a moment, but he realized it felt a little like loneliness.

Suddenly, he snarled and flung the stool across the room where it crashed against a table and clattered to the floor, and he dropped into a crouch, cradling his head in his hands. She was wrong. Maybe some people needed companions, but Draco wasn’t one of them. He didn’t need anybody. No one.

But the ache persisted, and eyes squeezed tightly shut, still bent over with his head in his hands, Draco knew Weasley was right about one thing—he was indeed confused.

- - - - -

A/N - Blah. Lol I'm not really happy with this chapter, but just getting this much out took FOREVER, and the thoughts of re-doing it do not thrill me one bit. SO I figure mediocre is better than nothing.
A Little Home-Brewed Assistance by Hearts Cadence
Chapter 9 – A Little Home-Brewed Assistance

Ginny, distracted and nearly oblivious to her surroundings, walked slowly after leaving the greenhouse. Her feet automatically headed towards the tower room with the hidden candle, her nightly visits there a ritual by now, but her mind stayed with Malfoy. She wondered what in the warped mind-game of his life had finally pushed him too far tonight, because she could tell that something obviously bothered him. She wondered if he would take her advice, and if he did, if there was even anyone out there that he honestly could trust. She wondered why she cared.

It took a second for her to realize that the door was already in front of her, and she shook her head slowly to clear it before reaching out and turning the handle. With movements smooth and decisive from practice, she uncovered the candle and waited to be transported. Familiar oblivion closed on her as the candle started to work, and Harry’s face slowly took shape in front of her.

Suddenly, though, the picture stopped forming. His face wavered, grew watery and flickered, then started to morph into something else. The angles on his face sharpened, the skin paling a shade or two, and for the first time in Ginny’s life, she saw his hair lay down smooth. It fell over his forehead, hiding the already fading scar, then degree by degree, turned a platinum color. Ginny’s fingers tightened painfully around the candlestick holder because she only knew of one person with hair that blond.

“Harry?” she whispered, but he was already gone. For just an instant, the newly transformed face of Draco Malfoy stared back at her, so real she felt her breath hitch uncertainly. Then the instant shattered when the candle suddenly guttered out, despite the fact that there was nothing to extinguish the flame. She went blind as the sick feeling from the candle’s transition overcame her.

When her vision cleared, she was kneeling on the floor as usual, the candle on its side next to her. She gulped in several breaths and stared incredulously at the candle. She had only ever seen Harry in its mysterious fire, and this first failure stung like betrayal.

And why Malfoy of all people? What was that supposed to mean? Did it even mean anything? But the question most prevalent in her mind: Had she lost Harry for good?

Almost afraid to know the answer but unable to resist, she picked up the candle again with shaky hands and watched as the flame burst to life. Again the tower room fell away, and again a new image began to take its place. She almost sobbed in relief when Harry came into view.

The rest followed quickly after—a bed in yet another of a long succession of small inn rooms, Ron and Hermione sleeping in their respectful beds off to the side, a low-burning hearth and an open window streaming in moonlight. She stood for a long time, waiting to see if the scene would disappear. It never did, and exhaling long and slow, she blew out the candle.

Back in the tower, she sat staring at nothing for a long time, a frown etched into her mouth. Collin swore that the candle revealed the person you missed most. Ginny always sort of thought it worked something like the Mirror of Erised Harry had told her about. The only trouble with that theory was that if it were showing her what she most wanted, she would see Harry with her, safe in her room at the Burrow. Now, though, she didn’t know what to think. She definitely neither missed nor wanted Malfoy.

Slowly, she rose and moved over to the window facing the greenhouses, pressing her nose against the glass so that she could see out into the night. A light still burned inside one of them. Her troubled frown deepened, and she stepped back.

Putting the candle back as almost an afterthought before leaving, Ginny closed the door behind her; for the first time, she was anything but comforted as she did so.

- - - - -

Pierce stood, walked to the liquor cabinet, gazed longingly at an unopened bottle of whiskey, then gritted his teeth and stalked off again. He repeated this process several times before tossing himself onto the bed, trying hard not to think about it. Severus would be arriving any moment now, and he knew he needed a clear head for what was coming. Unfortunately, what he wanted was to be drunk for it. Practicality won out, but not without some difficulty, as his frequent trips to the liquor cabinet made clear.

Voldemort wanted a progress report. Severus volunteered to get it, of course. It wasn’t that Pierce didn’t want to see the man, but he did wish for someone a bit more open-minded. Even though he thought he was doing quite well — Draco was playing right into his hands, and even if the boy suspected something, Pierce doubted it was of anything Dark-related — he knew Severus would never like a plan that involved romance (or even friendship) with a Gryffindor. Pierce was going to have to employ some serious persuasion to convince him to bring Voldemort a good report.

Pierce rolled onto his back and scowled at the ceiling. It wasn’t as if Severus would be able to come up with anything better. Knowing him, he would just try and drug the boy with some potion or another. Severus didn’t seem to think there was any problem that couldn’t be solved with one of his quick-fix brews. Pierce, never too fond of Potions back in school anyway, couldn’t say that he agreed.

Because there was nothing better to distract him, he idly amused himself with what the once-professor might try and slip Draco were he in Pierce’s shoes. There wasn’t a hell of a lot that would really do the trick in this sort of situation. Severus Snape would never have pursued this Ginny Weasley plan in the first place, of course, but if he had, Pierce figured his first impulse would have been to jump for the love potion. Naturally, that idea had already occurred to Pierce, but he’d dismissed it almost immediately. Severus might favor artificial means, but Pierce knew that the only way to get true lasting results was for it to be real. Manufactured emotion just did not work, especially in the case of love potions, since the “love” vanished when the potion did.

What would be brilliant, Pierce mused, was if there was some way for Draco to just forget that he hated her so much, even if it was only temporary. He was positive that the Weasley girl was exactly his type, only the blasted boy couldn’t see it because he was blinded by so much damned prejudice. If he could just look at the girl without bias, Pierce knew all of her good traits would jump at him. Then even if the prejudice returned later, the damage would be done — there would be no forgetting the favorable characteristics.

In actuality, that was what Pierce was trying to accomplish right now, and really it was working, but at this rate arriving at that happy state might take months. Months, he knew, were a luxury he did not enjoy. Voldemort had a notoriously short attention span. Too bad Severus couldn’t whip up a batch of instant “hate-dissolvent” or something for him, he thought wryly.

Slowly, he sat up with a thoughtful look on his face. He’d said it sarcastically in his head, but the more he considered it, why couldn’t Severus do just that? So far as he knew nothing like that existed, but Severus was always bleating that there were no decent challenges left after one became a Master. Pierce admittedly didn’t know the first thing about inventing a new potion, but he didn’t imagine it would be all that difficult for someone like Severus.

By the time his fireplace flared emerald and spit out the greasy-haired man, he was so eager over the idea that he completely forgot his earlier dread.

“Severus!” he greeted, walking up and clasping his hand firmly. “Just the man I wanted to see.”

Severus arched one eyebrow. “Jonathon,” he returned with considerable more restraint. “I take it you’ve had some success, then?”

Pierce blinked, then laughed. “Oh, no it’s not that. I mean, yes, I’ve made progress, but I wanted to see you about something else.”

The other man took a seat without invitation, summoning up his own drink—something red and rich looking. “Oh, Merlin. Does it at least pertain to the reason I’m here?”

“Certainly. Do you think you could make a potion to make a person forget every bad thought they’d ever felt towards someone else?”

Severus frowned. “You mean a memory erasing potion?”

Pierce shook his head. “No, no I don’t want his memories gone. That would cause all sorts of problems. No, I want him to remember, just not feel the same hatred. Can you do that? It only has to last an hour or so.”

Severus arched the same brow again. “Are you referring to Draco? Because if you are, it’s a good idea, but even if I could manage something like that and he didn’t resent all of us, we would have to keep him constantly on the potion to maintain the effect, just like any other potion. It’s not practical.”

Pierce was shaking his head again before the man ever finished. “It wouldn’t be for the Death Eaters or the Dark Lord. Someone else. But is it possible is what I’m asking you?”

“Who else would you want him to stop hating?”

“Just answer the question, Sev.”

Severus studied him speculatively, raising his goblet to his lips and taking a careful sip. Finally, he said, “I don’t think anyone’s ever tried to produce that particular effect while keeping the subject’s memories intact.”

“I didn’t ask if it’s been done before. I asked if you could do it now.”

It was another several moments before he answered, “Yes, I probably could.”

Pierce clapped his hands together, pacing excitedly with a broad grin. “Excellent! I knew you could. How long do you imagine it would take?”

“How about you tell me what this is all about first, Jon,” Severus suggested.

Pierce slowed and sighed. He dropped into a chair of his own. “You have to promise not to automatically dismiss me out of hand like you always do, because you’re not going to like the sound of what I’ve been attempting these past weeks. At first.”

The man’s eyebrows rose high on his forehead. He consented with the barest inclination of his head.

Pierce took a deep breath and decided just to come right out with it. “I’m trying to get Draco Malfoy to fall in love with Ginny Weasley.”

Severus choked on the drink he’d been taking, coughing little drops of the red liquid onto his front. He didn’t even bother vanishing it away. “What?”

“You promised you would keep an open mind,” Pierce reminded him.

“You’re trying to get Draco to fall in love with Ginny Weasley?”

“Just listen, would you?” Pierce snapped. He proceeded to tell Severus his logic, how really it was his advice to give Draco something to care about that inspired him in the first place.

“When I said that,” Severus spat, “I didn’t intend for you to orchestrate a bloody romance with a Gryffindor. And a Weasley nonetheless!”

Pierce shrugged. “Well, that’s what happened. I think it’s a rather brilliant plan, if I don’t say so myself. And this is what I’m best at—a little faith would be appreciated.”

Severus shook his head, firmly pinching the bridge of his nose. He’d given up on his drink ages ago. “You’ve lost it, Jon. You’re absolutely certifiable.”

“Probably, but that’s neither here nor there. What is important at the moment is how fast you can get that potion to me.”

“What if I don’t want to do it?” Severus asked, a sharp edge to his voice. “What if I think it’s so damn mad I won’t even consider risking my reputation by taking any part of it?”

Pierce smiled drily. “Because you know that somehow, I always come out on top. And you know that if you help get me there faster, it will only benefit you. Who knows? You might even take Lucius’ place as the Dark Lord’s right-hand-man.”

Severus considered this a moment, then narrowed his eyes suspiciously. “You wouldn’t be trying to manipulate me, would you Jon?”

He chuckled. That was exactly what he was doing. Pierce learned a long time ago that Severus needed to feel important—some inferiority complex derived from his bullied childhood. Promising him recognition and status was exactly the way to play the man. “I wouldn’t dream of it,” Pierce said aloud. “You’ve known me too long to fall for it, anyway. You know all of my tricks.” Severus may be the closest thing he had to a friend, but that didn’t exempt him from serving as a useful pawn on occasion.

Severus stared hard for another couple seconds, then nodded slowly. “I still don’t think this is going to work.”

“Yes, you do,” Pierce countered confidently. “You just don’t like that this is the only solution either of us can find at the moment. But you know I can handle it all the same.”

Severus snorted. “I always wonder sometimes whether you really belong in Slytherin, but you could qualify on arrogance alone.”

Pierce smiled wickedly. “So, how about that potion, Sev?”

He sighed, pinching his nose again. “It’s more complicated than you’re making it out to be.”

“In that…?”

“In that you won’t want him suddenly warm and fuzzy towards everyone. That would start all kinds talk, and besides, he would suspect something for sure.”

“So what do you suggest?”

Severus frowned, his eyes sliding down to his forgotten drink. He raised the goblet to his lips and tipped it back. After he’d drained it, he said, “Get me something of Weasley’s. It doesn’t really matter what, just as long as she’s had it for awhile. Jewelry, clothing, whatever you can manage. I’ll work on a recipe and be back tomorrow night.”

“Thank you, Severus. Really. You won’t be sorry.”

“I can tell you right now it won’t last long,” Snape warned. “This sort of mind alteration is tricky. It’ll only be a couple of hours at best. And that’s ambitious.”

Pierce smiled. “That’s all I’ll need.”

Severus looked at him and shook his head as if he couldn’t quite believe he was actually agreeing to this crazy scheme. “Just make sure and have something of hers by tomorrow,” he restated.

Pierce’s opportunity to do just that came the next day during class. He finished his lesson early and gave the students the time to start their assignment in class, something Weasley usually took full advantage of. Today though, she sat with unfocused eyes, wearing a troubled expression. Her work lay untouched in front of her, a ragged quill resting on top so battered that she must have been using the thing for ages. Certainly long enough to qualify for Severus’s potion. Pierce fought back a smile — it was almost too easy.

Class ended, but she didn’t move, not even as everyone else around her piled out of the room. Her eyes still stared vacantly, the fact that she was deep in thought obvious by the little crease between her eyebrows. Pierce did give a small smile now, thinking that he couldn’t have hoped for better circumstances.

“Something the matter, Miss Weasley?” he asked, strolling over to lean casually against her desk. His hand came to rest naturally on top of her worn quill.

She blinked rapidly several times like someone waking up from a dream, then forced a smile. “Oh, no I’m fine. I was just thinking.”

“Nothing bad I hope.” He shifted his weight slightly, giving his fingers the chance to wrap around the quill.

“No…” she sounded uncertain of that. Suddenly, she asked, “Have you ever heard of the Mirror of Erised?”

Pierce considered the girl curiously. “I believe so. Isn’t that the one that shows you what you want most?”

She nodded. “Do you know…I mean, is there anything else like that?”

“Another mirror?”

“Not necessarily a mirror. Just anything enchanted to work the same way. Or maybe things that act sort of like it, but not exactly?”

“I really can’t say, Miss Weasley,” he answered honestly. “I would imagine so, though. One’s deepest desires are surprisingly important to some people.”

He’d meant to draw a smile out of her with that comment, but instead her face paled and the little worry line between her brows deepened. He was perplexed by the reaction, but that didn’t stop him from taking advantage of her distraction by inconspicuously slipping the ragged quill under his hand and up into the sleeve of his robe.

“Any particular reason you ask?”

She hesitated, meeting his eyes and opening her mouth as if she might actually tell him, but then she seemed to think better of it and answered lamely, “No, not really. Just wondering.”

Pierce raised his eyebrows and she quickly broke eye-contact, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear and busying her hands with packing up her materials. Midway through she stopped, and her forehead crinkled in confusion.

“Is there a problem?” he asked.

She lifted up the few pieces of parchment left on her desk, then started digging through her bag as she said, “I can’t find my quill. I could have sworn it was right there….”

“I wouldn’t worry. Those things go missing on me so often I swear they grow legs and wander off sometimes. Here.” He strode to the front of the room and bent down behind his desk. While he was out of the girl’s view, he deposited her pilfered quill into a drawer before pulling out a new one of his own. He returned and handed it to her. “Go on,” he insisted when she hesitated. “I’ve got dozens on hand for occasions like this.”

She frowned and vainly cast about the area one last time. “You’re sure?” she asked when the search turned up no results.

“Positive.”

Smiling shyly, she thanked him and took the quill, carefully tucking it behind one ear. He nodded and closed the door behind her when she left. Turning back to his empty classroom, a grin spread over his face. He still wondered what in Merlin’s name she wanted to know about the Mirror for, but that was the least of his concerns. Severus had told him via coded message, delivered by owl just that morning, that the potion would be ready as early as two days from now (provided he obtained something of Weasley’s by tonight). That meant he had two days to devise a plan, and he needed to get started right away because this was too critical to botch up. Nothing could go wrong.

Five minutes later, and Pierce had already forgotten all about Ginny Weasley’s odd behavior.

- - - - -

Draco went to Pierce’s office as soon as he received the professor’s summons. He’d only been reading a fairly dull book anyway, and besides, he was curious. This was the first time Pierce actually sent for him.

“It’s unlocked,” the man called at Draco's knock. He sat behind his desk, already wearing a smile that showed nearly all of his teeth. “I’m glad you could come so quickly.”

Draco stepped inside, a wave of heat immediately hitting him. Why on earth did Pierce keep it so hot in here? He glanced at the fireplace, taking a seat without being told, surprised to find it dead. It felt like a bonfire was blazing in here. “I wasn’t busy,” he finally said when he realized Pierce was waiting on a response.

“Good, I’d hate to disturb you. I just wanted to discuss a few things.”

“Something wrong?”

Pierce chuckled. “You’re not in trouble, if that’s what you’re asking. I am curious how you’re doing with Miss Weasley, though.”

Draco immediately scowled. “Pretty much the same.” He sighed, slouching down a little in the chair. “I suppose we have had a few almost-civil conversations. Here and there.”

Pierce inclined his head. “Better than nothing. These things take time.”

Draco couldn’t say that he really shared in the man’s optimism, but distracted by the temperature he could swear rose by the minute, he nodded anyway. He loosened his tie surreptitiously, but Pierce didn’t miss the gesture.

“All right, Mr. Malfoy?” he inquired mildly.

“Just a bit warm in here,” Draco admitted.

Looking concerned, Pierce said, “Is it? I think I must be coming down with a little something, then. I’ve been chilly all day. Can I get you a cold drink?”

Normally, Draco didn’t accept offers like that. Maybe it was some of his father’s paranoia carrying over, but he didn’t trust them. Just then, though, his skin felt a few degrees away from catching fire, and a fine sheen of sweat was breaking out along his hairline. He barely hesitated in answering, “That would be fantastic.”

Pierce gave a minute smile and held up a hand, indicating for Draco to stay seated. He disappeared through a door in the rear of the office, returning a moment later carrying a glass filled with what looked like pumpkin juice. Draco downed half of it in one swallow, exhaling gratefully as the ice-cold beverage relieved the heat a little.

“Better?” Pierce asked, seeming quite cheerful for someone supposedly under the weather.

Draco was too intent on the cool liquid, which he took another, more measured sip of, to pay much mind to the incongruity. “Much.”

“Wonderful. So did you ever manage to get those ridiculous gardens working?”

“Almost.” Draco tipped back the glass for another healthy swallow. “We were working on it last night, but it got too late before we could finish.” He paused and considered his drink with a slight frown. His mind felt foggy. “Is this pumpkin juice? It tastes a little off.”

“It’s my own recipe. The school’s is too bland for me,” Pierce explained absently. “You’re playing Ravenclaw tomorrow, correct?”

“Easy,” Draco dismissed, deciding to just ignore the funny feeling still in his head.

“Then that gives us how long before the first Gryffindor match?”

Draco did some quick mental calculation. “Well it depends on how well they do, and how well we do, but the very earliest would be about two weeks.”

Pierce sat back. “Not much time,” he observed.

Draco shook his head in agreement, then finished off the drink. Pierce’s eyes followed the movement, which made Draco a little uncomfortable.

“Well, might as well do what we can,” Pierce said. “It probably wouldn’t hurt for you to spend some time with her tonight. Your excuse can be finishing the work on that Portable Garden.”

Draco made a face. “I’m really getting tired of all this. And I honestly don’t think it’s working.”

“You gave your word to go along with whatever I said,” Pierce reminded him pointedly.

Draco sighed. “Right. Fine, I’ll go find her.”

“Do you need me to send a message?”

Draco shook his head. “I know where she’ll probably be. It’s okay.”

Pierce silently raised his eyebrows, then inclined his head with a tiny smile. “All right then. Good luck.” His eyes glanced to the clock. “Oh, and I’ve been getting some complaints about students out past curfew, so make sure and be back in a couple hours.”

“Not a problem,” Draco assured him, thinking that it wasn’t like he was all that eager to spend more time with the girl than absolutely necessary. He got up and returned Pierce’s glass, exchanged farewells, then wasted no time in retreating to the blessedly cool hallway.

He started off towards the Quidditch pitch, knowing Weasley was bound to be out practicing. The vague, cottony sensation in his head was almost gone by now, and he just attributed it to the office’s heat. He always could take cold better than hot.

The air outside was already starting to wane from summer’s stifling warmth to fall’s crisper feel, especially now with the sun only hours from setting. He breathed in deeply, closing his eyes and welcoming the breeze that ruffled his hair. When the wind died down, he grudgingly sacrificed the moment by opening his eyes and took off at a brisk walk.

The pitch came into view moments later, and unsurprisingly, a miniature figure with vibrant copper hair flew daring flips and turns above it in the distance. As Draco got closer, he noticed the way the sun bounced off that hair, picking out little flecks of gold and making them shimmer. He wondered why he had never realized that her hair was so much richer than the usual, garish Weasley-red.

She performed a flawless back-flip, and Draco couldn’t help but admire her grace in the air, the way her lithe body moved in perfect harmony. Well, it should,, he mused, eyes glued to her, she practices enough. It paid off, though—she was definitely impressive on a broom, not to mention the aesthetic side-effects of all the exercise. That body could easily make a boy weak at the knees.

Draco suddenly stopped short, jaw dropping open. Had he honestly just thought that? He shook his head, slowly shutting his mouth. He’d just overheard too much guy-talk about her lately. That had to be it. And as for the admiration of her flying skill? Well…she was rather good. That was just the honest truth, and Draco made a point to never lie to himself. That was all.

He finally reached the pitch and hailed her with a raised arm. She spotted him and slowed, circling down in a lazy spiral. She touched down, easily hefting her broom over one shoulder as she walked up to him, dark brown eyes suspicious.

“Malfoy,” she greeted cautiously. “What do you want?”

Her voice held a bite to it. Of course, it usually did around him, but this seemed like something more. He wondered what the cause was. “I wanted to finish fixing the Portable Garden.”

She scrunched up her features, and Draco’s mouth twitched a little to fight back a smile at the gesture. It was cute, but he doubted that was her aim just then. Again, he caught himself, feeling a little stunned. Did he just think she was cute? What was wrong with him today?

“I’m really not in the mood, Malfoy,” she said.

“Come on, Weasley. We were almost done last night, and I just want to get it over with.”

She rolled her eyes. “Well, why didn’t you say so sooner? If I had only known your majesty was in the mood, then I would have dropped everything at once,” she spat sarcastically, offering up a mock curtsy.

Now his mouth did curve into a smile. Merlin the girl had fire. “What else would you be doing? More flying? You’ve practiced more than anyone else in the school. I think you’re safe to skip a few hours tonight.”

She wiped her forehead on the back of her arm, clearly frustrated. “Look, it’s just not a good time, okay?”

He opened his mouth to make some smart-arse reply, but caught himself when he noticed those dark eyes of hers were shining. He realized with a start she was fighting back tears. Perhaps even more startling, the knowledge actually disturbed him. He hesitated, then asked, “Everything all right?”

She laughed, turning around quickly to wipe furiously at her eyes. “Right, because you’d really give a damn if I said no.”

He knew she should be right. He knew it. But he found her distress oddly disquieting. “Just asking…” he muttered.

She suddenly whirled around, all trace of tears gone from her eyes, replaced by a hard, intense glint. “Play me.”

He blinked, thrown off balance by the sudden mood swing. “What?”

“Play me,” she repeated. “If you win, we’ll work on the stupid arse garden.”

“If I lose…?” he asked warily.

She thought it over a minute, then a slow, wicked smile spread over her face. “You give me your broom.”

He instantly shook his head. “Are you crazy? That thing cost a fortune!”

“What? It’s not like you couldn’t just buy another one anyway,” she said, sounding disgusted.

He opened his mouth, almost letting slip something he’d rather she didn’t know about that. He checked himself just in time and gritted his teeth. “Fine.

She grinned, pulled a practice snitch out of her pocket, and let it fly. “Well, what are you waiting for? Accio your broom.”

Annoyed as he was at being sucked into this, he experienced an entirely unfamiliar emotion rising up—respect. No one could say Weasley was weak, and he found himself envious of her strength. Funny that he never realized that about her before. He Accio’d his broom.

“Standard rules apply,” she reminded brusquely before kicking off into the air.

The match started out slow, as most one-on-one Seeker games do. Draco knew he should be worried. Weasley wasn’t bad to begin with, and after all of her extra time on the pitch, she must be bloody brilliant by now.

Oddly enough though, he didn’t feel intimidated. In fact, he realized as time went on, his entire mindset was different. Usually all of his focus was on beating his opponent, but for some completely inexplicable reason, that wasn’t such a concern to him this time. Instead, he simply concentrated on the Snitch alone.

By the time he spotted the glimmer of gold, he was practically oblivious to Weasley, watching only for sudden movements that meant she saw the tiny ball first. Now though, having spied it, he spared a split-second to gauge her position. She was in the middle of her favored grid search pattern, apparently unaware. And he was closer.

He leaned forward on the broom and rushed forward, feeling with exhilaration the wind whipping at his clothes. He was closing the distance fast, but to his absolute shock, he caught a glimpse of Weasley racing right on his heels from the corner of his eye. How did she move that fast on such a shoddy old broom?

He redoubled his efforts, nearly flattening himself to the broom handle, but she was still gaining on him. He risked a quick glance back to see her face fierce and intense, and it was that expression of pure determination that made something in his stomach lurch. The feeling was totally foreign to him, confusing him more than a little, and it caused him to falter for just a millisecond.

It was enough for Weasley. She pulled ahead until they were almost exactly even, and Draco swore out loud, urging his broom on. Obviously hearing the curse, Weasley grinned evilly, hair long and swept back from her face by the wind. The Snitch was close now, very close, and they were in a dead tie. Draco stretched out his hand, shutting out everything but that one sphere of gold.

With his field of vision so narrowed, he couldn’t recall later how he managed to pull ahead. He would realize that it was odd he never tried to knock her aside. Generally he wanted to inflict pain almost as badly as he wanted to catch the stupid Snitch. Maybe that was how he managed it. But whatever the cause, it was his hand that wrapped around the Snitch first.

He only had a second to exalt in his victory before — with both of them so close — the inevitable happened. They collided, hard. Draco managed to hold on to his perch, but Weasley’s much smaller frame couldn’t take the impact, and she plunged towards the ground at break-neck speed, her scream ripping through the air.

Draco only reacted. He sped after her, straining harder than he knew he was capable of, certainly harder than he had for the Snitch. His eyes were watering, distorting her into a blur of red hair, black cloth, and pink skin; every muscle ached, but he didn’t slow.

He caught her around the waist only feet from the ground. He didn’t have time to land properly, so he just brought the broom to as much of a stop as he could manage before they hit the ground, and then threw himself off, shielding her body with his. His shoulder connected first, followed by his hip and finally his back where he came to rest with Weasley sprawled across his torso.

For what felt like a very long time, neither of them moved. They were too busy trying to recuperate from the shock and fear, gasping for breath in tandem. Weasley recovered first, putting her hands at either side of his head and pushing herself up shakily to gaze down at him. He thought her eyes looked very wide, filled with residue fear and something else, something peculiar when directed at him — gratitude.

“Malfoy, I…” she swallowed. “Thank you,” she finished lamely.

Her lips were full and pink, parted slightly from still erratic breathing. The bottom one bled a little from where she must have bitten it by accident. He tore his gaze away, wondering angrily why that should seem such a difficult thing to do. He tried to recall all the reasons he hated her so much, but everything he came up with suddenly no longer seemed to bother him at all. “Yeah, well…” he trailed off uncertainly.

She nodded, though he wasn’t really positive what for. Then she rolled off of him and onto her knees. “Bloody hell,” she muttered.

He quite agreed with that sentiment. Wincing, he rolled up to a sitting position. He was going to have more than a few bruises tomorrow. Then he remembered something. “I won,” he announced.

She looked over at him, disbelief written all across her cinnamon-speckled face. Then, abruptly, she burst into laughter. It was the loud kind, honest and sincere, and soon she was holding her stomach, wiping at her eyes.

He watched in fascination. Could he even remember the last time he heard laughter like that, untouched by malice, not serving to cover anything up? The sound drew him, such a simple expression of mirth. No hidden motive, no games, just what it was — laughter.

He found himself thinking that this, this was what it was really intended for, not what the people he knew had distorted it into, and the revelation seemed profound to his mind.

Before he knew what he was doing, he was joining in. It felt strange to him, to laugh just for the sake of laughing without any reason, but it felt good too. It felt clean. It made him feel alive, and light, and free, and so he laughed harder. That, of course, made her laugh even harder as well, and soon they both had tears rolling down their cheeks.

“You know something, Malfoy,” Weasley gasped, grinning hugely and shaking her head in wonderment, “you’re right. You did. Let’s go work on the dumb punishment.”

Finally managing to get himself under control — though his lips still twitched a little towards a smile — he nodded and climbed to his feet. Without thinking, he offered her a hand. Clearly surprised, she glanced up at his face distrustfully, then hesitantly placed her smaller hand in his. He tugged her up effortlessly, and for one second they stood frozen with hands clasped. His eyes inadvertently locked onto hers, but whatever thoughts she may have been thinking stayed hidden behind her dark gaze.

She ended the awkward moment first, her fingers briefly giving the lightest of squeezes before pulling out of his grasp. She tucked her hair behind her ears, something Draco recognized as a common nervous gesture of hers, then said, “Right, well, we should probably get going.”

The trip to the greenhouse passed in uncomfortable silence. For his part, Draco was growing more and more confused by the second. Almost desperately, he kept retrying his earlier experiment, picking out things he couldn’t stand about her, only to find that now he found them captivating, compelling even.

Her obnoxious tendency to back chat he now saw as clever wit. Her insufferable stubbornness transformed into passion and drive. The infuriatingly condescending “advice” was just the compassionate nature she couldn’t quite manage to stifle completely, not even towards him. Little things changed too, like how her hair went from obnoxious to vivid, her eyes from plain to hypnotic.

Perhaps most alarming of his revelations, though, it hit him that he actually appreciated the challenge she posed. Looked forward to it, even — if nothing else, just to break up the monotony.

By the time they reached the greenhouse, Draco was nearly terrified to look at her, afraid he would find something else…pleasant about her. Cautiously, he did risk one quick peek, only to see all of her earlier merriment gone, her features somber. He remembered then how she nearly broke down in front of him before their game.

As they got settled at one of the tables, he couldn’t resist asking, against all better judgment, “So what was wrong before?” Perhaps not the most tactful way to go about it, he mused, but at least his tone wasn’t rude. That had to count for something.

She didn’t answer for a long time. Her lips pressed together, and she rolled one of the Portable Gardens around her palm, determinedly avoiding eye-contact. He waited anyway, but when she showed no sign of opening up, he sighed quietly and prepared to go gather some supplies.

“I’m lonely,” she admitted suddenly, barely audible but still halting his intentions.

He stared, honestly surprised she chose to confide in him of all people, and more than a little curious why.

As if reading his thoughts, she said with a rueful laugh, “I can’t believe I’m telling you this. I guess it’s not like I need to worry about you letting it slip during all those chats you’re always having with the people I know.” He snorted at that, and she continued almost to herself, “Besides, after what you just did, I suppose I owe you….”

Uncomfortable, Draco prompted, “Why do you say you’re lonely?”

She fiddled with a leaf. “You know Harry’s gone. So’s Ron and Hermione. I don’t feel like I even know my old friends anymore.”

“What about that one bloke I saw you hanging around last year?”

She smiled faintly. “You mean Dean? I dunno. He’s great, but…well, he’s moved on. I think he just feels obligated to talk to me now because of our history.”

“There’s still that other kid. You know, the one that worshipped Potter.”

Weasley laughed. “That would be Collin. And he’s great too, but he’s got his own life. Everyone’s got their own bloody life.”

“But you,” he ventured.

She nodded miserably. “Right in one.” She looked up and suddenly seemed to remember who she was talking to. Her cheeks colored, but she straightened her back and stared him straight in the face as if challenging him to make fun.

And that was the crux of it all, he realized. He should be making fun and taking advantage of her weakness. Opportunities like this rarely presented themselves, and normally he would have grabbed on with both hands, but now he just couldn’t dredge up enough malice to go through with it. Instead, he caught himself admiring her for putting on such a brave front all this time when inside she clearly hurt, and it made him want to smack his head against the wall because obviously something was seriously wrong with him for having these thoughts. For the life of him, he just couldn’t fathom what.

In the meantime she sat across from him, waiting to see how he would respond with a warning look on her face. Despite all his best efforts he couldn’t mock her, he sure as hell didn’t know the first thing about consoling anybody, and Draco found himself at a loss for the first time in ages.

“Maybe it’s partly you,” he finally offered, the awkwardness of the moment and the infuriating thoughts careening through his mind necessitating he say something.

Her eyes narrowed dangerously. “If you’re making some smart-arse remark about my looks or personality or family…”

Draco quickly shook his head. “No, no I didn’t mean it like that. I just mean…well, you don’t have to be lonely.”

Her forehead crinkled, the warning in her face giving way to confusion. “What are you saying?”

Draco sighed, absently rubbing his hand at the back of his neck. “I’m saying that there’re plenty of blokes who would love to…spend time with you.”

She showed a tiny smile. “Like you, Malfoy?”

He glanced up sharply, but for some reason her face momentarily arrested his response. Her hair, deep crimson in the failing light, framed it perfectly, bringing out her dark eyes and fair, freckle-dusted skin. For one insane moment, he understood what all the boys were constantly harping on about. Then he remembered who he was looking at and snapped his eyes away, gritting out, “Don’t be ridiculous, Weasley. I have more sense.” What the hell was wrong with him tonight?

She watched him a silent moment. “You know, if I didn’t know any better, I’d almost think you were trying to be halfway decent. Failing miserably, but trying.”

He valiantly fought down the urge to curse out loud. “Good thing you know better then,” he said instead.

Her mouth hinted at a smile. “Yeah. I suppose so.”

Not wanting to look at her, afraid again of what new and disturbing revelations he might encounter if he did, he let his gaze wander aimlessly around the room. His eyes passed over a clock, and he thought that a more beautiful sight never existed – it showed that it was almost curfew.

“We’ve gotta go,” he announced abruptly, hoping his relief sounded less obvious to her than it did to him.

She gave him a puzzled look. “I thought you wanted to work on these stupid gardens? We haven’t even started yet.”

“I did,” he admitted, “but we spent too much time playing. Professor Pierce warned me earlier that I had to be back in the dormitory by curfew tonight. I guess there’s been complaints or something. We’ll have to reschedule.”

Weasley groaned. “Just brilliant.” She sighed. “Fine, you go on. I’ll just put everything away and then I’ll go in too.”

As a prefect, Draco knew he should probably make her go first, but just now he didn’t feel particularly inclined to it. He wasted no time in getting to his feet, offering her only a curt parting nod of agreement before turning around to leave.

He had his hand on the door when her soft call of, “Hey, Malfoy?” stopped him. He squeezed his eyes shut a moment, forcing himself not to think of how musical her voice sounded when it wasn’t screeching at him like a banshee, then turned and asked, “What is it, Weasley?”

She hesitated. “Just, well…thanks, I guess. For not letting me fall, I mean.” She paused again, clearly struggling with what she wanted to say next. “And for just now,” she finally added, though he thought she seemed to be speaking through clenched teeth just to get the words out. “I…” she took a breath. “I appreciate it.”

He stared for a long moment, having not even the slightest inkling of how he should respond to that. Finally, he just settled on, “I’ll let you know when we can reschedule.”

She smiled, apparently unsurprised by his lack of acknowledgment. “Okay.”

He lingered a moment longer, opening his mouth, thinking he might say something, but no words came so he simply shut it again and turned around. This time she didn’t stop him as he walked gratefully out of the greenhouse, more disconcerted than he’d ever been in his entire life.

- - - - -

A/N – holy cow guys, this sucker is almost double the length of my normal chapters! Myself, I actually prefer them a tad bit shorter (makes them easier to proof/edit haha), but this just ended up being the energizer bunny chapter — it kept going and going…

Hey, whatever happened to the energizer bunny? I haven’t seen him in years…

Lol anyway, thanks for reading!
Found Out by Hearts Cadence
A/N – I really am sorry for how long these chapters keep taking, but I was CRAZY and took a TON of English courses, so now I’m writing so many papers for school (on top of the normal workload), that I’m having an extremely hard time of it.

And thank you so sooo much for all of your fantastic encouragement! When I’ve been staring at this screen so long that everything starts blurring together, your reviews keep me plugging away anyway haha.

- - - - -

Chapter 10 — Found Out

Draco woke up early the next day, before the sun and definitely before breakfast. A dream did it, but he couldn’t remember much aside from a vague memory of flying and the color red. He groaned softly in annoyance, having a good idea where the unusual dream came from. It seemed that Ginny Weasley even invaded his subconscious now. Just lovely.

The Seventh year boys’ dormitory still maintained night’s glorious quiet, interrupted only by the occasional snore or garbled mumble. Pitch black still blanketed everything. The dungeon room never enjoyed a sunrise, of course, but enchanted torches would flicker to life in time with the sun, and not a one so much as glowed yet. Wrapped in the hush and dark of early, early morning, Draco’s thoughts meandered where they chose with little control from him.

Mostly, he thought about the day before. He chose not to consider the more freakish occurrences, like laughing with Weasley and every other decent thing that popped into his mind about her, but he did remember one very important detail: he had beaten her. A surge of excitement coursed through him, and the sudden urge to share his accomplishment soon became irresistible. And he knew just who he would tell.

Restless now and given up on the prospect of sleep, Draco silently pulled aside the bed curtains, swung his legs off the side of the bed, and padded over to his trunk. He shrugged on whatever set of robes happened to be lying on top and left without another thought to his appearance, something in and of itself an anomaly.

No one else graced the echoing halls at this ungodly hour, and Draco belatedly remembered Pierce’s warning about curfew. Technically though, the way he figured it, he wasn’t really breaking curfew, as rather than being out late, he was out very, very early. That would be his story if anyone caught him, at any rate.

Pierce’s quarters were not far from his dormitory, meaning he reached them fairly quickly, but once there he paused, wondering for the first time at the wisdom of this decision. He cocked one ear towards the door, hoping to hear some sound from inside signaling the professor was up and about anyway, but the silence only stretched on. He debated for another few seconds, then shrugged and rapped on the door.

Several minutes dragged by, and Draco was just considering leaving when the door creaked open to reveal a still bleary-eyed Professor Pierce. His sandy-blond hair, nearly shoulder length by now, stuck out at odd angles, his clothes consisting of black trousers and a white shirt with the sleeves rolled back to the elbows.

“Mr. Malfoy?” he asked around a yawn. Suddenly, he seemed to grow alert all at once and straightened, tugging down the sleeves of his shirt almost violently.

Draco’s eyes instinctively followed the abrupt motion, catching a dark something on the man’s skin just before the fabric covered it. His gaze lingered for just a moment, then peeled away with a slow shake from his head. “Sorry to wake you, sir. I just wanted to talk.”

Pierce frowned, rubbing at his face. “Everything all right?”

“Yeah, it’s nothing bad.”

“And it can’t wait?” He looked around, peeking down the deserted corridor. “What time is it, anyway?”

Draco shrugged. “Early. I’m not sure exactly. This is worth it, though. I promise.”

Pierce heaved a sigh, twisted around — assumedly in an attempt to read the clock behind him — then mumbled, “Right, come in then.”

This was not Draco’s first time in these rooms. When Snape lived in them, he had visited quite frequently, but he had to admit that they were considerably changed from those days. More furnished now, and a bit more comfortable. Snape’s décor always made him feel vaguely cold, even in summer’s heat.

Pierce closed the door and gestured to one of the two leather sofas. “Can I get you anything?” Draco sat, declining the offer with a polite head-shake. Pierce took the couch opposite. “What can I help you with, then?”

“It’s about Ginny…about Weasley, I mean.” He halted a moment, surprised at his own slip. Where had that come from? “Anyway, I went to see her last night like you said.”

Pierce’s attention obviously perked up at that. Draco had the fleeting thought that the professor seemed too interested in all of this Weasley business. “Something happened, I assume?”

Draco nodded. “Something definitely happened. I beat her.”

The older man raised an eyebrow. “You…beat her?”

“In Quidditch,” Draco quickly explained. “She wanted a quick game, so I agreed. And I won.” He felt the accomplishment flood through him at finally getting to say the words out loud. He had to admit it — he always was something of a bragger.

“Really? Fantastic! How did you do it?”

“That’s the thing…I’m not really positive.”

“Well you must have done something differently,” Pierce reasoned. “Or else she was just having a bad day.”

Draco scowled at the latter theory. “She wasn’t having a bad day. In fact, I’m not even sure it should be possible to make a broom move as fast as she did hers.”

“Then that leaves you having done something different.”

“I couldn’t tell you what.”

Pierce leaned back, resting his chin on his index fingers. “May I venture a guess?”

Draco shrugged. “Go ahead.”

“Were your feelings towards Miss Weasley a little less…critical?”

Draco opened his mouth to say that his thoughts had been as uncomplimentary as ever, but then the memory of his unusual reactions to her ripped through the wall he’d put up against them and flooded his conscious. He scowled. “Actually, yeah.”

Now Pierce leaned forward with feverish intensity. “How much less? Be specific.”

“I don’t know. She just didn’t bother me last night, lord only knows why. During the match itself I sort of forgot about her, really.”

Pierce had a look of absolute triumph in his pale hazel eyes, and a sly grin gradually seized his features, touching every centimeter of his face. “I would tell you that I hate to say ‘I told you so,’” he drawled, “but that would be lying.”

Draco rolled his eyes. “It might not have been that.” An almost desperate feeling was creeping over him — before now, despite Pierce’s conviction, it was always his secret belief that his relationship with Weasley wouldn’t make a damn bit of difference. The beginning destruction of that made him uneasy, tearing him further from his comfort zone by the second.

Pierce nodded indulgently. “That’s very true, Mr. Malfoy. But tell me this: what else was different? What other explanation is there? How else do you explain it?”

“All right, all right, I get it,” Draco snapped. “It’s…likely. Satisfied?”

“Very nearly,” Pierce admitted, still grinning. “I would like to know how you feel about her now, though.”

He wanted to say that he hated her as much as ever, but the sudden memory of her curled up with laughter flashed before his mind’s eye and halted the words. He glowered, running a hand back and forth through his hair in frustration. “I don’t have a bloody clue,” he finally spat.

Pierce sat back again, folding his arms loosely across his chest and wearing a pleased smile. “Then we’ve come a long way.”

Draco looked up, more annoyed with the man now than he could remember being with anyone in quite some time. He hated not knowing where he stood. Pierce was mixing all different shades of gray into his life, and all he wanted was to get things back to their usual, clearly defined black or white. “Glad you think so.” Bitterness rang clearly through his tone.

Pierce chuckled softly, then cocked his head a bit as the sounds of students’ shuffling feet and quiet chatter seeped into the room. “Sounds as if breakfast is about to start,” he observed. “You should probably go get something to eat. There’s that game with Ravenclaw today, and you’ll need all the energy you can get.”

Still in a foul mood, Draco got up without comment and walked towards the door.

“Mr. Malfoy,” Pierce called after him.

Draco stopped and looked back over his shoulder.

“How did it feel?”

“What?”

“Beating her,” the professor clarified. “How did it feel?”

Draco couldn’t help the evil smile that stole across his lips. “Brilliant.”

Pierce’s smile exceeded his own in mischievousness. “Then consider that your motivation.”

Draco didn’t need to ask what he meant. Pierce was telling him to remember that feeling whenever he got overly frustrated with this whole business. Walking up to breakfast, he found that, surprisingly, the strategy worked. Anything was worth the triumph he experienced the night before.

He strode into the Great Hall light at heart, ignoring the stares of his housemates. He picked a seat as far from them as he could get and still be at Slytherin, then started heaping his plate with food. That morning’s emotional roller coaster worked up quite the appetite.

A fork piled with fried potatoes froze midway to his mouth when the doors opened and Ginny Weasley walked quietly into the room. Her appearance raised such conflicting emotions in him that it was all he could do not to hold his head and squeeze his eyes shut.

Draco welcomed back with incredible relief his initial reaction — that familiar hate, returned to him like a long lost friend. Unfortunately (though he was sure Pierce would find it incredibly fortunate) other ideas almost immediately clashed with it. Foremost of these, he couldn’t help but appreciate the way her brilliant hair, loose today, led the eye perfectly down to the curve of her breasts, her side, her hips. He watched her smile at Creevey, remembered that same smile directed at him, and felt a pang of jealousy—actual bloody jealousy — rip through him.

It was the confusion of last night, only quadrupled. He still despised her. He knew that for certain, which was more than he could say yesterday, but forgetting the things from last evening proved impossible despite that. He couldn’t forget the fire in her that refused to let her give in no matter the challenge. He couldn’t forget the intelligence he noticed, nor the wit or even the compassion that he simply could not wrap his head around.

Then he experienced the most startling epiphany of all. He realized that he was bored. He realized that he wanted more than anything to talk to her, even if it was just to argue, because then at least he would be feeling. She was the only one with the power to get him just angry enough, or defensive or competitive enough, to do that anymore.

But underlying all of that — he still wanted to best her in every conceivable way, on the pitch and off of it.

It was too much for him to process all at once. It was like a physical pressure building in his mind, honestly making him fear that his head might explode of it. Muttering a curse under his breath, he hastily shoved a couple fried eggs and some bacon between two pieces of toast and stalked out of the room.

He finished the improvised breakfast in only a few bites, too annoyed to really taste the food anyway. At least he had his old feelings toward her back. Now he just wanted to know where the hell all these new ones were popping up from.

He resolved to just forget it for now. The match would begin in a few hours, and he wanted to warm up a little first. Last night’s win against Weasley went a long way in bolstering his confidence, but he also recognized that over-confidence could hurt him too. All this hassle with Weasley would do him no good if his team fell out of the running before he ever got a chance to play her.

The wind felt exhilarating as it rushed over his skin, going a long way towards clearing his troubled mind. It would be a good game. He could feel it. Nevertheless, he made sure and go through all of the basic exercises, plus a few of the trickier ones. Time flew alongside him, and before he knew it, Madam Hooch was blowing her whistle and waving her arms, signaling he needed to get off the pitch so that she could start setting up.

Chatter buzzed around him when he walked into the changing rooms for his uniform, but he managed to mute it for the most part. His mind balanced on a perfect but precarious state of concentration, and he did all he could not to lose that perch. He succeeded, too, even when he flew outside and the crowd exploded around him. Even when the Snitch sped off and the game began, and even all through the commentary. He maintained that perfect balance the whole time…which was all well and good, but midway through the game, with no sign of the Snitch in sight, he realized a focused mind was useless if he couldn’t spot that elusive gold first.

His concentration cracked, just a little. For the first time, he allowed himself to look around. The Slytherin stands screamed out a constant roar of encouragement, the Ravenclaw ones likewise for their own team, and the Hufflepuffs and Gryffindors only really made themselves heard when Ravenclaw scored. Typical.

He flew down lower, having no luck up above, and made a slow circle of the pitch. He was soaring gently by the Gryffindors when he heard the commentator announce a point for Slytherin. The students in red and gold either stayed quiet or booed, but to his astonishment, one cheer broke away from the trend and called out in approval.

His head whipped around, and he almost fell off his broom when his eyes fell on Ginny Weasley. He actually stopped in midair, staring dumbly in utter disbelief.

She caught him looking, flashed an enormous, impish grin, then cupped her hands around her mouth and shouted, “Come on, Draco!”

He would have been suspicious. He would have hovered there, mentally listing all the possible motives behind her inexplicable and highly unorthodox actions. He would have puzzled through her hidden agenda. He would have done all those things, except that at that exact moment, he saw a smear of gold in front of her face. He never took his eyes off it again to look back at her.

His broom changed direction effortlessly, propelling him forward in a burst of speed that only the ridiculous sum of money spent on the thing made possible. The Snitch raced forward quickly, almost faster than his eye could follow, but his reflexes were sharp from this morning’s practice, and the chase ended in seconds. Slytherin won the game.

He blocked out the ensuing chaos, ignoring even the congratulations directed a him. The stands erupted into a madhouse, emotions varying from ecstatic to enraged, and no one would sit still. It took several frustrated minutes before he found her, talking patiently with that boy she used to date. Dean, did she say? Whatever his name was, he looked furious, his arms waving around above his head incessantly. Draco smirked — he could guess what the loyal Gryffindor boy was so miffed with her about.

He cut a path through the air directly for her, the fact that he was about to approach a Weasley in public not even occurring to him. Her back was to him, but the irate Gryffindor boy saw Draco’s approach early and snapped his mouth shut with a glare, slowly lowering his arms.

Before Weasley could turn around, Draco drawled, “So, did you have money on me, or what?”

Now she did spin around, raising her eyebrows, then giving a slow smile. “Hullo, Malfoy. Good game.”

“Ginny!” that Dean boy suddenly exploded behind her. “What did I just get done saying?! He’s…he’s…”

“An obnoxious prat?” she supplied sweetly.

“Exactly! So why are you encouraging him?”

Draco cleared his throat angrily to remind them that he was, in fact, still standing only feet away. They ignored him.

“Dean,” Ginny said in a sigh, “Can we please discuss this later? In private?”

“No, we bloody well cannot!”

Draco’s impatience hit its peak. “Yes, actually, I believe you can,” he snapped. Grabbing Weasley’s wrist, he added, “Don’t worry, this won’t take long.” Then he stalked off, the startled girl in tow.

When they reached the outskirts of the pitch, she dug her heels into the grass and wrenched free. “What was that all about?”

“I didn’t feel like waiting for you to politely handle the situation.”

You certainly didn’t bother with manners, did you?”

“Exactly my point. Now, you never answered my question.”

She turned back from looking concernedly towards the crowd, tilting her head up at him. “What?”

“Did you have money on me? Or did you just lose a bet.”

She laughed. “Oh, you mean the cheering?”

He rolled his eyes. “No, I mean the heartfelt love letter I received from you this morning.” She actually looked alarmed for a moment before she realized he was joking, and the look on her face almost made this whole affair worthwhile. “Yes, I mean the cheering.”

She sighed, ever so put-upon, and placed a hand on one cocked hip. “Why do you think, Malfoy?”

Draco glared. “If I knew, would I be talking to you?”

She shook her head. “Looks like I gave you too much credit.” Before he could formulate a proper retort, she went on, “I like challenges. It’s what makes life interesting.”

“That’s lovely. But it doesn’t answer my question.”

Weasley actually reached up and delivered a light smack to his forehead. He was so stunned at the audacity of it that he didn’t even respond, but stood there staring incredulously. “Use your head,” she admonished. “You’re one of the few people who can challenge me in Quidditch. I want to play you for real, but that’s not going to happen if you don’t stay in the running long enough.”

He wanted to laugh. The girl was that barmy. “And you thought yelling my name and distracting me was a good way to do that, did you?”

She shrugged. “Well, you are a self-obsessed egomaniac. It seemed to fit.”

Draco ran a palm down his face, not sure if he wanted to snort in amusement or snap at her. He suddenly removed his hand, remembering something. “You called me Draco.”

She blinked. “What?”

“When you were ‘cheering.’ You said Draco, not Malfoy.”

“Oh. Yeah. I suppose I did.”

When no further explanation seemed forthcoming, he prompted, “Well, why?”

“I know people don’t use it very often, but that is your name in case you forgot.”

He lowered his face and pinched the bridge of his nose, taking a deep breath in an effort to regain the scattered remains of his patience. “Weasley,” he said a little too calmly, “you know what I mean.”

Something in his voice must have convinced her to stop testing him, because she answered honestly, “I just know I wouldn’t get very motivated by ‘Weasley.’ The personal touch makes all the difference…for me, at least.” She shrugged. “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

He chuckled quietly despite himself. “Do you find yourself saying that often? ‘It seemed like a good idea at the time.’”

She glared. “I knew last night was too good to be true.”

His chortles abruptly cut off. Oh Merlin, last night. He sort of hoped she would forget that whole fiasco. And anyway, what was she trying to get at? He voiced the question out loud, saying, “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You were…well…bearable. Decent.” She frowned a little. “Really weird.” Her frown transformed into a playful smile. “Are you sure no one drugged you? Didn’t eat or drink anything before coming out, did you?” She started to laugh at her own joke, but stopped when she saw the dark look that suddenly surfaced on his face.

“What did you just say?” he demanded, taking an unconscious step forward.

Weasley’s eyebrows knit together in concern, but she didn’t back down. “I was only making fun. Calm down.”

Draco swore violently, turning his back to her and burying a hand in his hair.

“What?” she asked, trying to walk around and see his face.

He pushed roughly past her and stormed towards the castle, not even realizing that he left his broom lying on the ground. Pierce had gone too far this time.

The door to the professor’s office crashed open so violently that it ricocheted off the wall, nearly making Pierce fall out of the chair behind his desk from surprise.

“You drugged me?” Draco slammed the abused door behind him, but didn’t bother casting a silencing spell. At the moment, he didn’t really give a damn.

Pierce quickly regained his lost composure. “Mr. Malfoy, I don’t know—”

“Don’t even try that,” Draco snarled. “You did. You actually drugged me. That’s why the room was so hot, and why that ‘juice’ you gave me tasted off, and that’s why Weasley didn’t bother me last night.” Draco was breathing heavily now, eyes intense with raw fury.

For the space of no more than two heartbeats, Pierce sat silently struggling to decide how to answer the accusation. Then he rose slowly to his feet, lying his palms flat on the desktop, and said in a very low, very controlled tone Draco had never heard him use before, “Mr. Malfoy…Draco. I want you to listen to me. Will you do that?”

Draco only pressed his lips together tightly, matching the man’s stare with narrowed eyes.

Pierce apparently took that as confirmation. “Yes, I did drug you.” He quickly held up his hand to stave off any outbursts. “But I was only doing what I felt necessary. I never would have otherwise.”

Necessary?”

Pierce looked at him frankly. “You saw and realized a lot of things about Ms. Weasley last evening. A lot of things that you actually found desirable. Do you really believe you ever could have gotten over your prejudice enough to do that on your own? Honestly, now.”

Draco thought of all the revelations concerning Weasley, now lodged irrevocably in his head whether he liked it or not, and knew Pierce spoke rightly. “You could have just told me,” he snapped, unappeased, “instead of tricking me.”

Pierce sighed. “You would never have agreed to it, and we both know it. There’s simply no way you would have trusted the potion or me enough.”

“How am I supposed to trust you now?” Draco demanded, a touch of his wounded pride creeping into his tone.

Pierce smiled faintly. “We’re Slytherins, Mr. Malfoy. We don’t trust.” He sat back down. “But as far as trust among serpents goes, I swear to you that your best interests are my only concern…even if the means aren’t exactly what you would prefer.”

“My best interests,” Draco repeated sarcastically. “Right, as long as they don’t conflict with your ambition.”

Pierce chuckled. “Ah, but that’s the beauty of our relationship. I can only further my ambition through your best interests.” He smiled, a little coldly Draco thought. “I never claimed innocent motives. What’s best for you just so happens to turn out best for me.” And Pierce knew that everything he just said was truer than Draco could possibly know.

Draco frowned, not particularly happy with the explanation, but accepting it as plausible at least. The man’s frankness earned him back some of Draco’s respect, if only grudgingly. “I don’t forgive you,” he said bluntly.

“It would shock me if you did,” Pierce assured him. “But can you at least admit that I helped our goal? Now you know she’s not all bad. It’s not a matter of convincing yourself anymore, just of getting over what’s left of that prejudice.”

“I think I’m going mad,” Draco muttered, more to himself than Pierce. “Absolutely bloody bonkers.”

Pierce grinned. “That, Mr. Malfoy, is the sign of a brilliant plan.”

“Or a complete disaster of one.”

Pierce shrugged. “I take my chances.”

Draco sighed, trudging exhausted over to a chair and slumping into it. “I take it back. I’m fine. You’re the mad one.”

Pierce laughed. “Like I said, it’s just a sign of brilliance.” He folded his arms over his chest and kicked his feet up onto the desk. “So…how was the game?”

- - - - -

A/N – Well, when I planned this chapter out originally, I actually had an entire other scene in store. That would have been another like five or six pages though, and then it would have been another energizer bunny chapter haha. This was a logical spot to end it too though, so I had to decide between making y’alls wait even LONGER, or going with my original plan. I know lots of you liked the super long chapter last time, but I went ahead and decided to opt for speed anyway, b/c Lord only knows how long it would have taken otherwise. Hope that’s what everyone would want lol.

(And that scene will be in the next chapter, don’t worry.)

Thanks for reading!
Answers...Sort Of by Hearts Cadence
A/N – thanks so much for the reviews everyone!

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Chapter 11 — Answers…Sort Of

Ginny propped her chin on her hand with a sigh and scowled down at the text in front of her tired eyes. Her robe hung carelessly off the back of her chair, her tie loosened and her whole appearance in a general state of disarray. She had been poring over the same books in the library all morning, and frustration was finally getting the better of determination.

Harry was fading. It started exactly a week ago when she visited the candle — also the night of the Slytherin and Ravenclaw match. Harry’s face appeared out of the mists of oblivion, then grew almost watery and slipped away again. No one else replaced him this time, but it still disturbed her.

Then, the next night, it happened again, only this time she could have sworn a lock of whitish hair streaked through Harry’s jet black tangle. She remembered her stomach lurching unpleasantly, afraid that Malfoy would invade this one sanctuary a second time. He didn’t, though, as the picture simply flickered out along with the candle’s flame.

Each night continued in this vein, growing progressively worse until Malfoy’s entire visage appeared two nights in a row. Last night she didn’t see Harry at all; instead, Malfoy materialized right away, and Ginny decided enough was enough — she needed answers, and she needed them now. That or risk insanity.

It didn’t help that the whole time this drama unfolded around her, Malfoy himself refused to stop pestering her. It was like he actually tried to seek her out. At first she just shrugged it off because he mostly just wanted to finish the Portable Garden project, which was understandable enough, but that was long since completed and he still persisted.

Sometimes they talked — though Ginny could never figure out afterwards how he managed to cajole her into conversation every time — but many times he just walked silently alongside her. It was a tiny bit unnerving and made her insanely curious. He resisted all her attempts at procuring an explanation with typical, cool nonchalance though, and after awhile she just gave up.

The rather large coincidence of Malfoy’s inexplicable attentions and the candle’s new behavior didn’t escape her, and so with her earlier resolution for answers firmly in mind, she devoted the entire day to research in the library. So far, she had discovered exactly nothing.

She slammed the tome shut with a hollow thump, earning a warning glare from Madam Pince. She feigned the best guilty look she could muster and was just about to reach for a new book when a swirl of dark robes flashed at the corners of her eyes. Her scowl deepened when she looked up.

“Not now, Malfoy,” she snapped before he got the chance to open his mouth. “I’m busy.”

Malfoy claimed the chair across the table, ignoring her impatient glare, and leaned on one elbow to study her. “What’s got your knickers in a twist?”

She fidgeted awkwardly under his frank gaze, getting the unsettling impression that he could see right through her, then caught herself doing it and drew her shoulders back stubbornly. “Nothing. I’m fine.”

Malfoy raised an eyebrow, then before she could stop him, swiped the top volume off the stack nearest him. “The Encyclopedia of Everything Enchanted,” he read aloud. “Sounds thrilling.”

She snatched the book out of his hands. “I’m researching,” she snapped.

“Researching what?”

“It’s none of your business, is it?”

“Well I won’t know until you tell me what it is you’re researching, will I?” he returned with a lazy smile.

“Malfoy, please, I’m begging you to just go away.” He cocked his head thoughtfully, and Ginny sighed in exasperation. “What now?”

“I was just trying to remember if you’ve ever actually begged for anything before.” He smirked. “I kind of like it.”

She rolled her eyes. “I never have, so that just shows you how much I mean it.” She indicated the exit pointedly.

Malfoy ignored the gesture. “I take it that means you’re not having much luck.”

Malfoy….”

He only settled back comfortably, lacing his hands over his stomach.

She groaned in frustration, letting her head drop to the table. “If you must know,” she grumbled without lifting her face, “no, I’m having no luck at all.”

“You know, if you told me what you’re looking for, I might be able to help.”

She snorted. “Nice try.”

His deep chuckle floated down to her, and she lifted herself up in time for him to say, “Well, if you’re that bent on keeping it a secret, it’s no wonder you’re not having any luck.”

She narrowed her eyes suspiciously. “What do you mean?”

“Obviously there’s a reason you’re being so paranoid about it, so it’s probably not your average, every day topic,” he reasoned. “Which means, chances are, you’re not going to find it in your average, every day library.”

Her heart sank. She had begun to suspect just that. “Fantastic,” she muttered.

“Don’t look so depressed.”

She shot him a nasty look. “Excuse me, but this is sort of important, so if I’m not just chipper when you tell me that there’s no hope — ”

“Who said there was no hope?” he interrupted.

“You!”

He shook his head. “I said no such thing. I said you wouldn’t find it in your average, every day library. I didn’t say anything about the Restricted Section.”

She didn’t really care that her mouth was hanging open as the truth of his words smacked her. Of course, why didn’t she think of the Restricted Section? It was so obvious. Except for one thing. “I’m never going to convince any of the professors to give me permission,” she mumbled, more to herself than Malfoy.

His lips quirked a little. “Who said anything about permission?”

“You know it’s practically impossible to get in there without Madam Pince seeing. Now that things are so much stricter this year, anyway. And Harry took his invisibility cloak with him. How else do you expect me to do it?”

“That’s your problem,” he informed her. “You’re not thinking like a Slytherin.”

She was annoyed with his arrogance, but knew better than to dismiss him. “Oh? And how would a Slytherin handle this?”

“I don’t know. What’s so important that a Gryffindor would take advice from a Slytherin in the first place?”

“Malfoy!” Ginny cried, then immediately clamped her mouth shut at Madam Pince’s hiss to settle down. “Malfoy,” she tried again in a whisper, “can you please just tell me?”

“Funny thing about me,” he commented. “The word ‘please’ really has absolutely no effect. And I’m still curious.”

Ginny massaged her temples. “Why are you even here?”

He seemed to debate whether or not to pursue the matter of her mystery research, then shrugged and said, “I left my broom after the match.”

She laughed quietly. “I was wondering when you would realize that. A week?”

“Not everyone practices as obsessively as you,” he retorted shortly. “And I realized it was missing sooner. I just couldn’t remember where I lost it. I was a little distracted at the time.”

The question that had been eating away at Ginny the entire week flared up in her again, and she decided to voice it out loud. “What happened, anyway? I mean, why did you stomp off like that? You looked about ready to kill.”

“Do you have the broom or not, Weasley?”

She sighed. Apparently, he wasn’t willing to discuss it. “Yes, I have it.”

He stared a moment. “And you just planned on, what, keeping it indefinitely?”

“I told you — I wanted to see how long it would take you to figure it out.”

He rolled his eyes. “Well now you know, so I’ll thank you to give it back.”

She considered him a moment, a brilliant idea slowly occurring to her. “No, I rather think not.”

Incredulity flashed through his eyes. “You rather think not?”

“You heard me. I’m quite attached, you see. It really is a very nice broom. But…” she grinned mischievously, “I might be willing to make a deal.”

“A deal.” Disbelief echoed through his voice.

“That’s right. Get me into the Restricted Section — and back out again — without getting caught, and you get your broom back.”

He raised his pale eyebrows in surprise, then smiled slowly. “Well, well, well. Little Weasley has a sly streak after all. Bravo.” He considered her a moment longer, then said, “Fine, it’s a deal. Now where’s my broom?”

She laughed outright. “Please, I’m not thick. You don’t get your broom until after.”

He nodded almost approvingly. “Now you’re thinking like a Slytherin.” If Ginny didn’t know any better, she would swear that his eyes glittered with amusement…and something else, perhaps. “All right. After, then. Meet me at the base of the stairs in the Entrance Hall, six o’clock.”

“Six o’clock?”

“Something wrong?”

She frowned slightly. “No, just…I would have thought we would go after curfew.”

He smiled, just barely. “There’s that Gryffindor mentality again. Nasty, that. Six o’clock. Don’t be late.” Then he got up and, with no further words of farewell, strolled out of the room, whistling quietly under his breath.

Ginny shook her head as she watched him leave. “Nutters, that one,” she muttered under her breath.

But damned if she wasn’t waiting by the base of the stairs come six o’clock.

Malfoy was not quite so punctual, arriving at least ten minutes late by her estimation. He walked easily up from the stairs to the dungeon, looking wholly unconcerned by his tardiness, and stopped a few feet away where he leaned against the elaborate banister.

“You look miffed,” he observed.

“Can’t imagine why,” she said sarcastically. “I’ve only been waiting ten minutes for your sorry arse.”

Malfoy arched an eyebrow in response.

She took a deep breath, willing down her temper, and gritted out, “Look, I’m sorry. I’m just a little tense at the moment.”

“I’d noticed,” he said dryly, then pushing off the banister, started off toward the library. “Come on, then,” he called over his shoulder.

Ginny ran to catch up, forced to take nearly two steps for every one of his long, even strides. She refused to ask him to slow down, though. “You never did tell me what exactly you have planned,” she reminded him.

“You’re right.”

“Okay, let me rephrase that: tell me what you’re planning.”

He shook his head. “Not a chance.”

She shot him a disbelieving look. “Why not?”

“Because knowing you, your expression will just give everything away, and I’m not risking my arse getting thrown in detention just because you don’t know how to control your emotions.”

She made a face. “What do you mean, give everything away? It’s not like anyone’s going to see us anyway, right?”

He remained silent, keeping his gaze steadfastly forward.

“Malfoy? Right?” she tried again.

He glanced her way impatiently. “Sure. If it makes you feel better.”

Oddly enough, that didn’t entirely comfort her.

They reached the library with no further conversation, Malfoy looking a cross between determined and bored while Ginny’s apprehension swelled by the second. She knew by now to appreciate — grudgingly — his intelligence, but that didn’t comfort her when it came to the boy’s quicksilver loyalties.

He stepped forward and momentarily stunned her by holding the door open for her. Her suspicions immediately flared, but she managed to squelch them when he only inclined his head slightly to indicate she go in. Curiosity would not go down so easily, however, but buzzed around insistently inside her mind. The door closed with a nearly inaudible click, but in the silence of the library, her senses heightened by an odd mix of anxiety and excitement, it seemed to slam.

Malfoy brushed past her, muttering, “Do try and look natural, Weasley.” Then he did what, in Ginny’s mind, finally established his insanity — he made a straight line for Madam Pince.

“Mr. Malfoy,” the librarian acknowledged curtly, lips pursed.

“Madam,” Malfoy returned politely. “Weasley and I are ready now, if that’s all right.”

The woman frowned, pursing her lips even further so that it looked like she tasted something particularly sour. “I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean. Ready for what, exactly?”

Malfoy’s brow wrinkled slightly, his head cocking just a bit to one side. “To look for our book,” he answered as if it should have been obvious.

“Mr. Malfoy,” Madam Pince said, clearly growing frustrated now, “I’ll ask you to please explain to me precisely what you are referring to, because I haven’t a clue.”

Malfoy rubbed a hand at the back of his head, seeming for all the world like someone not quite sure what to do. Ginny, having a time simply looking natural, sincerely hoped it was a put on. “Didn’t Professor Vector speak to you?”

Madam Pince’s features immediately transformed, turning hard and a little angry. “No, I’m afraid she hasn’t,” she said tightly.

Malfoy’s face fell. “Odd. She promised she would...” he trailed off.

“In reference to what?”

Malfoy blinked as if her question dragged him out of deep concentration. “Hmm? Oh, right. I — well, Weasley and myself — need access to the Restricted Section. We’re both doing projects on Arithmancy’s application to real Wizarding life, outside academia, but the book we wanted has some equations that could be dangerous if applied to the wrong sorts of spells. Not good for the younger years.” Malfoy adopted a look of confusion and murmured more to himself, “Still can’t believe she didn’t talk to you….”

“You and Miss Weasley have the same project?” Madam Pince asked suspiciously. “You’re a year older, aren’t you?”

Malfoy ducked his head a bit. “I, err, sort of took a break from Arithmancy last year.”

An odd, disapproving little “humph” emitted from the librarian. “Laziness,” she concluded.

Malfoy had the grace to look a little ashamed, though Ginny knew it was all acting. “We really do need to see that book. The project is due tomorrow, and this is the last bit of information we need.”

“Well I can’t let you in without a pass,” Madam Pince declared firmly.

“Oh, of course. It’s right here.” And with that, Malfoy pulled a small slip of parchment from his robes and handed it over.

Madam Pince’s eyes darted over the handwriting, then reluctantly said, “Very well, then. You have one hour. If you need more time, I’m afraid you’ll have to get another pass. Rules.”

“Thank you, Madam,” Malfoy said, showing a small but still charming smile. The woman only sniffed and stalked off; Malfoy made a face at her retreating back as soon as it turned. “You old bat,” he muttered under his breath, then turned and made towards the back of the library.

Ginny, looking back and forth between Madam Pince and Malfoy, stood shocked for a minute before regaining her senses and hurrying after the blond. “Well, that was stupid!” she hissed.

He glanced down disbelievingly. “I just got you permission to go in the Restricted Section. A free hour to do whatever without having to worry about getting caught.” He stuck his nose up a little. “I expected a little gratitude.”

Gratitude? We’re sure to get caught eventually,” she fumed. “Maybe not today, but it’s only a matter of time.”

“How do you figure?”

“Oh, I don’t know. I just get this funny feeling that when Madam Pince asks Professor Vector about our ‘project,’ Vector won’t know what she’s talking about!”

Malfoy flashed a smug grin. “Ah, therein lies the brilliance of the plan, Weasley. Do you honestly think I chose Professor Vector at random?”

Ginny’s forehead wrinkled. “What do you mean?”

While unhooking the rope that blocked off the Restricted Section, he explained, “The two hate each other. Some old grudge from their school days, I think. Anyway, they can barely stand to hear the other’s name, let alone sit down for a chat. They won’t be discussing it anytime soon.”

Ginny mulled this over as she walked past him, so absorbed she hardly noticed that he again acted the gentleman by holding the rope back for her to go first. “I never heard about that.”

“The staff doesn’t exactly like to advertise divisions. Makes ‘em look weak. They’re supposed to be a united front and all that rot, you know.” He re-secured the rope behind them as spoke.

“So how do you know about it?”

A corner of his mouth tipped up. “Let’s just say I have my sources.” Detecting her annoyed expression, he said, “It’s better that you don’t know. You wouldn’t approve.”

“Slytherin-ish?” she inquired.

He shrugged. “So what are we looking for, exactly?”

“Sorry, ‘it’s better that you don’t know,’” she mimicked.

He rolled his eyes. “Fine; be childish. Just lead on then.”

She looked up at him. “You’re going to follow?”

“I got us in here. If you think I’m going to just stand around like some lackey, you’re mad.”

Ginny didn’t like that idea at all, but she also recognized that he was possibly the most stubborn human on the planet (after herself, of course) and her time was limited. “Fine. Just don’t be a nuisance.”

He just waved her on.

Ginny started walking through the stacks, trying to find a section devoted to enchanted items. Her mind wandered as she moved through the silence of the books, and something else occurred to her. “Hey, how did you get a pass?”

“What?” Some title on Black magic currently held his attention.

“You actually gave her a pass to get in here. How did you manage that?”

“Oh. That was the easy bit.” He tossed a smirk in her direction before going back to the array of banned books. “I could forge with the best of them before I ever started attending this sad excuse for a school. I’m a natural. Self-taught, you know.”

“Your parents must be so proud,” she mumbled.

A dark, closed-off expression fell like a curtain over his face. It didn’t escape her, but the ever-present time shortage loomed over her, and she doubted he would open up even if she did dare to ask. So, choosing to dismiss yet another of his oddities, she turned her attention back to the search.

The task daunted her just a little. How was she supposed to find what she was looking for in just an hour when she had no idea which volume she might find it in? And a shortage of books would certainly be no problem—the shelves stretched on further than she ever imagined the Restricted Section had room for.

Her eyes never stopped moving, darting from title to title, her feet occasionally stopping so she could pick out a book, and then starting back up again when the pages revealed nothing. Desperation started to ruffle the edges of her conscious.

At least Malfoy stayed quiet the entire time. He moved as silently as if he walked on clouds, and she kept finding herself glancing back to see if he was still there. Every time she did he followed just behind, though, his focus always completely absorbed by the buffet of forbidden literature. Ginny mused that this must practically be heaven to someone like him.

She finally spotted the book she didn’t know she was looking for during one of those compulsive checks on Malfoy. She turned her head to look back, and right by his face a title in brilliant gold leafing leapt away from its neighbors. It read simply, The Hidden Mind. It mentioned nothing of enchantments, and could really refer to a whole slew of topics. But somehow she knew it harbored the explanations she craved.

Her feet veered towards it almost before her mind made the decision to do so. The tome weighed a considerable lot, and she needed both hands to lift its battered, leather-bound pages from the bookcase. The entire thing appeared rather worn, really, aside from that brilliant gold lettering. Malfoy leaned against the shelf, folding his arms to watch silently. She blocked him out.

The introduction inside explained that the monstrous text covered all aspects of the subconscious — the awareness most would not or could not acknowledge. She flipped back to the index and sure enough, the entire middle section was devoted to magically enchanted things. Heart pounding, excitement so unaccountably high that it felt like an energy thrumming through the pages into her fingertips, she plopped down right there and balanced the book on her lap.

“You can look around,” she told Malfoy. “I might be awhile.”

He made a noncommittal noise, but began perusing the shelves anyway.

Ginny turned to the correct page — six hundred seventy-two — and skimmed her finger lightly down the faded old text. She didn’t find what she wanted until page six hundred ninety, but when she did it reared up and hit her like a slap across the face. Right smack in the middle of the page:

Candle von Interesse:

An atypical device for revealing the hidden mind, it does not necessarily reveal one’s desires as most enchanted instruments tend towards. The German Wizard Mr. Henrik Lichtman invented the Candle von Interesse for a different purpose — to reveal one’s preoccupations as they are at the exact moment of the viewing.

Lichtman noted on many occasions that his dreams — or nightmares, as was often the case — featured aspects of his life that he never realized concerned him until after he awoke. Curious, he spent a year and a half inventing the spell that would make a seemingly simple candle a window to the subconscious.

Again, the candle’s goal was not to reveal secret desires (though Lichtman admits that may be an unintentional side-effect). Rather, its function is to show the holder what he or she spends the great majority of time thinking about, whether the subject be good, bad, or a little of both.


Ginny re-read the passage several times with mixed emotions. For one, she felt a profound relief like nothing else that the candle wasn’t telling her she suddenly desired Malfoy. The short article stated quite clearly that this Candle von Interesse did not perform that function.

On the other hand, it meant Harry was fading out of her mind as surely as he was from the candle. Not even a full year of his absence, and already she was moving on. That thought alone disturbed her immensely, but even worse, Malfoy was taking his place? Of all the things she had to worry and obsess over — the war, upcoming NEWTs next year, careers — Malfoy claimed the largest chunk of her concern?

Out of reflex, she lifted her head to search out Malfoy. She found him raised on his toes, reaching up to pull down some book. He studied the cover a moment, wearing an uncommon (for him) expression of rapt interest, then flipped open to a random page towards the center. The thing immediately let out a shrieking, ear-splitting racket, and Malfoy, giving a startled shout of his own, quickly snapped the book shut and replaced it, eyes wide with surprise. Ginny couldn’t help but giggle, fisting her hand at her mouth to try and stifle the noise.

Malfoy heard her anyway and looked over sharply, scowling. “Found what you were looking for yet?” he demanded testily, straightening his shoulders in an attempt to regain lost dignity.

Her gaze fell to the book still open in her lap. “Yes,” she sighed.

“Don’t sound so excited.”

Ginny allowed a half-smile. “It’s just that my answer sort of brought up even more questions than I started out with.”

“Hmm.” His silver eyes landed on her, weighing down heavily for several seconds. She knew he was trying to figure out what was going on. “Well,” he finally declared, “concerned as I sincerely am about all that, the fact remains that I got you in here, you found what you wanted, and now it’s my turn. Broom, if you don’t mind.” And he held out his hand as if she had it stashed in her back pocket.

She rolled her eyes, closing the book and struggling to her feet with the thing tucked under one arm. “You never change, do you?”

He crossed his arms. “Meaning…?”

“Meaning,” she heaved the book back into its spot with a grunt, “that all you ever think about is yourself.”

“And that’s a bad thing.”

She laughed lightly. “Yes, that’s definitely a bad thing.”

He seemed to consider that a moment. “I can’t say that I really agree, Weasley,” he said at last.

“You think it’s a good thing?”

He waved the words off. “No, that’s not what I meant. ‘Good’ and ‘bad’ is all relative anyhow.”

“Spoken like a true Slytherin,” she muttered as she started making her way towards the normal section of the library again.

He ignored her comment. “I mean I don’t only think of myself.”

She looked over at him, lips quirked. “You don’t think so, do you?”

“I caught you when you fell off your broom, didn’t I? I’ll have you know I got quite bruised from that little stunt.”

“That doesn’t count. If you’d have let me fall, you would be a complete and utter git.”

A slow smirk appeared on his lips. “So you’re saying I’m not a complete and utter git now?”

Ginny stuttered out a few incoherent syllables, trapped by her own words. Finally, she scowled and snapped, “You know what I meant.”

He nodded sagely. “Yes, yes I do. You have secret feelings of affection for me, that’s all.”

Combined with the paranoia and guilt she already felt over the Candle von Interesse, his tease ignited an explosive display of the Weasley temper before she could think to control it. She whirled on him so fast that he stumbled back in surprise, his back hitting the bookcase. Stepping up to him until they were practically touching, she jabbed a finger sharply in his chest and snapped, “I suggest you get over yourself, Malfoy, because you’re only fooling yourself.”

Something deep in his eyes lashed out, and his hand reached up to wrap around her wrist, pulling her the last remaining inches closer so that they were touching, and he towered over her. “I was only joking,” he said quietly, “but now that you bring it up, I’ve got something to say myself.”

She gave a futile tug at her captive wrist, but it was more a token effort than anything since she stayed caught despite his fairly loose grip. “Let go.”

He went on, disregarding the command. “I just get so sick of you hypocritical Gryffindors sometimes. You say Slytherins are prejudiced? You think we’re the egotistical ones?” His fingers tightened just barely, his eyes intense as they burned into hers. “You’re the stuck up one, Ginny Weasley. You’re the one who just can’t fathom a Slytherin changing, and you delude yourself into assuming that your morals make you better.”

He was on a roll now, and Ginny went from furious and a little frightened to totally fascinated. He hardly even seemed aware of her anymore, revealing a level of emotion she never dreamed he would let her see. The self-proclaimed master of control was slacking, and she got the distinct feeling that she was witnessing the release of months of pent up aggression and frustration.

“Well, you’re wrong. I may not have your bloody morals, and you can keep the damned things. I don’t want them. But that doesn’t put you on a pedestal compared to me, despite what you obviously think, and that doesn’t mean I’m the same as always like you’re so fond of informing me. I wish you could have been there this summer. I wish you would’ve seen me — ”

But he abruptly snapped his mouth shut, eyes clearing as reality firmly slammed down around him again. He dropped her wrist like it burned, setting his jaw and refusing to meet her eyes as he pushed past her.

Curiosity eating her alive, she rushed after him. For several moments she just walked silently alongside him, hoping to let him cool down, then speaking gently, she asked, “Where did that come from?”

“I could ask you the same,” he pointed out tersely. “You overreacted first.”

It was a good argument, so she switched topics. “What happened this summer?”

He suddenly stopped, facing her and actually gripping both of her shoulders, forcing her dark stare to meet his pale one. “Nothing happened. I didn’t say anything about this summer. You just must’ve heard wrong.” He paused meaningfully. “Understand?”

She wanted desperately to tell him to shove off and just tell her, but something in his face, in those mercurial gray eyes of his, held her back. “Okay,” she finally agreed, whispering.

He nodded once in satisfaction, slowly lowering his hands back to his sides, and they walked the rest of the way out of the library in silence. When they stepped out into the hall, he glanced over and asked tonelessly, “Where are you keeping it?”

She stared at him without comprehension, still completely absorbed by the unexpected outburst in the library. “What?”

“My broom,” he clarified impatiently. “Where is it?”

“Oh. It’s just up in my dormitory.” She glanced around uncertainly, then making up her mind, said, “You should probably wait here.”

Malfoy scoffed. “I don’t think so. Your dormitory is two floors up, and I don’t plan on standing around while you go all that way and back.”

“You know where my dormitory is?” For some reason, that knowledge unsettled Ginny.

He smiled without humor. “Seventh floor, beyond that horrid obese woman.”

She glowered at him. “How’s it going to look if I bring a Slytherin up there?” she protested.

Malfoy feigned shock. “Why, you wouldn’t be worrying about image would you? That’s a purely Slytherin trait, after all, if everything you and yours are so fond of spouting off is true.”

“Fine!” she snapped, exasperated. “Just…try not to talk.”

He raised an eyebrow.

“You’ve got a distinct voice,” she explained defensively.

He chuckled. “I’ll try and refrain.”

Huffing her annoyance, she spun around fast enough to make her long hair fan out and settle on the opposite shoulder. The sound of his expensive shoes clicking against the stone behind her echoed every step she took, making thoughts of anything else impossible. And she suffered no shortage of things to think about in the Draco Malfoy department.

Why in the seven circles of hell, or anywhere else for that matter, would he become the object of her…how did the book word it? Preoccupation? It made no sense. She didn’t care a whit about his life. So what if he did save her that day on the Quidditch pitch? It was just reaction. And yes, he laughed with her. That just proved he was human after all, nothing more. He was still the same, vile Malfoy.

She spared a split-second glance at him over her shoulder and frowned. Except he hinted that he had changed, and if she were honest with herself, she’d noticed more than a few rather strong testaments to that lately. The simple fact that he hadn’t planned on doling out a detention upon their first meeting this year showed that, and he only continued to transform as the days went on.

And now here popped up this nagging matter of some mystery summer incident. After wracking her brains for a possible explanation, the best she could come up with was that he finally got his Mark this summer. That seemed most likely, anyway. Last year, Harry intimated that Malfoy already had one, but maybe he’d been mistaken. He never actually saw it, after all.

To top it all off, she could no longer ignore the little things that seemed to set Malfoy off. His outburst today jumped to the forefront of her mind, but a hundred other times she witnessed subtler slips in his façade — a glint to his eyes, a tightening to his jaw or a general tensing up over seemingly random topics. Like her comment today about his parents being proud of his forging skills and his subsequent reaction, for instance.

Ginny sighed, defeated. It was all too much to process at one go.

They reached the portrait of the Fat Lady shortly after she gave up trying to muddle through the puzzle. Malfoy, having come up beside her at some point apparently, crossed his arms and regarded the painting with obvious distaste.

Trying not to smile at his expression, she cleared her throat and informed him in no uncertain terms, “You will wait here while I go fetch it. I let you come this far, but inside is pushing it.”

He glanced at her and shrugged. “Fine. Just don’t take too long.” He smirked. “One of your mates might see me hanging about, and I would be forced to explain who led me here.”

Ginny shook her head. “You’re insufferable.”

He made a shooing motion with his hands. “Better hurry along.”

Mind again plagued with the question of how that particular boy overrode Harry in her subconscious, she stomped off to the Fat Lady, whispering the password under her breath so he wouldn’t overhear. She reemerged from the portrait hole a few minutes later, his top-of-the-line broom in hand.

Malfoy wordlessly held out his hands. Ginny hesitated, giving the broom one last forlorn look and unconsciously cradling it just a little closer.

“Weasley?” Malfoy prompted, waggling his fingers.

Ginny sighed, and with a great deal of regret, turned the broom over to its rightful owner. “I should’ve told you I lost it and just transfigured it to look like mine,” she muttered.

He chuckled. “I do believe I’m having a bad influence on you, Weasley.”

Her eyes searched his face, finding no trace of a grudge (though reading his face was admittedly misleading) which she figured to mean he apparently already got over the incident in the library. He seemed back to his sarcastic, increasingly teasing self, something in and of itself a little strange. Really, sometimes she could only describe his behavior towards her as playful — yet another inexplicable change to add to the ever-expanding list, she noted.

It made her wonder what kind of person he might have been if not for the various influences all around him. Could Draco Malfoy have been a light-hearted, fun individual in another life, void of his father and Slytherin? For that matter…could he still?

“Weasley.”

She blinked, shaking her head to clear it. “Hmm?”

He raised his eyebrows. “You were staring.”

“Oh…sorry. Just thinking.”

He looked her over for a moment, and she waited for him to press her, but he simply completed his inspection, hefted his broom over one shoulder, and said, “I’m sure I’ll be seeing you.”

Ginny made no comment as he turned around and walked away, gait easy and fluid. She never felt so completely confounded in all her life; it felt like someone let loose an entire menagerie inside her head, and thinking over the resulting stampede was as difficult as it sounded.

One thing she knew for sure, though—she would be paying no more visits to that stupid candle anytime soon.

- - - - -

A/N – Woo wee, another pretty long chapter. I’m sort of apprehensive of what you guys thought of that one, but then I’m always at least a little nervous, so I decided to just go ahead and post anyway. Hope for the best and all that.

By the way, “von Interesse” from the “Candle von Interesse” just means “of concern” in German. At least, according to the online translator it does lol. I study Spanish, myself. Oh! And another thing I thought was neat, the inventor’s last name (Henrik “Lichtman”) actually means “candle-maker” haha. (I’m easily amused lol.)

Oh, oh! And I almost forgot, I saw the energizer bunny on TV the other day!!! He’s not dead after all! I was excited. (Lol if you read my last couple A/N’s, you know what I’m talking about. Otherwise…well, you just think I’m raving mad haha.)

ANYWHO, thanks for reading!
Matters of Trust by Hearts Cadence
A/N – I truly am very sorry about the delay on this one. It’s unavoidable, though, with the sheer volume of work I’ve had unloaded on me these past few weeks. I can honestly say that I have never worked this hard in my life. I’m definitely dealing with a VERY unhealthy level of stress…which is probably half of why I got sick (yet another factor in the delay).

I’d love to tell you that the next chapter will be out sooner, but I really can’t say. It might be. It probably won’t. It all depends on how cruel my teachers are feeling at the time. Trust me, I don’t like it one bit either. I haven’t even gotten to read a book of my own choosing for the past two months. That’s just painful for me lol.

Anywho, on we go…

- - - - -

Chapter 12 — Matters of Trust

The colossus of a tree stretched towards the sky and spread its arms out wide, throwing shade over the grounds and Draco Malfoy, who currently sat with his back reclined against it. His gaze stayed fixed and unfocused while his hands lay still in his lap, his long legs stretched straight out in front of him. He didn’t make a sound, and the grounds obliged him by following suit.

The sound of twigs snapping and crunching underfoot behind him shattered the dream-like quality.

“You look bored,” the voice of Jonathon Pierce observed. The man himself followed soon after, lowering himself to the ground next to Draco.

Draco didn’t turn to look, still clinging desperately to the broken moment. “I’m all right,” he replied honestly.

“I was actually surprised to see you still hanging around here. I would’ve thought you’d be off with everyone else.”

Draco gave an ironic smile. “Hogsmeade doesn’t thrill me much anymore. I’ve seen it plenty of times; it hasn’t changed yet.”

Pierce slouched down the tree trunk a bit, making himself comfortable. “I suppose that’s one way to look at it. But even so, it is the first trip of the year. And it seems like anything beats staying cooped up here.”

“Hogsmeade is something you do with friends,” Draco answered flatly.

“Ah.” Pierce paused, looking over at him. “And you don’t think you have any of those, I presume?”

For the first time, Draco turned his head to regard his professor. “You know how things stand with my ‘housemates.’”

Pierce smiled. “I wasn’t really referring to them.”

Draco’s expression turned puzzled, then he let out a short burst of incredulous laughter as understanding hit. “You mean Ginny?”

Pierce’s smile widened. “Ginny now, is it?” Ignoring Draco’s scowl, he continued, “And I haven’t been seeing much of you lately. I only assumed you were spending the time with Miss Weasley.”

“I was,” he admitted, “but not out of a blossoming friendship or some rot. Your orders, remember?”

“Draco,” Pierce sighed. “You don’t mind if I call you Draco, do you? I’m beginning to feel like ‘Mr. Malfoy’ is a bit too formal.”

Draco just waved his hand to indicate he didn’t care.

Pierce nodded. “Anyway, as I was saying, Draco, you can’t tell me that you could spend all this time with her if you honestly can’t stand to be in her presence.”

Draco glowered at some point near his knee. “Technically, I could.”

Pierce sighed again. “Why are you so stubborn?”

“Fine.” Draco let his head fall back against the tree trunk, and he grudgingly forced out, “Being around her isn’t exactly the torture it used to be. She’s…entertaining. Even though she doesn’t mean to be. If nothing else, I can just get her riled up. That’s always amusing to watch.”

Pierce laughed at that, then inquired, “But you still won’t call her friend? Have you liked any of the people you did consider friends more than you like Miss Weasley now?”

Draco found he couldn’t answer right away, and it unsettled him a little to discover Pierce may actually have something there — he couldn’t say he ever liked any of his so-called ‘friends’ of the past more than he did Ginny. Or even as much, though he would die before admitting that out loud.

“And you are calling her Ginny now,” Pierce pointed out when his earlier question only met silence. “I’ve heard you several times now.”

“That’s only because she threatened to stop speaking to me if I kept calling her Weasley. Said it made her feel like her brother. And then when I didn’t stop, she did stop speaking to me, so…” he shrugged. “It’s just habit now. Doesn’t mean anything.”

“Mmm hmm.” Pierce’s hazel eyes held a twinkle Draco didn’t particularly like. “In any case, back to the matter at hand — you refuse to call her friend.”

Draco rolled his eyes. “Yes. I refuse.”

“I’m afraid I just don’t understand that.”

“It’s like this,” Draco explained. “Even if I suddenly decided I wanted her to be my new best mate for life — not likely — friendship has this annoying technicality where it’s got to go both ways.”

Pierce gave the exaggerated nod of a man who finally understands. “And you don’t believe Miss Weasley feels any differently about you than she ever did.”

“Why would she?”

“Excellent question. It’s beyond me as well. But it’s the wrong one to be asking.”

Draco shot him a quizzical look. “What do you mean?”

“It’s not a matter of why. No one ever really understands the reasoning behind changes of heart anyway. Not even your own changes most of the time. Emotion is too complicated for mere logic. No, it’s a question of does she in fact feel differently or not, because that’s all that really matters.”

“I can pretty much assure you she hates me just the same as always,” Draco responded without hesitation.

Pierce cocked his head as if considering that. “You think so? Odd, then, that I don’t see her glaring daggers at you anymore in the Great Hall. And that she holds on conversations with you. She hasn’t sent you away with threats of hexing when you attempt to be with her, either.” He paused, flashing a teasing smile. “And I haven’t had to break up a single row between you two for months.”

Draco fiddled absently with a twig, brow furrowed just the tiniest bit as he mulled that over. “I don’t know. It just doesn’t add up. I’ve got a reason to be convincing myself she’s tolerable. She hasn’t.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure,” Pierce opined. “She seems a bit lonely this year, have you noticed? Maybe she needs someone to pay attention to her, make her feel wanted…even if that someone is her former worst enemy.” The man shrugged. “Just a thought.”

The words threw Draco back into the memory of Ginny, breaking apart with watering eyes but still somehow strong, admitting her loneliness. He frowned, picking with renewed vigor at the twig.

Silence fell comfortably between the two Slytherins for a long while, disturbed only by the occasional bird call and the whisper of wind through leaves. Finally, Pierce exhaled slowly and climbed to his feet. “You should get away from the castle for a bit,” he said, gazing out over the lake. “It would do you some good.” When Draco didn’t immediately respond, he added, “Even Miss Weasley went off to enjoy the break. She was with a few housemates, I think, but she looked a little left out if you ask me.” He winked at Draco. “In case you’re interested.” Then he turned and started making his way towards the castle.

“Professor!” Draco called suddenly, twisting around to face the man as he walked away.

Pierce stopped and turned. “Yes?”

Draco hesitated just a second, then pushed forward with the question that had been burning on his mind for so long. “What does all this friendship business matter to you? You said I needed to tolerate her so I could beat her. Well…I’ve sort of accomplished that, haven’t I? Why keep pushing it like this? There’s not point.”

Pierce considered for a moment, first staring at Draco, then lifting his gaze out towards Hogsmeade. Finally, he replied, “Draco, I’ve watched you these past weeks, and I’ve seen you change. You may not necessarily be happy, but you’re happier at least. And something I know for fact is that happy people do better at everything they attempt. Contentment breeds success.”

Draco was skeptical. “How do you figure that?”

Pierce smiled, but it was one of his cold smiles, and he spoke softly when he said, “Because it’s only then that you’ve got something to lose. It means you have something worth fighting for. I’ll do whatever it takes to see that happen, even encourage friendship with a Gryffindor.” Pierce waited, but when Draco gave no further comment, he inclined his head slightly in another farewell and turned away.

Draco watched the professor walk back to the castle looking for all the world like a care-free, simple man enjoying the afternoon. Few would ever suspect the sly cunning beneath that deceptive exterior, nor the ruthless determination that would, by the man’s own admission, “do whatever it took.” Draco decided right then and there that Professor Pierce was the epitome of a Slytherin and everything the house stood for.

And if Draco knew anything about Slytherins, it was that a person should never fully trust one. He wondered what secrets the man carried hidden underneath his cheerful disposition. Inevitably, that led him to wonder if maybe more lay behind this whole Ginny Weasley business than simple ambition. Oddly enough, the thought disturbed him.

Ginny would just accuse him of paranoia. She would tell him that he worried too much, and then, he thought with a smirk, she would tell him to shove off and go bother somebody else — probably with a few more colorful words thrown in for good measure. He knew better than to believe naïve opinions like that, of course, but still…her simple take on life refreshed him now and again. Even if she was wrong.

His gaze wandered towards Hogsmeade, and he remembered Pierce’s obvious hint: “Even Miss Weasley went off to enjoy the break. She was with a few housemates, I think, but she looked a little left out if you ask me.”

Maybe Hogsmeade wasn’t such a bad idea after all. He climbed to his feet and started off in the direction of the village.

When he actually reached the place, he second-guessed his decision. Students swarmed it like ants over a dropped morsel of food. The first visit of the year always looked like this, he knew, and then the novelty would wear off and the place would settle down. But until then….

The option of turning back beckoned strongly, but something forced his feet to move forward one step, then another, and soon the frenzy swept him up.

For awhile he simply let the crowd push him into whatever direction it chose without resistance. He didn’t know where he wanted to go anyway, so why fight it? But then he heard the sound of her laughter, as distinct to his ears by now as his own voice, and he stopped right in the middle of traffic to locate the sound. The other students grumbled at him, some pushing past none too subtly, but he ignored them. He finally spotted Ginny coming out of Honeydukes, a small bag in one hand as she trailed after Dean Thomas and that Finnigan git. She was still smiling along with them, but Draco, trained to spot any emotion and weakness in a person, could easily tell she was uncomfortable.

He debated. He came to see her, insane as the notion may be, but he couldn’t very well just walk up and ask her if she’d like to go to the Three Broomsticks for a drink. Those Gryffindor ponces would probably start hollering kidnap or something. That thought led him to consider the option of actually kidnapping her, but someone was sure to see and think he was really stealing her away for some Dark purpose. Besides, something told him Ginny wouldn’t like that plan very much.

Her red hair was beginning to recede into the crowd, and he knew he had to act fast. Spotting a younger student struggling with a load of school supplies just ahead, he slipped through the crowd and stepped directly in the youth’s path. He swiped a parchment from the top of the boy’s pile and plucked the new quill from his hands.

“You don’t mind, do you, mate?” he asked as he scratched out a short note, using the other student's pile of books and remaining parchment as a writing surface. Before the wide-eyed boy could reply, Draco stuck the quill back in his small hand and gave him a light pat on the head. “Didn’t think so. Cheers.”

He jogged away as best he could through the stream of people, leaving the kid shocked and stuttering behind him. He caught up to Ginny with some difficulty, stayed behind her for several paces, then tossing a quick glance around him, increased his stride.

He looked back as if not paying attention to his direction and ran right into the girl. She made a little exclamation of surprise — thankfully nothing too attention-drawing considering the rest of the din — and started to lose her balance. Draco instantly reached out and caught her hand to steady her, at the same time slipping the note into her palm.

Her eyes widened then narrowed when she twisted around to identify the culprit, but before she could start with a string of curses, Draco snarled, “Watch it, Weasley. I just had these clothes cleaned, and I don’t need them contaminated.” He pulled his hand free, leaving the parchment in hers, and watched her expression turned puzzled…and angry, of course, but he was used to that. Then he spun off and headed towards the outskirts of town.

Soon the students started thinning out, then disappeared altogether as he moved further away, their clamor muted to a distant murmur in the background. He exhaled in relief, letting the relative peace fall around him in the presence of little more than a few scattered buildings. He walked through the more impoverished side of the village now, he knew, but surprisingly that knowledge didn’t irritate him; this place held memories after all.

He arrived at his destination not long after, a little abandoned house — more of a shack, really — out at the very borders of Hogsmeade. Weeds choked the dusty path leading up to its doorway, and years of built up grime on the windows prevented anyone from seeing inside. A pathetic excuse for shelter, suitable only to the most destitute and desperate peasant.

Draco smiled fondly at the sight.

The door protested in a high whine when he pushed it open, complaining just as indignantly when he shut it again. The dirt-covered windows still allowed sunlight to stream through, albeit slightly dimmed, and it gave the light a smoky quality inside the tiny one-room shack, making the place seem surreal. Just like he remembered.

The room had only four furnishings to speak of: a tiny bed that had seen better days, two battered, wooden chairs, and a table that needed the assistance of a fat book under one leg to keep it upright. Draco took out his wand, Scourgified the chairs and table, and sat back to wait.

About ten minutes passed before the door started whining again, this time more tentatively.

“Malfoy…?” came Ginny’s uncertain whisper through the crack.

“I’m here,” he called back. “You can come in, don’t worry.”

Still the door didn’t open further. “Why out here? So far away from everything?” she demanded, a hint of suspicion in her tone.

Draco sighed. “Because it’s private. Why do you think? Don’t be so paranoid, Ginny.”

Another moment’s hesitation, then she opened the door fully, making it cry in earnest now, and stepped inside. She wrinkled her nose a little at the interior, which admittedly surprised Draco just a bit. He didn’t think she would mind the conditions; he sort of always imagined the Weasley house looking a lot like this. Her attention turned on him. “Ginny again, is it?” she asked sarcastically.

The words confused him until he realized she was referring to his comment when passing the note in Hogsmeade. “Would you rather I walked up to you in public and politely extended an invitation?”

She glowered at him in answer, then walking over to inspect the other chair he cleaned earlier, sat down. She made an idle appraisal of the room. “I have to say,” she told him when she finished, “it doesn’t really seem…you.” Her eyes finally settled on him. “Why did you want me to meet you here of all places?”

He hesitated just a moment before deciding on the truth. “This has always been my…I don’t know. Hideaway, I guess you would call it.”

“Hideaway?” She looked around the room with greater interest. “What on earth would you need to hide from?”

Draco tensed up, then forced himself to relax again. Quietly, he muttered, “My life isn’t quite the glamorous, carefree party you seem to think it is.” Her eyes snapped back to him, unreadable, and afraid that she would start going all sympathetic, he quickly went on, “Anyway, sometimes a person’s just got to get away from everything.”

“And you chose here.”

He let his gaze wander over the room and smiled just a little. “Exactly. Who would think to look for me in a place like this?”

Ginny blinked at him, then grinned. “That’s actually very intelligent thinking.”

“Well, believe it or not, I actually don’t buy my grades.”

A light blush colored her cheeks. “Oh…you, err, heard us talking about that, did you?”

“I hear what everyone says about me,” he said simply.

Ginny sat quietly a moment, picking at the dented table edge. When she finally met his eyes again, she did it abruptly and with self-assuredness. “Why did you ask me to meet you here?”

“I told you — ”

She shook her head. “No, not here specifically. Why did you ask me to meet you anywhere? Why not just leave me alone?”

He scowled at his feet. “You didn’t have to come,” he pointed out tightly. “I just didn’t think you looked like you were having too much fun with the two idiots there. I thought…” Draco remembered Pierce’s words: Maybe she needs someone to pay attention to her, make her feel wanted. “I thought maybe you’d rather be with someone who acknowledges your existence more than just occasionally.”

He wouldn’t look at her reaction. It was too humiliating. Plus, knowing her, he probably bloody offended the girl. It was ridiculously easy to do…even when he didn’t mean it. The silence only stretched on, and hazy sunlight still filtered through the windows and around them, making the scene almost eerie. Then he heard a rustle, and a light plunk.

His head lifted, and Ginny pushed her bag from Honeydukes at him.

“Sweets?” she offered almost shyly. When he didn’t respond, she encouraged, “It’s chocolate.”

He stared a second, then nodded just slightly. She shoved it a little closer, so he reached in and found a small chocolate bar. He snapped it in half, handing her the other piece. They nibbled in peace for a few minutes before Ginny broke the quiet.

“Malfoy?”

“You know, that’s really not fair,” he told her matter-of-factly.

Her eyebrows came together in confusion. “Hmm?”

“I’m not allowed to call you Weasley anymore, but you still get to call me Malfoy? It’s not fair.”

“You want me to stop calling you Malfoy?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know.”

She rolled her eyes. “So why are you bringing it up?”

“It’s just the principle of the matter,” he insisted. “A double-standard sort of thing.”

“If you want me to stop, just say so.”

He eyed her suspiciously. “Would you stop? If I wanted you to, I mean.”

She seemed to think it over a minute, then answered, “Yeah, actually. If you wanted me to, I would.” She paused expectantly. “Do you want me to?”

He shrugged again.

“Oh for Merlin’s sake…” she muttered, exasperated, under her breath. Then, leaning forward just a little to get his attention, she clearly enunciated, “Draco?”

His gaze snapped up, startled.

She smiled a little. “Can I please get on with what I was going to say before you so rudely interrupted?”

The corner of his mouth twitching a little in amusement at her tone, he nodded.

She sat back. “Thank you. Now, I was starting to ask you something.” She glanced furtively at him, then dropped her gaze to the tabletop. “Well, it’s sort of personal.” This time when she met his eyes, she held. “You won’t get all offended and moody, will you?”

“I guess it depends on just how personal.”

Her next words, spoken so matter-of-factly, nearly knocked him out of his chair. “Why don’t you hate me anymore?”

He floundered for a couple seconds, finally settling on a weak, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

She frowned a little, making little swirls on the table with her finger. “I figured you’d say that. I know you’d probably rather just leave it lie, and I’m sorry about that, but this sort of thing drives me nutters. I have to have things out in the open. And you can’t deny that you treat me differently.” She shrugged. “I’m curious.”

Draco shook his head, completely out of his element. That was what he got for hanging around Gryffindors. No tact. “You’re certainly not subtle, are you?” he muttered, more to himself than Ginny.

She laughed. “No, not at all.”

Draco finally decided on his strategy for handling this unexpectedly dropped bomb — turn it around on her. “You know, you don’t exactly treat me like you always used to either.”

Her frown deepened, and the swirls she traced on the table grew more elaborate. “I know. What I don’t know is why. And that bothers me too.”

He stared a moment, taken aback by her honesty. Then, casually, he offered, “Somebody actually just talked to me about this. Said that changes couldn’t be understood. I think the exact words were, ‘Emotion is too complicated for mere logic.’”

Ginny cocked her head, staring into one of the room’s corners. “I kind of like that. Who were you talking to?”

“Professor Pierce.”

She smiled a little. “You’re pretty close with him, aren’t you?” Draco immediately remembered his doubt from earlier today, and it must have shown on his face because she asked, “What? You’re always talking to him.”

He shook his head. “No, it’s not that. I mean, yes I suppose I know him fairly well, but….”

“But?”

Draco hesitated. Did he really want to tell her? It would reveal more than he usually liked to, but it wasn’t as if she were one of his housemates…she wouldn’t be strategizing against him with the knowledge. And honestly, he wanted to get it off his chest. “He’s too Slytherin for his own good, I think. It makes me nervous sometimes.”

“Too Slytherin?” she asked, amused. “Him?”

“I told you. All that cheeriness could just be the perfect disguise. You never know.”

“True. You could also just be perfectly paranoid. You never know.”

He actually smiled. “I knew you would say that.”

She smiled too. “It didn’t work, by the way,” she told him abruptly. “You didn’t distract me. I still remember that you never answered my question.”

He swore mentally and looked around to buy time. He noticed that the mist-like sunshine no longer swirled around the room. “It’s getting late,” he said, praying the relief didn’t come through in his voice. “We should get back.”

Ginny shook her head. “Nu-uh. You still didn’t answer me.”

He smiled faintly. “Ginny,” he said patiently, “it’s late.”

She stared, disappointment reflecting in her dark eyes. She sighed. “Fine. Maybe some other time?” He didn’t respond, and she sighed again. “Right.” She stood up and walked towards the door, looking back over her shoulder when he didn’t immediately follow. “Aren’t you coming?”

“You go. I’ll be on in a bit.”

She watched him curiously a moment longer, shook her head, then walked out the door, which complained no less upon exiting than it did at entry. Alone, Draco slouched down a bit in his chair, letting the shadows fall over him in the rapidly failing light. He never expected her to ambush him like that, but then, he never had much experience with her sort.

He rubbed at his face, gave his childhood retreat one last study and sighed. He had planned on never coming back here. At some point he’d decided it was a crutch that he no longer needed. Funny how life cared nothing for plans.

He got up and walked out, comfortable in the silence of the borders of Hogsmeade, even if the scenery was less than inspiring. It almost cast a spell on him, making him feel as if he walked through a dream, and even when he reentered the busier sections of the village the enchantment stuck with him.

The mention of his name shattered the feeling, drawing him firmly back to reality.

He froze in the middle of the street, looking around to locate where the voice was coming from. He recognized it as Daphne Greengrass after a moment, and walking forward a few cautious steps, found her standing in an alley just ahead. Leaning casually against the adjacent building’s front, out of her line of view, he cocked his head to listen.

Unsurprisingly, Pansy’s voice followed, snapping, “Don’t you think I already know Draco’s not going to help?” A pause. “Look, I don’t think he’s ever coming around. At least not anytime soon. We’re just going to have to go ahead without him.”

Daphne again, sounding anxious. “I don’t know about this, Pans. I mean…Draco said we’d get expelled. I wasn’t so worried when you said he’d be helping because…well, he can get out of anything. But now…I just don’t know.”

Draco’s eyebrow furrowed just slightly in confusion, trying to remember ever telling them they would get expelled. Pansy’s response came angrily. “We’ll have the Dark Lord on our side if we pull it off! What more protection do you want?”

“If we pull it off,” Daphne pointed out.

“How hard can it be?” Pansy nearly scoffed. “We just cast a quick stun on Weasley, haul her off on a broomstick overnight and be back in time for breakfast.”

Draco felt his heart skip painfully in his chest. Weasley? His Weasley? Before he could realize what he just thought, a memory came rushing back to him: Pansy, at the beginning of the year, trying to talk him into some harebrained scheme to kidnap a loyalist of the Order to gain favor from the Dark Lord. That was when he said she would get expelled. He shook his head in amazement — he never imagined Pansy would actually go through with something like this without his lead.

“What if one of her roommates tells McGonagall she’s not in bed before we get back?” Daphne asked, nervous.

Pansy huffed in annoyance. “I told you, no one’s going to think twice of it tonight. Lots of older students break the rules and stay overnight in the village on the first trip. They’ll just think she’s still in Hogsmeade somewhere and won’t want to get her in trouble, so they won’t tell anyone. No one will start asking questions until breakfast. We’ll be back hours before that.”

Draco felt a second tightening in his chest, rapidly falling deeper and deeper into disbelief. Tonight? She was going to bloody well kidnap Weasley tonight? What was she thinking? And discussing it out in the open like this, where anyone could overhear! The bint didn’t have a single brain cell in her head!

“Fine.” Daphne’s assent came out grudging and almost angry. “Let’s just get it over with.”

Draco heard their footsteps and quickly melted into the crowd, ducking through the stream of people until he was well out of sight. His pulse pounded through him, thudding in his ears. What was he going to do?

He stopped himself. Who said he had to do anything? It was Weasley. What did he care if she got herself kidnapped? He could stand her company now. That didn’t mean he bloody well felt any obligation to protect the girl. She wasn’t his responsibility. He didn’t give a damn about her.

Oh, hell. He’d better go find her.

Haunted by Daphne’s words “let’s just get it over with,” he sped up, trying to weave his way through the crowd until that got too annoying, and then he just started plowing through, shouldering anyone smaller out of his way and ignoring the cries of outrage. When he finally broke free of the thick of it, he worked up to a jog, then as Hogsmeade faded into the distance completely, a full-out run. He swore at the pain in his chest, making a resolution right then and there to take up jogging in the mornings.

The tips of Hogwarts’s towers came into view, and shortly after a ribbon of brilliant scarlet hair flying in the wind. Ginny. Just as he’d hoped, he caught up to her before she reached the castle, her having left not too long before him and at a less hurried pace.

“Weasley!” he yelled with burning lungs. He saw her stop and look, then stubbornly turn with her nose in the air and keep going. He cursed her every insulting name he could come up with on a moment’s notice, realizing she was still holding true to her vow of not answering to “Weasley.” He tried again, “Ginny!”

This time she stopped for him to catch up, regarding him curiously. When he came up panting, stopping to put his hands on his knees with head bowed, she asked, “What’s gotten into you?”

He straightened abruptly, grabbing her arm. “Come on,” he said, still trying to remember how to breathe normally as he started dragging her towards the castle. He had to hide her; that was the first priority. Then he could think. It needed to be somewhere safe that no one knew about. And he knew just the place.

“Malfoy!” she snapped, tugging in vain at her arm.

“Malfoy?” he asked sardonically, eyes darting every which way even though he knew Pansy must still be wandering around Hogsmeade…or at the very least, just leaving.

She huffed. “Draco, then. Why do you seem to always feel the need to manhandle me? You could just say a simple, ‘Hey, follow me.’ You know, like normal people do.”

“Because I know you, and you wouldn’t just follow until you got a whole explanation complete with footnotes, and I don’t have the time or the patience just now.”

“Obviously,” she muttered, but surprisingly, gave no more complaint as he tugged her along. The lack of resistance lasted up until the point that he led them through the Entrance Hall and straight towards the dungeons. “Whoa,” she protested, trying to dig her heels into the floor. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“Don’t worry, it’s nothing bad.” He pulled at her to keep going, but she continued to struggle.

“This is ridiculous! Would you just tell me what’s going on? I swear, it’s like you’re trying to kidnap me!”

He spun on her, eyes flashing in annoyance. “I’m not, but if you don’t hurry your arse up, you might end up that way! And not by me.”

Her eyes widened, her face taking on a look of confusion. She glanced back over her shoulder as if expecting to find some assailant already after her. When she turned back, he could see some inner struggle behind her eyes, no doubt a debate over whether or not to trust him.

Abruptly, she finally managed to yank her arm free. She danced out of his reach when he tried to grab for her again. “All right,” she said, holding up a halting hand, “I’ll follow you. But I can walk just fine on my own, thanks.”

He didn’t waste time arguing, just nodded and turned back towards the dungeons. He glanced back once to make sure she really was following, and she raised her eyebrows at him. He smiled, just barely, and looked back ahead.

They descended silently into the dungeons, walking briskly. The Slytherin common room eventually came into view, but he moved past it without pausing. Several other doors came and went, but he ignored them all.

“Malf — I mean, Draco.” Ginny jogged a few quick steps to come up beside him. “Where are you going? You’re going to run out of dungeon soon.”

“Just wait.”

She glared up at him. “I wish you would tell me something.”

Draco stopped. “We’re here.”

Ginny looked around expectantly, then scrunched up her forehead in confusion. They were standing in the middle of a stretch of hallway that looked exactly identical to everywhere else they had just passed through, only this spot had no doors or entrances. “Merlin, I knew it. You’ve gone insane.”

He allowed a tiny smile and shook his head. “Your brothers weren’t the only ones good at finding things in this castle.”

She put a hand on her hip skeptically. “The twins? Are you talking about a secret passageway or something?”

“Or something.” He knelt down and drew his wand, pretending not to notice how intently Ginny watched. He tapped the stones in the floor successively, then jumped to his feet and stepped back, grabbing Ginny along with him.

“There you go again,” she muttered, pulling her hand free.

He ignored her and watched as the stones in the floor started shifting, moving apart with loud clinking and grating noises. When they finally stopped, a narrow set of stairs led down into a yawning black hole not much bigger than an average man.

“How did you do that?” Ginny asked in wonder, leaning forward a bit to get a better view.

“It’s the same as Diagon Alley,” he told her. “Now come on. It’ll only stay open another minute.” He lit his wand with a quiet Lumos and started down into the black. Ginny hesitated for a moment, then obviously steeled herself and followed with her own wand also lit. True to Draco’s word, the opening closed with a great banging and clashing together of stone almost as soon as she got in.

“Draco?” Ginny whispered in the ensuing silence.

He caught the quaver to her voice with interest. “Yes? And you don’t have to whisper. That floor’s pretty soundproof, barring, you know, explosions and things.”

“Oh.” He could practically hear her swallow. “H-how’re we supposed to get out now?”

“Remember the order I used to open it? Of the stones, I mean.”

“Yeah.”

He wasn’t surprised. He knew someone like her would pay attention to details like that. “At the top of the stairs one of the stones will have what looks like three holes all lined up drilled into it. Starting from there, just use the same order.”

“Right. Three holes, same order. Okay.”

She hardly sounded comforted by the knowledge. He continued down the steps in silence, and soon they reached an unremarkable square space, also stone and occupied by only one rather pathetic wooden chair and a pile of books in one corner.

“What is this?” she asked, and again he noted a strained quality to her voice.

“Another one of my places to just get away,” he admitted. “I didn’t use it as much because my father knew where it was — he actually showed it to me first year — and I don’t know…that made it seem less private. But no one here knows about it, and there’s no way someone’s going to just stumble on it or something, so you’ll be safe.”

She hugged herself, looking around doubtfully. “Safe from what? I’m serious. I want answers.”

He shook his head. “No time. I swear I’ll explain everything later, but right now I’ve got to handle this.”

He turned around and started off, only to be stopped by her almost panicked cry of, “Draco!”

“What?” he demanded, exasperated, then realized how wide her eyes were, like a small, frightened animal’s. He softened his tone without realizing it. “What’s the matter?”

“I-I...” she stuttered, chewing furiously at her lip.

“Ginny,” he said, rapidly losing patience, “why are you acting so terrified? You’ve been like this ever since you started down the stairs.”

She visibly swallowed. “I just don’t like small spaces…well, small underground spaces.”

“Why? What’s so scary about — ”

“Draco,” she interrupted. “Remember the Chamber, back in your second year?”

He stared uncomprehendingly. “Yes. What’s that…” he trailed off, understanding dawning. “You.”

She smiled weakly. “Right in one. Dumbledore did a good job of keeping it quiet, but yeah…me.”

He ran a hand through his hair, cursing softly. “Look,” he finally said, painfully, “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.” His mind raced. “Listen, I swear you’re safe, and I’ll be right back. I don’t have time to find somewhere else. Will you be okay? I promise, this is serious.”

She hesitated, staring doubtfully at her feet, still hugging herself. “Yeah,” she finally whispered. “I’ll be okay. Just…hurry, yeah?”

He nodded. “I will.” Experiencing a foreign emotion — guilt — and consumed by questions and amazement at this latest revelation, he watched the frightened girl for just a second longer before whirling around to leave.

“Draco.” Her voice was small, but when he turned she still managed a weak smile. “You know I’m putting a lot of trust in you, don’t you? A lot. You know that, right?”

The words hit him hard, much harder than she ever could have anticipated. No one in his life had ever expressed that to him; no one ever had trusted him before, and probably rightly so. Now she, the person with least cause to, did. He couldn’t begin to understand the feelings stirred up by her largely blind faith, but they did make him feel…well, good.

Unable to find words, throat oddly closed off anyway, he only nodded. Suddenly more determined than ever, he met her nervous eyes once more before turning to jog up the stairs. Out of necessity, he forced thoughts of Ginny Weasley and the Chamber from his mind.

Once he surfaced into the hallway once again, he suddenly realized he had no sodding clue what to do. Dealing with it on his own was out of the question; he’d already tried to talk Pansy out of this idiotic plan once to no avail. His next thought was McGonagall, but the woman already hated him from last year, trusted him even less. If he barged into her office talking Death Eaters and plots to kidnap students, he would immediately go under suspicion too. If he wasn’t in such a hurry, it might still work, but by the time she decided to believe him enough to cooperate, Ginny would probably go insane in that underground room.

And Ginny trusted him.

Professor Pierce. He would believe him right from the start. He would know how to handle it. Draco almost started off when he remembered his doubt over the man earlier. Too Slytherin for his own good. Was it really smart to place so much faith in Pierce? Especially with something like this. If the professor started demanding more explanations from Draco….

Ginny’s wide, frightened eyes came back to him, her strong attitude reduced to a nervous wreck. Comfortable or not with Pierce, did he really have any other options at the moment? Ginny trusted him, for the love of Salazar. Damn it, why did he have to go and say that? Why did she have to complicate things even more?

He swore violently under his breath, felt the indecision pressing on him like a weight…and started running towards Pierce’s office.

- - - - -

A/N — Well, at least it was another long one to make up for the even longer wait. Hope it didn’t disappoint after all this time! If you don’t remember Pansy’s plot when it originally came up, you can find it in Ch. 4. Ginny overhead them talking about it. Thank you so much for your patience!

And also, I really appreciate all the wonderful reviews, by the way. I really wish I had time to respond to each and every one, but since that’s not possible for me right now, I’ll just send out this big umbrella THANK YOU!!!

Oh, and, heh, sorry about leaving you with a bit of a cliffhanger there...
Draco Finally Explains by Hearts Cadence
A/N – Well…this wasn’t too bad. Only two weeks this time.

Oh yeah, and a few people caught that I accidentally put a First Year in Hogsmeade. Lol wooops. My bad. Has been fixed now — big thanks for bringing it to my attention!

And also a big thanks to all the reviewers in general! *tear* I love you guys! (Haha I’m a little delirious from lack of sleep. Just ignore me…but seriously, I am very grateful.)

- - - - -

Chapter 13 — Draco Finally Explains

Draco crashed through Pierce’s door with no warning whatsoever. The man, slouched in a chair with a book in one hand and a drink in the other, jumped, managing to slosh the contents of his glass all down his front. He muttered a curse and vanished the liquid with his wand, set aside the book, and raised hazel eyes to the heavily breathing figure of Draco Malfoy in front of him.

“You really don’t understand the concept of knocking, do you?” he asked with an easy smile, one that he hoped hid his immense annoyance. Snape had just come by, and the former Potions Master obviously was not impressed by Pierce’s progress. He thought things were going rather well, himself, but then his opinion wasn’t the one that counted.

Draco was still breathing hard, clearly trying to muster enough air to speak. Despite his irritation, Pierce found himself straightening up with interest.

“It’s Ginny,” he finally gasped out, one hand to his side. He muttered something that sounded vaguely like he definitely needed to start running, then shook his head and continued his former train of thought. “I think she’s in danger.”

Pierce felt a block of ice settle in his stomach. If something jeopardized his plan now, he had no back up. During his visit Snape had already expressed Voldemort’s growing impatience, urging greater speed. The last thing he needed was to be left with nothing. “You think?” he prompted, fighting to keep every outward sign calm.

“It’s that stupid bint Pansy,” he snarled. “She wants to bloody kidnap her!”

Pierce allowed himself to relax a little. Just Parkinson, obviously scheming to rise in the ranks. He could see nothing coming of it. “Why would she want to do a thing like that?” Pierce inquired, playing a convincing, baffled attitude.

Draco ran a hand through his hair quickly, not meeting his eyes. “She’s a Death Eater; you must’ve guessed that by now. She’s got this notion in her head that if she delivers someone important to the Order, or important to Potter, the Dark Lord will favor her. Ginny is both.”

“She told you this?”

Draco merely nodded, gaze fixed on the side table.

“Why would she tell you?”

The boy’s eyes finally lifted to meet his. “She wanted my help.”

Of course. The girl was still on her own personal campaign to win Draco back to the Dark. Pierce had to fight the urge to groan. This was the absolute last thing he needed at the moment. He had his own problems, like “speeding things along” for instance. And just how did Snape expect him to do that? He could manipulate with the best of them, but even the greatest man could only do so much. Really, at this point, he could only try and gain more of Draco’s trust. He sensed that the boy still maintained at least some of his guard. But how on earth did one get a Slytherin, a Malfoy to-boot, to drop his guard?

He wished, not for the first time, that Draco would just break down and tell his story, share every detail of what Pierce already knew transpired this summer. If he could only manage that, then it would practically cement Draco’s trust in him. Sharing something so personal, just as when two people shared in tragedy, inevitably engendered a bond. But Pierce could see no way of coaxing that tale out of the cautious boy.

Unless…. Pierce did a quick assessment of Draco’s frazzled appearance, and it took every ounce of willpower to hold back a wide, triumphant grin ...Unless he was very distracted, or very desperate. Preferably both — like he was right now.

Quickly formulating the plan in his head, working out the kinks even as he spoke, Pierce asked, “Your help? Why on earth would she think you would help?”

With a smoothness even Pierce had to admire, Draco slipped into his usual defensive stance — his posture relaxed, hands sliding into his pockets, a bored mask falling over his face. By all appearances, Draco Malfoy had just become completely disinterested in everything around him. Of course, Pierce knew better. “It’s Pansy,” he stated simply. “Does she need a reason for being mental?”

Pierced studied him for a long moment, deciding how best to deal with the boy’s stubbornness. Finally, he decided to take a gamble. “Draco,” he said quietly. “I think we both know you’re…involved with the Dark Lord.”

Draco’s eyes flashed, shoulders tensing, but to his credit he managed to maintain most of his control. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said, voice deadly cold.

Pierce sighed. “You don’t have to worry. I once told you that you could come to me with anything. That still stands. You can trust me. And everyone remembers last year….”

“That was last year!” Draco suddenly exploded, hands out of his pockets now and clenched into fists; Pierce silently congratulated himself.

“What are you trying to say? You just stopped being a Death Eater? That Mark is permanent, just as the vow it represents,” he reminded, the last line a direct quote from the ceremony.

For a second Draco’s demeanor changed, went from angry and defensive to suspicious and wary. Pierce’s mind raced back over his words, trying to find a slip up in what he said, but then the boy’s expression passed and he couldn’t be sure if he imagined it or not.

“Look,” Draco said in a guarded tone that convinced Pierce that the change in demeanor wasn’t a figment of his imagination, “we don’t have time for this. We have to figure out some way to help Ginny.”

Disappointed and curious at the change, Pierce relented. “Are you sure you aren’t overreacting? Miss Parkinson doesn’t strike me as the sort to act without someone taking the lead.”

“She’s not!” Draco agreed fervently, taking one or two pacing steps before calming himself down. “She’s really not, but this time is different. She has a whole bloody plan that she’s going to go through with tonight.”

The block of ice dropped down into the pit of Pierce’s stomach again. “I think you’d better explain.”

Quickly, Draco related everything he’d overheard in Hogsmeade, eyes going brighter by the second.

“Where is Miss Weasley now?” Pierce demanded, forcing himself not to jump up and pace the room.

“Safe,” Draco said. “Somewhere no one can get to her. That’s not an issue for now, but it’s certainly not permanent. We need a way to keep Pansy from trying to pull this off the next chance she gets. Next time I might not get lucky and overhear.”

Pierce couldn’t help it: he got up and poured himself a half-filled glass of firewhiskey, knocking back a healthy swallow. He closed his eyes, resting his weight on one hand against the back of a chair. Draco was right. They needed a plan; if anything ruined his efforts so far, he didn’t know what he would do.

His first thought was to get Pansy expelled. It wouldn’t be difficult — he could easily frame her with something, or hell, just reveal the Mark he knew marred her flesh. But the error in that jumped out at him immediately: such action would infuriate Mr. Parkinson, and the man would know Pierce was responsible. Pierce survived quite simply by charm, convincing all concerned that he was harmless and likeable. He needed no enemies, and certainly none as powerful as Mr. Parkinson.

So Pansy would have to stay. Speaking to her might do the trick, but how would he explain knowing about the plot in the first place? Unless he revealed his true allegiance, which he didn’t want to do because then Draco may very well find out. That was something he could not risk at the present time.

Draco was watching him now, arms crossed, jaw tight and eyes intense. Strong and iron-willed and waiting. It was a shame Draco already rejected Pansy. She would listen to that presence…nearly anyone would. It was the inherent gift of the Malfoy’s.

He suddenly straightened, an idea slowly building up in his mind, one that would fix this and quite possibly end all of Pierce’s troubles. “Draco,” he began carefully, “what if you agreed to join her?”

Draco’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “Excuse me?”

“Not really,” Pierce hastily corrected. “Just…make her think you’re on her side.”

“And that would accomplish what, exactly?”

“Just hear me out,” Pierce insisted. “She looks up to you, doesn’t she? Follows you?” Draco nodded reluctantly. “So convince her you’ve had a change of heart, and then dissuade her.”

Draco frowned doubtfully, arms still crossed. “One problem. Why would I dissuade her if I’d had a ‘change of heart’?”

“That’s easy. The truth. Kidnapping a fellow student is incredibly risky, and it’s not worth taking the chance without specific orders. Tell her you’re willing to start playing on her team again under the one stipulation that she drop this whole crazy scheme.”

Pierce could see Draco thinking about it, the boy rolling the notion around in his mind. “And if she doesn’t accept that stipulation?”

Pierce shrugged, set the remainder of his firewhiskey on the mantle and leaned again on the chair back. “In that event, do not underestimate the power of false hope. Make her believe you’ll go along with it, but later. After you’ve had time to think things through, come up with a plan B maybe. She’ll be so ecstatic that she’ll believe.”

Draco stared at the man with a measured gaze, something hidden in his eyes Pierce couldn’t decipher. Finally, he said slowly, “You know what you’re doing, don’t you?”

The man felt a twinge of nerves race down his spine. “Pardon?”

“You’ve got a knack for playing people. You wanted me to tolerate Ginny, an impossibility under any other circumstance, yet here I am trying to save her. You always seem to know the way to use everyone around you to get what you want, and now this.” Draco shrugged, looking away. “I’m just saying, you know what you’re doing.”

The twinge of nerves turned into an attack of them. The little brat was more observant than he’d counted on. Pierce forced himself to take a breath, forced an easy, smug grin that he did not feel. “I’ve been in this house a long time, Draco. One picks up a few tricks. But as far as Slytherins go, I choose who deserves my loyalties and don’t waver from the decision.” He laid a significant look on Draco, praying the boy would buy the compliment. Pierce was counting on Draco’s ego. “Now,” he said, not wanting to give him too much time to think about it, “do you want to try this plan, or can you think of something better?”

Draco looked doubtful, though whether over the response to his accusation or the plan itself Pierce didn’t know. “Who says Pansy’ll even believe me? She’s thick, but she’s not that thick. She’ll know something’s up if I suddenly decide out of nowhere to pledge my allegiance to the Dark side again.”

Pierce saw an opening to steer the conversation back to Draco’s summer and seized it. Playing dumb (not for the first time), he said, “Like I said, that Mark is permanent. Just tell her it’s been bothering you, burning or something. That it made you realize you can’t escape, and you were crazy to try.”

Draco shifted uncomfortably, looking at the floor on the other side of the room. “I don’t think that will work.”

“Why wouldn’t it? If she has one herself, she’ll understand what it feels like to be so bound. If she doesn’t, her imagination will only convince her of the Mark’s great power over its owner.”

The blond shook his head. “It’s not that.”

“Then what?”

Draco sighed, rubbing a hand at the back of his head. “I don’t have a bloody Mark.”

His insides exploding in a fireworks display of triumph, Pierce still managed to feign surprised confusion. “But…last year…?”

“Was my test,” Draco said, not angry or guarded, just very, very weary.

“Ah.” Pierce waited, but when no more seemed forthcoming, prompted, “And he didn’t give you another chance?”

Draco scowled. “Oh no, he offered me another task.”

“So…?”

Draco fixed his gaze on the professor, so piercing that for an instant Jonathon felt the boy could see every thought in his head, an alien and unsettling sensation to the obsessively guarded man. After what looked like long deliberation, Draco said very quietly, “So I didn’t take it.”

“I see.” He paused, trying to figure out how best to proceed. If he could just figure out Draco’s motives during last summer it would help him greatly, and he was so close to them. “Were you…nervous of failing a second time? Afraid to disappoint again?”

“Look, Ginny’s waiting,” Draco said abruptly. “She’s safe but not exactly comfortable. Just tell me what I should tell Pansy to convince her I switched sides.”

Pierce sighed inwardly. So, so close. Ah well, the window was firmly closed now. Some other time. At least he’d gotten Draco to admit he was Mark-less of his own choosing. That was something. “Just tell her that you miss the power. Say you left in the first place thinking you would be stronger, independent instead of bossed around, but now you realize that without the Dark Lord’s support, you’re weaker than ever. Of course you would put it in your own words.”

Draco considered, then shrugged. “Sounds good enough. Something like, ‘I want power, and I’m smart enough to understand now that the fastest way to get it is through the Dark Lord. Since you want the same thing, we can work together, but I don’t want to take the risk of kidnapping Weasley. And if you’re that bent on it, then we’ll just wait, come up with a more fool-proof plan or at least make sure the Dark Lord approves first.’” He paused, seeming to run over his speech for errors. “All right?”

Pierce nodded. “She’ll buy it, don’t worry.”

“I hope so…” he trailed off, sighed. “I really don’t like this plan, you know.”

Pierce half-smiled. “I know. But sometimes we must make sacrifices…when we care.”

Draco glared. “Don’t push it. Sir.” Heaving another sigh, he looked towards the door. “I better go tell Ginny then start tracking down Pansy.” He walked to the door, pausing just before walking through. “Professor? Thanks.”

Pierce nodded, smiling kindly. Then he was gone, and the smile dropped into a frown. Too much could go wrong right now, and he didn’t like it one bit. The Dark Lord was growing impatient, wanting to speed things along in a way Pierce could not, and now Parkinson was sticking her nose in and threatening the whole thing. He moved over to what was left of his firewhiskey, suddenly in need of a drink. At least this plan seemed sound enough to stop any foolish “kidnapping” attempts from her.

He paused with the glass at his lips, lowering it thoughtfully. In fact, this might actually prove to be something of a blessing in disguise. He got Draco to admit some of what happened this summer. Not all, but some. And what was more, Draco was not only proving just how much Miss Weasley was coming to mean to him, he would be pretending to have returned to the Dark Lord’s service.

Pierce smiled slyly then, because if there was one thing he knew about pretending, it was that a man caught up in a lie too long would eventually start to believe it himself.

Still smiling, he glanced down at his drink and tossed it carelessly into the fireplace. He didn’t really need it anymore.

- - - - -

Ginny paced nervously, wringing her hands. Several of the books lay discarded and scattered across the floor, failed attempts at taking her mind off of the situation.

Merlin but she hated being closed in underground.

Malfoy should have come back by now, shouldn’t he? She supposed that depended on what he was doing. Of course, she had no bloody idea what that might be, since he didn’t seem to find it necessary to tell her a single damned thing. He left her in the dark — literally and figuratively.

She hated the dark, too.

Her mind kept replaying the entire episode, going over and over again every single word she could call up from memory. That proved more difficult than it probably should have, but it all just happened so fast. Him pelting after her, the urgency a fire in his eyes that she could not ignore, vague explanations, something about the danger of kidnapping? All she knew for sure was that someone was apparently threatening her safety in some way. If he was telling the truth.

That was the crux of it all, she knew. At the time, it had seemed so right, so beyond question despite the absurdity of it, to trust him. Now she wondered at the wisdom in that. What if it was all just some elaborate prank? It would explain why he had been so decent lately — he just wanted to trick her into believing him for this one, cruel joke. She might be trapped down here, for all she knew.

At that last thought, panic began to set in. Oh Merlin, what if she really was stuck in this cramped little basement? Her pacing intensified, a fine sheen of sweat breaking out on her palms and along her hairline, but even despite the terror a new emotion rose up hot and intense: fury. She couldn’t believe she let herself get played like this. How could she trust a Malfoy? Her stomach twisted in disgust when she remembered that she even told him about the Chamber. Oh, God.

That’s it, she couldn’t take it anymore. The walls were closing in on her, suffocating her, choking her with fear even as her blood boiled liquid fire. She was going to find out if she was really a prisoner or not, and she was going to do it right now.

Wand held in a slippery grip, her breathing harsh and uneven, she practically ran up the steps. She exhaled a breath she didn’t know she’d been holding when the moonlit glow of her wand revealed a stone with three holes in it, just like Malfoy had said; she closed her eyes, forcing herself to calm down so she could remember the order. Her eyes opened again, and praying with every fiber of her being all the while, she tapped the stones successively.

Nothing happened.

Panic worse than before gripped her, freezing her in place and stopping the breath in her lungs. Every part of her felt numb and paralyzed but her mind, which raced along at such a breakneck speed that she couldn’t register a single thought from the rest in the blur; she grew dizzy. Trapped, prisoner, stuck, chained, hopeless, dark, no air, can’t breathe…

Just as the beginnings of insanity really started teasing at the borders of her conscious, the ceiling gave a deep groan, and the grating and grinding noise that followed sounded more beautiful to Ginny in that moment than anything. Before the stones even finished shifting all the way she scrambled out and collapsed in the open hallway, gasping for breath and feeling relief like rain in the desert wash over her.

She gave herself a few seconds on all fours to collect herself, then used the wall to rise shakily to her feet. She cringed when the stones clapped back together again behind her and glanced over her shoulder at the spot. All that remained to show it once existed was one solitary stone with three tiny holes drilled in it.

So he hadn’t trapped her after all. Briefly, she debated going back down into the safety of the room, but almost as quickly dismissed the idea. The thoughts of descending into that blackness alone made a cold sweat break out across her skin, and besides, she still wasn’t entirely convinced Malfoy wasn’t playing some prank on her. He may not have locked her in, but maybe it was still a joke, like “let’s see how long she stays down there until she decides to come out.”

Anger buzzed in her mind when she considered that last possibility, and she found herself striding purposely back the way they had come. She never was any good at staying put and waiting around, anyway.

The doors and side-halls went by in a haze, her brain totally focused on just getting out of these miserable dungeons and hunting down Malfoy. She turned one corner, gaining speed, but came to a sudden halt outside one of the doors. She heard voices inside, and one sounded suspiciously like Malfoy’s. Her eyes breezed quickly over the plaque reading, “Professor Jonathon Pierce,” and she frowned, wondering what on earth Malfoy was doing talking to Professor Pierce right now.

The thick wood made it too hard to hear at first, so holding her breath, she pressed her ear against its surface and concentrated hard. The words grew audible enough for her to make out, and they definitely belonged to Malfoy: “…I want power, and I’m smart enough to understand now that the fastest way to get it is through the Dark Lord. Since you want the same thing, we can work together, but I don’t want to take the risk of kidnapping Weasley. And if you’re that bent on it, then we’ll just wait, come up with a more fool-proof plan or at least make sure the Dark Lord approves first.”

Ginny didn’t listen to anymore. She jerked away from the door, taking two steps back in shock. Her mouth went dry, and she felt completely paralyzed. Malfoy still served You-Know-Who. Of course he did, what did she expect? That he would attempt murder on Dumbledore and turn around innocent? She should have known; she supposed she really had known. She just didn’t want to believe it, not when he’d been acting so…normal.

She fisted her hands in her hair, laying her forehead against the cool stone. God, how could she be so stupid? She’d told him that she trusted him! Ginny never felt so utterly moronic in her entire life.

And Professor Pierce? He was in on all of this, a Death Eater, wanted to kidnap her? It was too unbelievable, too much to handle. And all this time, Draco warning her about Pierce’s stupid fake smile and her not believing it because she looked for the bloody best in people…all the while the two of them were working together. Against her. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

Rage worked its way up from the soles of her feet to the crown of her head, scalding hot and unquenchable. The one, tiny part of her brain still functioning correctly told her to run, to find McGonagall and tell all she’d just heard. That would be the smart, responsible thing to do.

But her rage advised an entirely different path, one far more satisfying. Revenge. Weasleys always got even — especially this Weasley. And Ginny had some lost dignity to recover.

Not giving herself time to think it over, blinded by fury and a need to get back at the smirking blond git, she took off at a jog back towards the underground room. He would return eventually, and she would be waiting.

When she reached the triple-marked stone she tapped out the proper sequence, jumped back while the floor shifted and ground apart, then descended without hesitation. She smiled dryly, thinking it was funny how a good dose of livid anger could totally erase fear. Once in the room she sat down rigidly in the chair, crossed her arms and legs, and waited.

It didn’t take long; he must have left just after her. Ginny watched silently, expression stone, as he half-jogged down the steps, looking distracted. He got to the bottom and turned toward her, opening his mouth to speak. Ginny raised her wand and trained it square on his chest.

“Don’t come any closer,” she said, voice low and soft. “Just stand right there and don’t move.”

He stopped, glancing between the wand and Ginny with a look of total bafflement. “Ginny? What — ”

“Get your hands up,” she interrupted. When he didn’t respond, she flicked her wand emphatically. “Go on. I wouldn’t test me if I were you. I’m pretty well miffed, you see.”

Expression clouding with the beginnings of anger, he nevertheless raised his hands, palms facing Ginny. Adopting a voice almost exactly paralleling hers, low and soft and infinitely controlled despite the circumstances, he asked, “What in the hell is going on?”

“I don’t know,” she said, sweetening her tone innocently. “I was hoping you could tell me.”

He blinked. “I don’t — ”

“You see,” she cut him off in that same, sweetly innocent voice, “I was afraid someone might be playing a little prank on me and decided to test that whole ‘just tap the stones in order’ thing.”

She could actually see her meaning slowly register with him. “You mean you left?” he demanded, anger making him momentarily forget and drop his hands. “You were just roaming around the dungeons?! Do you have any idea how stupid that was? You could’ve been — ”

Again she interrupted, clearing her throat meaningfully and motioning with her wand. He put his hands back up reluctantly, glaring. “Well, it seems I’ve been doing a lot of stupid things lately. Believing you, for one. Thinking that maybe, somehow, something might be different.”

“What are you on about now?” he snarled, obviously growing impatient.

Ginny’s fury took over, breaking her hitherto calm demeanor. She jumped to her feet, wand still pointed at him but quivering now, and yelled, “I heard you! I heard every word you said, to Pierce of all people, and I know everything!”

His eyes widened in something like fear, which was just as good as admitting it in Ginny’s book. “You heard?” he asked, voice somewhat hoarse and expression filled with dread. Then a look of confusion crossed his features. “But…why would that make you mad?” He sneered nastily. “I would have thought you would be thrilled to find out that the ‘Great Draco Malfoy’ wasn’t Death Eater material after all.”

Ginny’s mouth opened to scream a retort, then as she actually processed his words, slowly closed again, her brows knitting together. “What are talking about?”

Malfoy stared blankly at her. “You said you heard.”

She lowered her wand warily, wondering if this was just his fast-thinking trying to get him out of the situation. But his reaction was so convincing…. “I heard you telling Pierce you wanted power, and that you would get it through You-Know-Who. That you would work with him but didn’t want to risk kidnapping me until after you had a plan.”

Malfoy’s face turned into a mask of perplexity and then sudden realization. He laughed. “Oh, no, it’s not what it sounds like. Is that all you heard?”

Feeling foolish at being laughed at, she drew her shoulders back haughtily. “It’s all I needed to hear. You made yourself pretty clear.”

He shook his head. “You don’t get it, that wasn’t real.”

“Wasn’t real? You’re going to have to do better than that.” She shook her head. “Actually, no, I don’t even know why I’m bothering.” She raised her wand threateningly.

“Would you just let me explain? I was trying to figure out a way to protect your ungrateful arse!”

Ginny snorted indelicately. “Right, I’m sure.”

His face actually flushed as he snapped, “It’s the truth!”

“You probably don’t even know what ‘truth’ means! So why in the hell would I believe you?”

He turned his back to her, tangling the fingers of both hands in his hair and swearing under his breath. It looked like he was calling on every last shred of willpower to keep his temper in check, but Ginny didn’t care.

“That’s what I thought.” Venom and triumph built in her voice. “You’ve got nothing.”

Not turning to face her, he said in a low voice, “I thought you said you trusted me.”

Her hand tightened painfully around her wand. “Obviously I made a mistake.” Emotion churned in her, drawn out by the disappointment, the feelings of foolishness. Her voice sounded near tears when she said, softly, regretfully, “You’re still the rotten Slytherin snake you always were.”

His shoulders stiffened, then so fast Ginny took an involuntary step backwards, Malfoy whirled around, eyes glinting metallic in the half-light, and he yanked up his sleeves to bear his arms to her. Both almost glowed in contrast to the darkness surrounding them, pale enough to reveal thin blue veins in places…but, Ginny realized, stunned, no Mark. Not even so much as a freckle to mar his perfect skin. “Proof enough for you?” he snarled, letting his sleeves fall back down.

Ginny blinked, shocked. Finally, she whispered, “But…last year…Harry told me he saw….”

“I had a fake,” Draco said tiredly, suddenly looking years older as his anger melted into exhaustion. “It made getting things done much easier if…certain people thought I was already initiated.”

Ginny shook her head, trying to clear her thoughts. “But…I don’t understand. If you were never a Death Eater, why did you…do what you did?”

He sneered. “Don’t you think you’re getting a bit personal for someone who wouldn’t even believe me? And called me a, what was it again? ‘Rotten Slytherin snake?’”

She looked at her feet. “I didn’t know,” she said in a small voice.

“Oh, well, that’s all right then.”

Her temper flared, her eyes meeting his fiercely. “Well what was I supposed to think? With your history and what I just heard, what else could I have assumed?”

“You shouldn’t have assumed anything! You should have let me explain like I wanted in the first place!”

A sharp retort rested on her tongue, but with incredible control, she bit down on it. She took a long, slow, deep breath, set her wand on the arm of the chair — within easy reach, but unthreatening — and sat down. “Fine.” She folded her hands. “Explain.”

He eyed her doubtfully. “You’ll actually let me talk?”

She nodded wordlessly.

He seemed to consider her a few moments longer, deciding if she would hold true to that agreement, then relaxed a little, taking a breath of his own. “It’s Pansy.” He moved over to a stack of books and sat down, running his hands over his face. “She’s bloody mad. She wants the Dark Lord’s favor, so she’s got it in her head that if she gets him someone loyal to the Order, or important to Potter, that he’ll reward her.”

Ginny she felt the color drain from her face, making her freckles stand out in sharp relief against a chalk-white background. “She picked me.”

Malfoy nodded, watching her reaction closely.

Ginny ignored the twinge in her belly and forced herself to think. “How do you know?”

“I overheard.” He proceeded to tell her about hearing his name mentioned in Hogsmeade and how he stopped to listen; he related the conversation between the two girls, and he outlined Pansy’s plan. As he did, the twinge in Ginny’s stomach escalated into a sick knot, but something else happened as well — a memory triggered in her brain.

“I remember this!” she exclaimed.

Malfoy stopped, raising an eyebrow. “You…remember this.”

“Well, obviously not this exactly, but I remember hearing Pansy talking about wanting to kidnap someone ages ago.” She paused, eyes narrowing at him. “She was talking to you about it, actually.”

He rolled his eyes. “Merlin, do you make a habit of listening in on other people’s conversations?” When she only continued glaring, he sighed and said, “What, so you’re accusing me — again — because of that? If you recall, I told her it was a bad idea.”

Ginny shook her head, frowning. “No, I wasn’t trying to accuse you, I’m just…” she puffed out a frustrated exhalation, leaning forward to rest her elbows on her knees and cradling her head in her hands. “I’m just overwhelmed. And confused. Very, very confused. None of this makes sense.”

For a long time silence reigned, only Ginny’s slightly heavier than normal breathing audible as she forced herself not to cry, not in front of Malfoy. The glow of their wands made her eyes sting, so she closed them and told herself to quit being such a baby. This was nothing, a silly prank by a silly girl. Lord knew she’d faced worse than air-headed Pansy Parkinson. Much worse.

“Look,” Malfoy finally said, voice rough. “You’re fine, all right? Danger averted and all that, so you don’t have to get all emotional.”

A hot spear of anger shot through her at his insensitivity, and she lifted her head out of her hands to launch some scathing remark back. Only when she looked at him, the words stuck in her throat. He looked concerned, quite concerned, actually, but also exceedingly uncomfortable. She realized he actually felt bad and was trying, in his own twisted way, to help. He just obviously had no clue how.

A tiny smile fluttered to her lips. “We need to work on your sympathizing skills.”

He rolled his eyes, but looked a little relieved too. “Yeah, I’ll get right on that.”

She ducked her head to hide another smile, then forcing her thoughts in order, asked, “Danger averted? How’s that? I mean…won’t she just try again some other time?”

Apparently happy to be back on safer ground, Malfoy promptly answered, “She would have, but Pierce and I — well, mostly just Pierce — came up with a plan.”

When he didn’t offer anymore, Ginny cocked an eyebrow. “Which would be…?”

He shifted a little, tugged at already in-place robes. “I’m going to pretend to join her.” He gestured vaguely behind him with his hand. “That was what you overhead — me running through a rough version of what I’m going to say to her. Not to Pierce.”

Her forehead crinkled up in confusion. “So, you’re going to protect me by helping her?”

Pretending,” he amended, stressing the word deliberately. “And yes.”

She shook her head. “I don’t understand how that’s going to help.”

“It’s a long story. It would take a lot of explaining.”

Ginny drew her legs up onto the seat, settling herself. “Lucky we’ve got lots of time.”

He made one, short laugh. “You’re something, you know that?”

“Malfoy,” she caught herself, biting her lip. “I mean…Draco.” He looked up, their eyes meeting in the pale lunar glow of their wands, and she went on, “Like I said, I’m really overwhelmed right now. It would make things so much better if I actually understood what’s going on. Please.”

He continued to hold her gaze, and Ginny noted distractedly how well his silver-blue eyes matched the light from the Lumos spell between them. Finally, he sighed in defeat and ran a hand over his face again. “Pansy…well, she’s been wanting me to come back for a long time now.”

Ginny furrowed her brow up. “Come back?”

“Bloody hell,” he sighed out, “this is going to take even longer than I thought.”

He didn’t say anything for a long time after that, and Ginny wondered why it was so difficult for him to figure out where to begin. As she watched his face, though, so deep in concentration, she realized that where to start wasn’t his dilemma at all — he was sifting through the information, deciding what to tell her and what to keep to himself.

“Draco,” she said softly. His eyes instantly focused on her, surprising her with the sudden intensity of their gaze. He still wasn’t used to his first name, she guessed. To be honest, neither was she. “I told you before that I trusted you. Now I’m trusting you again, that you’re telling the truth. So why don’t you just stop thinking like a Slytherin for once…and trust me too? Just tell me what happened. It’s not so hard.”

He snorted lightly. “Easy for you to say.” She didn’t respond, and he frowned, dropping his eyes to the floor. He picked them back up again to look at her. “Let’s get one thing straight. This doesn’t mean that I trust you.”

She smiled a little sadly, nodding that she understood. She knew he probably never trusted anyone in his life, and someone who until just recently was an enemy would not be the first. Not that easily, at least.

Clearly steeling himself, he began, “It all goes back to last year.”

“With Dumbledore?”

He nodded. “You already know that I couldn’t kill him, not even with such a perfect opportunity.” He hung his head. “I just…couldn’t.”

Quietly, she told him, “That’s nothing to be ashamed of, you know.”

He laughed harshly. “Maybe not to your lot.” He shook his head. “He said some things to me. One thing, the thing I never forgot, was, ‘killing is not nearly as easy as the innocent believe.’” He glared into the corner of the room. “And even though I couldn’t admit it then, not even to myself, he was never more right about anything.”

Malfoy closed his eyes. “All I ever wanted my whole life was to be like my father. I wanted his power, his confidence, and when he taught me about the Dark Lord, I wanted to be a part of that too. But when Dumbledore died, it…changed things.

“Obviously, I realized I couldn’t kill. At least, not like that. Maybe if I was defending myself, but…” he trailed off, shrugged. “Then I started wondering if that meant I could never be a Death Eater.” He smiled bitterly. “Ability to murder is pretty much a prerequisite. The thoughts of not getting initiated sent me into a panic, but then that made me wonder why I wanted a Mark so bad anyway. I’ve never liked having masters, now I’d learned I didn’t like killing either, and even though I do hate Muggles and Mudbloods and all that, honestly, as long as they aren’t around me too much, I don’t care enough to go and hunt them down. What other reasons were there for being a Death Eater?”

He sighed. “There’s power, of course. That’s what most of them are in it for. But to get power you had to be good at it, and I wasn’t. Dumbledore was my test, the thing that would prove I was ready for initiation, and I failed miserably. Of course, being a Malfoy and Lucius’s heir, the Dark Lord oh so kindly offered me a second chance.”

He stood up and began to pace. “I knew it would be no use though. I wouldn’t be able to do anything he asked of me, and he doesn’t treat failure well. So…I left.”

Ginny, fascinated beyond belief and up until this point afraid to speak lest she ruin his surprising willingness to talk, now drew her eyebrows together in confusion. “Left?”

Malfoy nodded. “I set up a secret fund under a pseudonym at Gringotts and over the course of three weeks started slowly siphoning money out of all my accounts. Once I had enough to last me awhile, I wrote a note to my father saying I wouldn’t join and ran away to hide out the rest of the summer at an inn in Diagon Alley.”

He smiled sourly. “He found me, of course. It was mad to think he wouldn’t.” He cringed a little at the memory, but collected himself with obvious effort. “He tried to…persuade me to come back, and when I wouldn’t, he disowned me — cut me out of the will, out of my inheritance, out of his life.”

He fell silent, and Ginny held her breath, astounded, watching this astonishing young man — really, still just a boy — with amazement. She never would have fathomed this of him and found her respect for him multiplying by the second. She could only imagine what forms of “persuasion” Lucius used on his son at that inn.

“So Pansy,” he finally continued, apparently pulling himself out of the memory. “Pansy’s been dying for me to come back.” He scowled. “She fancies herself in love with me, or at least she says so. I think she’s more in love with my money, and if I don’t come back, I don’t get my inheritance back either, and she doesn’t have a chance at it.” He snorted. “Not that she does even then, but she seems to think so, and that means she wants me to return quite badly. Badly enough to make all sorts of compromises.”

Ginny finally understood. “You’re going to give her an ultimatum.”

He smiled, a little mockingly. “Good job, looks like you’re finally catching on. That’s right; I say I’ll join up again so long as she holds off on the whole barmy kidnapping idea. You’ll be safe as can be.”

Ginny felt overwhelmed looking up at Malfoy — no, at Draco — who still stood only a few feet away. She couldn’t believe he was doing so much for her. “But won’t that be dangerous for you?”

He shrugged. “If I get caught, yeah.” He flashed a confident smirk that Ginny guessed he didn’t really feel. “I’ll just have to make sure I’m convincing, won’t I?”

She shook her head, blown away, wanting to express her gratitude but not having a clue how. She had this sudden urge to touch him, to show how much this meant to her, that she understood the sacrifice he was making. But this was Draco Malfoy — despite all her constant bravado, she was afraid. “Draco,” she tried instead, voice soft with awe, “I don’t know what to say….”

He rolled his eyes. “Spare me. I’m no hero and I’m certainly not your bloody Potter, so you can save it. It’ nothing.”

That shocked Ginny; she would have pegged him as the type to soak up all the worship he could get. In fact, in past years he had reveled in all the attention he could manage. “Nothing? You’re risking yourself for no other reason than my sake and you call it nothing?”

“I’m not doing it just for your sake,” he shot back instantly, tensing.

She raised her eyebrows. “What are you getting out of it, then?”

Draco opened his mouth, hesitated and furrowed his eyebrows, then slowly closed it again. He scowled at her and snapped, “Just get up. I’m going to walk you back to Gryffindor, then I’ll go right to find Pansy in case she got your password somehow or something.” And with that he spun around on his heel and fairly stormed up the steps.

Ginny, confused, followed more slowly. He walked silently beside her as they made their way through the castle, apparently brooding which baffled her even more until suddenly, it hit her.

He was a Slytherin, used to never doing anything without the potential for personal gain. This was probably the first selfless thing he had ever done for another human being in his whole life, and he clearly understood no better than she why he chose now to do it. It unsettled him, and he didn’t want her bringing attention to it.

Draco stopped outside the Fat Lady, hands in his pockets and face screwed up distastefully as he regarded the portrait. “Right,” he said, dragging his eyes away, “Pansy will probably be in the common room getting ready. Just in case, stay in your dorm until I tell you it’s safe.” He glanced at her, then added irritably, “I’m not going through all this bloody mess just to have you go off for a stroll and get snatched up, got it?”

She nodded wordlessly, summoning every bit of self-control to keep herself from smiling. Oh, it was going to be a long while before this boy would ever be able to just do or say anything nice without following it up with something nasty to make up for it. It was almost endearing, in a weird kind of way. Like a little kid who didn’t want the grown-ups to know he really didn’t mind his little sister all that much.

He returned the nod, then after an awkward moment, raised his eyebrows pointedly. Ginny almost jumped, realizing he was waiting for her to go inside. She started to walk towards the portrait, but stopped and turned back, calling out impulsively, “Draco!”

He was still standing there, looking at her expectantly.

“Draco, I…” she trailed off, wanting to thank him again, wished she could somehow express how grateful she was that he told her all that he did, how much she respected his actions last summer, how sorry she was for having so misjudged him. The urge to simply touch him returned, stronger than before, and Ginny had to work hard to push all those impulses down, knowing he would hate every last one. “Good luck,” she finished lamely.

He raised his eyebrows, seeming to know that those words weren’t what she had intended to say, but for once he kept his mouth shut and just nodded again. Then, with nothing left to say, nothing left to do, Ginny turned around and entered her common room. Leaving her fate in the hands of Draco Malfoy. And inexplicably okay with that.

- - - - -

A/N – Jeesh, I’m just incapable of those nice, 10 page chapters anymore. I always start out intending to write one of those so that I can get it to y’alls faster, but here I am again, pushing 20. Goodness gracious…
Dark Omens by Hearts Cadence
A/N – WOO HOO! One week! Not too shabby. ‘Course, it’s all due to Thanksgiving break being this week, but still lol.

Things are really moving along now (and hopefully will continue in that vein), so enjoy!

- - - - -

Chapter 14 — Dark Omens

“I knew it!” Pansy exulted, practically bouncing on her heels, hands clasped to her chest. “Oh, Draco, I just knew you would come around!” She tossed her arms around his neck, apparently unable to keep her excitement to herself. “Everyone else said to give up, but I knew.”

Biting down hard on his tongue to keep himself from cursing, Draco reached up to unlatch the girl. It took a Herculean effort to hide his disgust. They currently stood in the middle of the empty common room, everyone else having long since gone to bed. He’d come straight from dropping off Ginny to Pansy, and when he offered her the ultimatum — he would join if she would refrain from insane kidnapping schemes — the girl had hesitated, obviously disappointed, but with only a little more persuasion on his part she accepted.

Now she could barely contain herself.

“It’ll be just like before,” she chattered happily. “And everyone else will be so thrilled as well, and we can all be one big happy family again.” Her grin stretched from ear to ear.

Draco could feel a headache coming on. “Yeah, just like before.” He didn’t think the term “one big happy family” ever applied to them, but he also didn’t want to argue.

“Oh, we should celebrate!” She looked around expectantly as if expecting some wine and party balloons to appear.

That was about the last thing on the planet Draco wanted at the moment, so he hastily said, “We should, but I really can’t. I’ve got rounds really early tomorrow morning. I need to get to bed or I’ll be asleep on my feet all day.”

She pouted, but gave a reluctant nod. “Oh…all right. Some other time, then.”

Rather than agree to that, he said simply, “Good night,” then made a fast retreat before she could stop him.

He fell onto his bed gratefully, spreading his arms wide across the mattress. Of course, he didn’t really have early rounds the next day, but another second with the celebrating banshee and he would have snapped. He rolled onto his stomach, wondering what in the world he’d gotten himself into.

Despite the opportunity for a much needed lie in, the next morning found him wide awake bright and early. Cursing bad luck and his uncooperative internal clock, he fought his way out of tangled sheets and into the shower. He spent a long time reveling in the downpour of hot water, accustomed to rushing through bathing to make breakfast. After finally emerging into a steam-clouded bathroom, going mechanically through the routine and yanking on his robes, Draco trudged through the common room and out of the dungeons.

He blinked in surprise when he got his first look at ground level — it still seemed dark, like the sun hadn’t even risen yet. He rubbed at his eyes, muttering several choice words under his breath, and walked out the Entrance Hall doors to have a look for himself. Sure enough, the sun just barely peeked over the horizon, giving the light outside that gray, soft quality of pre-dawn and very early morning.

Autumn’s chill started to seep past his robes, and he was about to turn back inside when he saw a small figure out by the Quidditch pitch, bent into an extremely odd position. Squinting, he started when he recognized an unmistakable splash of brilliant scarlet standing out in sharp contrast to the dreary surroundings. He jogged down to her without thinking about it, unable to believe Ginny even practiced at this ungodly hour.

When he reached the pitch his breathing came in irregular puffs, and since she hadn’t spotted him yet anyway, he leaned against one of the Quidditch ring posts to recover. He watched her curiously as he did, her stretching — that’s what he assumed she was doing, anyway — offering him all sorts of interesting views. It was when he caught himself staring at her bum, thinking it was odd he’d never noticed how cute and round it was before, that he suddenly straightened up with disbelief, squeezing his eyes shut and shaking his head. Merlin, that was exactly why one should never get up this early.

“Draco?”

His eyes flew open, greeted by the image of Ginny Weasley staring curiously at him.

“Er…hi.”

She gave a small, amused smile. “Hi. Stalking me now, are you?”

He glowered. “No. I just saw you from up at the castle. What are you doing out here so early?”

“You’re out here this early too,” she pointed out reasonably.

“Not by choice, I assure you. I couldn’t sleep.”

“I thought you usually didn’t stumble down to breakfast until the last minute. Some mornings you put Ron to shame you have to shovel it down so fast.” She laughed in response to his scowl at that, then growing suddenly serious, almost anxious, asked, “So…um, how did it go with Pansy?”

He made a face at the reminder. “Oh, yeah. Don’t worry, she bought it all right. And she’s bloody ecstatic about it.”

Ginny had the grace to smile sympathetically. “She get a little annoying?”

“Understatement of the year. She hugged me.” He shuddered, catching the way Ginny bit her lip to fight back a giggle. “I had to make up an excuse about early rounds just to get away before she decided to throw a spur-of-the-moment party.”

“I’m so sorry about all this,” she told him earnestly.

“Well you should be. After all, you did ask Pansy to go after you,” he drawled sarcastically.

Her lips quirked. “I know, I know. But still, thank you all the same.”

He shrugged. “You know, you never answered my question.”

“Hmm?”

“What on earth possessed you to come down here so early?”

“Oh,” she smiled, “I jog in the mornings.”

“Really?”

“Don’t sound so surprised,” she teased.

He shook his head. “I just didn’t think you would need to with all the flying you do.”

She shrugged. “That’s a different kind of exercise. This builds up better endurance than you can get from just flying.” She shrugged again. “And I don’t know. I just like it.”

“Oh.” He stood by awkwardly for a second, not really wanting to go back to the castle where his housemates would undoubtedly be trickling down for breakfast by now. He couldn’t just ignore them anymore — now he was “back on their side” and had to act like it. But he sensed the conversation was over, so shoving his hands into his pockets, he said, “Right, well…have a good run then. I guess.”

She nodded and another uncomfortable moment passed, then Draco murmured, “Right,” and turned around to head back.

“Hey, Draco!”

He stopped, turning around to see her running up to him.

“Um,” she said when she stopped in front of him, a curious blush blooming high on her freckle-dusted cheeks. “Did you want to come?”

He raised his eyebrows. “What?”

“I mean you don’t have to,” she assured, speaking quickly. “You just seemed like maybe you wanted to.”

He hesitated, looking past her towards the grounds, sprawling empty and silent beyond them.

“Besides,” she grinned wickedly, returning to her usual bold self in that one gesture, “I remember how you were huffing and puffing when you ran after me from Hogsmeade yesterday. You could probably do with the exercise.”

He snorted. “Think so, do you?”

She shrugged, but the playful smile on her lips and the twinkle in those dark eyes of hers said it all.

Well, it wasn’t as if he hadn’t thought the same thing during his various sprints yesterday. He even ran out of breath coming down here this morning, for Merlin’s sake. “I’m not exactly dressed for it,” he pointed out.

“Malfoy, aren’t you forgetting something?” she said in a very good imitation of his own drawl. “You’re a wizard.” She pulled out her wand, transfiguring his robes into more appropriate jogging pants and t-shirt. “It’s amazing, isn’t it?” She said in his same drawl. “Almost like magic.”

It took him a second to figure out what she was playing at, but when he did remember he couldn’t help but chuckle. She’d just mimicked his own words, the ones he’d said to her back earlier in the year when she couldn’t fit all her books in her bag, and he had expanded it for her. “Very funny.”

“I thought so,” she returned sweetly. Then she spun around, her pony tail swinging to one side, and she peeked at him coyly over one shoulder. “Well? Let’s go. Try and keep up, hmm?”

And she was off.

Draco stared after her for a second, then spurred on by his pride and the challenge in her words, took up after the girl. It took a considerable burst of speed to finally catch up, but once he did the pace was relatively comfortable. He let himself relax a little, falling into a comfortable rhythm, lulled into a dreamy sort of state by the cadence of their combined breathing. This wasn’t so bad.

“We’ll start out with a few warm-up laps around the Quidditch pitch,” Ginny informed him, breaking through his trance. He just nodded.

He managed the first lap without difficulty, and the second didn’t prove much harder. Still, by the end of it his chest felt tight, his breathing sounded loud in his ears, and he was ready for a break.

“Okay,” Ginny announced as they finished up that second lap, speaking as easily as if she were taking a stroll, “time to actually get started. I like to jog along the Forest until I run out of grounds, and then I circle back the other way. All right?”

His mind was still having trouble wrapping around the words “actually get started,” but stubborn till the end, he nodded his assent anyway. She sped up in response, strides smooth as they lengthened to carry her farther faster. Despite his increasing pain, he couldn’t help but admire the strength, the easy grace in the way she moved.

She gained a lead almost right away, but with sheer willpower dragged up by his ego, he forced himself to at least stay in step just behind her. He remembered how she said she liked this and wondered if maybe there was something wrong in her head, because surely no sane person would do this for enjoyment. His legs were aching miserably, lungs on fire and heart twisting into sharp pangs in his breast when she suddenly stopped.

Not questioning the early respite, he dropped right away into a crouch, hanging his head and sucking in oxygen like he was taking his first breaths. His stomach felt sick, his chest still tight, and he vaguely recalled from somewhere that cool downs helped to avoid those sorts of symptoms. Surely if he knew that, Ginny must as well. He raised his head, trying to figure out what prompted her actions. She was bending over something gray and distasteful-looking on the ground, a little frown on her lips.

“What the hell are you doing?” he grumbled, irritable from the recent torture.

“Come here,” she waved him closer, not taking her eyes off the object. Debating whether or not to obey her or hex her, he finally settled on the former and, with much wincing, hauled himself over. She was saying, “Isn’t that a…?”

“Forest Sprite,” Draco finished, momentarily forgetting his discomfort. This sprite looked very different from the ones they caught for Professor Pierce, though; it lay with limbs thrown out at unnatural angles, body dull and gray like old clay instead of shining with vibrant green light, the network of webbed wings having lost its pearly shimmer. “And a not very live one, at that,” he concluded.

“Poor thing,” she said sadly.

“Yes, it’s a terrible shame,” Draco dismissed unfeelingly, interest already gone and his mind wholly focused on the idea of a nice, long, hot soak in the prefect’s bathroom. “We should probably go ba—”

Ginny interrupted him. “Draco, look.” A hint of fear laced the words, and her finger trembled a tiny bit when she pointed.

Curious, he followed the direction of her gaze and felt his stomach clench just a little. Burned black and ugly on the creature’s abdomen, the Dark Mark stared back at him. “Shit.”

She looked up at him with wide eyes. “What’s it mean?”

He shook his head. “Hell if I know.”

“Do you think it’s serious?” she pressed anxiously.

“I told you I don’t know,” he snapped, then instantly regretted it when a wounded look passed over her face. “Look,” he tried more calmly, “let me think, all right? I don’t know anymore than you do.”

She nodded mutely, and uncomfortable watching her watch him, he stood up and started pacing slowly. His mind raced over the possibilities, finally arriving at a theory.

“Those things give answers,” he reminded Ginny. “That’s what we use them for, to answer our questions.”

“So…”

“So obviously there’s a Death Eater out there looking for answers.” He frowned. “The only thing I don’t understand is why risk sprites?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, there’s more reliable ways, not to mention easier ones. It’s not like You-Know-Who has any shortage of resources. And sprites are dangerous — they can tattle.”

Ginny gazed solemnly down at what remained of the Forest Sprite. “That’s probably why she ended up like this.”

“I’m sure. She must’ve made it pretty far before she did, though.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because aside from the ones that’re students or professors, it’s impossible for Death Eaters to get on the grounds.” He paused, amending, “Well…almost impossible.” He saw the recognition flicker in her eyes as she picked up on the reference to his own feat of last year, finding probably the only way to smuggle them in. She tensed noticeably, but said nothing. Ignoring the sudden awkwardness, he concluded, “So this sprite had to have come from a different forest.”

“It was trying to warn us,” she murmured. Her hand stretched out and hovered over the corpse as if she intended to touch it, but then her fingers curled into a fist and she pulled back. “Even if you’re right, I still don’t understand the Mark on her.”

Draco frowned. “I don’t know. Not for sure, anyway. I could guess though, knowing how those people are: pride, arrogance, wanting to show off who did it.” He shrugged. “Or who knows? Maybe it’s the side effect of some new spell we don’t know about yet.”

Ginny shivered. “I hope it’s the first one. I don’t like the idea of them having new tricks.”

Draco said nothing, staring without expression at the unfortunate body.

“Draco, what if she didn’t come very far?”

“I told you, it’s — ”

“Yeah I know, but you said ‘aside from students or professors.’ Well…we both know a few students who could qualify, right?”

Draco considered that. “I doubt it,” he finally answered. “I would have heard something, even outside the ‘inner circle.’”

“But it’s a possibility,” Ginny insisted.

He studied her, and then sighed. “Let me guess. You want me to ask Pansy about it.”

She chewed at her lip, avoiding his eyes. “Well…I mean it might be important,” she finally admitted.

Draco closed his eyes, rubbing his hands over his face. “You know, I agreed to pretend I was on their side. I never agreed to playing spy.”

“I know. I’d understand.”

He stared at her, surprised that she didn’t try harder to talk him into it. Instead, she just looked steadily back at him, calm and accepting but at the same time clearly hoping. He muttered a curse under his breath. “Fine,” he gritted out. “Next time I get the chance I’ll bring it up. Happy?”

She smiled, dropping her eyes. “Thank you.”

“Just keep it in mind next time I need a favor,” he told her, old Slytherin habits kicking in. “Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m going back to the castle for a good long soak before the day starts.”

“All right, you go ahead. I want to finish my run.”

Draco grimaced. “Right, you have fun then.”

He turned to leave, but Ginny called out, “Draco!” He stopped and looked back expectantly. “Think you’ll wanna do this again tomorrow?” He wanted to laugh at the notion and was all set to respond with a decisive No way in hell when she added, “That is, if you think you’ll be able to drag your out-of-shape bum out here.”

He glared, straightening up unconsciously. “I’ll be able, Weasley. I’m not in that sorry of condition.”

She grinned. “Excellent. See you tomorrow morning then!” And with that she jumped to her feet and took off, pony tail swinging behind her.

Draco’s mouth hung open as he watched her recede into the distance, wondering what exactly just happened. Slowly he closed his jaw, unable to help the very small but appreciative smile growing on his lips. If not for all those bothersome morals, she would have made an excellent Slytherin.

- - - - -

In the end, he never did get his soak, a fact that made him more than a little cranky. Instead, he’d walked into the Slytherin common room for spare robes to change into and found Pansy sitting alone on the couch.

She presented him with a huge smile. “Draco!”

He started to scowl but tried to force the expression into something pleasant. The result was a sort of grimace, but she didn’t seem to notice, or didn’t think anything of it if she did. “Hi, Pansy.”

She eyed his wardrobe curiously. “What in Salazar’s name are you dressed at?”

He looked down at himself. “Oh…I went jogging.”

“You jog?”

“I do now, apparently,” he muttered.

She gave him a puzzled look. “What?”

He shook his head. “Never mind. Where is everyone?”

“At breakfast.”

He walked over and dropped into a chair adjacent the sofa. “Why aren’t you at breakfast?”

“I thought you were still sleeping.” She smiled almost shyly. “I thought I would wait for you.”

Oh, just bloody brilliant. He could already see that she would be sticking to him like glue from now on. He was about to make up an excuse and slip away when he remembered he was supposed to ask about the stupid dead sprite when he got the chance. With everyone but the two of them gone, he couldn’t ask for a much better opportunity, so loath as he was to do it, he said, “Pansy, can I ask you a question?”

She leaned forward eagerly. “Of course, you know that.”

Draco hesitated, trying to figure the best way to go about this. “Is something…going on?”

Confusion scrunched up her features. “What do you mean?”

“With the Dark Lord,” he clarified. “I mean, is he…I don’t know, planning something big? Or at all?”

She seemed to think the question over a moment. “Why do you ask?” she finally inquired.

To tell the truth or not to tell the truth. Thinking rapidly over possible repercussions and unable to finding anything significant, he decided it couldn’t hurt to be honest. “When I was jogging I found a Forest Sprite…dead. Branded with a Dark Mark.”

Her eyes grew wide, then contemplative. “I don’t know about that…”

“But?” he prompted, sensing there was more.

She glanced around as if making sure they were really alone, then lowering her voice conspiratorially, said quickly, “Well, my father sent me an owl the other day that hinted at something, but I don’t know for sure what it is. You know how it is with owls, it’s too risky to be very clear. But he did sort of imply that the Death Eaters have some increased activity right now, and that whatever it is, the Dark Lord’s in a right snit about it.”

“No idea what it might be, though?”

She shook her head apologetically. “No. But Daddy said he would send me more when he could, so maybe he’ll be able to say more then.”

“Maybe,” Draco murmured absently, looking off at nothing in particular.

“Don’t worry, if it’s anything really big, I’m sure we’ll get a chance to help,” Pansy offered brightly.

He held back the urge to roll his eyes, but he couldn’t quite manage an expression appropriately hopeful or excited either. “Sure.”

Pansy stood up then, shaking out her robes. “Ready?”

He blinked up at her. “For?”

“Breakfast, silly. It’s going to be over soon.”

He waved her off. “You go.” He sighed at the clock, seeing that he no longer had time for his bath. “I at least want a quick shower before classes start.”

She pouted. “Oh…okay. Do you want me to save you something?”

“No,” he answered shortly, wishing the girl would just leave already.

Still pouting disappointedly, she said, “All right, if you’re sure.”

“I’m sure.”

She nodded, hanging her head a little. “Well…see you in a bit, then.” Then, at long last, she turned around and trudged out of the room.

Draco closed his eyes and massaged his temples, sighing heavily. He already missed the days when he could just ignore her completely, or if worse came to worse, hurl a few sharp barbs at her virtue.

When he opened his eyes again, he jumped at the sight of Theodore Nott reclined sideways in the chair across from him, chewing thoughtfully on a half-eaten orange.

“Where the bloody hell did you come from?” Draco snarled, trying to recover lost dignity.

“Breakfast.” He held up the orange to prove it.

Draco stared at him, then shook his head. “I’ve got to go.” He stood and started moving away. “Nice talking to you.”

“So what’re you trying to accomplish, exactly?”

Draco stopped mid-stride, schooling his features before turning around very slowly. “Did you say something?”

Nott nodded, attention focused on carefully peeling off a slice of orange. “I asked what you’re game is.”

Draco folded his arms over his chest. “Is this supposed to make sense?”

Nott tilted back his head to drop the piece of orange in his mouth, chewing slowly and swallowing before speaking again. “You desert, ignore all of Pansy’s attempts to get you to change your mind, but then all on your own you decide maybe you’d mosey on back to our side after all?”

“Look, I just got tired of — ”

Nott waved his orange. “Yeah, yeah Pansy told me the whole bit. You’re sick of being a weakling and want power blah blah blah.” He tore off another casual bite. “Why don’t you tell me the real reason?”

Draco sneered at the other boy. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. Now, I need to shower.”

“For someone who genuinely re-joined,” Nott observed to Draco’s turned back, “you didn’t seem very excited about increased Death Eater activity. Or the fact that you’re ‘sure to get a chance to help.’”

Again, the boy’s words had Draco turning back. “You were eavesdropping?”

Nott raised his eyebrows as if surprised by Draco’s anger. “Of course.”

“What happened to coming from breakfast!”

Nott smiled a little and took a bite out of his dwindling fruit. “I did,” he said innocently. “I just got back before your little chat with Parkinson.”

Draco rolled his eyes. “Nott, do yourself a favor and stay out of things that don’t concern you.”

“Another thing Pansy mentioned,” Nott went on, unfazed as Draco made to leave. “Your little requirement for joining up again, the one about Weasley. Been spending a lot of time with the little Weasel, haven’t you?”

For the third time, Draco turned back around from walking away, though this time he more or less spun back. “What?”

Nott shrugged, again focusing his entire concentration on slowly peeling away a slice of orange like he were working with explosives. “Just noticed you around her a lot, is all. And then your ultimatum. Funny coincidence, hmm?”

“What are you insinuating?” Draco asked in a low, dangerous voice.

“Nothing at all.” He finally placed the newly liberated slice in his mouth, jaw working thoughtfully on it. “Just curious — what are you doing with her?”

Draco’s mind raced. Nott had him in a checkmate, and they both knew it. With the earlier accusations Draco could still claim that Nott just read his reactions wrong, but there was no denying that he was indeed spending excessive amounts of time with Ginny. The truth didn’t present an acceptable option either because if he admitted he didn’t entirely hate her anymore, even if he explained Pierce’s role in that reversal, Nott would immediately realize Draco returned just to protect her, not out of any real desire. That would inevitably get back to Pansy, defeating the purpose of him playing this game in the first place.

Then he had an idea.

Looking around them as if checking for intruders, he leveled a frank gaze on Nott. “Know of anyone else who might be eavesdropping?”

Nott raised his eyebrows. “We’re alone.”

Draco nodded, tossing himself carelessly into a chair. He allowed a lazy, arrogant smirk to surface. “So you want to know why I’m spending so much time with Weasley, do you?”

“That’s the million-galleon question for the day, yes.”

Draco stretched out cat-like, folding his hands behind his head. “Why do you think?” When Nott didn’t immediately answer, he said, “Just consider this: the littlest Weasel isn’t quite so…little anymore. If you know what I mean.”

Nott’s eyebrows shot up. “You fancy her?”

Draco snorted, giving his eyes a dramatic roll. “Please. I can’t stand the bint.”

“Then….”

“I can’t stand her personality, or her mind in general,” Draco clarified. He produced that lazy smirk again. “Now, her body on the other hand…”

Nott studied him skeptically. “Are you trying to tell me you’re shagging her?”

Draco shrugged. “All I’m saying is that she’s a nice piece of arse and painfully naïve. I’m having my fun now, and later,” he flashed a feral grin, “I’ll have even more fun crushing her dreams.”

Nott spent a long time after that watching him silently, head just slightly cocked as if in thought.

Draco, beginning to worry he didn’t believe him, asked, “Problem?”

The other boy blinked as if emerging from a trance, then shook his head. “No…just thinking that it’s a brilliant idea. The perfect way to use and then destroy your enemy…if she’s good-looking and gullible, I mean.” His eyes locked onto Draco’s, searching. “Mind if I have a go with her when you’re done?”

Draco felt every muscle go tense all at once, almost like a massive, full-body cramp. His hands instinctively tightened on the arms of the chair, but he forced himself to relax before Nott could notice. He only prayed his face betrayed nothing.

“With her being so distraught and vulnerable and all,” Nott was saying, still watching Draco closely, “it should be easy as bedding Greengrass…without the rest of the school’s male population having beaten you to it, that is.” He smiled faintly. “And I’m dying to find out if she can handle a broom as well in the bedroom as on the Quidditch pitch. If she can…well,” Nott chuckled, letting the thought hang.

Draco’s blood was pounding in his ears, and it took every ounce of restraint in his body to keep from thrashing the git black and blue on the spot. After what felt like an eternity spent bringing himself under control, he managed to force out, “Do whatever the bloody hell you like. I don’t care.” Then, unable to stop himself, he added, “But while I’m still playing, you better not touch her. I don’t share well.”

Nott’s eyes were still oddly intent on him, and after a few moments a small, self-satisfied smile rose to his lips. He inclined his head slightly. “Duly noted,” he acknowledged softly.

Draco grumbled something nonsensical under his breath and stalked off, managing to refrain from forming his hands into fists by shoving them in his pockets instead. There, his nails dug into his palm.

Once in the bathroom he stripped off the clothes Ginny had transfigured for him and climbed under the spray of the shower, closing his eyes. He wondered if he’d made the right choice. He was absolutely positive Ginny was going to be furious with him when he told her, and he was going to have to tell her too because he’d just basically told Nott that she was falling for him. If she displayed some evidence to the contrary, all sorts of complications would pop up.

He sighed — just thinking about her reaction to the news made him tired. He resolved to cast some protective charms beforehand…just in case.

Another worrisome bit, though, was that Draco might have unwittingly introduced yet another danger to Ginny. Nott should heed his warning about keeping his hands to himself, but it still made Draco uncomfortable.

Furiously lathering shampoo into his hair, he roughly forced the unfamiliar feelings of guilt and concern from his mind. Bloody irritating girl. Look what trouble she caused just by existing. Making himself relax, he encouraged his thoughts to wander pointlessly, to topics less heavy. They drifted through a myriad of random, half-formed ideas and images, and he was just getting into a comfortable, meditative sort of mood when the sentence, “And I’m dying to find out if she can handle a broom as well in the bedroom as on the Quidditch pitch” rose from the mists of his mind.

His own words concerning her looks followed immediately after before he could stop them, and then he pictured her in his mind, as she looked on the Quidditch pitch. He remembered her face when she competed, fierce and intense, and he remembered how she looked today stretching, running, the interesting things those activities did to her anatomy. And then the sentence replayed in his mind again, and he couldn’t help but picture things a little less innocent this time.

He reached out and cranked the water all the way to cold in one abrupt, vicious twist. Freezing sheets showered down on him, shocking the snowball effect in his head to a dead halt. He exhaled several curses through chattering teeth and quickly turned off the spray completely. His forehead landed against the wall, his eyes squeezing shut.

Like he’d thought earlier, bloody irritating girl.
Guilt by Hearts Cadence
A/N – I bet y’alls thought I died, didn’t you? Lol I really am sorry for the delay (yet again). I could get into all the stress at school/work, and hectic finals, and the myriad other time-sucker-uppers, but at the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’ll just get on with the chapter…

- - - - -

Chapter 15 – Guilt

“You told Nott what?”

Draco flinched despite himself, suddenly wishing that he hadn’t suggested they sit down for this chat because it would make dodging her hexes that much harder. The old oak by the lake spread its boughs over himself and Ginny, most of its leaves already having fallen in shades of gold, red, and brown on the ground, cushioning their seats and allowing the dawn’s pale, pink and gold light to reach through. Ginny’s fiery hair shone with it, dark eyes reflected gold, her cheeks still rosy with the recent exertion of their morning jog.

Draco took in all of this, entertaining a brief fantasy of bearing her down to the bed of springy leaves beneath them, but as soon as he realized what he was thinking he ripped his gaze away, dismayed with himself. Ever since Nott’s damned comments in the common room, absurd thoughts like that kept popping up at the most inappropriate times. It was enough to drive a bloke mad.

“I didn’t have a choice,” he insisted to the ground, unwilling to risk looking her in the face again. Or worse, looking at other parts of her again.

“What do you mean, you didn’t have a choice? You could have said anything!” she sputtered. “You could have told him Professor Pierce was making you tutor me, or we were practicing Quidditch, or that it was part of a bloody hippogriff conspiracy! Anything but that!”

Draco thought that over a minute. “I didn’t think of any of those things. Well…not that the third one is very good anyway….”

From the corner of his eye, he saw her head drop into her hands. “Oh, Draco,” she moaned miserably, shaking her head, and he experienced an odd twinge in his midsection at the sound of his name falling so drawn out from her lips. “What is wrong with you?”

“It’s really not so bad…”

“Not so bad!” she exploded, twisting around and rising up on her knees to face him, incredulity on her face. “You told Nott that you were shagging me! And you made it sound like I’m some love-struck, air-headed little girl who would actually believe that you might really settle down with someone!”

For reasons beyond him, that last comment stung, and he scowled at the ground.

She groaned and flopped down on her back, throwing both arms over her face. “Why, why did you have to do that?”

“I didn’t technically say we were shagging, you know,” he felt the need to point out in his defense. “It was just implied. All I really said was that you were…tolerable to look at.”

She removed her arms, propping herself up on her elbows to glare at him. “Oh, thank you ever so much for that compliment,” she said sarcastically. “And you said more than just that. You said that I fancy you.”

He shrugged uncomfortably. “I said I was sorry. I couldn’t think of anything else on such short notice.”

She rolled her eyes, pushing herself into a sitting position once more. “You’re such a man. It figures that this is the one thing your perverted mind could come up with.”

She was beginning to offend him now, so raising his chin self-importantly he drawled, “You know, if not for me, you might be rotting in someone’s dungeon right now.”

At that her face instantly softened, and she sighed in defeat. “You’re right,” she admitted grudgingly, making a little pile of leaves in front of her. Then, with obvious effort, she added, “Look, I’m sorry. I know you were just trying to help. I just…I don’t want the whole school thinking I’m some naïve tart.”

Draco blinked, amazed at how quickly he’d guilted her into compliance. He would have to keep that in mind. It would never work in Slytherin, that was for sure. “I was just trying to help,” he agreed, “and I wouldn’t worry. Nott’s pretty quiet; I’ve never heard him take part in gossip.”

“I hope so,” she muttered. She looked up at him, her deep brown eyes wary as they reflected the remnants of dawn’s early golden light. “So…what now? I’m supposed to act all…adoring?”

An image of Ginny looking worshipfully up at him flashed through his mind, and he quickly shook his head, just barely holding in a curse. “No,” he answered instead. “You don’t have to pretend to be taken with me. Just…try not to advertise how much you hate me and my family where it might get back to him.”

She smiled lightly, crunching up a brittle leaf in her fingers. After a long, quiet moment of hesitation, she asked, “You know I don’t hate you anymore, right?” She rushed on, “I mean, after everything you’re doing for me, hating you is sort of impossible.” She smiled wryly at him. “Believe me, I’ve tried.”

He laughed dryly. “I’m honored.” But despite his sarcasm, he enjoyed the feeling her words gave him.

The corners of her mouth tilted up again, then she let out a long, exhausted exhalation. “Can you please just go and tell him something else?” she tried hopefully, not sounding very optimistic but trying anyway.

“Remember yesterday, when you made me go and ask Pansy about the stupid sprite, and I had to miss my soak in the prefect’s bathroom and therefore went around the rest of the day miserable and sore, just like I’m positive I’ll be doing today?”

“Oh!” she looked up, suddenly expectant. “You found time to talk to her, then? What did she say?”

He waved his hand. “In a minute. You remember that?”

She huffed impatiently. “Yes, Draco, I remember.”

“You remember how I didn’t want to but did anyway, and I told you to remember that next time I wanted a favor?”

She scowled at him. “This wasn’t exactly what I had in mind.”

“But that’s the way it turned out.” He leveled a serious gaze on her. “Look, we both know I can’t go and change my story now. He was already suspicious. That will just make it ten times worse. I’m not even asking you to do anything, I’m just making you aware of the situation.”

She frowned, then sighed dramatically. “Fine, fine, you great prat.” Giving one last, obligatory hmph she reminded, “Now, about your talk with Pansy….”

He smiled a little, amused at her theatrics, then nodded in answer to her prompt. “There’s not much to tell, really. She doesn’t know anything about it specifically.”

“But un-specifically…?”

“Her dad wrote her and told her that there’s some increased Death Eater activity on account of the Dark Lord having his knickers in a twist about something.” He shrugged. “She thinks it might be big, but can’t really say for sure what it is. She said she’ll keep me updated.”

“So You-Know-Who is angry about something?” she asked, a suddenly worried expression crossing her face as something seemed to dawn on her. “And there’s more activity?”

He studied her with interest, wondering what in such vague news inspired this anxiety. “That’s basically it, yes.”

Ginny hugged her knees to her chest. “Oh.”

Finally unable to stop from wondering any longer, he asked, “What is it?”

She shook her head quickly. “No, nothing. Just…nothing.” Her eyes turned away from him, staring off into the distance, past the borders of Hogwarts. Her hand rose to fiddle absently with a locket around her throat, and when he squinted at it, he made out the initials “HP & GW.” Then it all fell into place, and for some insane reason, it made him angry.

“It’s Potter,” he practically spat.

Her eyes snapped over to him, surprised, then lowered guiltily. “I haven’t thought about him in awhile,” she murmured.

“But now you’re afraid this has to do with him.” Draco’s voice came out tight, and he ignored the little voice in his head telling him that the sick knot in his stomach felt a lot like jealousy.

Ginny dropped the locket, lacing her fingers together in her lap. “It might.”

Draco didn’t answer, face blank as he stared up at the nearly-bare limbs of the tree. He couldn’t understand the emotions burning him up right now, but he didn’t enjoy them one bit. To be honest, he didn’t understand much of anything that he had experienced since Jonathon Pierce walked into his life and gave it a good, hard shake.

“We’d better head back,” Ginny suggested into the quiet. “Breakfast will be over in a bit, and we still need to shower first.”

He glanced over at her, noting the little strands of hair that surrounded her face, having escaped her ponytail when she ran. Part of it, he knew, was also due to bed-head, as they waited until after running to wash. He fleetingly wondered what her hair looked like when she first woke, before a brush or a hair-tie got to it. He wondered if bloody Potter knew. Then he gave himself a hard mental smack for the inane thought and hauled himself to his feet.

“You’re probably right,” he said, just because he felt like he needed to say something or risk exploding.

They walked back to the castled in silence, Draco brooding, angry and then perplexed at himself by turns, while Ginny looked deep in thought. Occasionally, her fingers would come up to play with her locket, but then she would seem to realize what she was doing and drop her hand again.

As soon as they reached the castle Ginny turned to him, eyes not really seeming to see him. “There’s something I have to do,” she told him. “I’ll see you later.” She left him standing in the Entrance Hall, half-jogging towards the stairs. At the base, she paused and turned back to him. “I’ll at least see you again tomorrow morning for our jog, yeah? You haven’t wimped out on me yet?” She treated him to an impish smile.

A smile of his own found its way to his lips, and he shook his head. “No, not yet. I’ll be there. I promised myself that one of these days I’m going to leave you in the dust.”

A challenge like that normally would have drawn some fiery comeback from her, but now she only laughed a little distractedly and went on jogging up the steps. He watched her go with a small frown and chose not to examine his reactions to their talk. A shower. That was all he needed. A shower and something to eat.

That conviction firmly in mind, Draco Malfoy started his way slowly towards the dungeons, definitely not thinking about a certain redheaded Gryffindor. And definitely, definitely not jealous of her concern for Potter.

- - - - -

Ginny sat jiggling her foot through the last class of the day, eyes darting over to the clock every few seconds, each time expecting at least five minutes to have passed.

She couldn’t believe she hadn’t thought about Harry these past weeks. She’d just been so distracted by…things. But now, with all clues pointing towards a rise in Dark activity, it was all she could do to concentrate on anything but Harry. She’d wanted to run straight to the candle after she left Draco, but she had needed to make sure she got in a shower first, and by the time all that was finished, classes were about to start. So she’d gone, and all day had been torture. Now there were ten minutes left, and the seconds seemed to slog by as if wading through a pool of molasses. She sighed, scratching out little doodles on her parchment.

To compound on her guilt over Harry, she felt bad about how she’d acted towards Draco this morning. She still thought he was absolutely mad for telling Nott that brainless excuse, but his intentions at least had been good. Yet again, he was protecting her for no good reason…and she hadn’t exactly been very gracious. He’d seemed a bit miffed, too. Still doodling, she penned an elaborate “DM” on her paper, deciding grudgingly to apologize later.

The final bell of the day rang, making her jump as it jarred her out of her thoughts. Then she scooped all of her things into her bag with one sweep of the arm, shouldered the load, and pushed her way out the door with the rest of the hurried students. The halls teemed with raucous youths, and Ginny grew increasingly frustrated until she finally managed to break free of the crowd and slip down a little-used side hall. From there she met almost no one and could move along as fast as her heavy books would allow. The winding corridors and steep, worn staircases fell away behind her in a rush, but it still seemed to take forever to arrive.

The door to the tower room and the candle inside seemed foreboding in a way it never had before. All day Ginny had been dying to get here, but now that she stood only feet away, she discovered she was afraid. What if she didn’t want to know the answers? What if the candle wouldn’t even show Harry? She felt almost positive it would, according to what she’d read about how it worked, but still…what if?

She set her jaw, tossing back her hair stubbornly. Like Bill always said, nothing would destroy a man faster than asking what if.

She grasped hold of the handle, gave it a hard twist, and swung the door open wide. Late afternoon sun flooded through the wall of windows, momentarily blinding her and leaving her skin bathed in an orange-yellow glow. She inhaled one last steadying breath and stepped into the room.

This time when she uncovered the candle, she sat with her back propped against a window, knees bent and feet planted firmly on the stone floor. She held the candle up before her, staring and waiting; it didn’t disappoint.

The wick flared into life, instantly drawing her into its depths, and soon the crushing, suffocating oblivion fell over her. The period of nothing seemed to last far longer than it ever had before, but then it was hard to tell because all sense of time drifted away in this terrifying limbo. Even so it didn’t feel right to her, and panic mounted by the second before a change finally occurred. She expected Harry’s face to emerge from the blackness. If that failed, she figured Draco would appear. Neither happened.

Instead, what might have been two emerald eyes started to form, and relief washed through her, but then white-blond hair began to fall over them the way it did over Draco’s gray eyes. A face started to take shape as well, but it couldn’t seem to decide if it wanted to be sharp and fine-featured, or tan with softer lines to it. A lightening-shaped scar etched into the forehead, but stopped only half-way completed, and then started to fade again.

Ginny realized Draco and Harry were competing in her mind for the spot of “most preoccupying.” Summoning up a good dose of willpower, she concentrated all of her thoughts on Harry, on his warm eyes like green fire and his wonderfully messy hair and his lean seeker’s body, so much like Draco’s.

At that last thought the budding image of Harry flickered just a little, but she quickly shoved thoughts of Draco to the very back of her mind and redoubled her efforts on Harry. Minutes later, a full picture formed, the scenery building slowly around the boy who sat before a small fire, the flames reflecting off his glasses and blocking his eyes. Ron and Hermione lay on the other side of the blaze, already asleep in their respective blankets. Ginny wondered for a moment why the sun had already set, but then realized he was underground. Damp cavern walls the color of red clay sloped up around him, the floor beneath him hard stone of the same color. By all appearances, the Trio camped in a tunnel.

Ginny moved forward through the scene, swallowing thickly as she tried to stamp down her phobia of closed in, below ground spaces. She distracted herself with questions. Why in the name of everything magical did Harry feel the need to venture underground? Did the Horcrux lie at the end of this cramped passage?

She sat down next to Harry, wishing she could ask all her questions, that he could hear her. Just sitting so near without being able to touch him was torture in itself. Studying him in the unsteady light, though, she discovered something that unsettled her to her very bones: the need to hold him, to kiss him again and feel his arms around her…all of those desires didn’t press on her. She missed him surely, but in a way disturbingly similar to the way she missed Ron. Like a brother.

Her stomach churned sickly, and she gave her head a slow shake of denial. Had it really been so long? Could feelings fade so quickly? Or was it something else? Were they indeed gone, or was it just her fear of being underground preventing her from feeling more romantic?

She was convincing herself of that last possibility when Hermione stirred and lifted her head, blinking blearily. She rubbed at her eyes and crawled quietly over to Harry.

“What are you still doing up?” she whispered.

Harry didn’t look away from the flame. “Couldn’t sleep.”

Hermione frowned a little. “You should try. Tomorrow morning we’ll be—”

Harry’s lips quirked. “Tomorrow morning? For all we know this is morning, we’ve been down here so long.”

“You know what I meant,” she said quietly. Then, “You’re afraid, aren’t you?”

Harry didn’t answer, but he did look over at her.

“It’s all right, you know. We’re close to finding it now, and after that…well, we don’t rightly know. It is scary.” She laid her hand on his arm. “But Harry, that doesn’t make you any less brave. If you weren’t scared, well, you wouldn’t really be doing anything very courageous, would you?”

“I know. It’s just…what if I mess up?”

Hermione gave a little sigh. “You’ve got to stop putting the weight of the Wizarding world on your shoulders. If you mess up, then someone else will make it right again. You’re not obligated at all to be doing this. You’re doing it by choice because you want to do your part. It’s not your responsibility.”

Harry took off his glasses and rubbed tiredly at his eyes. “But it is, Hermione. I’m the one who has this weird connection with him, and I’m the one he’s constantly after. That made it my responsibility…whether I want it or not.”

“Harry—” Hermione started to protest, but he just shook his head.

“Look, I know you’re trying to help, but…I think you were right. I just need to try and sleep. G’night.”

With that, he turned away and wrapped some blankets around his thin frame, curling onto his side with his back to her. She looked at him with a worried expression, eyebrows all cinched together and lips pressed tight, but then she just sighed and shook her head, scooting back to her own blankets.

Ginny’s mind spun with information. They were close to finding it, and Ginny could only assume “it” was the final Horcrux. And You-Know-Who was in a snit over something, so did that mean he knew? Not possible. But still, if he somehow guessed...well, it could be very bad for Harry. But even if all that were so, what could she do?

Nothing. Ginny sat back, defeated with the realization. She would just have to trust in Harry to take care of himself.

The creepy-crawly, panicky feelings brought on from her surroundings started to overwhelm her, and quickly deciding she had learned all she could, she wasted no time in blowing out the flame. The candle’s oblivion closing around her offered no relief, but soon enough it cleared away, leaving her in a wide-open, warm glowing tower room of windows, and she breathed out slowly.

Leaning her head back against the windows, Ginny closed her eyes and forced herself to stay calm, to give herself time to absorb everything. The scene played over again in her mind, and again, until Ginny knew without doubt that she had it committed to memory. A trickle of excitement thrummed through her veins when she realized what this meant — besides a very real possibility for danger. It meant the war very well could stop any time now.

Her thoughts instantly switched gears, turning to Draco: she needed to tell him. This latest development and the hope for an end would thrill him more than anyone else in the castle right now, she could almost swear it.

She pushed herself to her feet and started to hide the candle again, wondering where to start looking for Draco, but stopped when she had it half-way lowered into its hole. An idea came to her, and curiously, she pulled the candle back out, sat down with her legs crossed in front of her, and again willed the flame to burst into life. It did, and the nothingness swallowed her up a third time that afternoon, but this time she bent all of her concentration on Draco.

She had no way of judging for certain, of course, and maybe it was just paranoia, or guilt, or both, but she could have sworn Draco appeared to her much faster than Harry had. The blond stood out by the lake, tossing in rocks and making them skip across the water. The afternoon sun she knew surrounded her physical form stories above this scene flooded him, bouncing off his platinum hair.

Just to experiment, she called his name softly. As she expected, he didn’t respond, but to make sure, she walked right up to him and round to his front. He stared through her, eyes unreadable and pale in the sunlight as they followed the paths of the pebbles he threw. Tentatively, with the breath-holding excitement of getting away with something forbidden, Ginny lifted her hand up to his face. She couldn’t feel the sharp angles of his features, of course, and neither could he notice her touch, but it still looked so out of place, so…weird for her hand to hover in that position, poised over his high cheekbones, brushing against his temple and running over his thin lips.

Suddenly realizing what she was doing, she yanked her hand back as if scorched. She stared disbelievingly at her fingers for a long minute, as if blaming them for the inexplicable whim, then she shook her head slowly and quickly blew out the candle flame before she could dwell on it too much longer.

This time the oblivion of transition hardly affected her, thoughts so distracted by everything that had just transpired through the candle, both with Harry and Draco. When the tower materialized around her again, she willed herself not to brood on either and went about the task of hiding the candle. That done and still holding resolutely to her resolve of ignoring the candle’s visions, she took off at a brisk walk down the winding passages that would bring her to the Entrance Hall again.

Only a few students milled about when she arrived in the more populated areas of the castle, but she only offered them a brief nod or a smile and managed to make it outside without being stopped. Recalling the candle’s picture of Draco, she searched out the spot he should be by the lake and sure enough, there the Slytherin stood, still skipping rocks.

Now her pace slowed, allowing her to approach slowly, to study his tall, lean frame as it hurled out pebble after pebble. She figured he must be summoning them or something, because she didn’t remember that many rocks, especially that many just the right shape for skipping, lying around the lake. He executed each toss perfectly with a powerful throw, and it made Ginny wonder how many afternoons he whiled away in just such a fashion. It made her wonder why someone like him would need to waste away his time in such a pointless pursuit. He seemed simply resigned to existing.

That troubling thought in mind, Ginny started to speed up again, praying that this news would inspire a little hope in him. All at once, though, a realization brought her to an abrupt halt. Telling Draco would require explaining the candle.

She bit her lip, uncertainty stalling her. It was a stupid thing to worry about. After all, why not tell him? But deep down, she knew she wasn’t prepared to do that. Even though it wasn’t really her own secret since Colin showed her in the first place, it felt personal, and she didn’t want to lose that.

And besides, a voice whispered in the back of her mind, she sort of enjoyed the idea of being able to spy on Draco without his knowledge. Did she really want to give up that handy advantage? She immediately felt guilty for such a…Slytherin-like thought…but there it was nonetheless.

So she stood there in the brood afternoon sunlight, staring at Draco and trying to decide what to do. He kept on tossing his stones, oblivious to her stare, and Ginny shut her eyes, riding out this latest wave of guilt for withholding the information that might just make him feel a little better.

“Enjoying the view, are you Weasley?”

Ginny jumped at the voice and spun around. Her heart sank when she recognized Theodore Nott.

“What are you talking about?” she snapped, perhaps a bit nastily, before she could think to ignore him.

He moved up beside her and nodded towards Draco. “I’m talking about him.” He cocked his head towards her. “I must say, it came as quite the shock to discover the youngest Weasley has an interest in the only Malfoy heir.”

Ginny could feel her cheeks flame but stared resolutely forward, clamping down on the urge to shout that she did not have an interest in him. Thanks to bloody Draco, if she didn’t play along, Nott would start to wonder at it and she would compromise her safety all over again. Still, she couldn’t bring herself to act the love-sick girl, so instead she gritted out, “Leave it alone, Nott.”

His lips quirked. “Is that an admission?”

Refusing to look at him, she glared at some distant point. “No, that is me telling you to leave it alone.

“Sounds like an admission to me.”

She finally looked up at him and pasted on a falsely-sweet smile. “Well maybe you should get your ears checked, because I’m telling you to shove off. I’m sure Madam Pomfrey would be happy to oblige.”

One side of his mouth curved into a half-smile. “I can certainly see why he would take a liking to you.”

Ginny blinked, caught off guard by the statement and wondering what exactly he might mean by it. Her stomach started to tighten and her heart pound a little faster at the implications before she realized he was only referring to Malfoy’s lie about finding her attractive and all that rot. She didn’t allow herself to wonder at her initial reaction as Nott kept talking.

“But I still can’t figure your reasons out. It truly baffles me, honestly.”

Ginny looked away stubbornly. “Lucky it’s none of your business then, isn’t it?”

She heard Nott sigh very quietly, and then for a long time neither of them spoke. Finally, Nott said matter-of-factly, “I’d be careful with him if I were you.”

She glanced up, surprised. A small smile flickered over her lips. “Because he’s such a womanizer?”

The Slytherin snorted. “Please. He’s only ever dated Pansy, and maybe fooled around a little with Greengrass. I still don’t know where he gets that reputation….”

Ginny tucked that interesting tidbit away for later consideration. “So what exactly are you warning me from?”

Nott gave a careless shrug. “Things with Malfoy are complicated. Always have been, always will be. Comes with the title. It’s not too late to get out before you get wrapped up in all the games they play. But that happy state might not last for long.”

“‘They’?”

He gave her an ironic smile. “I think we both know which group I’m referring to.”

Ginny frowned. “What are you after?”

“After?”

She crossed her arms. “I’m not stupid. You’ve got no reason to help me. In fact, you’ve got quite a few reasons to hurt me. I know how your lot works, so what’s your motive? What are you getting out of this?”

Nott showed that mysterious half-smile of his again. “Sounds like you’ve already spent too much time around Malfoy.”

“Or just enough to know better than to trust a word you’re saying,” she retorted sweetly.

Nott sighed a little. “Do what you like. It really doesn’t matter to me. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.” He nodded towards Draco. “Because a bloke like him, there’s always going to be trouble.”

Ginny frowned, looking back to Draco who still stood obliviously skipping stones. Of course she knew that nothing with him was simple, but she could handle it. After all, things had never been simple for her, not since Tom Riddle first used her to get to Harry all those years ago. If she could survive that, she could certainly deal with a little Slytherin corruption.

She turned to tell Nott just that, but the boy was gone. She turned a complete circle, eyes sweeping over the grounds, but found no sign of him. She frowned and shook her head, annoyed with how cloak and daggers everything felt these days. Sometimes it got to be just too much.

“Ginny?”

She jumped, spinning around so fast that she nearly fell. Draco’s hand reached out to steady her by the arm, lingering just a moment before falling away. He raised an eyebrow.

“Jumpy?”

She breathed out slowly, then forced a weak smile. “Yeah, guess so.” She tilted her head up to see him and had to raise her hand to shield her eyes from the sun. He seemed far less imposing in broad daylight, the expanse of the grounds making him look somehow smaller. He appeared almost normal, like any other student instead of the “Rich and Powerful Malfoy Heir.” He really was just a person, and that meant he deserved happiness just as much as anyone else, didn’t he? It would only be right to tell him. But she couldn’t forget the reason she hesitated, and felt about ready to scream with the indecision.

“Something the matter?”

She hesitated once more, then relaxed into a smile. “No. Just thought I’d see what you were up to.” She struggled against the urge to squirm under his piercing gaze, positive he would see right through the excuse, positive he could see right through all of her to the core of her guilty conscience.

Finally, he informed her, “It seems like you’re upset.”

“I told you I’m not,” she said a little defensively.

His eyes searched hers again, and she reflexively crossed her arms over her chest. “Why are you lying to me?” he asked at last.

She huffed impatiently. “That’s not fair. Why do you get to be so good at that?”

He smirked. “It’s not that I’m good at finding things out. It’s that you’re very bad at hiding them.”

She scowled at him. “That doesn’t make me feel better.”

He shrugged. “It really wasn’t supposed to. I was just being honest.”

“Never thought I’d hear that from you,” she teased.

The corners of his mouth quirked. “And you probably won’t hear it again any time soon, so savor it.” He started to turn and motioned for her to follow. “So are you going to tell me what’s going on?”

Ginny trailed along beside him as he walked slowly in the direction of the Quidditch pitch. “A lot of things,” she admitted truthfully.

“Like…?”

She looked up at him quizzically. “Curious, since when do my problems matter to you?”

He shrugged, his hands going into his pockets. “Since I was bored and nothing else more interesting presented itself, I suppose.”

“Oh, well, in that case.”

“Ginny,” he sighed, all long-suffering exasperation. “Just spit it out, would you?”

They reached the Quidditch pitch and Draco stepped up into one of the seats, lounging back and looking at her expectantly.

She retuned the look uncertainly for a beat, then grudgingly moved over and sat next to him. “I feel bad about Harry. I feel bad for not being more grateful to you for at least trying to help with Nott. I feel bad about…” she hesitated, “about being so selfish.”

“Guilt,” Draco summed up with a shudder. “Utterly useless, that.”

“It keeps people morally in check so the whole world doesn’t deteriorate into chaos. I’d say that’s pretty useful.”

“It clouds reason,” he argued, so self-assured it sounded like a statement of fact rather than opinion. “And nothing productive ever comes of it.”

“Apologies do.” She smiled a little at him. “Are you saying you don’t want me on my knees begging you for forgiveness about this morning?”

He met her eyes and she thought she caught an unfamiliar glint in them as they darted once, fleetingly, down her body and back. Then he quickly snapped his gaze away and said dryly, “I doubt you would get on your knees. I’d wager you’ve got at least as much pride as I do.”

She laughed. “True. And nice evasion, by the way.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about. Now, about that nasty conscience of yours, my advice is to just forget all of it.”

“Oh, is that all?”

“Obsessing over Potter isn’t going to help him. I understand your reaction this morning, so you can stop worrying about that. If something so little got to me that much I would never make it in Slytherin. And what else were you worried about?”

She hesitated again, not wanting to talk about this, the knowledge that she should bringing on a fresh wave of guilt. “I’m selfish,” she mumbled.

He looked down at her quizzically. “How?”

Ginny looked down at her lap, twining her fingers together and apart again over and over. “I…well, I’m sort of…keeping something from a friend.”

He lifted one pale brow. “Oh good, I was afraid you might be vague.”

Ginny shot him a brief glare. “I can’t rightly tell you either. Just…trust me. I’m being selfish. I’m a terrible person.”

Draco slouched down a little, folding his hands over his midsection thoughtfully. A bird somewhere off in the distance called out, and a breeze blew autumn smells to them — dry leaves and crisp air and wood smoke from the fire Hagrid was beginning to need for warmth. Finally, Draco said, “Well, what are your reasons for being selfish?”

She blinked, pulled out of a trance. “What?”

“To be selfish is to gain something at someone else’s expense.”

“I’m aware of what it means.”

“So what are you gaining?”

Ginny thought it over. She would like to think it was just that the candle felt personal to her, and that was a big part of it, but if she were honest, she knew what really kept her from telling him. “Leverage. If I tell, I also have to tell how I found out…and I don’t want to lose that advantage.” She leaned forward and put her head in her hands, shaking her head. Now that she spoke the words out loud, she felt sick to her stomach and hated herself even more. What was she becoming?

She looked up to the sound of Draco laughing softly.

“What’s so funny?” she snapped.

“You,” he chuckled. “Ginny, that doesn’t make you selfish, that makes you smart.”

She looked at him incredulously. “I’m holding back information that might make someone’s life better, and you’re telling me that’s not selfish?”

“You’re withholding information so that you can stay a step ahead,” he corrected. “And that is smart.” He tilted his head at her. “I’m rather proud of you, actually.”

She rolled her eyes. “You wouldn’t be saying that if I was hiding things from you.”

Draco shrugged. “If you were hiding something from me, and I couldn’t figure it out for myself, then that’s my own fault, isn’t it?”

She shook her head impatiently. “It’s not like that, you don’t understand.”

“So explain.”

She sighed, defeated. “I can’t.”

He nodded. “Well, from what you’ve told me, you’re just learning to control your emotions.” He offered her a small, mocking sort of smile. “Congratulations, you’re starting to think like a Slytherin. Welcome to the world of using your head.”

And she realized he was right. That thought disturbed Ginny more than she cared to acknowledge, so she said nothing, just stared out over the empty Quidditch pitch and heard Nott’s words again in her mind: It’s not too late to get out before you get wrapped up in all the games they play. But that happy state might not last for long.

Ginny couldn’t help but wonder if maybe she should take that advice after all.

- - - - -

A/N – well, this actually wasn’t going to go up for another three days or so, but it’s the night before finals start (when I should be getting plenty of good rest), and I’m wide awake. I figured I’d at least use the time productively lol. Well…actually, using the time productively would be studying…but ah well.

Anyway, thank insomnia for this one.
Misplaced Faith by Hearts Cadence
A/N – Okay, I have an actual excuse this time: I was out-of-state visiting family, which quite literally was non-stop action from when I got up to when I collapsed into bed, and then when I WAS home, I was working on my two one-shots for the holidays. So sorry for the extra long delay. Those holidays…hectic, they are.

Thanks so so SO much for the reviews. I truly appreciate you taking the trouble, and I wish I had time to sit down and respond to each and every one individually. They keep me writing when I’d rather just sleep haha.

And a HUGE, GINORMOUS, HUMUNGO thank you to everyone who nominated me or my stories for absolutely anything in the D/G Awards in the forums. I think every time I noticed a new nomination I let out a little happy squeal haha.

So, in short – THANK YOU!

- - - - -

Chapter 16 — Misplaced Faith

Ginny’s running shoes slapped lightly against the stone steps as she jogged up to Gryffindor Tower from her run with Draco. Her doubt from the day before still hung over her like some dark cloud she just couldn’t shake, and it had made that morning’s jog extremely uncomfortable. Draco had asked her about her unusual silence, but she’d only forced out an unconvincing smile and shook her head.

The Fat Lady allowed her pass with some snide remark to her appearance, but Ginny couldn’t concentrate enough to pay attention and didn’t care anyway. The hot water of the shower washed over her in welcome streams, easing the physical tension of her body, but it could do nothing to ease her troubled mind.

Should she listen to Nott? Maybe she did get in over her head when she started this relationship with Draco. She assumed she could handle it, that she would remain unchanged and immune to his faults. But now she found herself undeniably different, the transformation so slow and so subtle that she never noticed it until yesterday’s revelation with the candle revealed it to her.

She second-guessed people and wondered at their motives. She could no longer see something for just what it appeared, but constantly found herself trying to peer under the surface, trying to lift away a veil that may or may not exist. The need for advantages in any situation was instinct, a Plan B up her sleeve suddenly imperative. She’d thought things were complicated before, but those days now seemed coloring book simple by comparison.

She knew why. Now the only question that remained was what to do about it. She could admit that a little skepticism on her part might actually be an advantage, then cringed as soon as she thought it — there she went again, searching for advantages without conscious effort. But really, was even that such a bad thing? She probably had been a bit naïve to the world before, just a little too quick to trust. Or was that just her newfound “Slytherin logic” talking?

She needed to consider another possibility, as well. Even if she admitted that some of the changes might actually benefit her at present, what if they got worse? Right now she still retained her morals and a sense of guilt when she compromised them, but would even that disappear eventually? Would she turn into an emotionless, cold-hearted Slytherin in a Gryffindor’s guise?

For the millionth time, Nott’s advice to get out while she still could echoed through her mind, but even as it did a sickening realization hit her out of nowhere. Nott was wrong. It already was too late to get out. If she cut things off with Draco now, he might give Pansy the green light to go ahead with that stupid plan of hers. In other words, like it or not, Ginny’s safety depended on him. She needed him, and she was trapped as surely as if he’d tossed her in a cage and called it a favor. How the hell could she let that happen?

With a frustrated scream she slammed the shower taps off, shivering as the cool air instantly froze her wet skin. She snatched up a towel and wrapped it around herself, grabbing another to wring the water out of her hair, and she came to a conclusion. Good or bad, her new personality wasn’t her; it wasn’t what she’d grown up believing in or behaving as, and that unsettled her as one who always knew exactly where she stood. It felt like she didn’t even know herself anymore. And being at someone else’s mercy never settled well with her. Not then, and certainly not now.

She started walking down the steps to the common room, dressed without remembering putting on her clothes, and only broke free of her thoughts at the sound of a muttered curse. She glanced around and found Dean slouched on a sofa, brows knit and stare fixed on the ceiling.

She moved over and sat down sideways on the sofa so that she could face him. He turned his head towards her, offering a tight smile of greeting, and she returned it with a sad smile of her own. “I won’t even bother asking whether or not something’s wrong.”

The smile instantly fell off his face, and he slid even further into the sofa. “That obvious, huh?”

“Just a bit, yeah.” When he volunteered nothing more, she asked kindly, “Want to talk? It might help to get it off your chest.”

He frowned. “It’s Anna.”

Ginny wracked her brain for a second before recalling rumors that Dean had been dating someone new the past few weeks. She assumed Anna was that new “someone.” “She break up with you?”

“Worse.” Dean turned a hateful glare back to the ceiling. “She cheated.”

“Oh, Dean….”

“It gets better,” he said acidly. “When I confronted her with it, she said technically she didn’t cheat on me.”

Ginny raised her eyebrows. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“That’s what I said. She said that she’s been ‘unofficially’ with this other bloke for months, and I was only to make him jealous, so really, she cheated on him. Apparently it worked though, because they’re quite together now. Officially.”

Ginny could only shake her head to that. “What did you say?”

He smiled bitterly. “I told her I was glad I could help and left. We haven’t spoken since.”

“Oh, Dean, that’s awful. Anything I can do to help?” She smiled weakly. “Chocolate helps sometimes.”

“No…” he trailed off, seeming lost in thought, then he suddenly straightened up, twisting around to face her better. Ginny didn’t like the look in his eyes. “Actually, if you’re offering, I just had an idea.”

Cautiously, Ginny asked, “What, exactly?”

“We dated before, yeah?”

“Uh, yes….”

“So it wouldn’t be too weird if we, you know, did boyfriend/girlfriend things again, would it?” The fevered excitement in his gaze was growing by the second, but Ginny’s confidence in the whole situation was crumbling apart.

“What do you mean, boyfriend/girlfriend things?” she asked suspiciously. “What are you trying to get at?”

“I could turn her own game against her! Or rather, we could.”

Catching on, Ginny shook her head. “No way, Dean. I’m not getting involved in all of this, and I’m certainly not faking a relationship with you just to get a girl who’s obviously not worth it jealous. Why would you want someone like that back anyway?”

“I don’t want her back,” Dean insisted. “I just want to get back at her. Please? For old time’s sake. What do you say Gin-bug?”

Ginny shook her head again. She hated petty drama like this, and she refused to get sucked into it. Besides, even if she wanted to she couldn’t let on that she and Dean were an item because that would muck up the other charade she already maintained with Draco. Her temper boiled at that — yet another part of her life dictated by the Slytherin. Another way he had her trapped.

Something in her snapped then. She had always been fiercely independent, maybe from growing up in a household of older brothers or maybe just inherently, but either way she could not tolerate anyone holding her down. A Slytherin, especially a bloody Malfoy, would not be the first to succeed in that. So screw Draco; she would do whatever happened to strike her fancy no matter what he had to say about it.

She smiled at Dean. “Well, since you put it that way….”

- - - - -

Draco sat ignoring the noise of the Great Hall, using his fork to push the suspicious looking substance on his plate back and forth.

He didn’t bother turning his attention away from the task when someone sat down next to him, but did look up when that person said, “You should try it. It’s not half bad.”

Draco only just remembered not to glare at Nott. The git was getting to be a serious thorn in his side, and though Ginny hadn’t said as much, he had a feeling Nott somehow caused her somber mood this morning too. “I don’t ingest things that I can’t identify by sight,” he said dryly. “Especially not at breakfast.”

Nott shrugged. “Your loss.” His eyes swept briefly over the Hall, but stopped mid-survey, a slow smile curling his lips. “Hmmm. That’s interesting.”

Despite his better judgment, Draco followed the direction of Nott’s gaze to the Gryffindor table and for several seconds, could only stare.

Dean Thomas had one arm around Ginny’s waist, his head bent to whisper something in her ear that made her smile and shove him playfully. That in itself was enough to make Draco’s eyes narrow and his knuckles turn white around his fork, but then the other boy picked a strawberry from the fruit bowl and actually fed it to her. To his utter disbelief, she went along and even let him brush a kiss over her lips afterwards. Only the weight of Nott’s measuring eyes kept Draco from going over there that second and pounding that Gryffindor poof into the floor.

“Things go sour between you two?” Nott asked innocently.

Draco could honestly think of no excuse for Ginny’s behavior. What the bloody hell did she think she was doing? Idiot, idiot girl! How could she expect him to keep her safe if she didn’t cooperate? Fumbling for answers, Draco slipped into a bored demeanor, refusing to let his confusion and anger show. “I miffed her a bit last night. This is just her juvenile way of trying to get back at me.”

Nott raised his eyebrows, looking back over to the intimate Gryffindor couple. “And it doesn’t bother you? You’re usually quite protective of your current conquest. I seem to recall you warning me off her.”

Draco shot a glare in his direction. “And that warning still stands, but this,” Draco waved his hand towards the Gryffindor table, “I don’t care. Once she sees her little plan isn’t working, she’ll come crawling back. And I’ll make sure that Thomas git knows better than to touch what’s mine in the future.” Watching said git with quiet fury, Draco knew that he wasn’t lying in the least about that last.

He didn’t dare show any more concern over the matter while Nott sat by to witness it, but the second the other boy strolled out of the Hall Draco rose noisily to his feet, making sure to catch Ginny’s attention, and subtly motioned for her to meet him outside. Then he strode out of the room, stopping to pace once the doors closed behind him.

It seemed like hours passed, Draco’s irritation soaring with every drawn out moment, before she finally walked through the great wooden doors. Seeing him, she stopped and crossed her arms. “What? I was sort of in the middle of something.”

Missing her anger as a result of his own, he just grabbed her hand and started dragging her away from the Great Hall, ignoring her protests.

He led her a long ways off before she snapped, not for the first time, “Draco, let go” and finally managed to wrench her hand free of his tight grip.

They stood in the middle of a hallway, not as secluded as Draco would have liked but far enough out-of-the-way that he decided it was safe. And anyway, his patience had run out. “What the hell did you think you were doing in there?!” he demanded, stepping up to tower over her.

She didn’t back down even though she had to tilt her head back to meet his eyes, matching the fire in his stare easily and planting her hands on her hips. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

His lip curled. “Don’t even try that game. You’re not as sweet as you’d like everyone to believe. You were acting like a whore and you know it.”

Her eyes blazed. “Excuse me?

“Oh, come off it. You were all over him! You let him bloody well feed you strawberries and snog you!”

She folded her arms over her chest. “That’s generally how a girl behaves with her boyfriend.”

Draco stared, struck speechless for a long moment. Finally, he managed, “Boyfriend? You’re dating him?”

“I better be, else some people might say I acted like a whore just now,” she retorted sarcastically.

Draco turned his back to her, burying his hands in his hair in frustration. “How could you date him, you stupid girl?”

“What, now I’m not allowed boyfriends anymore?” Her voice rose, climbing painfully high in pitch. “Oh, that’s right, because you want it to look like I’m falling all over myself for you. Well excuse me for not catering to your precious reputation!”

He spun and grasped both of her shoulders, shoving her roughly against the wall. “What the hell are you talking about?! Did you forget the whole reason for all of this mess? Do you honestly think I enjoy this shit, playing your personal body guard?” He punctuated the words by giving her a small shake. “Because that’s all I’m doing, protecting your ungrateful arse!”

Her eyes burned into his, fierce and uncompromising. Very quietly, she said, “Draco, get your hands off of me right now, or I swear to God you’ll regret it.”

They glared at each other in a silent battle of wills for several seconds, then slowly, Draco’s fingers relaxed from her shoulders and he stepped back. He took a deep breath. “Look, I had to try and explain to Nott this morning why you were suddenly so interested in Thomas when you were supposed to fancy me. I think I might’ve convinced him for now, but you better break things off quick because I can’t keep covering for you like this. It doesn’t have a damn thing to do with my reputation. It’s your neck on the line, not mine.”

Ginny stared at him for a long moment, then shook her head slowly as if emerging from a fog. She closed her eyes and slid her back down the wall to the floor, resting her head in her hands so that her hair fell over her face like a curtain of flame. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I…it was stupid of me. You’re right. It won’t happen again.” She gave a short, humorless laugh. “It’s not like I’m even with Dean. Not really, anyway.”

Draco felt his forehead wrinkle in confusion. “What? But you said…”

“We were faking,” she sighed. “To make his ex-girlfriend jealous.”

He shook his head, unable to believe what he was hearing. “You’ve got to be joking.”

“I know, I know. It was immature and juvenile and I didn’t really want to do it either, it’s just…” she stopped and lowered her face again. When she finally picked up her train of thought, it was in a murmur. “It’s just that I can’t do this anymore, Draco.”

He closed his eyes, trying to keep up with her mood swings and erratic thought process. “Now what are you on about? Can’t do what?”

She looked up at him, motioning between the two of them. “This. You and me. This twisted friendship we have, if you can call it that. I can’t do it anymore. I’m changing, and…and I don’t really like what I’m becoming.”

He felt every muscle in his body tense at once, his face instantly tightening into a mask. “What’s that supposed to mean, you’re changing?”

“You made me paranoid, Draco!” she cried. “I can’t even take a compliment without wondering what the person wants from me anymore!”

“So what are you saying? You just want to pretend it never happened? Laugh it all off as a lark?”

She shrugged helplessly, refusing to meet his eyes.

He started pacing, unable to stand still any longer, mind racing. He should have seen this coming. His whole life had taught him that everyone had a motive in this world, and no one was above using anyone else. Honest warmth was a fairytale, and not even this lovely Gryffindor sweetheart was an exception. Something in him hardened then, some part of him that she’d started to soften without him even noticing until now.

“I’m sorry,” she tried weakly, but he just shook his head.

“Forget it. You just did what you had to do.”

Her eyes widened, and she shook her head. “No, Draco you don’t understand, it’s not like that.”

He raised his eyebrows, then smiled coldly. “That’s the difference between your sort and mine, Weasley. At least mine can admit what we are.” Then he turned abruptly and strode away, leaving her sitting in the hall.

- - - - -

Jonathon Pierce frowned at a vast tapestry hanging on the wall, its faded threads depicting some long forgotten duel between two pompous-looking wizards. He could tell that if they ever did exist, they’d had more ego each than brains between them. They’d been men like the ones squabbling in the room behind him, hiding behind their masks in the safety of their dank little headquarters. Men more interested in pointing the finger than fixing a matter.

He smiled bitterly at that, shaking his head and turning his back to the tapestry. He’d spent all of his life trying to find acceptance with these people, to be one of them, making sacrifices no normal man could have stayed sane through, yet he despised them. Amazing what a man would do just to belong somewhere.

His forearm throbbed lightly, and he glanced down at the still aching Mark on his arm, proof that he’d found his acceptance after all. But he knew he would never be one of them. He hated them too much. Of course, he hated pretty much everything anymore.

He smirked. Maybe he was more like them than he thought.

Just then the door swung open, yellow light spilling into the narrow hallway. Snape strode out, the door sucking up the light again as it shut behind him.

Pierce raised his eyebrows. “Meeting adjourned already?”

Snape laughed harshly. “If only. No, they’re still at it.”

“And you’re not at it with them?”

“We both know it makes no difference. The Dark Lord will choose as he wishes, no matter what his followers want. I’ve made my opinion abundantly clear; the rest is out of my hands.”

Pierce nodded, lifting his eyes to the ceiling. He noticed a crack in the stone where water gathered, dripping down occasionally.

“What did you tell Minerva?” Snape asked.

“That I got an urgent owl requesting my presence immediately to deal with a family emergency.” He shrugged. “Not brilliant, I know, but this bloody thing felt like a hot iron being ground into my skin by the time I found the woman,” he explained, indicating the Dark Mark. “I couldn’t think all that clearly at the time.”

“That’s all right. I know how you like your elaborate fibs, but I’ve always felt the vaguer the better.”

Pierce shrugged, then after a moment of silence, nodded his head towards the door. “So what was the tone in there when you left?”

Snape’s expression darkened. “They don’t know what they want. Some agree with Lucius and think you’re taking too long, although even they aren’t sure it’s wise to take control from you, while others still trust in your abilities. Honestly, most of them can’t decide what they think.”

“Lucius,” Pierce muttered under his breath, glaring at some point in space. “He’s just sore because he knows I’m accomplishing what he couldn’t with his own son, and now I’ve got to deal with all of this bollocks because of it. I swear I feel like I’m standing bloody trial.”

And trial it was, Pierce knew, because if they did take control from him, it meant failure, and in this company, failure meant death.

“I wouldn’t worry. Everyone knows the Dark Lord favors you…for the time being anyway. Even over Lucius.”

Pierce nodded tiredly, knowing it was true. That was the only reason he ever got by — people liked him. Not even cold-hearted Severus Snape had been able to resist his charisma. He wondered what would happen when age stole away his boyish looks and the years dulled his mind. How would he survive? He shook his head. No time to be worrying about that now.

“So why do I have to stand around out here like a prisoner waiting to hear his sentence?”

“The Dark Lord has to make it at least look fair,” Snape pointed out. “If he just made all his decisions without consulting his men, whether he actually listens to them or not, they would get restless and his army would fall apart. He knows that.”

Pierce made a face. “Politics.”

Snape chuckled. “Your whole life has been politics. For hating them so much, you’re the best politician I’ve ever met.”

“Yes, well, I never said I particularly liked my life very much either, did I?”

“Gods, Jon, when did you get so bitter?”

Pierce pulled out his broadest, most sincere grin. “Why, what do you mean? I’m just chipper, Sevvy.”

Snape rolled his eyes. “You’re impossible.”

“I try.”

The door creaked open and Lucius filled the space, arms crossed under a glowering face. “The Dark Lord would speak with you,” he announced tightly, then spun around and marched back into the room. Pierce raised his eyebrows at Snape, who shrugged, and followed the pale man into the room.

All the most important Death Eaters sat assembled around a long table, every expressionless face turned towards him. Lord Voldemort himself sat at the head, long-fingered hands clasped loosely before him on the tabletop.

“Jonathon,” he greeted in his thin, raspy voice. “Welcome.”

Pierce bent into a slight bow. “M’lord,” he returned calmly, giving a mental eye-roll at the ridiculous title.

“You know why you were summoned.”

Pierce shot a hot glare at Lucius. “As I understand, some believe that my efforts are taking too long and wish to seize control of the mission before time runs out and he graduates.”

Voldemort nodded, scarlet eyes glinting in the torchlight and unreadable. “What do you have to say to these charges?”

“I say that half the year is not yet out,” Pierce reminded. “The Christmas holidays haven’t even arrived. I have a plan that’s progressing smoothly, and he’ll be yours again before the year is out. There is no cause for worry.”

A ghost of a smile flitted over Voldemort’s thin lips. “Ah, yes, your plan. Severus tells me you’re playing matchmaker with bloodtraitors now.”

Pierce glanced in annoyance at Snape, but quickly turned his gaze back to Voldemort. “Yes, lord. I thought it the best course. Men do stupid things when they fancy themselves in love. Their perspective on everything changes.”

Voldemort nodded, his lips pressed tight. “Women as well,” he agreed with just suppressed fury in his voice, eyes far off as if remembering. Pierce just had time to wonder at the story behind that when he continued, “So tell me, what are your plans once young Draco finds himself in love?”

Pierce felt his stomach clench, a moment of panic washing through him, and he cleared his throat. “Well, my lord, I hadn’t exactly made any definite decisions…”

Lucius leapt from his chair, eyes shining with triumph. “He doesn’t even know! He’s wasting time and hasn’t even got a clue what he’ll do if he succeeds!”

Pierce ignored Lucius, keeping his hazel eyes firmly on Voldemort. Like Snape said, he was the only one that truly mattered. “As I was saying, I have made no definite decisions. I’ve found in these matters that opportunities tend to present themselves at just the right moment.” Lucius scoffed from his side, but Pierce went on, “However, if nothing better shows itself, I planned on simply killing the girl.”

Voldemort cocked his head curiously. “Not that I disapprove of ridding the world of a bloodtraitor, but how exactly will that help the mission?”

Pierce smiled wryly. “By that point Draco will be so mad with grief he’ll be looking for someone to blame. He’ll believe anything. I’ll convince him that it was the Order’s doing, either because she learned something she shouldn’t have or because she was needed as a sacrifice of some sort, it doesn’t really matter why. All he’ll care about is that they did it.” He smiled again. “And what better way to get revenge than join the enemy, climb the ranks, and strike back with an army at his back? All in the name of love, of course.”

Silence hung over the assemblage for a long time, Voldemort’s blood-colored eyes fixed emotionlessly on Pierce. Then suddenly, he threw back his head and let out a high, rasping laugh that reminded Pierce of nails on a chalkboard. It took all his will not to cringe from the sound.

“Brilliant, Jonathon! It would be worth the trouble just for the entertainment! He let his hand fall on the tabletop like a gavel. “It’s decided, then. You will maintain control of the mission, though I still want progress reports from Severus from time to time.” He smiled, baring sharp, yellowed teeth. “I look forward to seeing this unfold.”

“But, my lord!” Lucius protested.

“Silence!” Voldemort hissed at him. “I’ve had enough of your whining. Your case has been heard and denied. There is no longer room for discussion in the matter.”

Lucius’s gray eyes burned hatred as they moved from Voldemort to Pierce, but he nodded stiffly anyway, sitting with his lips compressed into a thin white line.

Satisfied quirk to his lips, Pierce bowed low to Voldemort. “Thank you, lord. Your faith honors me.”

Voldemort nodded. “You’d best get back. Minerva will be missing you.”

“Of course.” He gave one last bow, a nod and a quick impish smile to the rest of the men there, then walked out of the room feeling much lighter. Snape followed him.

“You never told me of that plan,” Snape remarked.

Pierce chuckled low. “Probably because I just made it up.”

Snape stopped, staring at him in disbelief. “Excuse me?”

“Not half bad for spur of the moment, huh?”

Snape shook his head slowly. “To even spend a moment in that head of yours…” he wondered to himself. “It’s a miracle you haven’t gotten yourself into worse trouble yet.”

Pierce grinned. “You said it yourself, Sev. I’m the greatest politician you’ve met.” Then with a wink, he pulled out his wand and apparated with a resounding crack. He reappeared at the edge of Hogsmeade, only a light flow of traffic crowding the village street. He shouldered his cloak tighter against the cold and smiled to himself as he started back towards the castle.

He felt good. He usually never worried about the future — he wasn’t lying when he said opportunities tended to just present themselves — but the more he thought about it, the more he grew to like his spontaneous plan. In any case, it wouldn’t hurt to have a back up.

The light disposition carried him all the way back to the castle and through the Entrance Hall, where he quite literally collided with someone in a far less happy mood. He regained his balance in front of Draco, who stood scowling with eyes still flashing in anger.

“Sorry Professor,” he muttered, turning on his heel towards the dungeons.

“Draco, wait,” Pierce called, jogging after him and taking his elbow to turn him about. “What’s wrong?”

The boy narrowed his eyes at him, all cold hatred. “Nothing.” He paused. “Though, if there was, I would have you to thank, Professor.” Then he tore out of Pierce’s grasp and strode down to the dungeons.

Pierce sighed heavily. Good spirits could never last for long. So now what was wrong with the brat? Obviously asking him would accomplish nothing, not until he cooled down at least. And how could the issue be Pierce’s fault?

It didn’t take more than a second for him to connect the dots. It must have something to do with Weasley, because Pierce could think of nothing else that would shatter Draco’s famed control so much, and a spat between the two teens would technically be his fault, as he introduced the two into friendship to begin with. He sighed. Just brilliant. He just got done telling Voldemort that the plan was coming along swimmingly, and now this.

Pierce glanced towards the dungeons, but decided against going after Draco…just yet. He would give the boy a little time to cool off before he talked to him. First he would have to find Weasley and get the story from her so that he at least knew what kind of road block he was up against.

That proved a bit more difficult a task than he planned. None of the portraits he asked had seen her, nor had any of the students he passed. She wasn’t in the library, Great Hall, or her common room. He was just about to give up when he glanced out a window and, to his immense annoyance, spotted her sitting outside, right there in plain sight beneath the old oak by the lake.

He walked back to the Entrance Hall at a brisk pace, praying she wouldn’t move before he got there, and out through the doors just as quickly. She still sat there when he reached the oak, back against the tree trunk and her knees drawn up to her chest.

He sat quietly beside her. “You look just about miserable,” he observed with a sad smile.

She blinked several times and turned to look at him. “Oh, Professor. What are you doing out here?”

“I saw you through a window back in the castle. It looked like you might appreciate some company.”

“Oh, well, thank you, but I’m fine. Just…thinking.” She turned her eyes back to the lake.

“Mind if I ask what’s on your mind? Sometimes talking a thing out makes it come clearer.”

She shook her head. “No, that’s all right. Thank you, but…this is really something I’ve got to work out on my own.”

Pierce had to resist the urge to take out his wand and kill the girl right there. Swallowing an exasperated sigh, he tried a different tactic. Speaking gently, he asked, “It wouldn’t have anything to do with Mr. Malfoy, would it?”

Her head snapped around so fast he thought she must have suffered whiplash. “Why? What did he say?”

Pierce smiled sympathetically. “He didn’t say anything, but I think I just got my answer.”

She blinked, realizing her slip, then sighed. “How did you guess?”

“Well, I did run into Draco. Literally, actually. He seemed fairly upset, but he was about as stubborn as you when it came to explanations.” Pierce shrugged. “Then I saw you out here, and considering the time you two have been spending together, I assumed.”

Ginny was quiet a long time before she whispered, “I think I might have made a mistake.”

“How is that?”

She closed her eyes as if pained. “I…I sort of…broke off our friendship.”

The words felt like ice injected straight into his veins, but he forced himself to stay calm. “But you two were getting along so well. At least as far as I could tell.”

She grimaced. “Yeah…it wasn’t that. It’s just…” she sighed, defeated. “He’s changed me.”

“Changed you?”

“I’m acting more and more like him,” she explained. “Second-guessing motives, getting cynical, finding it hard to trust other people, things like that. Slytherin things. Things that aren’t me.”

Pierce fought the urge to roll his eyes. So it was a teenage identity crisis. Just what he wanted to deal with. “Do you dislike him?” he asked.

Ginny frowned. “Not too long ago and I would have told you that I loathed him with everything I am.”

“But now?”

She sighed. “The truth? No, I don’t. He makes me feel…I don’t know. Like I don’t have to worry about anyone’s approval. With him it’s…” she smiled, “this is gonna sound corny, but with him…it’s freedom. I don’t get that from any of my other friends. Not even Luna, for Merlin’s sake.”

Pierce felt a wave of satisfaction, hiding his triumph behind a carefully considerate mask. “Sounds like a pretty decent person to me.”

“I know what you’re getting at. If he’s so great, why am I so upset that I’m turning into him? I already thought of that, but the things is, yeah, there are parts of him I respect. But there’s also parts I can never agree with. I could look past those parts in him, but in me?” She shook her head. “I don’t want to be that.”

Personally, Pierce thought she could use a bit of Draco’s Slytherin wiles. A good dose of reality wouldn’t hurt the naïve girl. But he knew it was pointless to argue with that streak of Gryffindor honor, so instead he introduced a new thought. “I understand. But I’m curious, have you ever considered the flip side of this coin?”

For the first time, a look of confusion crossed her face. “Flip side?”

Pierce nodded. “Just think on this. You say he’s affecting you. Do you honestly believe then that you’re not affecting him?”

She frowned. “You think so?”

He smiled. “Miss Weasley, I know so. Beyond a doubt.”

She shook her head. “How can you be so sure? He doesn’t seem very different to me.”

“Oh? Would the old Draco Malfoy have pretended to support a cause he hates, with no conceivable gain for himself, in order to protect a friend?”

“No,” Ginny had to admit. “Never.”

“It’s certainly not a very Slytherin thing to do,” Pierce agreed. “So, yes, perhaps a bit of his Slytherin tendencies have rubbed off on you. But know that you’ve put some Gryffindor in him as well.”

A half-smile turned up a corner of her mouth. “I never thought about it like that before. You’re right, I guess. It’s just…he still seems so…so Draco.”

“Because he’s the same person,” Pierce replied simply. “The very same one you just told me makes you free. The only difference is the addition of a conscience, however minor.” He caught her eyes. “Just like you’re the same person, you know. You have all the same courage and honor and morals and compassion you ever had…only now you’re just a little bit wiser to the world.”

She seemed uncertain, but thoughtful too. She wanted to believe. “You don’t think he’ll change me?”

“Oh, for certain he will. But you change every day simply by living and experiencing. Are you exactly the same now as you were when you first stepped into the halls of that castle?”

She shook her head.

“But you’re still you, are you not?” When she gave a grudging nod, he said, “Exactly. I know it’s scary, but there’s nothing wrong with changing. We must be able to adapt in order to survive.” He paused, then added “These are dangerous times, Miss Weasley. The things Draco teaches you now may well keep you alive later. You would be foolish to ignore those lessons simply because they’re labeled ‘Slytherin,’ just as he would be foolish to ignore the lessons of compassion and right and wrong that you can teach him.”

The girl pulled her knees closer to her chest, sitting silently that way for a long time. At long last, she whispered, “I really did make a mistake.”

“You’re fortunate though.” Pierce gave a comforting smile. “This is one mistake that you can rectify.”

How? You think he’s going to just forgive and forget something like this? I destroyed his trust, threw everything he did for me back in his face, and the worst part is he doesn’t even understand why. He thinks I was just using him.”

Pierce hated to admit it, but the girl had a point. Draco was a stubborn pain in the arse if ever there was one. “I’ll talk to him,” he promised. “Don’t worry. Just be ready to say sorry when the time comes.”

Ginny looked at him, eyes full of surprise and gratitude. “Are you sure? I feel terrible about dragging you into this whole mess.”

He grinned teasingly. “Trust me, I’m not doing it for you. I was quite enjoying my holiday from breaking up hallway duels, thank you very much.”

She gave a strained laugh, and he stood up, shaking fallen leaves from his robes. Suddenly, she said, “Oh, uh…I hope I didn’t…offend you or anything. It’s not that I think being Slytherin is bad, I just — ”

Pierce chuckled and held up a hand. “I understand. Don’t worry, my feelings are still intact.”

Obvious relief relaxed her tense posture. Almost shyly, she said, “Thank you, Professor.” A warm, genuine smile appeared on her lips. “For everything.”

Pierce inclined his head, responding with a kindly smile of his own…and absently wondered how best to go about killing her if the time came.
The First Move and an Epiphany by Hearts Cadence
Chapter 17 – The First Move and an Epiphany

Draco lay on his back, eyes fixed on the canopy of his bed as he tossed a practice snitch back and forth between his hands. When the knock came he didn’t bother answering, but the door opened anyway.

“You know,” he said dryly, without looking over, “generally when you knock and no one acknowledges it, that’s a good clue to sod off.”

“I thought maybe you might make an exception for me.”

Draco jumped at the sound of Professor Pierce’s voice, losing the snitch so that it zipped away from his grasp and became a gold blur in the room. Pierce chuckled and used his wand to summon back the errant ball.

“Surprised to see me?” he asked, amusement in his eyes as he handed Draco the snitch.

“Professors usually don’t visit the dormitories,” Draco mumbled, sitting up by now and trying to regain his lost composure.

“Sorry for the breach in conduct. I just wanted to speak with you before your match.” He cocked his head, sandy hair shaggier-looking than ever as it fell over his forehead. “This is the big one, isn’t it? The big show-down between Gryffindor and Slytherin to see who goes on and who’s finished for the season?”

“Don’t worry, Professor.” Draco’s mouth was a hard line, jaw set. “You’ll get your Cup. I’m going to make sure Weasley’s so thoroughly beaten she won’t want to show her face again.”

Pierce sighed, pulling over a trunk to sit on. “I’m not here to make sure you’ll win, Draco.”

Draco took on a wary expression. “Then what’s wrong?”

“Nothing, nothing. I just wanted to talk to you about Miss Weasley.”

Draco went tense. What did Pierce know about it? “Yes…?”

“Why don’t you just tell me what she did?”

Draco swung his legs up onto the bed, leaning back so he sat half-reclined against his pillows. He did not want to discuss this. “I don’t know what you mean. What she did when?”

“Draco,” Pierce sounded slightly exasperated, “we have a fair bit of history, wouldn’t you say? Let’s just drop all the games and get to it. You know what I’m referring to.”

Draco suddenly felt such an intense surge of dislike for the man that it surprised even him. Pierce was the reason for all of this to begin with, using Draco from the start to achieve his own ambitions of carrying the House to the top. And, remembering now his earlier thoughts that Jonathon Pierce was far too sly for his own good, Draco began to wonder if even that goal was true. What did the man really want? Because Draco was beginning to have his doubts, and he was tired of being strung along.

Thinking his words over carefully, Draco answered, “I will win this match. I promise I’ll be avoiding her, so you don’t have to worry about losing House points. Slytherin will succeed, and you’ll get your glory. So what does it matter to you my relationship with Ginny? …Sir.”

Pierce raised his eyebrows at the hint of hostility. His reply came soft and serious. “You’re distracted. You honestly believe you’ll be able to play when all you can think is revenge? You’ll never spot the gold when all you can see is red.”

Draco gave a sardonic smile. “So you are here to make sure I win.”

The lightest shade of pink flushed Pierce’s cheeks, and Draco felt quite gratified to see it. Pierce’s eventual reply came slowly, cautiously. “I would like to see you win, of course, but I wasn’t lying when I said that wasn’t my purpose for coming. Is it so far fetched to think that perhaps I care about your well-being?”

Draco snorted. “You made it abundantly clear from the beginning that our agreement had nothing to do with emotion. It was all mutual gain, remember?”

Pierce smiled, but the expression had a hard edge to it. “The thing about the beginning is that it always changes by the end. I already said we’ve built a lot of history these past months. I don’t know where you stand, but for myself, things are different now.”

Draco wanted to roll his eyes. Did Pierce honestly believe he would listen to tales of caring from a fellow Slytherin? Especially after he’d seen firsthand the man’s skill with game-playing.

After several moments of silence, Pierce said, “Fine, I suppose I can’t expect you to trust me. I had hoped after everything…” he trailed off, shook his head. “So don’t tell me for my benefit. Tell me for yours. Trust me or don’t, I might still be able to help, and what have you got to lose?”

Now Draco did roll his eyes, unable to help himself. “You’re the one who said to drop the games, Professor. I think you were right. We should. And I also think you already know full well what happened, so there’s really no need for me to bother telling it again, is there?”

Pierce smiled tightly, eyes narrowing just slightly. “I know something of what happened. I don’t know your perspective on it, though.”

“It’s just like her perspective, only higher up.”

Pierce crossed his arms, eyeing Draco frankly. “Funny, I took you for a lot of things, but never a coward.”

Draco laughed, short and humorless. “A coward? How do you figure that?”

“You’re afraid to face your own emotions,” Pierce returned coolly, never breaking that heavy, blunt gaze. “Because, believe it or not, you have them, Mr. Malfoy. We Slytherins like to delude ourselves into thinking we’re very logical, clever people above petty things like feelings, but the truth is most of us are just too scared to face them. So we hide them away where we don’t have to deal with them and call it intelligence when it’s really only cowardice in disguise.” His gaze turned slightly contemptuous. “I thought you were above all that, though. But I suppose even I misjudge character on occasion.”

Draco felt his temper begin to crackle just beneath the surface. “I’m not hiding anything.”

“For not hiding anything, you’re certainly not sharing much.”

“Maybe I just don’t want to discuss my private life with you!”

“Or maybe you’re just too cowardly to say the words out loud!”

Draco was on his feet then, fists clenched. “You want to know what happened? Fine! She was all over that Thomas bloke in the Great Hall, and when I tried to ask her what the hell she thought she was doing, she proceeded to inform me that she couldn’t be around me anymore!” His breath came rapidly, eyes ablaze with remembering. “She got the protection she needed from me and ended it first chance she got. There, that’s my perspective. Happy?”

In an instant Pierce’s entire demeanor underwent a transformation, softening and turning sympathetic. “I’m sorry,” he said quietly.

Draco snorted, tossing himself back against the pillows once more. “Save it. I’m better off.”

“Are you?”

“Look at the mess she’s gotten me into already,” Draco pointed out. “With her out of my life, everything can go back to the way it was.”

Quietly, Pierce asked, “You mean miserable?”

“I wasn’t, and am not, miserable just because she’s not hanging about making a nuisance,” Draco snapped.

Pierce raised his eyebrows, then bent down and flipped up a section of Draco’s duvet, revealing a half-emptied bottle of firewhiskey stashed beneath the bed. He lifted it up and swished around the meager contents. “Not miserable, hmmm?”

Draco gave a sharp mental curse, silently berating himself for having done such a shoddy job of hiding the bottle the night before. But then, he had been rather drunk at the time. “There are other reasons to drink,” he defended himself coolly.

“But none that you would engage in. You’re not the type to tolerate losing control without very good reason.” Pierce gave him a pointed look. “And you’re also not stupid enough to risk punishment for possession of alcohol by keeping it stashed under your own bed…again, unless you had very good reason to need it right on hand.”

Draco scowled. “Do you have a point you plan on getting to?” Somewhere in the back of his mind he knew he was crossing the line speaking to a professor with so little respect, but just then it couldn’t have bothered him less. Pierce could expel him for all he cared.

The professor just ignored the improper conduct. “I do, actually. Like it or not, you were happier around Miss Weasley. Despite all the mess that resulted, and all the confusing emotions she put you through, you were happier, and you can’t tell me you weren’t.”

“You’re mad.”

“You’re in denial.”

Draco swiveled around to face Pierce. “Aren’t you sort of forgetting something? Like the fact that she announced she’s finished with me? There’s no point arguing over whether I was happy or not, because it doesn’t make any damn difference!”

“She’s as human as you and me,” Pierce reminded him quietly. “She makes mistakes just the same. You might be surprised by the difference between what she said to you and what she really feels.”

Draco shook his head, resisting the hope sneaking up on him, hating it and hating Pierce for creating it.

“It’s worth finding out,” Pierce went on, undeterred. “You have something special with her. Something worth fighting for.”

“Yeah? And what’s that?” Draco asked, irritated.

Pierce’s smile came slowly and a little sadly. “You really haven’t figured it out yet, have you?”

Draco frowned defensively. “Figured what out?”

Pierce shook his head. “Remarkable,” he muttered. “So blind.” Then he met Draco’s eyes firmly. “You’re not going to like the truth.”

An alarm went off somewhere in Draco’s head, a sharp warning, only for what he had no clue. But curiosity got the better of instinct. “Didn’t we already cover the no game-playing bit?”

Pierce’s serious gaze never wavered from his. “Fine, I’ll be frank then. You’re in love.”

It took a long time for Draco to react. Silence wrapped around him, seeming to somehow restrict even movement. All life came to a halt, a spell putting everything on pause. Then, abruptly, he doubled over in laughter. “How can you say that with a straight face?” he asked between gasps for air, wiping tears from the corners of his eyes.

Pierce didn’t so much as crack a smile, but he didn’t look upset or even surprised by Draco’s reaction either. “Tell me,” he said quietly, “why else did you got so angry, are still so angry, to see her with another young man?”

Draco’s amusement faded. “I didn’t care,” he snapped. “She was just mucking up a plan of ours. Awhile ago some people were getting suspicious about how much time I was spending with her, so I made up this story about her fancying me. Obviously, her hanging off some other bloke compromises that.”

Pierce looked unconvinced. “All right, for the sake of argument, let’s just say that’s true and that you’re not rationalizing. Even so, it doesn’t explain your behavior now.”

“My behavior is perfectly normal.”

“Draco, you got drunk on school grounds and left the evidence where I could find it without even looking.”

“I’m not in love!” Draco got up to pace restlessly. “Do you have any idea how ridiculous you sound? People like me don’t love.”

Pierce smiled grimly. “People are people. Everyone is equally capable of love and hate too. Some people just have a bit more trouble with it than others.” He sighed. “But I can see you’re not willing to listen right now. Perhaps you’ll eventually accept it in your own time.” He shrugged as if to say “I tried” and walked to the door.

Hand on the doorknob, he paused and added, “I won’t report that alcohol to the Headmistress this time, but don’t let me catch you at it again. I can only compromise my duty as a professor so many times.”

Draco watched him exit the room with a tight jaw, annoyance and lingering incredulity at the man’s suggestion still boiling under his skin. Unable to take just standing around, he shoved the practice snitch into his trunk, yanked out a cloak, and swung it over his shoulders as he strode through the door.

The locker rooms were still deserted when he arrived to change into his Quidditch gear, the other players not likely to start trickling in until closer to the match. He took advantage of having the place to himself by indulging in a long, steaming shower, even though he didn’t need one. He wanted whatever relaxation he could get at the moment.

All too soon, though, he heard the commotion of his teammates and shut off the taps, taking their arrival as his cue to get ready. He pulled on the uniform grimly, Quidditch the last thing he cared to do just then. If the other Slytherins noticed his lack of enthusiasm, they wisely chose not to comment.

The sunlight hit his eyes like a bee sting, the roar of the crowd like an explosion. Walking onto the Quidditch pitch for a match was always sensory overload, but for once, it just irritated him. He instinctively sought out the opposing team, and almost immediately a tell-tale red ponytail drew his gaze. His chest tightened painfully, and he found he couldn’t look away.

Ginny was already astride her broom, smiling along with whatever the other Chaser was saying but still appearing rather unhappy to him. The paradox reminded him of what Pierce said about finding out where she really stood, and he felt another surge of that damned hope rushing through him.

He jerked his eyes away, scowling at nothing in particular. He did not love her. He didn’t even particularly like the backstabbing little Gryff anymore.

“I don’t,” he muttered under his breath.

Adrian Pucey glanced over. “What?”

Draco shook his head. “Nothing.” He swung a leg over his broom and kicked off, soaring up into the air and away from the chaos below. The game started with a great cry from the students and the collective whoosh of twenty seven brooms shooting into the air. Ginny took up one of her standard search patterns just below him, always just in the corner of his eye. It drove him mad.

Time dragged by in slow motion, the action below a blur and Ginny an annoyingly constant presence in his conscious. He hardly bothered with looking for the Snitch. That was why when he saw the unmistakable glint of gold near one of the goal posts, his first reaction was to hover in place, staring while his distracted brain tried to remember what that meant. Then all at once everything clicked into place and without a second thought, he flattened himself to the broom and sped off.

Wind surged over him, pulling at his Quidditch uniform and flattening his hair back from his face. He didn’t dare look away from the gold, but from the corner of his eye he could tell that Ginny was close behind to his right, nearly overtaking him. Her flying was truly something to behold, agile and faster than her shoddy old broom had any right to allow for. He knew beyond a doubt that if not for his superior one, she would win this race.

The Snitch took a sharp curve to the right, the change in direction favoring Ginny over himself. He cursed and careened to the side, trying to both follow it and cut her off at the same time. She deftly avoided the move though, swooping down below him and rising in a burst of speed that made him curse again.

The Snitch flitted restlessly only seconds away, and over the pounding of his heart Draco could hear the announcer’s voice screaming through the air that it was impossible to tell which Seeker would get there first. He risked one quick glance over, and in that second, understood two very important things. The first was that he was ahead of her, just barely, but enough that he would win beyond a doubt. No amount of expert flying could surpass the undeniable fact that her broom could not match his.

Second, he saw that she knew it too, a pained resignation clear on her face. But that determination that always drew him still remained as well, firm to the bitter end. He knew that she would not give up until the Snitch was in his hand. This stupid, pointless match meant that much to her. It was what she trained incessantly for, worked so hard towards all year. Himself, if he were honest, he didn’t give a damn about the whole bloody thing.

He had maybe a second to decide, the whole world rushing towards this one climax; it was enough. Readjusting his grip on the broom, he feigned a slip and shifted his weight, making his body jerk the path of his flight just enough to look convincing but not forced. He made a show of trying to recover and regain his lead, but Ginny had no trouble darting ahead and, less than a heartbeat later, she had the Snitch.

The stands exploded. Ginny looked over at him, not smiling in exultation but staring with disbelief. For a brief moment their eyes met and held. Then the rest of her team swarmed around her, literally lifting her off her broom and carrying her through the air amidst the deafening cheers of their peers. The announcer’s voice split through the pandemonium, “Gryffindor wins! Gryffindor wins! Slytherin is officially out of the running!

Draco let it all fade to the background in his mind, spiraling slowly to the ground and ignoring the glares of his teammates. He didn’t care. On the red and gold side of the pitch the celebration already started to kick off, Gryffindors breaking out bottles of butterbeer and sweets and hauling it all happily back to their Tower behind the team, led by Ginny Weasley who perched on the shoulders of the two beaters.

Draco looked away, slipping quietly off the pitch to the broomshed. He left the door open and was holding his broom over its spot when a greeting from behind made him spin around in surprise.

“Sorry, didn’t mean to frighten you,” Theodore Nott apologized with an amused half-smile, his hands shoved casually in his pockets as he leaned against the doorframe.

Draco narrowed his eyes, cursing himself for not shutting and locking the door. “You didn’t.” He turned back around and finished putting away his broom. “Taken to stalking me now, have you?” He knew it wasn’t the most tactical maneuver, but quite frankly, he wasn’t in the mood just then.

“I prefer to think of it as taking a friendly interest.” Nott watched silently as Draco turned around again, his expression impossible to read. “Interesting performance,” he remarked.

Draco stiffened. “If you’re here to harass me about losing…”

Nott shook his head. “No, no, I didn’t mean that.”

Draco regarded the other boy suspiciously. “Then what did you mean?”

“Oh, I think you know.” Nott showed his by now familiar half-smile, as if he knew a secret no one else did and was quietly proud of the fact. “But since I know you won’t ever admit it on your own, I’ll just come right out and say it: you threw the game.”

Draco felt a wash of panic but hid it well, scoffing. “Are you mad? Why would I throw the deciding game of the season?”

“Yes, that is the question. Care to explain?” When Draco only glared, Nott sighed and continued, “Thought not. How about this? I’ll give you my guess, and you tell me if I’m right.” He paused as if he expected a response, but when none came he forged ahead anyway. “I think that there’s more to this little affair with Weasley than you’re letting on. I think maybe you do care about her.”

Draco wanted to shout. What was it with today and people insisting he had feelings for the girl?

Nott’s half-smile spread just a bit. “I thought so.”

Draco’s attention snapped back to Nott. “I never said you were right.”

“You didn’t have to. You’re losing your touch, my friend. You’re almost as easy to read as a Gryffindor these days.”

Draco took a threatening step forward, eyes as hard as the steel they resembled. “I don’t know what you’ve been up to lately, but I’ve had enough. Either come out with it or leave me the hell alone already.”

Nott didn’t seem the least intimidated, giving a shrug. “Like I said, friendly interest. And on that note, I’m curious: how long has this Weasley thing been serious?”

Draco’s fingernails cut into his palm. “I don’t know where you’re getting this from, but I can assure you, I do not care about the little bint.”

Nott laughed. “Don’t know where I’m getting this from? How about the fact that you spent far too much time just talking with her and practicing with her and a dozen other innocent things for it to be just physical. Or the fact that you nearly snapped your fork in half at breakfast when she was with that other bloke. Or, I don’t know, maybe the fact that you just threw the most important game of the season to this point so that she would win. Very selfless, by the way. I’m sure Dumbledore and Potter both would be quite proud.”

“I did not throw the game!”

“Oh, please Malfoy. You’re not the best flyer, but even you know how to keep a broom on course without slipping half off it. That’s the kind of clumsy thing only a First year would do.”

“Obviously not, because that’s exactly what happened. I was going way too fast, the wind was blowing stronger that high up, and I lost my balance. The end.”

“Just stop, would you? It’s embarrassing.”

“Nott, do you honestly think that I would do something like a throw a game for somebody else? Especially a Weasley?”

“The old you wouldn’t have,” Nott admitted. “But ever since this summer you’ve been different, and now that you’ve been hanging around Weasley? Well, you’re not even you anymore.”

Everything felt like it was spinning out of control, racing into a whirlpool of frustrated anger and confusion that threatened to swallow him up and drown him in waves of doubt. Was he really so different? More importantly, if he was…would that be a bad thing? Pierce’s words echoed in his mind: “ Like it or not, you were happier around Miss Weasley.”

“A piece of advice for you, Malfoy,” Nott said into the quiet of Draco’s inner turmoil. “A girl like her, she’s going to have a hard time getting over her morals. Probably harder than you’ll have getting over yourself. So if you want her, I suggest you swallow your pride, and make the first move.” He shrugged. “Just a thought.”

Draco didn’t bother yelling, or even arguing for that matter. He just let his head fall back against the wall with a hollow-sounding thump and asked, “Are you quite done?”

“Actually, yes. Have a nice day. Oh…and it would probably be best if you waited as long as you can to come back to the common room. They’re a bit annoyed with you at the moment, I’m afraid.”

“Nott!” Draco suddenly called, pushing away from the wall.

The boy turned around.

“Really, what are you playing at? Why come find me just to say all that? What’s any of this to you of all people?”

But Nott only gave his damnable half-smile and continued on his way.

Draco swore under his breath, pivoting around to put his back to the open doorway and burying his hands in his hair. When did everything turn into such a bloody mess again? It was games within games and not a trustworthy person in sight.

His eyes drifted over to Ginny’s broom, resting where someone must have put it for her after the match. She had been the exception, a breath of fresh air amidst the choking cloud of deception he existed in. But not anymore.

His hands dropped to his sides, hanging useless. She had used him just like everyone else would if he gave them half the chance. Just like he was almost positive Jonathon Pierce was doing now…somehow. But despite the latter suspicion, he couldn’t help but think about the man’s advice to see where Ginny really stood. What if it was only a misunderstanding?

He shook his head. That was just a fool’s hope talking, and that sort of thing could get a man killed in this world. But still…if it were true, and if Nott was right, he would have to bridge that gap first. But how in the name of Merlin was he supposed to do that? No force on earth would convince him to go apologize, that was for sure.

He swore again, a little more harshly. Now how did that happen? He went from hating her this morning for her betrayal to considering making amends. He slammed his fists against the walls in frustration, squeezing his eyes shut. He just wanted things to be easy. He just wanted to be left alone.

He spun away from the wall and strode for the door, but just as he stepped outside he stopped and looked back at her pathetic old broom. A sudden, irrational wave of loathing for the thing rushed through him. She would have won without any problem if not for that piece of rubbish, and then he wouldn’t have had to throw the game, and Nott wouldn’t have come here adding yet another piece to this damned puzzle. He doubted if it would even hold up in her beloved Championship, so it was probably pointless letting her advance anyway. It would only lead to greater disappointment later on.

His eyes flicked over to his own broom. A memory flashed through his mind, one of Ginny a long time ago, depressed but still strong as ever. It was the first time he’d noticed her fierceness, the first time he’d appreciated her beauty…all because of Pierce’s damned potion, but that was besides the point. She’d wanted to play him, and she’d demanded he bet his broom…only he had won and kept it.

He looked back to her broom, then his again, and he arrived at a decision that had him muttering yet more curses under his breath as he stepped back into the shed.

- - - - -

Ginny released her breath all at one great, relieved moment. The night air made her skin tingle a little painfully with cold, but the stars above were brilliant and anything was better than being stuck up in her common room full of raucous, celebrating teenagers. The silence that could only belong to the outdoors instantly soothed her frazzled nerves, and she thanked whatever higher powers out there allowed her to sneak away from the merrymaking.

By all accounts, she knew, she should have exulted in the party still raging on in Gryffindor Tower. After all, it was in her honor, the one who kicked Slytherin out of the running and carried their team one step closer to victory with her win. And what a win it was, too. Never had a race for the Snitch come so close -- everyone swore it -- and neither had success seemed so unlikely for someone who somehow, miraculously managed to pull ahead at the last possible second. It was truly a feat to strike awe in anyone. Dean joked that she would be receiving offers from professional teams any day now. She should feel positively ecstatic.

Except she knew it was all a farce. She should have lost; she was losing. But for some reason Draco purposely let her win. Sure, it appeared that he’d simply lost his balance, but even aside from knowing his talent and abilities, Ginny had seen the way he moved his hands, shifted his body just so in order to jerk his broom off course. It had certainly been a convincing ploy, but from that close, she couldn’t mistake it for anything else.

But why?

The question had nagged at her incessantly ever since her hand first closed around the Snitch and her mind had a chance to catch up with what her eyes had just witnessed. Why in the name of everything magical would Draco Malfoy willingly lose to a Gryffindor, and a Weasley at that? Her confusion was only made worse by the fact that as far as she knew, he still hated her. It just made no sense.

She didn’t really know where she was going until her feet stopped in front of the broomshed. She smiled a little, thinking that it figured her subconscious would lead her to flying. The door came open with the hint of a squeak, the moonlight outside just enough to illuminate the room without the use of her wand.

She kept her broom in the back, but when she got there, the beautiful piece of flying equipment that met her eyes most certainly did not belong to her. She frowned, perplexed. Dean had told her that he’d put away her broom when she’d gotten carried off, and she could understand if he had put it in the wrong spot, but that didn’t account for a totally different broom occupying hers.

As for the alien broom, she couldn’t really make out the model in the dim light, but she could easily see that it was far nicer than anything she had ever owned. She pulled out her wand and muttered a Lumos spell. Her heart skipped a beat.

It was Draco’s broom.

She closed her eyes, willing reality to come back from wherever it ran off to for that moment, but when she opened them again, Draco’s broom still lay there cradled in place, confronting her like a giant question mark. What in the world was going on? Was someone trying to frame her, make it look like she stole it or something? It sounded like something Pansy might do, maybe in order to get Draco mad enough to go ahead with the kidnapping scheme.

Well, she would prevent that right now. Filled with annoyance at the empty-headed Slytherin girl’s low tactics, Ginny walked over to Draco’s spot to switch back their brooms only to find it empty. She made a small noise of frustration, gathering her hair back tightly from her face. Now what? She would still give back Draco’s, of course, but that left her very much broom-less.

Ginny decided right then and there that she detested Pansy Parkinson more than anyone else in the world at the moment.

She trudged back over to her spot, taking a moment to gaze wistfully at Draco’s broom and even running her fingertips lightly over the glossy handle. It truly was an amazing piece of craftsmanship. With a sigh she lifted the broom carefully from its cradle, but when she did something fell loose from the bristles and fluttered to the floor.

For a second Ginny felt a wave of irrational panic, afraid she’d broken it somehow, but the wave subsided when she saw it was only a piece of parchment. Brow furrowed in curiosity, she bent down and picked it up. There, written in a precise hand she could never mistake, it read, Figured you would get more use out of it than me. I obviously won’t be needing it any time soon.

Ginny only stared in dumb astonishment for what felt like a very long time. Finally, she blinked and managed to tear her gaze away, distractedly shoving the note into her pocket. She stood staring at the floor for a second longer…then sprinted out of the shed, broom clutched in a tight grip.

She hardly noticed the cold wind when it hit her skin and threw back her hair, focus solely on the castle ahead, but for some reason she did notice the lone figure lying in the middle of the Quidditch pitch. A second glance at the unusual scene brought white-blond hair to her attention; she skidded to a halt so fast she nearly fell over. Not bothering to question her good fortune, she changed direction and ran as hard as her legs would allow, feeling the breeze rush past her face like an icy slap.

Draco was stretched out on his back, staring up at the star-studded sky with his arms folded behind his head and his legs crossed at the ankles. When she got closer he lifted his head but made no other move, and Ginny couldn’t make out his expression in the dark.

“Hey.” It came out a little breathless from the run.

He kept staring at her for a long time, making her shift awkwardly. Finally, he answered with a neutral, “Hi.”

Ginny swallowed, trying to remember why she’d been so confident just minutes before. The light weight of the broom in her hand brought her back to present, and she held it up. “You did this?”

Again, he regarded her for a long, uncomfortable moment before saying simply, “Yes.”

Relieved, she sat down cross-legged next to him, lying the broom across her lap. “Why?”

“Like the note said, I won’t be needing it.”

“You know what I mean.”

He lay flat to fix his eyes on the stars once more, saying nothing.

Ginny swallowed again, remembering Pierce’s advice. Just be ready to say sorry when the time comes. “Um, Draco?”

“Hmmm?”

“I…I just wanted to…apologize. For before. I was…well, I was wrong.”

He didn’t move, but she did see his eyes shift over to her, patiently inquisitive.

She took a breath. Of course he wouldn’t make this easy. “I got scared, okay? I’m not used…I’m not used to the way you, I don’t know…I guess the way you make me feel. The way I think when I’m around you, you know?”

“Honestly? No, I don’t know.”

Ginny sighed. “I’m supposed to hate you. But I don’t. And I’m supposed to hate your personality. But I’m starting to pick up on it. And…and I thought that must be a bad thing, but maybe…maybe I was wrong about that too. Maybe you’re helping me.”

Draco rolled up, draping his arms over bent knees. “What are you trying to say, Ginny?”

It took every ounce of willpower not to look down, but she managed to hold his gaze steady. “I’m saying that I never should have tried to push you away. I’m saying I’m sorry. I’m asking for you to forgive me. I’m saying I want to be your friend again…if you’ll let me.”

He considered her for a long time, Ginny’s pulse pounding in her ears all the while, before a wry smile crept onto his lips. “Did that hurt?”

She laughed, feeling some of the tension drain out of her. “A little. Not nearly as much as it probably would have hurt you.”

He kept his smile, and again his unreadable eyes considered her for a long, silent stretch. When he finally spoke again, his tone was casual. “So you like the broom?”

Ginny blinked, surprised but knowing him well enough to follow his lead. “Uh…yeah. Yeah, it’s brilliant. But I can’t accept it, you know that.”

“Why not?”

“Because it’s too nice! I would feel guilty every time I got on it.”

“You feel guilty all the time anyway. Why not at least get a decent broom out of it?”

She grinned, shaking her head. “Draco, thank you. Really. But I can’t.”

“Well…I guess you’re in quite the fix then.”

“What do you mean?”

“I knew you would be difficult. So I destroyed your old one.”

“You what?!”

Draco sniffed. “I was doing the thing a favor. It looked like it’d gone through a war.”

“Draco, I can’t believe you destroyed my broom!”

“I didn’t. Your broom is right there.” He pointed to the broom on her lap. “I took your former broom for myself. But just looking at it depressed me. So I tossed it in the fireplace.”

She put her heads in her hands, groaning. “Draco.”

“Oh, you know you wanted mine anyway. This was the only way you would take it. Besides, I don’t see why you’re so upset. You bet me for it before, remember?”

“Yes, but then I would have earned it, and that was also before I found out your dad disowned you and wouldn’t send a new one the second you owled!”

“Weasley? Quit whining, shut up, and get on the damned broom. I know you’re dying to try it out.”

Ginny stared at him, then shook her head in disbelief. She looked down at the broom. It really was so gorgeous, and truth be told, she was dying to take it for a test flight. She looked back at him…and she had an idea.

She stood up and swung a leg over the handle then leaned down to offer him her hand. “Come on.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Pardon?”

“Just come on. I want to show you something.”

He eyed her for a suspicious moment, then grasped her hand to pull himself to his feet. Ginny motioned for him to get on behind her, and after one last skeptical study from him, he complied. Ginny felt his arms wrap around her middle, the lean muscle of his chest against her back, and for a second her mind went blank.

He shifted impatiently then, bringing her back to reality and leaving her wondering what in the world that had been about.

“Ready?” she asked, turning her head a little to catch a glimpse of him from the corner of her eye.

“Depends on what you’re planning.”

She could swear she actually felt his breath against her ear, momentarily distracting her from his words. Why was he so close? “I’ll take that as a yes.”

Not giving him the opportunity to come back with some snarky reply, Ginny pushed off and easily carried the broom into flight. She privately marveled at the ease with which it slid through the night air. Experimentally, she accelerated and grinned at the instant response, practically able to feel the air slicing apart in front of her. Unable to resist, she gripped the handle a little bit tighter and dropped into a steep dive, as fast as she could, the wind whistling past her ears.

Ginny heard Draco curse behind her, muffled by her hair blown back into his face, and his arms tightened drastically around her waist. Laughing, Ginny yanked the broom up at the last minute, speeding into the sky once more.

“Lord, Ginny!” Draco snapped when she slowed, his arms relaxing around her again.

She smiled. “What? Weren’t afraid, were you?” She could just picture the scowl on his face.

“A little warning would be appreciated,” he grumbled.

She giggled, riding on the same high she always got from flying, only ten times better so that for a moment, she almost forgot the whole point of this. Suddenly remembering, she turned the broom around and headed back towards the castle.

“Where are you going?” Draco asked, but she didn’t reply.

When they reached the castle she didn’t descend, but rather kept climbing into the air until they were flying right through the crazy system of turrets and towers. A little more tricky maneuvering through the eccentric architecture, and she spotted the tower she was looking for, one of the tallest on the castle, circular with a flat roof and surrounded on all sides by the classic, square-zigzag patterned wall. She touched down.

Draco stepped off slowly, shooting her a bemused look. “We’re on top of a tower.”

“Yes we are.”

“Any particular reason we’re on top of a tower?”

She moved towards him, and after just a second’s hesitation, she took his hand and drew him to the other side of the space. Standing right at the waist-high wall and still holding his hand, she swept her arm in a wide arc, indicating the scene before them.

Hogsmeade glimmered in the distance, a thousand little pin points of yellow light, wavering and winking and creating a sphere-like glow around the entire town. The occasional blue globe floated amid the streets, residents out late using their wands for light, and on all sides of the village sprawled the grounds of Hogwarts, vast and mysterious in the veiling darkness of night.

But most spectacular of all was what hung over their heads. The stars blazed forth, a breathtaking display fit to take even the most stubborn person’s breath away. From the height of their tower it seemed like they could reach out and take one, a dazzling drop of white flame in the palms of their hands.

Neither spoke for a long time.

Finally, Ginny let go of his hand and decided to bring up the matter that still bothered her. “You threw the game.” She didn’t look at him.

He glanced down sharply. “What?”

Keeping her eyes on the sky for a second longer, she turned her eyes up to his. “You heard me. You threw the game today. I didn’t win, or at least I shouldn’t have. Why did you do that?”

Draco turned his gaze back to Hogsmeade, expressionless. “I know I’m fair impressive, but the truth is you won, I lost, end of story.”

Ginny moved between him and the view down below, leaning back against the low wall and crossing her arms. “I’m not stupid. You didn’t lose your balance. I saw you shift on purpose.” She cocked her head, eyes softening. “Why? And why did you give me your broom and destroy mine so I had to accept it?”

Clearly annoyed, Draco shifted on his feet, refusing to look her in the face. “Winning that bloody game meant more to you than it did to me, and…” he seemed to struggle with what he said next, “and you were better, all right? You know you were.” He glared at some point over her shoulder. “Should with all that bloody practicing you do…” he muttered, just barely audible.

She smiled, feeling a warmth spread through her even up on that freezing tower. “And the broom?” she prompted quietly.

He shrugged, finally meeting her eyes. “The broom’s the only reason you wouldn’t have won, and I wasn’t going to lose on purpose — something completely against my nature, I hope you know — just to see you beat in the long run because you’re riding a broom they probably made in the 18th century.”

Ginny’s smile grew wider then, the warmth filling her from head to foot — not because of what he’d said, or what he’d done, but because of what those things meant. He admitted it himself — throwing the game went against his very nature…but he did it anyway. She understood the significance of that. Pierce had been right.

“And what about you?” he demanded, folding his own arms over his chest. “Why did you suddenly decide it was okay again to be around me? You were quite adamant against it not too long ago, as I recall. I was changing you.”

Ginny told him exactly what she had confirmed in her own mind only moments before. “Yeah, you were. You still are.” She smiled mysteriously. “But maybe I’m changing you too.”

Then she turned around and leaned forward on her elbows, inhaling the crispness of the air and the beauty of the scene around her, completely content in the knowledge that things were right again. She didn’t care if it wasn’t supposed to be right, didn’t care about separations of House or name. He was her friend once more, and in his own, incredibly unique way, a true and honest one. That was enough. She promised herself that she would never let misguided preconceptions get in the way again.

Leaning there letting the mood wash over her, she was totally oblivious to the fact that the boy behind her, watching her so intently, was arriving at the most flooring, mind-blowing realization of his life, fighting it every inch of the way but incredulously, inescapably forced to confront it. When he did, it felt like an epiphany, and even though everyone had been telling him the very same thing, he still could hardly believe it. The force of it paralyzed him.

Because in that moment, Draco Malfoy realized that he really was in love with Ginny Weasley.

- - - - -

A/N – Oh my LORD that was so hard to write. Hopefully I did the scene justice.
Naomi by Hearts Cadence
A/N – Well, I had some trouble getting this one decent — on top of no less than 5 projects and a sudden explosion of responsibilities from the extra-curricular department. It hasn’t been a fun couple of weeks. All I can say is thank the Lord for coffee. Lots and lots of coffee lol.

ANYWAY, I finally managed to salvage some time for me (thank a terrible snow storm and its day and a half holiday for that), during which I finally worked this troublesome sucker out, fine-tuned my outline, and now I’m ready to rock ‘n roll. Hopefully this’ll be worth the ridiculous wait.

- - - - -

Chapter 18 – Naomi

Pierce leaned on his elbows, slouching over his desk and the pile of papers he really ought to be correcting right now. He stared into the fire instead. The flames wound around invisible pillars of air, hypnotizing him until his gaze unfocused and he fell into a sort of trance.

He didn’t know what to make of Draco anymore. The boy seemed almost hostile towards him, which would throw a serious wrench in his plans. Did he suspect that Pierce hadn’t been entirely honest? He found it hard to believe, but he supposed it was possibile. The younger Malfoy was far too quick for his own good.

But the game. A light smile curled Pierce’s lips. That had been brilliant. He doubted that anyone else had caught it, or if anyone had, only a select and exceedingly observant few, but he most certainly had not missed Draco’s feigned loss. He gave the boy credit, it had been convincing, but not enough to fool him. And a sacrifice of that magnitude spoke volumes of his feelings for the Weasley girl.

Overall, things boded well for Pierce. Some complications might arise, but on the whole, he could almost taste victory. Honestly, he believed he could go ahead right now with his plan and it would succeed. But he had always been a fairly cautious man, and he wanted to be sure before he took such a critical step.

That, and he still wasn’t entirely positive of his plan. Of course there was still the option of a good old fashioned Avada Kedavra on Weasley, but that route just seemed so…messy. Some part of his intuition was urging him to hold off, to wait for some hidden opportunity to show itself, and Pierce had found his intuition more than reliable in the past.

A sudden fluttering sound snapped him out of his fire-induced trance just as a brown blur soared into the corner of his vision. Blinking away the spots dancing in front of his eyes, he laid his palms on the desktop and straightened up, watching with incredulity as an owl swooped down to drop a sealed letter atop his stack of still ungraded papers. Then without so much as pausing for a treat, the creature made a smooth U-turn and flew from the room.

Pierce stared at the open doorway for a long moment. What had that been about? He’d never heard of owls delivering at the castle any time other than breakfast. He didn’t even know it was possible.

He finally dragged his gaze down to the letter and picked it up like it might burst into flame at any moment. It was old parchment, yellowed and dangerously brittle to the touch, sealed with candle wax but lacking any telling signet. He turned it over a few times before carefully breaking the seal, almost afraid the parchment would crumble apart in his hands as he did.

He skimmed over the handwriting, both strange and vaguely familiar all at once, glanced down to find no signature, then with an annoyed frown began to read:

I know you’re probably extremely irritated at the moment because, let’s face it, Jon: you have to know everything. Trust me when I tell you that all the secrecy is necessary. I’m not playing games with you, though I’m sure you don’t believe that. You’ve been in the wrong company too long to believe in anything without cold hard proof sitting in front of you…and sometimes not even then.

But I digress. My hand is shaking while I’m writing this, but it’s something I have to do. I need to see you again, Jon. And no, I can’t tell you who I am — you would probably just ignore this letter if I did, which is why I’ve chosen anonymity so far and will keep it until we meet.

I know what you’re thinking. I know you better than you ever realized. But no, this is no trap, no plot, no trick. It’s just what it is — a request that you meet an old acquaintance. No reason, no hidden agenda, just for the sake of it, if you can even wrap your head around that concept.

The Three Broomsticks, tonight, eight o’clock. Please.

Signed,
An Old Friend


His hazel eyes flicked over to the clock; it read seven thirty exactly. He looked back to scan over the letter one last time, frustration growing with every word. Who could it be? What “friend,” old or otherwise, did he have that couldn’t reveal himself? No one in Slytherin, he gathered that much from the “wrong company” comment, but who did that leave?

He debated for less than a minute before curiosity got the better of him and he pushed himself to his feet, grabbing up his cloak and leaving the papers long since forgotten on his desk, waiting bottle of red ink still untouched.

The evening had already surrendered to darkness this late in the year, and without the benefit of the sun the air seemed to cut through to his bones with blithe disregard to the cloak across his shoulders. He shrugged the garment closer, scowling into a blast of wind that carried the promise of winter just around the corner. Whoever it was, this mystery man had better have a good reason for getting him out of his warm rooms.

Carriages didn’t run to the small village this late in the evening, so Pierce was forced to walk through the ridiculously huge expanse of Hogwarts’s grounds before he could apparate the rest of the way. A few people still trickled about, completing last minute errands before day’s end, but for the most part the roads of Hogsmeade were empty.

He made his way towards the Three Broomsticks quickly, anticipating the warmth within and maybe even a glass of something strong enough to burn on the way down and thaw him out.

The inn didn’t disappoint him. A wave of blessedly warm air enveloped him as he stepped through the door, and even more remarkable, there was no line at the bar. Thanking his lucky stars, he ordered just a small shot of firewhiskey — enough to heat him up without clouding his mind — and found an empty booth near the back corner. Then he sat back to wait.

How much time passed he couldn’t guess. All of the other customers seemed like the average evening pub goers — townsmen looking to loosen up after a long day in the shops, interspersed with the occasional woman trying to do the same, and he thought he might have spotted one or two seventh year students. He played with the idea of confronting the rule-breakers, but he didn’t want to draw attention to himself. He hoped to spot the mystery man before the man spotted him. That, and he really didn’t care what students did.

A few groups came and went, some loud and boisterous, others speaking in low earnest voices as they bent over their mugs. Random tidbits of conversation would float up to him, but it was all standard gossip. It seemed as if absolutely nothing was out of the ordinary, and with a dark mood he began to suspect he was wasting his time.

Just when he was considering getting up and leaving, a figure came round from behind and sat across from him. The man looked surprisingly slender, though it was admittedly hard to make out his shape beneath the heavy black cloak wrapped around his body, and he wore the hood up so high Pierce couldn’t make out a single feature of the face other than the tip of a delicate, straight nose and full pink lips. Even the man’s boots were black, as well as a pair of gloves he apparently never saw fit to remove.

Pierce slowly ran his eyes over the stranger from head to toe. “You’ve got to be kidding me.” He leaned back to cross his arms over his chest. “A hooded cloak? Really?”

The pink lips curved into a smile, then raising an index finger to his lips — a finger which again seemed rather thin, though the gloves, like the cloak, made it hard to tell — the stranger stood and motioned for Pierce to follow.

Pierce laughed incredulously. “Now I know you’re joking. You think I’m going to follow you with all this cloak and dagger rot going on?”

But the figure only motioned more insistently, turning promptly after and weaving with admirable ease through the tangle of patrons towards the rooms upstairs. Pierce watched the mystery man’s graceful movements with interest. Something about it sparked a memory, though only a shadowy outline of one that he couldn’t quite place. It definitely rang familiar, though, and it raised just enough curiosity to persuade him to follow despite his initial refusal.

By the time he fought his way through the crowd with considerable more difficulty than the stranger, the stairs were already deserted and he climbed them alone. The mystery man waited at the top though, inclining his head when Pierce appeared and once again motioning for him to follow. This time Pierce did so without comment.

They entered a room on the end, relatively small with one double bed and a closet of a bathroom off the main area. The stranger, still silent, indicated a chair for Pierce and turned back to close the door. He locked it with a whispered incantation.

Pierce sat, slouching down to give the appearance of boredom despite the doubt racing through him. “All right, you’ve got me alone. What’s this all about, old friend?”

Again the pink lips smiled, then one by one, the man pulled off his gloves. Pierce raised his eyebrows just slightly, seeing that they were indeed extremely slender, smooth and delicate hands. Almost like a…

Then before he could fully put everything together, the stranger reached up and pulled back the hood. And standing before him was no man.

Surprise though that was, it didn’t even compare to the shock he received when he finally placed the woman a second later.

Naomi?” His voice cracked with disbelief, all pretenses falling away from his face for the first time in years, leaving nothing but the genuine emotions churning beneath the surface.

She smiled sympathetically. “Hello, Jon. It’s been a long time.”

Pierce reeled. At once she looked both exactly as she had all those years ago, as if preserved in a photograph, and nothing the same. She was taller, but not much, a little curvier perhaps, a sign that she had finally reached the full maturity of her womanhood, but still slim and lithe as he remembered.

“Naomi,” he murmured her name again, letting it fill his mouth and fall from his lips slowly, mind sprinting through a maze of memories while simultaneously trying to wrap around the fact that what stood in front of him was much more than mere memory.

“Well, we know you didn’t forget my name at least,” she teased, lips quirking playfully.

Pierce stared. It wasn’t that Naomi Lawson was stunningly beautiful. She had always been attractive, certainly, but in a plain and unremarkable way. Her straight, brown hair, neither dark nor light but balancing somewhere in the middle, usually rested loosely in an unadorned clip at the back of her head as it did now, her features kind, smooth and fresh but average, indistinct. Naomi Lawson was the type of girl a man noticed, duly appreciated, and promptly forgot.

That was, until he heard her speak. Her voice was a magic all its own, the simplest phrase spoken from her lips a song. Melody danced through her words and lilting music filled her sentences. She could convince anyone to do anything with that voice, draw out any emotion she desired, and what made it almost deadly, Pierce knew, was that Naomi was brilliant, a Ravenclaw at Hogwarts and quick as any Slytherin when it came to assessing another person. She knew how to pick just the right words to go with her mesmerizing power.

Watching her now, moving to perch on the edge of the bed, Pierce mused that the ironic part of it all was that she had no clue. She never realized the effect she had on people, on men especially, and any manipulating she might have done with her talent was purely unintentional. The fact had always baffled him, but oddly enough, he respected her all the more for her ignorance.

“Are you going to say anything?” she asked quietly, biting at her lip uncertainly. The question washed over him, filling him guilt for causing her anxiousness. “Are you glad to see me at least?”

He wanted to get up and assure her that he was glad, to tell her he’d missed her and to apologize for any hurt he might have caused all those years ago, real or otherwise. But he forced himself to swallow down the rush, closing his eyes for just a moment. He’d almost forgotten what an emotional roller coaster this woman could put him through without even trying.

“Naomi, what are you doing here?”

She seemed a little disappointed but recovered quickly, self-consciously tucking back a strand of hair that had fallen from her clip as she sat up a little straighter. “I wanted to see you, Jon.”

He savored the sound of his name coming from her mouth and felt a burst of satisfaction that she would want to see him, even after all this time. But again he had to push the emotions down. He had to control himself, had to keep thinking clearly. “Why? It’s been years, Naomi. A lifetime.”

She frowned. “Not quite a lifetime.”

“That was another life for me.”

She tilted her head, eyes searching his face, and he knew she was considering what he just said, analyzing and trying to figure him out. She always did that, thought carefully before she spoke…but she never judged, something he knew for fact but couldn’t quite fathom for himself.

“You’re a professor now, Head of Slytherin even,” she remarked, giving a small smile. “I never would have placed you for the teaching type.”

“And you’ve been doing your homework,” he observed, questions zipping through his mind. “How did you know?”

“I wasn’t stalking you, if that’s what you mean.” She pushed herself back a little further on the bed and shrugged the rest of the way out of her cloak. Underneath she wore a simple, gray skirt to her knees and a white sweater.

“No, I’m just curious how you found out.”

“Oh, through amazing detective skills and truly astounding powers of deduction.” A corner of her mouth tilted up. “I read it in the Daily Prophet.”

He couldn’t help but smile at that, shaking his head. “They put it in the Prophet?”

“Of course. They put everything in there these days. Anymore they’re hurting for news that doesn’t involve someone dying horribly with a Dark Mark over his head.” Pierce must have flinched or given some other visible sign, because she suddenly looked at him with new intensity. Carefully, she asked, “So besides a new career, what have you been up to, Jon?”

Coming from anyone else, the insinuation in that question would have clammed him up immediately, but from her and that voice it sounded that although she already guessed everything, she harbored no disapproval — just curiosity. It made him feel safe, and he almost let everything spill out right then. He caught himself at just the last moment.

“Nothing of interest,” he answered instead, striving to keep his voice and his face neutral. Normally that mask came to him without a thought, but around Naomi it was a conscious effort every time.

She considered him a silent moment, then nodded even though he knew she didn’t believe. “Why don’t we take a walk?” she suddenly suggested.

He raised his eyebrows. “It’s freezing outside.”

She scoffed. “Oh, freezing, please. You were always such a baby. It’s just a little nippy autumn weather.” She jumped up, swinging on her only recently discarded cloak. “I feel cooped up in here.”

He wanted to protest, but her excitement seemed to spill over to him so that before long he found himself following her out of the inn into the crisp night air.

They walked slowly down the streets of Hogsmeade in silence for several minutes. Pierce looked down at Naomi, arms wrapped tight around her middle and an unreadable look on her face. It struck him with another wave of disbelief, the moment so incredibly surreal that he wanted to pinch himself just to make sure he wasn’t dreaming. It had been so long, and her sudden reappearance in his life still had him reeling off balance.

“Why all the secrecy?” he asked suddenly, wanting to take his mind off his thoughts…and though he wouldn’t admit it, craving the sound of her voice. “You couldn’t have just told me in the letter, or at least dressed like a normal person?”

She laughed lightly, a pleasant musical sound from low in her throat. “I already explained in the letter. You wouldn’t have come.”

“You don’t know that.”

She turned an upraised brow to him. “Oh? Can you honestly tell me that if you read my name on that piece of parchment, you wouldn’t have done everything in your power to avoid me?”

He said nothing, his deceptively mild eyes turned out towards the countryside.

“Thought so.” Her voice whispered the words softly, imbuing them with weary acceptance. “Jon, I’ve always wondered. What ever made you detest me so much?”

He shut his eyes. “You know I never detested you.”

“What else do you call it when the man you love — who once said he loved you — suddenly announces, for no apparent reason, that he never wants to see you again?”

“Naomi — ”

“I just find it odd,” she interrupted, some bitterness creeping into her voice. Then she shot him a knowing glance. “Unless, of course, there’s something you’re not telling me.”

Pierce sighed. Normally he lived for the challenge of a good game of wits, but now, with her, he just couldn’t play. “Naomi, if you’ve got something to say to me, just come out with it.”

She hesitated. “Just…I have to know. I mean, I’ve always wondered — suspected, I suppose. Ever since….”

“What is it?” But he already knew the answer. She was too smart not to have figured it out after all these years.

She seemed to struggle for a moment before she finally just stopped abruptly, taking his hand and turning him to face her. Her eyes searched his, then dropped to where both of her hands still held his left one. Slowly, she turned it palm up. Her fingers drifted to his sleeve.

“Naomi…” he tried to protest, but he could put no strength behind it.

“I have to know,” she repeated quietly, and achingly slow, as if afraid to finally confirm the truth, she slid the sleeve up to his elbow.

For a long time the silence seemed so heavy he couldn’t breathe. She stared at the ugly Mark on his arm without expression, without any reaction at all. Finally, Naomi lifted her eyes to his, pulling his sleeve back into place as she did.

“Is that why?”

No accusation sharpened her tone, but he felt a tremendous guilt all the same. He couldn’t meet her eyes, so he looked over her head instead.

“Does it really matter?”

“Yes.” She closed her eyes, breathing out so deeply he could see the puff of white mist trailing from her lips in the cold. “I need to know you had a reason. I just need that closure.”

He felt something in him turn colder than the wind. “Then that’s the point of all this. Closure. So you can ‘finally move on,’ is that it?”

Naomi never so much as blinked. “No. So that I can sleep again at night.”

He didn’t quite know what to make of that or how to respond, so he said nothing at all, and for a long time they stood there staring at each other in the middle of a deserted street in Hogsmeade. Then a sudden blast of chilly wind swept up from the side, knocking loose the tentative hold Naomi’s clip had on her hair so that the fine brown strands whipped wildly around her face.

She laughed and smoothed it all back. “Whose crazy idea was this anyway?”

Pierce only shook his head.

“Come on. Let’s go back inside.” She started back towards the Three Broomsticks, pausing when she realized he wasn’t behind her. “Jon?”

He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “That’s it? That’s all you’re going to say after you find out — ?”

“Find out what?” she interrupted, hands going to her hips. “That you made a mistake? We all make mistakes.”

His eyes hardened. “How are you so sure it was a mistake?”

“Because,” she smiled sadly, “you’re not happy, Jon. I can see it in your eyes. Don’t think I’ve forgotten how you used to be.”

He opened his mouth, but to his surprise, found he had absolutely nothing to say.

She stepped up close to him, and he couldn’t back away. Her fingers reached out to weave through his. “Let’s go back inside.”

Pierce shook his head. “Has anyone ever told you you’re bloody mad?”

“Many times. Now, let’s go back inside.”

His gaze drifted in the direction of the castle. “I should be getting back. I don’t really think I’m supposed to leave. Something about students needing me in case of emergency and all that.”

“I think they can manage a little while longer.”

“That’s not really the point.”

“Jon? Let’s go back inside.”

She said it low, alluringly, and he tried to shut it out by closing his eyes but that was the trouble with Naomi — a bloke couldn’t just close his eyes and block her out. He could still hear, and she would echo through his mind long after her lips stopped moving.

“Naomi, my job. I’m not supposed — ”

“Jonathon Pierce, when have you ever paid attention to rules?”

“I’m older now.”

“What a coincidence, so am I.” She stepped back, pulling their arms out straight without letting go. “Time does that. Now, either give me a real reason, or let’s get somewhere warm.”

She waited, and when his scrambling mind turned up nothing, she led him away. Against all better judgment, Pierce let her. They passed through the dwindling crowd by the bar without a word, and up the steps to her room.

She closed and locked the door with another whispered charm, then shrugged out of her cloak and let it simply fall in a heap on the floor.

“Naomi—”

She turned to him and pressed a finger against his lips. “Don’t say anything. We can talk tomorrow, but not now. I know all I need to for tonight.”

Confusion wrinkled his brow. “What?”

She smiled, faint and mysterious, then with absolutely no warning whatsoever raised herself on her toes to touch her lips to his. He felt her fingers in his too-long hair, still cold from outside, and for a second he was a teenager again, floating free and burning up just so long as this woman pressing against him hung on.

Then some voice in his head reminded him of reality, reminded him that there was a reason he had pushed her out of his life — or at least, thought he had pushed her out. He broke away. “We shouldn’t — ”

“I know.” She was breathless, and it was all he could do to keep his knees from buckling. “It’s terrible. You should go.”

He nodded, swallowing. Only his feet wouldn’t work. “I should.”

“But,” she continued, having recovered her breath so that now her words came out flowing like silk, “that’s always been my problem. I never did do what I should.” She lowered her voice conspiratorially. “I even dated a Slytherin once.” Her eyes danced as she tilted her head up at him. “I really don’t see any reason to change now, do you?”

“Naomi…”

She linked her hands behind his neck, bringing his face close to hers. “Jon, please,” she whispered against his lips. “Even if it’s just tonight, even if I never see you again. I just need you. I missed you. God, I missed you so much…”

And just like that, she broke him, shattered his heart into a million tiny shards with a voice more intoxicating than any alcohol. Or maybe that was the feeling of all the shards finally fusing back together. He didn’t know, and he honestly didn’t care just then.

This time when her mouth pressed against his, he kissed her back, and when she drew him towards her bed, he followed without hesitating.

- - - - -

Books lay open all around Draco, though he hadn’t read so much as a word in the past four hours, and his parchment sat blank and accusing on his lap. They made a good excuse for why he wouldn’t leave the common room, though, so he kept them out.

His eyes started feeling blurry staring at the cramped text, so he lifted them to the rest of the room without really seeing. It wasn’t the only thing he wasn’t seeing. He had staunchly avoided Ginny for the past three days, unwilling and unable to face her again. Not after that night.

The sound of a door opening and closing drew his attention to the entrance to the girls’ dormitory where Pansy was strutting out, pug-nose in the air. Her eyes found him on the couch, and Draco felt his stomach sink as she immediately flounced over.

“Draco!” She plopped down beside him. “I’m so happy you’re here! I wanted to talk to you.”

Rapidly searching for an escape, Draco glanced at the clock and found one. “Love to Pans, but I’ve been so busy with all this homework that I missed supper. I was just about to run down to the kitchens to grab something to eat.”

She looked doubtfully at his empty parchment. “You’ve got homework? But we’re in all the same classes, and I hardly have any….”

Draco snapped a book shut over the parchment. “I procrastinated. Now, if you’ll excuse me.”

Pansy jumped to her feet. “That’s fine, I’ll just come and keep you company. Then we can still talk.”

He fought a groan. “That’s all right.”

“I really don’t mind. In fact, I would love — ”

“Pansy,” he interrupted. “I said, that’s all right.” Catching her wounded expression, he gave a mental sigh and explained, “It’s just I’ve got this essay I haven’t even started yet, and I need to think of a topic. I can’t do that and talk to you…and the essay is due in a few days.”

She pouted. “But it’s really important….”

“Later,” he promised. “Right now I need food and quiet.”

He didn’t wait to see if she would back down. Knowing her, she would keep the argument going all night, so he just scooped up his books, dumped them off in his room, and walked past her again without so much as a glance on his way out of the common room.

Out in the hallway he stood in a moment of indecision, wondering what he was going to do now. He didn’t want to risk a run-in with Ginny, but he couldn’t think of a spot on grounds that she was guaranteed not to be hanging about…except the dungeons, but aside from his common room, there wasn’t much here.

Well, he frowned, there was Pierce’s office, but the man wasn’t exactly his favorite person at the moment. There was just something about him, something Draco couldn’t place….

He heard someone cough down the hall and, making up his mind, decided he would do what he told Pansy and get something to eat. He actually had missed supper — Ginny would have been there, so he’d made sure he wasn’t.

He walked up the gentle incline, avoiding the light that spilled from the bottom of the dungeon’s few doors. He didn’t really know why. But when he got to Pierce’s door, no light pooled onto the stone floor or through the seams. Curiously, Draco stepped closer and pressed his ear against the wood. No sounds, no signs of life whatsoever. After hesitating just a moment, he reached out to turn the handle and found it firmly locked.

He stepped back, cocking his head with a frown. It was well past eight, and he knew for fact that Pierce didn’t have to patrol tonight — Draco made a habit of checking all the professors’ schedules when he looked up his prefect rounds. Odd. Shrugging to himself, he moved on.

Aside from the occasional student hurrying back to his or her dormitory before curfew, his way remained mostly deserted. He was just beginning to relax when a classroom door suddenly opened directly to his left and he looked over to find himself face-to-face with Ginny Weasley. He gave a mental curse, thinking, of course, who else would it be?

“Draco.” She seemed at least as startled as he was, a stack of books nearly tumbling from her hands before she managed to shift them back into place. “What are you doing here?”

Draco slid his hands into his pockets, letting his eyes travel her once over. Her hair was pulled back in a careless ponytail, her school robes discarded for a loose sweater and what looked like pajama bottoms. She seemed absolutely exhausted, a right mess. She looked gorgeous.

He hated that.

“What are you doing here?” he returned.

She rolled her eyes and smoothed back a stray lock of scarlet hair. “Do you always have to be difficult?”

“Generally.” To his surprise, she laughed with a small, helpless shake of her head. He remembered the days when that comment would have had her fuming, and considering the drastic change in his opinion of her, he couldn’t help but wonder what exactly she now felt. He forced the thought away, though — that was something better left alone, too dangerous to dwell on.

“They’re being obnoxious in the common room,” Ginny was explaining, “so I couldn’t concentrate, and the library’s packed.” She shrugged. “I had a lot of homework, so I found an empty classroom. Your turn.”

“I missed supper. I’m getting something from the kitchens.”

Her eyes lit up. “Mind if I join you? I’m starving, and freezing too. Some hot chocolate and cookies sound amazing.”

He hesitated, scrambling for a way out because he honestly didn’t know if he could stand another minute around her without doing something he would regret later, but unlike earlier in the common room with Pansy, he found none. “All right,” he agreed grudgingly. “What about your books?”

She glanced down at the stack, bit her lip in a way that made Draco want to groan, then disappeared back into the classroom. She reappeared a second later and said, “They’ll be fine in there. I’ll just grab them on my way back.”

She fell in step beside him then, dark eyes drifting aimlessly through the halls. “I’m actually happy I ran into you,” she admitted after a few moments of silence. “You’ve been a hard man to track down the past few days.”

He kept his face carefully blank. “Really?”

She shot him a suspicious look that told him she didn’t buy his nonchalance, but she played along anyway. “Truly. I kind of wanted to talk to you about something.”

“You too?”

“What?”

“Never mind.” They reached the kitchens and Draco tickled the pear.

Ginny stepped into the kitchens first, tossing him a curious look over her shoulder. Then Dobby rushed forward in a blur of multicolored socks and flopping ears. “Mizzus Weasley!” he squealed in a high, ecstatic voice. “Did you come to see Dobby?”

She smiled kindly at him. “Of course I did. How are you? It’s been ages.”

Draco rolled his eyes. He just couldn’t fathom treating a House Elf like it was human.

“Very good, very good!” Dobby chirped. But suddenly, a morose expression fell over his face. “Worried for Harry Potter, though, Mizzus Weasley. Very worried indeed.”

An indecipherable look clouded Ginny’s face then, and with narrowed eyes, Draco watched her hand rise to the locket around her throat. “We all are,” Ginny assured the elf quietly.

Speak for yourself, Draco thought darkly.

Dobby bobbed his head somberly then seemed to undergo a mood swing as he clapped his hands together, once more the picture of excitement. “What can Dobby get for Mizzus Weasley?”

“Hot chocolate and…um, do you have any peanut butter cookies?” Dobby nodded eagerly, and Ginny continued, “Excellent. I’ll have some of those, and…Draco?” She turned to him expectantly.

Draco blinked, shaken from his bitter musings. “Oh…uh…just…a bowl of oatmeal. And maybe a piece of toast. Oh, and a glass of milk.”

Dobby bobbed his head again, going into several rather comical-looking bows before scurrying off.

Ginny walked over to one of the counters and easily lifted herself up onto it, her legs dangling over the side. “So where have you been lately? You’ve even been skiving off on our morning runs.”

Draco avoided her gaze, walking over to the wall opposite her and leaning back. “I haven’t been feeling well lately. I’ve just been sort of resting up in my dorm. So what did you want to talk about?” He was a little nervous what she might have to say, but it had to be better than this conversation.

She frowned a tiny bit, then seemed to let it go as she answered, “Well, I know you missed the announcement at supper since you weren’t there…but did you at least see any of the advertisements around the castle?”

“Advertisements?”

“McGonagall’s giving us one last trip to Hogsmeade before the hols. You know, last minute gift buying, some time with friends before we all don’t see each other for awhile….”

Draco nodded. “All right.”

Ginny sighed, leaning back on her hands. “You really don’t see where I’m going with this, do you?”

He raised his eyebrows, trying not to notice how her leaning back accentuated certain aspects of her anatomy. “Going?”

She smiled. “Didn’t think so.”

Just then Dobby rushed in, a floating tray carrying their requests trailing him. Ginny thanked the elf and accepted the food, exchanging some last minute pleasantries that Draco chose to ignore as he walked over to the counter to start his meal. He really was surprisingly famished…and he was still trying to figure out where Ginny had been going.

“What I was trying to get at,” Ginny continued after Dobby had left and she’d taken a bite of one of the cookies, “is that I was wondering if you’d like to go with me.”

He nearly choked on his oatmeal. “You want me to go with you?”

She rolled her eyes. “Oh, calm down. I’m not asking you on a date, you arrogant prat. I wouldn’t subject either of us to that particular horror. Just as friends. I’d rather not spend another visit following Dean and his mates around if I can help it.”

Her comment about a date with him being a horror stung more than he cared to admit, and the idea of spending the day with her away from the safe, restrictive bounds of the castle made him hesitate all the more, but despite all of that he heard himself say, “Sure. That might not be too horrible, I suppose.”

She grinned hugely. “Good. It’ll be fun, I promise.”

He didn’t answer, watching her as she took a tentative sip from her still steaming mug. His eyes involuntarily fell on her locket, and reminded of earlier, he abruptly asked, “What is it about him?”

She looked at him startled, a second cookie poised halfway to her mouth. “What is it about who?”

Draco gestured vaguely towards her neck. “Potter. He doesn’t seem like your type.”

A wry smile found its way to her lips. “Just a bit random, don’t you think?”

Draco shrugged uncomfortably, seriously regretting having brought the matter up. He knew he would end up doing something stupid if she came with him.

Ginny tilted her head curiously, finally biting into the second cookie. “Why would you say that, though? That’s he’s not my type?”

Draco shrugged again, even more uncomfortable. “You just seem too…I don’t know…smart.”

“Smart.”

“To fall for the celebrity thing.”

“That’s all you think it is? The ‘celebrity thing’? It’s not possible that I liked him despite him being a celebrity?”

“Liked?”

Ginny blinked. “What?”

“You just said ‘liked.’ Not that you like him, but that you liked.”

She opened her mouth, then shut it again with a doubtful furrow to her brow. She shook her head. “You know what I meant,” she snapped, then a little grumpily pointed out, “Besides, you’re fair famous yourself. Who doesn’t know the Malfoy name?”

“I’m not famous, I’m infamous,” Draco corrected, still a little distracted by the implications of her slip in tense. “And even if I am, I’m still not ‘The Boy Who Lived,’ am I?”

“Do you want to be The Boy Who Lived?”

The question caught him off guard. Did he?

“I don’t really want to talk about this,” Ginny suddenly announced. She jumped down off the counter. “I should probably be getting back. I’ll see you later. Maybe tomorrow morning if you’re feeling up to jogging again. Or something.” Then, fingers fiddling restlessly with her locket, she left without so much as a backward glance.

Draco watched her go, tempted to call out to her but stopping himself at the last minute. He stirred at his oatmeal absently, suddenly no longer hungry. It was a shame, too: she had left her hot chocolate and cookies for him. But she’d left him a lot more than that to think about.

- - - - -

A/N – Well, at least it was super long again to make up for the wait. In fact, that probably contributed to the wait, but…oh, well.

On a separate note, I really didn’t know whether I should risk focusing/building on Pierce so much, him being an OC and all. But on the other hand I know some people have been saying they’re interested in his past, and I was fairly eager to explore it some more myself, sooo I took the chance. Hopefully it turns out, because it’s going to factor significantly into the rest of the story. *crosses fingers*

Oh, and in case anyone’s curious, I consider the story ABOUT at the halfway point…you know…give or take a little. And as always is the case with me, absolutely everything is subject to change at any given moment. I like to think it keeps things interesting. Or maybe I’m just making excuses for being too lazy to think things out well enough to catch plot holes (or, more often than not, plot canyons) ahead of time…

All right, it’s really late, and I’m rambling, so I’ll stop. Thanks so much!
Jewels and Disruption by Hearts Cadence
Chapter 19 — Jewels and Disruption

To his absolute surprise, Draco was actually in a terrific mood. The dungeon halls were cold and a little damp, but the heavy cloak swinging from his shoulders — a leftover from the days before his father disowned him and left him penniless — managed to shield him from any discomfort. No, the air felt pleasantly crisp to him, fresh and tasting of winter, and it only got cleaner as he ascended higher from the dungeons on his way to meet Ginny.

He’d decided to go out for their run the morning after their kitchen rendezvous all those weeks ago. He’d been a little nervous it might be awkward after their conversation then, but he needn’t have been — it had been as natural as it ever was, for which he was grateful. The weeks following had continued in much the same manner, easy and comfortable and without incident.

Well, aside from the fact that Draco was, if anything, even more convinced that he really did love the red-haired girl, and was painfully aware of the inconvenient fact.

Actually, for the most part, he had gotten the hang of ignoring his emotions, and even more useful, of suppressing some of his less…honorable thoughts. It still wasn’t easy to be around her, but he didn’t feel like he had to avoid her or risk humiliation anymore. He was just thankful he’d mastered it before this date to Hogsmeade…that wasn’t a date at all, he made himself remember.

The sound of voices floating down the hall from above reached him, and he slowed to listen. It only took a second for him to identify the voice, and he cursed, his head swiveling in an attempt to find a hiding spot. He spotted a small alcove up ahead, and without a second thought dashed towards it. The shadows closed around him not a moment too soon as Pansy appeared around the corner, hands gesturing emphatically as she spoke to Daphne.

“I know, I’ve been trying to talk to him, but he’s always busy!”

From his hiding spot Draco rolled his eyes. Three guesses who she meant.

“It can’t be that hard,” Daphne protested. “Just get him during supper or breakfast or something.”

“Oh, brilliant plan, Daphne,” Pansy snapped. “I’ll just bring it up in the middle of the Great Hall, where anyone could overhear….”

Their voices faded as they disappeared from sight, and Draco let his head fall back against the stone wall. Just lovely. Pansy had been badgering him non-stop ever since he brushed her off that night he went to the kitchens, but he’d managed to avoid her every time and never did find out what she wanted to talk about so badly. Still, he’d suspected it must involve the Death Eaters, and her comment to Daphne just now left very little doubt in his mind on the matter.

With a sigh, he pushed off from the wall and hoped that Ginny wasn’t wondering where he was.

When he finally reached the Entrance Hall, she was already leaning against the wall next to one of the giant suits of armor, bundled against the cold in a rather thin-looking cloak.

“Been waiting long?” he asked.

She shrugged. “Not too bad. Besides, he’s been keeping me company.” She nodded towards the suit of armor. “Great bloke. Not the greatest conversationalist, though.”

Draco smirked. “The sad part is I’m not even surprised.”

She stuck out her tongue as she walked towards him. “You’re a prat.”

“If I had Knut for every time you said that to me, I’d be rich again,” he said a little wistfully.

“You don’t want to be rich again. Money corrupts.”

“But it buys such nice stuff.”

Ginny rolled her eyes, pulling her cloak a little tighter against the cold as they left the castle behind them. “You’re hopeless.”

“You can’t tell me that being rich doesn’t appeal to you at least a little bit,” Draco argued.

“Can too. I told you: money corrupts. It’s not worth it.”

He shook his head. “You really believe that?”

She smiled at him. “Just look at it this way: I never liked you until you lost everything. Even if I didn’t know it until later.”

“Trust me — and this is coming from someone who’s known both worlds — having money is a lot easier.”

She nodded. “I don’t doubt it. Much easier. Not necessarily better.”

“How is easier not better?”

“Oh, come on. Haven’t you ever heard that half the fun is getting there? What’s the point of living if you don’t have anything to work towards, if everything’s just handed to you?”

They reached the carriages and Draco helped her into one, fighting mightily not to notice the smooth, cool touch of her skin against his as she grasped his hand.

“Well, it’s a pretty theory,” Draco told her as he climbed in after, “but I still miss my galleons.”

Ginny smiled and shook her head helplessly. “I suppose it’s easier not to miss something you never had.” She watched the grounds roll past the window for a moment before suddenly turning back to him. “So why were you late, anyway?”

He grimaced. “Nothing. Just Pansy.”

“What about her?”

“Like I said, it’s nothing.”

She eyed him critically a moment before determining, “You’re lying. I can tell. Something’s bothering you.” Her face went a little ashen. “It’s not…?”

He quickly shook his head. “No, it doesn’t have anything to do with you, don’t worry.”

She visibly relaxed. “Oh, good. So…what is then?”

He hesitated, not really sure he wanted to burden her with yet another Death Eater concern. It really wasn’t fair to her. Or, if he were truly honest with himself, the real reason was less noble: he just didn’t want to talk about it.

“Draco, you know you can trust me,” Ginny told him with an encouraging smile, and she laid her hand on his knee.

Draco swallowed, staring at where her hand rested. Merlin, was she trying to drive him mad? He cleared his throat. “She’s, uh, just been after me a bit.”

“After you?” Ginny leaned back against the seat, taking her hand with her to Draco’s immense relief…and, he hated to admit, his disappointment.

He could think a bit more clearly now, in any case, and explained, “Yeah, she’s been wanting to talk to me about something. Take a wild guess what.”

“Death Eater business.”

“Right in one.” He frowned. “Well, I suppose. I can’t see what else it could be. I haven’t let her get me alone long enough to say.” He brooded over it a moment, then shrugged. “Anyway, I had to duck out of the way to avoid her in the hall.”

“Oh.” She studied him a moment, frowning. “You seem really bothered. Are you worried about it or something?”

Draco let his eyes drift towards the window. He hated these conversations, but one glance at the sincere look on her freckled face made it impossible to tell her so. “Not really. I don’t know. Maybe.” He slouched down in the seat. “Just with them you never know what’s next, you know? And most of the time, you really don’t want to know.”

“Maybe you should just talk to her,” Ginny suggested, pushing herself up to cross her legs Indian-style beneath. She propped her elbow on her knee and her chin in her hand. “The not-knowing is probably worse than the reality.”

“Wanna bet?”

“Maybe she just wants to ask you out or something.”

Draco snorted. “I think I’d prefer something to do with Death Eaters.”

She laughed, sitting up straight again. “You’re terrible.”

“No, I’m honest.”

Ginny raised an eyebrow. “You’re honest, are you?”

Draco conceded her point with a shrug. “Well…sometimes.”

“When it’s convenient, yeah?”

He smirked. “Congratulations, you’ve mastered the Slytherin philosophy.”

Ginny only rolled her eyes, then after a moment, she suddenly announced, “I feel terrible, you know.”

He looked over, surprised by the sudden remark. He could see by her face that she wasn’t lying. She was biting her lip in that nervous way of hers that made him want to just grab her and snog her senseless — which, he berated himself, was one of those things he was supposed to be ignoring now — and her eyebrows had a little crease of worry between them. “Oh, what do you have to be guilty over now? I swear you just look for things….”

She glared at him. “Well, I was going to say I felt bad about being the reason you’re having to deal with all this stress, but now I think I’ve changed my mind.”

“Excellent. See? Never say I don’t help.”

She gave a laugh that said, “you’re hopeless” and shook her head. “You’re in a weird mood today. Did you take something this morning?”

“No, actually. Believe it or not, I’m just happy.”

“Well, that is strange.”

“Exceedingly. It’s a little frightening. Maybe I should have run into Pansy, just to get things back to normal.”

The carriage rolled to a stop, and Draco climbed out first, turning back to help Ginny down. She accepted his hand, but when her foot moved to the step, she tangled it in her robes and lost her balance. He heard the startled squeak escape her throat, and after that everything happened in a blur. She fell forward, her arms grabbing for his shoulders, and he instinctively caught her waist, holding her tight to his chest off the ground so that she was raised just slightly taller than him.

For an awkward second, neither of them moved, and the only thought running through Draco’s head was, Oh bloody hell….

Because now he knew what she felt like in his arms. Now he knew how perfectly her curves fit his body, like she’d been made just for him, and he finally could feel exactly how soft that fiery hair really was. And, God help him, she smelled like flowers and grass after spring rain — sweet but distinctly earthy in a way exactly fitting for her. Before he had only his imagination to contend with, but this would beyond a doubt make dealing with this inane emotion that much more difficult.

The second ticked by, though, and Ginny gave a nervous laugh as she pushed back a little on his shoulders, sliding herself down to the ground again. He let her go, intensely relieved when she stepped back, but at the same time experiencing a pang of loss so sharp that he actually welcomed the duller ache of longing that eventually replaced it.

“Sorry.” Beneath her freckles her face was so red with embarrassment that it almost blended in her with her hair. “I guess I never quite mastered that lady-like grace stuff.”

Uncomfortable to the point of wanting to flee and still battling with all the conflicting emotions rushing through him, Draco just shrugged, muttered, “It was nothing,” and started walking towards the village.

Ginny caught up quickly, and they spent the next several minutes in awkward silence. Draco felt about ready to break from the tension when Ginny suddenly stopped in front of a shop window and gazed inside.

“Wow,” she breathed. “That is lovely.”

He identified the establishment as the local jewelry shop, the displays inside the window glittering brilliantly in the afternoon sun. Ginny was so absorbed by whatever caught her eye that she practically had her face pressed against the window.

“What is?” he asked curiously, stepping up behind her to peer over her shoulder.

That.” She pointed at a delicate gold necklace that draped gracefully around a mannequin’s neck, a circle pendant of emerald, ruby, amber, and sapphire — one for each of Hogwarts’ Houses — hanging from the end.

Draco studied it a moment. “You like it?”

“Of course! It’s beautiful, and I love that idea. All the Houses, you know.” She smiled wistfully, turning away. “Just neat.”

Draco considered the necklace for another few moments as she started walking away, then before she got too far called, “Ginny, wait. Come here.”

“What?”

“Do you want it?”

“What do you mean?

“I mean, do you want that necklace?”

She laughed incredulously. “Draco, I could never afford that!”

He looked at the necklace another second before turning to her. “I know. But I might be able to get it for you.”

“Draco, you can’t afford that anymore than I can, remember? You’re as broke as me now. Maybe more than me.” She tilted her head. “Now that’s an interesting notion. A Weasley with more money than a Malfoy.”

He glared. “I think you’re actually enjoying my poverty.”

She grinned impishly. “Maybe just a little bit.”

He put his chin in the air. “I’ve still got more class.”

She snorted, which he chose to ignore.

“Anyway,” he continued, “I’m not suggesting that I’d buy it.”

She raised her eyebrows. “Umm, thanks all the same, but I’d rather not walk around sporting stolen goods.”

He rolled his eyes. “I’m not saying that either. Look, just come with me.”

He started back towards the carriages, knowing she would follow. Sure enough, her footsteps came slapping up behind him in seconds, and she demanded, “Where are you going? Back to the castle? We just got here!”

“I know, but it would probably be a good idea to do this while the castle’s deserted.”

“Do what?” Her voice came out exasperated, and her lips formed an annoyed frown.

He just shook his head, fighting not to smile. Something in him still loved seeing her get worked up. He liked that the fire in her always burned somewhere deep down…and sometimes not so deep down.

He hailed a carriage and climbed inside, reaching down to offer her his hand.

She crossed her arms over her chest. “I’m not getting in that thing until you tell me what’s going on.”

“You’re going to be standing there an awfully long time then.”

She actually stomped her foot, hands going to her sides clenched in fists. “Draco Malfoy! Quit being such an obnoxious git!”

“That wasn’t very nice. Now, get in, or I’m going back without you and you’ll never know.”

She glared at him, then slapped away his hand and pulled herself into the carriage unaided. She plopped down opposite him, crossing arms and legs and staring out the window with her nose in the air, refusing to look at him. This time, Draco couldn’t help but smile, though he was smart enough to hide the fact behind his hand.

When they reached the castle, Ginny jumped down before he could offer to help and stood outside tapping her foot impatiently. “Well, go on then. Show me what was so important we had to leave early, you great prat.”

He chuckled as he started walking up the steps to the Entrance Hall. “You know, you’re going to feel just awful when you find out. Especially with your guilt issues.”

“Somehow I doubt that.”

He just shook his head, smiling lightly to himself.

Ignoring the way Ginny stomped as she followed, Draco led her down to the dungeons and didn’t stop until they reached his common room.

“Draco, this is ridiculous!” she suddenly exploded, telling him she’d been trying to hold back for some time. “Your common room?”

“My room,” he corrected. “We just have to go through the common room to get there…which is why I thought we should do this now, before everyone came back to see and make assumptions you probably wouldn’t like.”

Ginny eyed him reproachfully. “What’s in your room?”

Draco rolled his eyes. “Don’t you trust me even a little bit by now?”

“Not really,” she returned lightly as she followed him into the common room. “But you only have yourself to blame for that. You’re the one that turned me into a paranoid freak, remember?”

“You know, I’m about to do something incredibly nice for you, and all you can do is insult me.”

“Now you know how everyone usually feels around you,” she answered absently, her real attention focused on her surroundings.

He watched her reaction with interest. In his head, he’d always pictured her regarding the place with that little wrinkle in her nose betraying her distaste at stepping foot on enemy territory. The reality surprised him.

Her dark eyes traveled slowly, carefully observant, without ever quite stopping. She didn’t seem to disapprove of the gothic-looking room with its black leather chairs, green lamps and decorations carved from ebon wood, though that didn’t necessarily mean it looked like she liked it either. She appeared merely fascinated. At least she seemed to have forgotten her annoyance.

“Well?” he asked after she’d turned in a complete circle.

“It’s…different. Gryffindor is much more cheerful, but there’s something kind of cool about this too.” She smiled up at him. “It’s almost like stepping into one of those old Dracula novels.”

He chuckled. “Creepy?”

She considered. “No. Classy, mysterious. A little exciting. If it were a man, it would be tall, dark, handsome, and have a tortured past.”

“Oh, Lord, please tell me you don’t fancy that clichéd romance novel type Pansy’s always blathering on about.”

Ginny laughed. “Don’t be silly…I prefer my men with fair complexions.” She winked at him and flashed a wicked grin before sauntering — actually bloody sauntering — by him.

He stared after her in disbelief, only vaguely aware that his mouth hung open in a way entirely unsuitable for a Malfoy. Was she flirting? No, she couldn’t be. She was still in love with damned Potter. And even if she was, it was only in jest. It had to be. But he was wasting his time wondering about that anyway, because she definitely had not been flirting. After all, she’d always been a joker, even before they drew their truce…well, when she hadn’t been hexing him or screeching at him like a banshee she had, anyway.

“So where’s your room?” she asked resignedly, arms crossed.

He snapped his mouth shut. “What?”

“Your room. I want to find out what this brilliant surprise is already.”

The reminder shoved him back into the present. “Oh, right. This way.” He walked past her, holding his breath so as not to risk even a hint of that spring shower smell, and led her down a short hall to the boys’ dorms, and from there to the dormitory he shared with the other Seventh year males.

“I’ve never been in a boy’s room before,” Ginny commented as Draco shut the door. “Well, I mean my brothers back at the Burrow, but that doesn’t count.” She looked around. “Which bed is yours?”

Draco walked over to it and crouched by the trunk at the foot. “This one. Now close your eyes a minute.”

She raised her eyebrows, then with a little sigh, complied. Draco spared a second to just look at her like that, standing beautiful and oblivious to his scrutiny in the middle of his quite deserted room. He shook his head and opened the trunk before he followed that dangerous train of thought further.

He rummaged around through his belongings for a moment before he found the small, midnight velvet box he wanted. Cradling it in hand, he walked slowly over and around her, stopping at her back.

“Don’t open your eyes,” he warned in a murmur, then hesitating for only a second, reached out and swept her hair over one shoulder, brushing the skin at the back of her neck as he did — not really on accident. He could have sworn he saw her shiver, but that was probably just wishful thinking. He gave himself a good mental smack. Why did he torture himself like this? He was beginning to suspect he was becoming a masochist.

“What are you doing?” she asked, whispering just as he’d spoken in a murmur, like they both feared shattering some fragile spell.

Or, again, maybe that was just his imagination teasing him.

“Just wait,” he answered. He flipped open the box and pulled out a necklace, tossing the empty container onto his bed. “Take off your locket.”

“What?”

“I said, take off your locket.”

She hesitated, hand flying to the locket in question. “I…I can’t.”

“Just for a minute. You can put it right back on after.”

She didn’t say anything for a long moment, and Draco stepped to the side to see her face. She was biting her lip, eyes still squeezed tightly shut and her forehead creased in an obvious internal struggle. Finally, releasing a shaky breath, she reached up and unfastened the locket with one hand, letting it slither with a soft clink into the waiting palm of her other one. She dropped it into her pocket.

Draco felt a swell of satisfaction as though he’d just won some pivotal battle, and wordlessly, he worked free the clasp of the necklace still in his hands. He leaned forward to drape the chain around her now bare neck, taking his time as he did, breathing in that unique scent of springtime rain.

Like I said, a bloody masochist, mate, he thought to himself bitterly.

This time, when the cold metal touched her skin, he knew for sure she shivered, and he took inordinate pride in the fact. He couldn’t resist brushing the skin of her neck again as he fastened the clasp.

“Draco?”

“Shhh. Almost. Come on.” He lightly grasped either shoulder, feeling the warmth of her body through the cloth of her robes, and steered her carefully towards the room’s one full-length mirror. He stopped her with a light squeeze and, though he knew he was seriously pushing it now, he also knew that he probably wouldn’t find an opportunity like this again, so he stepped up closer so that his chest stopped just a whisper away from her back.

Carefully, he arranged her hair, soft as a unicorn’s mane and vividly bright as dragon fire, back around her shoulders, allowing himself a moment to run his hands through those strands one last time, committing to memory the picture they made in the mirror. Then he stepped back.

“All right. Have a look.”

She opened her eyes and let out a soft, “Oh.” The necklace didn’t match the one in the shop window exactly: its chain was made of silver rather than gold, but the pendant resting just in the hollow of her throat did have all four House colors. The only difference was the addition of diamonds to this one, and the fact that they were shaped into a heart rather than a simple circle.

Draco,” she breathed, touching the glittering jewels reverently with the tips of her fingers.

“It’s not exactly the same as the one you saw,” Draco apologized with an awkward shrug, “but I thought it was close enough that you might like it anyway.”

“Are you kidding me? It’s gorgeous. Better than the one in Hogsmeade.” She admired it a moment longer in awed silence, then blinking as if emerging from a dream, shook her head. “But you know I can’t accept it. It’s too nice.”

Draco rolled his eyes. “Well, I’m certainly not going to get any use out of the thing. Mum wanted me to give it to Pansy, but I’d sooner toss it in the lake. I want you to have it.”

She stared at her reflection, obviously torn between manners and desire. “I don’t know….” She turned suddenly to face him. “Why? Why would you want to just give me something so precious? You could sell it or something. It has to be worth more galleons than I’ve had in my life.”

Draco lifted a shoulder, unable to look her in the eye. “I just do. Besides, it looks good on you, and I just…do.”

She shook her head. “But it doesn’t make sense. All I’ve caused you is trouble, having to protect me and everything else, and you don’t have a reason for that either. It’s not like you, and you know it. There must be something. I just can’t see what.”

Draco finally met her gaze. Her brown eyes, so rich and dark, stared back wonderingly at him, and he felt his stomach clench. He took a steadying breath, but that only succeeded in bringing her curiously heady smell to his senses. “Ginny….”

“Yes?”

Somehow they’d gotten closer. He couldn’t remember if it had been his doing or if she’d drifted nearer on her own, but Draco suddenly found himself at a far cry from a respectable distance. And the way she was tilting her head back to see him, it would be so easy to just lean down and…

A sharp knock came from the door.

The two sprang apart just as Pansy’s high voice cut through the air. “Draco? Someone told me they saw you leaving early, so I thought…Well, are you there?”

Draco cursed hotly under his breath, feeling a loathing for Pansy like nothing he’d ever felt for the girl before. “Hide!” he hissed to Ginny, shoving her roughly onto the bed nearest the door and yanking the curtains closed.

Draco had just enough time to retreat back to his own bed before Pansy came barging in.

“Why didn’t you answer?” she snapped.

“I’m not feeling well, Pansy,” he growled. “Why do you think I came back early?”

She frowned uncertainly. “Really? What’s wrong?”

Draco had an idea. “I’m not sure, but my head feels foggy. I could use one of those potions we keep in the loo, but I don’t even feel like I have the energy to get up and find one.”

Pansy instantly perked up, eager to please. “I can get it. What’s it look like?”

“Green, with a blue stopper.” She nodded, and Draco waited until she was just out of sight before striding across the room, throwing back the bed curtains hiding Ginny, and dragging her out by the arm. “I’m so sorry,” he whispered, rapid-fire. “Go, we’ll talk later.” Then without waiting for her reply, he pushed her through the door.

By the time Pansy reappeared, Draco was already back to reclining on his bed, and handing him the vial, she said, “Okay, here’s your potion. Now, can we please have that talk?”

Draco knew there was no way out this time. He sighed. “Fine.”

- - - - -

Ginny felt a little shell-shocked. She had seen the Slytherin common room, been inside Draco’s dormitory, received the most expensive gift of her entire life, hid and then escaped from detection, all in the space of less than an hour. It was enough to keep the adrenaline pumping in her veins for ages. She still couldn’t believe Draco would consider giving her something so priceless, and she was enormously uncomfortable with accepting it. She would have to return it…eventually.

She was just ascending the stairs out of the dungeons when a pair of black shoes entered her line of vision. She grabbed the rail in surprise, uttering a squeak, and lifted her gaze up to the face of Theadore Nott.

Without thinking, she snapped, “A little warning? I almost fell down the steps!”

He raised his eyebrows. “My apologies.”

Ginny glowered but made no reply. That was, until he showed no signs of moving out of her way. “Could I please get by?”

Nott appeared not to have heard her, slipping his hands leisurely into his pockets. “So I’m curious: why would a Gryffindor princess be wandering about all by herself in the dungeons?”

Ginny scowled. “I’m not a princess,” she grumbled, side-stepping the implied question.

He looked her over from head to toe, gaze halting at her neck. “Hmmm. Perhaps not, but you certainly ornament yourself like one.”

She was getting impatient and more ill at ease by the second; she just wanted out of there. It was torture being so close to freedom, yet to have it so far out of reach thanks to the tall boy blocking her path. “Now what are you on about?”

He gave his damned half-smile, which she was all too familiar with by now, and descended one more step. He reached out to her, making her flinch back, but he only lifted Draco’s necklace off her neck before letting it fall back into place. “That. I don’t mean any offense, but it seems a bit out of your price range.”

Ginny’s fingers covered the jeweled pendant defensively. “It was a gift.”

“Ah. Of course.” Now his half-smile became a smirk. “May I ask from whom?”

“No, you may not,” she retorted in her best impression of his precise speech. “Now please be ever so kind as to get the hell out of my way!”

Nott chuckled. “In a minute. First, you never did explain: what are you doing down here?” That knowing half-smile again. “Visiting someone?”

Ginny narrowed her eyes, perfectly aware of what he was implying. “Yes, actually,” she answered sweetly, enjoying the momentary surprise that flitted over his face. “I had to see Professor Pierce about an assignment.”

“I see. Was he helpful?”

His apparent interest caught her off guard, but she recovered quickly. “I…suppose. I mean, he answered my questions.”

“Did he now? Right here in these dungeons. Well, that is interesting.”

Ginny eyed him suspiciously. “What do you mean?”

“Well, because I just got back from Hogsmeade, you see, and when I was leaving, I saw someone distinctly Pierce-like walking into the Three Broomsticks. Now, call me crazy, but I find it quite impressive that he managed to finish his business there, get back to the castle, and answer your questions all before I arrived back myself.” Ginny fought mightily to maintain her composure, silently using several of the swears she’d recently learned from Draco. Nott’s mouth quirked in amusement. “Next time, do your homework. Or at least choose something more likely.”

“That is likely,” Ginny defended stubbornly, trying to recover at least some measure of dignity.

Nott shook his head. “It isn’t if you’ve been paying attention.”

“Paying attention to what?”

“Haven’t you noticed? Our dear Professor hasn’t been frequenting his rooms very often these days. Apparently, he’s found more pleasing accommodations elsewhere…or, my personal theory, more pleasing company.”

Ginny made a face. “Oh, please.” Though, now that she thought about it, Draco had mentioned on several occasions that Pierce’s quarters appeared deserted when he walked by. Still, Pierce partaking in some illicit affair seemed a little far-fetched to her.

Nott shrugged. “Think what you will. But remember that the most unlikely people are usually the ones involved in the most unlikely things. Just look at yourself.”

She immediately threw up her guard. “What about me?”

He crossed his arms, leaning casually against the wall. “Well, obviously you didn’t take my advice to stay away from him very seriously.”

“I’m sorry, stay away from who?”

“Don’t play dumb. It doesn’t become you. That’s a tool more suitable to someone like Pansy.”

Ginny smiled sweetly. “I’ll be sure to let her know.”

He snorted. “Go ahead. She knows what I think of her.”

“Look,” she snapped, finally run out of patience, “I don’t have time for your stupid games, so either move or I’ll move you personally.”

He gave her a quick assessment that clearly left him unimpressed. “You think so?”

Temper snapping, Ginny clenched her fists and without warning bulled forward, throwing her entire weight into shoving him out of the way. He stumbled back against the stone wall with an audible thump, and though Ginny knew better than to turn back and gloat, she sported a wide grin.

“I’ll admit one thing I was wrong about!” he called after her, eloquent voice only slightly rougher as he struggled to regain the breath she knocked out of him. “It’s already too late for you. You can’t get out now. He’s got you tangled up in his world, and you’re as trapped as the rest of us.”

She whirled around. “What does it matter to you? What the hell do you care? Honestly, I’d like to know, because I sure can’t figure it out!”

He shrugged. “It can’t be friendly interest?”

“You’re no friend of Draco’s.”

He smiled mysteriously. “I never said Draco, did I?”

At a complete loss for words to that, she simply stood there utterly confused. She remained a beat longer without knowing how to react, then in a burst of frustration, let out a small scream and spun on her heel, storming off.

She walked the rest of the way to Gryffindor in a haze of absolute bewilderment and more than a little anger. What was it with these people and their fascination with game playing? What could Nott possibly want out of her, and what did he mean when he implied a “friendly interest” in her? Another danger to watch out for? Certainly not an ally, not that enigmatic Slytherin.

She stalked over to her bed and started stripping off her robes as soon as she entered the dormitory. Folding the garment to put it away in her trunk, she noticed a hard lump in the pocket and realized she’d never put back on her locket. Guiltily, she pulled it out and held the end of the chain, watching as the locket dangled at the end, turning in lazy circles.

She gazed at it a long time, letting the light bounce off the surface. Lowering it, she lifted her fingers to trace the silver chain already around her neck, following its length to the glittering, multi-colored pendant at the end.

Then she returned the locket to her robe and shut both in her trunk…leaving Draco’s heart nestled at her throat.

- - - - -

A/N – All right, not quite as long (though still about five pages longer than my old average), but much faster, so I call it even haha. Thanks for reading! Let me know what you thought!
Questionable Motives by Hearts Cadence
A/N – woo wee, I’m on a roll! Another one in less than 2 weeks! I’m so proud of myself. Haha it helps that I haven’t had any huge assignments for like a week and a half *knock on wood.* Mercy me, but life has been beautiful =D Haha anyway, enjoy!

- - - - -

Chapter 20 – Questionable Motives

“Did it hurt?”

Naomi’s voice was a caress against Pierce’s neck and a sweet melody to his ears. She had her head pillowed on his shoulder as they lay in her bed, covered by only the sheet.

“Did what hurt?” he murmured sleepily.

Her finger traced his Dark Mark.

“Yes,” he admitted, stroking her hair with his eyes fixed on the ceiling. “But no worse than any other burn. That’s all it is — a brand burned into us. Branded like cattle.”

Naomi yawned and snuggled closer against him. “You keep telling me you don’t regret it, but you always sound so bitter. And I know you hate You-Know-Who.”

Pierce sighed. “It’s not about loyalty to him, or even about liking the idea of Death Eaters in general. It’s a means to an end is all.”

“How Slytherin. The end justifies the means, is that right? And just what end are you hoping for, Jon?”

Pierce didn’t say anything, just kept on stroking her hair in silence. The past few weeks had been bliss for him, an escape from the reality that he hadn’t realized was weighing so heavily on him. He’d found freedom again in Naomi’s arms, in the liberating music of her voice, and though he knew it was dangerous to indulge so much, he just couldn’t keep away.

A large part of the reason Naomi provided such a perfect oasis, though, was that she had known what subjects to ignore. It had been all reminiscing and catching up and laughing and whispering promises of love, and it truly had been like he was a teenager again. But these past few days she’d started hinting at heavier topics, and now she’d come right out with it. He knew it would happen eventually, but it depressed him nonetheless.

Naomi shifted around so that she was propped up on her elbow, looking down on his face. “I never did understand that, you know. What you were looking for.”

He looked over at her, eyes slipping from the hollow of her throat down to where the sheet draped over the rest of her body. “What do you mean?”

“Back in school. I always thought we were so happy. Everything was perfect, but then….” She sighed. “I never understood why fitting in with them was so important to you. I was always afraid you would go and join that crazy bastard because of it.” She smiled thinly. “Looks like I wasn’t worried enough, doesn’t it?”

Pierce frowned. “It wasn’t perfect, Naomi. We couldn’t even tell anyone we were together.”

“No, you couldn’t. I was perfectly willing to deal with everyone else’s judgment. You were the one who cared so much about approval. I guess that’s what I never understood. Why you did care.”

“Is it so wrong that I wanted to belong somewhere?”

Her eyes grew soft, and she lifted her hand to stroke his cheek. “No, but you already did belong somewhere. With me. That wasn’t enough?”

Pierce closed his eyes. “Don’t say that.”

“What? That I wasn’t enough? Then why did you do it?”

He turned his face away from her, not wanting to discuss it anymore. These were issues best left alone; he knew all too well the dangers of second-guessing, especially in this game. He needed to keep his focus strong. Examining motives was a perfect way to risk that.

“Jon.” She whispered it right against his ear. “Talk to me.”

He knew better. He knew he shouldn’t. But the magic in her voice compelled him, and he felt his walls crumbling against its power.

His eyes found hers. “You know my dad left us, my mum and me, before I ever got my letter.”

“But he was a pretty nasty fellow anyway, wasn’t he? I thought you told me that once.”

Pierce nodded wearily. “I don’t remember much, but what I do remember is a drunkard and a man cruel as a long winter. I never saw Mum so…free as the day he left for good.”

He sighed. “I was supposed to be like her. I was supposed to go into Hufflepuff, and show everyone I had a heart of gold, just like she always believed.” He shook his head. “She still believed that rubbish right up until the very end.”

“That’s right,” Naomi remembered aloud. “She died in that fire right before you ended things with me, didn’t she? You never would talk about it. It sounds like it was a horrible accident.”

Pierce wouldn’t meet her eyes, a sensation that had been absent in him for years stealing over him: guilt. “Yeah. Horrible accident.”

“You know why she believed that about you, though, don’t you, Jon? Because you do have a good heart.” She pressed a soft kiss onto his collar bone. “Your Mum and me, we could both see that. They’re the ones who made you believe otherwise.”

He laughed — a cold, empty sound. “Oh, Naomi. There’s so much you don’t know about me.”

She frowned, making little circles on his bare chest. “So tell me.”

Pierce shook his head. “Trust me, you don’t want to know.” He suddenly rolled over her, bracing his arms at either side of her head and leaning down to kiss her. When he pulled back, he murmured, “Can’t we just go on as we have? It would be better for both of us.”

She reached up and smoothed some of his hair back from his face, a sympathetic gleam to her brown eyes. “I think we’ve ignored it long enough. We’ve been ignoring it ever since we started seeing each other in school. Maybe that’s what went wrong.”

He fell back again, defeated. “That’s not what went wrong,” he told her tonelessly.

Naomi pushed herself onto her side again so that she could look down at him. “So? What did?”

“What do you want me to say, Naomi? I don’t know what you’re asking me.”

Her fingers went back to tracing soothing swirls across his torso. “Start with the beginning. Why did you ever join in with that crowd?”

His smile was bitter. “Easy one. I was human. I got lonely. You didn’t happen along until Sixth year, and I needed more than the occasional letters from Mum. So I started trying to fit in.”

After a moment of silence, she quietly urged, “Go on.”

He reached down and grasped her hand, stopping the circles to entwine his fingers with hers. “I felt guilty at first,” he admitted. “For some of the cruelty I saw. It reminded me a lot of Dad, and I couldn’t bear to think of what Mum would say.” He sighed. “But it was working, too. They were accepting me, bit by bit, as I stopped acting less…I don’t know…”

“Like you.”

He shrugged. “I suppose. Anyway, it turns out I was a great Slytherin. Am a great one. In an unconventional sort of way, which made things more difficult at first, but in a very effective way. The Sorting Hat is never wrong.”

“It can’t take into account everything,” Naomi protested. “You’re smart, and clever, and more determined than anyone I know. That’s why it sorted you into Slytherin. You didn’t have any of the cruelty, none of the negative aspects. Not at first, anyway. You learned that later, from them. When there’s only four stereotypes you can be categorized into, there’s bound to be some discrepancies.”

Pierce rolled his eyes. “You sound like Mum.”

“Well, she was a smart woman, from what I hear. And anyway, just look at me. The hat sorted me into Ravenclaw for my academic skills, but I never really fit in. They were so serious. No fun at all. That’s why I was so happy to find you.”

“Fine, I’m really a good man deep down. There, now can we talk about something else?”

“If you’re just going to tell me what I want to hear, you could at least try a bit more sincerity.”

He smirked. “Sorry, in the future I’ll lie more convincingly.”

She rolled her eyes. “You know that’s not what I meant. Now quit changing the subject. So they started accepting you. Then what?”

“Naomi, please. Let’s just drop this.” He brought her fingers up to his lips and kissed each in turn. “I’m sure we can find something more entertaining to do….”

She smiled and tugged her hand free. “Come on, I finally got you talking. Don’t ruin it.”

He groaned and dropped his hand back down to his stomach. “Fine, witch. So they started accepting me, I realized it was a bit of fun playing mind games with people, especially since I was so gifted with it, and I got caught up.”

“You mean the Death Eaters.”

“Yes.”

“Before or after me?”

“Before,” he admitted. “By the time you came along…well, it was already too late.”

“You don’t mean….”

He smiled sourly. “No, I didn’t already have the Mark. I just mean I had already made up my mind to get it as soon as I came of age.” His eyes found hers and held. “Meeting you complicated that decision, but…well, you said it yourself. I’m a determined man.”

She sighed regretfully. “I understand that, only because I know how you are, but what I still don’t understand is why you ever wanted to join him. You don’t like him, you could care less about Muggles either way, you said they accepted you already…”

“But would they have still accepted me if I refused?” He shook his head. “And that wasn’t even so important anymore. Acceptance is more of a requirement for the young. By then, for me, it had grown into something more. Something they probably instilled in me, but it’s there nevertheless.”

“What?”

He gazed frankly at her. “Power. I wanted it, and he had it. I disliked him, but I loved what he had, and I wanted a little bit for myself. Means to an end, Naomi. Everything’s just a means to an end.”

She was silent a long moment. “That’s very depressing.”

He shifted his eyes back to the ceiling, giving a crooked smile. “I told you that you wouldn’t want to know. I’m not the man you think I am. I’m definitely nothing of the boy I used to be, and even he wasn’t all that admirable.”

“I think he’s still down there, somewhere.” She stretched out her arm and lowered her head to his shoulder. “It just might take some digging to find him.”

“So that’s it? You’ve waltzed back into my life to redeem me?” The question came out bitter-sounding, but he didn’t care. He wanted no salvation, and he certainly wanted to be no one’s cause.

Surprisingly, her voice didn’t return defensively, but drifted softly up to his ear where she murmured, “No, I waltzed back in because I’m selfish and I missed you.” She ran her palm up his chest, pressing closer. “I missed this.”

He bit back a moan as she rolled on top of him, nipping at his bottom lip enticingly. “So you became a Death Eater for power and to maintain status. Why did you have to push me away too?”

He closed his eyes so he wouldn’t have to look at her. “Naomi…”

She bent down and nibbled at his collar bone. “Jon,” her voice sounded a little breathless, “tell me. Please.”

Pierce pushed his head back into the pillow and bit the inside of his cheek. Damn. It truly amazed him how quickly he, the master at manipulations, could be manipulated by this woman who didn’t even realize she was doing it. Maybe that’s what he’d always loved about her: the loss of control.

“I wanted to protect you,” he whispered.

“Protect me?”

“No one but Severus knew about us. By ending it when I did, I got rid of the risk of him using you against me. He liked doing that, using loved ones to prove loyalty and all that rot.” He took a moment to gather himself. “I found that the hard way.”

Naomi suddenly stopped her attentions and regarded him curiously. “What do you mean?”

“Nothing.”

“Jon…”

“Naomi,” he cut her off sharply, voice and eyes hard. “I said, it was nothing.”

They carried on a staring contest for an achingly long time before Naomi finally dropped her gaze. “All right. Just…can I ask one thing more?”

“Does it matter if I say no?”

She smiled faintly. “Jon, have you ever killed someone?”

He hesitated. “Yes.”

“A lot of someones?”

“Yes.” He searched her face. “Does that bother you?”

“Yes.”

“Enough to leave?”

She seemed to consider a moment, then finally, “No. But only because I believe in second chances. Only because I believe there’s still hope for you.”

Pierce slid his hands up her sides. “You shouldn’t. It’s not true.”

“Well,” she lowered herself down to him, “I suppose there’s nothing for it but to stay and find out.”

- - - - -

Pierce trudged back into his quarters later that night utterly exhausted, assaulted by mixed feelings wherever he turned. He hadn’t wanted to tell Naomi all of that. He shouldn’t have told her. It wasn’t smart, it gained him no advantage, and he hated, hated letting people see too much of him. He just couldn’t bloody well control himself around her. It scared him and thrilled him all at once, and he wasn’t sure it was necessarily a good thing.

But Merlin, he loved being with her. He loved how she knew exactly what to say, exactly where to touch, exactly what he needed at any given moment. He knew it was dangerous — it meant she could play him on a moment’s notice, as she so frequently did — but something in him craved it. Something in him craved her.

He’d thought that he would be able to handle himself better than he had back in school. He was beginning to suspect maybe he was wrong. But did that necessarily mean he had to break things off again? It would be dangerous in someone he was uncertain of, but this was Naomi.

“Back late again, I see.”

Pierce tripped over a table in the dark, cursed loudly, and stumbled about four steps before he could regain his balance. Breath coming heavy and heart pounding, he tore out his wand and cast a Lumos. Snape sat in Pierce’s high-backed leather chair, proper and severe as any king on his throne.

“Bloody hell, Sev!” Pierce snapped, rubbing at his knee which had been unfortunate enough to collide with his furniture. “One time, just one time, it would be nice if you gave a normal entrance.”

Snape ignored him. “You never answered.”

Scowling and still grumbling to himself, Pierce went and fixed himself a drink before collapsing across from his old House mate. “Sorry, I wasn’t really paying attention. I was too busy having the shit scared out of me.”

“I said, you’re back late.”

Pierce raised an eyebrow. “Very good. And you have black hair. Anything else you’d like to bring to my attention?”

Snape narrowed his eyes. “I’m serious, Jon. This can’t keep going on.”

Pierce sighed, slouching down into his chair and pinching the bridge of his nose. “Sev, I’ve had a long day. I’m knackered, and I’d rather like to enjoy a drink in peace before falling into what’s certain to be a coma-like sleep. So would you please just come out with it so you can leave?”

“You know I’ve tried visiting you twice already?”

“That so? Well, you know what they say: third time’s a charm.”

Snape’s eyes went hard as black iron. “This is no laughing matter. What do you think you’re doing taking this mission so lightly? How am I supposed to report this to the Dark Lord?”

“Hopefully not at all.”

Snape’s lips pressed into a thin, white line. “You’re putting me in a very difficult position, Jon.”

Pierce swirled the liquid in his glass around lazily. “Look, I’ve just had a few small matters to deal with…”

“Matters?” Snape’s stare weighed heavy and cold with judgment. “At least do me the courtesy of telling the truth.”

Pierce’s hand stopped mid-swirl, alarms suddenly going off in his head. “Excuse me?”

“I looked into these ‘matters’ after I couldn’t find you the second time. Turns out they boil down to just one big mistake.”

Pierce slowly set his drink down. “Severus — ”

Snape suddenly rocketed from the chair, any pretense of calm vanished. “Naomi? Jon, how could you be so stupid? I’d thought you learned your lesson the last time!”

Pierce rubbed tiredly at his eyes. “Calm down. You’re making too much of it.”

“You know how dangerous it is to have any close associations with an outsider,” Snape went on as if Pierce never spoke. “Classified information could slip so easily in the heat of the moment, not to mention you’re just handing the rest of them an easy tool to use you! I thought I taught you better!”

“You did,” Pierce snapped back. “And I ended it once because of your brilliant advice. Well, I’m older now. Things have changed.”

Nothing has changed! If anything, it’s worse!” He pointed a finger at Pierce’s scarred forearm. “So long as you bear that Mark you belong to him, and that means this ridiculous relationship cannot go on! Not again! You’re lucky there were no consequences the first time!”

Pierce rose, pacing restlessly around the room. “You don’t think I’m fully aware of all of that? But Severus, you know something? For the first time in a whole hell of a lot of years, I feel good.”

“Congratulations, Jon. I hope you’ll be able to say the same when she’s dead.”

Pierce’s eyes flashed. “She won’t die. I won’t let her get involved like that.”

“Oh? Just like your mother wouldn’t get involved?”

Pierce felt anger boil up within him on the verge of eruption. “I don’t think all your advice has got anything to do with me,” he growled. “You don’t care if I get used or provide a weakness. You’re just jealous. You’ve never experienced anything like what I have with Naomi, and it kills you.” He sneered. “You’re pathetic.”

Snape went very still and said in a low, dangerous voice, “You know full well that’s not true. I just had more sense than to pursue it.”

Pierce rolled his eyes. “What, Lily?” He scoffed. “Don’t give me more sense. She never wanted you, mate! You mooned after her like some miserable little school boy, but she didn’t even waste the energy detesting you! She was always Potter’s, and you, she never realized you existed.”

Snape’s long, thin hands curled into white-knuckled fists. “Don’t speak her name.”

“Just admit it!”

“She defended me.”

“She defended her morals!” Pierce shot back, voice dripping with contempt. “God, you really are pathetic.”

Snape advanced on him in a swirl of black robes and a curled lip. “I’m pathetic? At least I’m not letting some woman I haven’t seen in years play me like a fool!”

Pierce stopped and glared suspiciously. “What?”

Snape sighed, shaking his head. “I planned on sparing you.”

“Sparing me from what, Severus?” He felt defensive anger pump though his veins. “What are you trying to say?”

“Don’t you find it the least bit odd that she just popped back into your life with no warning and no explanation, completely accepting the choices you’ve made and opening her arms without hesitation?”

“She read about my position in the Prophet. She wanted to see me. She said she missed me.”

“Oh, I’m sure she did say that.”

Pierce took out his wand and started twirling it around in his fingers agitatedly. “Why on earth would she lie about that? What purpose could it possibly achieve?”

“Have you really become so blind?” Snape’s voice filled with disgust. “My Lord. If this is ‘love,’ I’m happy I never suffered it.”

“Just get to your point, Severus.”

“She’s using you, Jon. She’s working for someone else.”

Pierce snorted. “Please. Naomi? You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“She’s not the same woman she used to be, and even then she was never as innocent as you always liked to believe. Face it: there’s something more going on here, and I don’t like it.”

“Who would she be working for? She’s got nothing to do with the kind of people that would use her to get to me! And honestly, how many enemies do I even have?”

“You’re successful, Jon. That alone is grounds for a great multitude of enemies…whether they’re known to you or not. I don’t pretend to know everything; I can’t tell you who exactly she’s working for…but it’s someone. I would stake my life on it.”

Pierce’s eyes narrowed, and he shoved his wand roughly back into his pocket. “You’re wrong. You don’t know her like I do.”

“Jon! Use your head! What other explanation is there?”

“Is the idea of honest emotion really that beyond you?”

Snape folded his arms. “So I suppose she hasn’t asked you anything about the Death Eaters. Hasn’t persuaded you to tell more than you should?”

Pierce felt his chest tighten painfully, his only response a glare.

Snape smirked. “I assumed as much. I mentioned earlier that important information is likely to slip out in the heat of the moment. I’m sure she — and her employer — are all too aware of that truth as well.” He walked up closer, standing almost nose-to-nose with Pierce. “Don’t be a fool, Jon. Say goodbye.”

With that, he swung an invisibility cloak around his shoulders and swept out of the room. Pierce snatched up his half-empty drink and hurled it at the closed door, breathing heavy as the glass shattered into a million tiny fragments.

“Damn you, Severus!” he shouted. Then, squeezing his eyes shut and curling his fingers into his hair, he whispered again, “Damn you.”

- - - - -

Ginny felt rather proud of herself. She had finally figured out the secret to making use of the library when it was blessedly empty of other students: pop in during meal time. She’d simply dropped by the Great Hall, grabbed one of the sandwiches laid out for that day’s lunch menu, and ate it on her way to study. Now, she could get some work done without anyone disturbing her for a change.

Well, that was the plan, anyway. There was one small complication in the form of Theodore Nott. When she walked into the room, expecting to find it empty, she instead met with him, sitting slightly reclined with a book open in front of him. She tried to turn right back around, but he spotted her first.

“Weasley. Pleasant surprise.”

Back still turned, she took a steadying breath, pasted on a false smile, and turned to face him. “It’s a surprise, anyway. What are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be eating?”

“Shouldn’t you?”

“I already did.”

“Well, me too. You’re not the only who realized the benefit of a fast meal and an empty library.”

“Obviously,” she muttered. Then, louder, “Right, well, I’ll leave you to it…”

He raised an eyebrow. “Assuming that your work didn’t just magically disappear, it’s a big library. I do believe there’s room for two.”

Ginny felt a sensation like a thousand ants crawling all across her skin. “Oh, that’s all right. I’m not really in the mood anyway, and…” she trailed off at Nott’s amused expression. “What?”

“You’re afraid of me.”

She narrowed her eyes. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

“Admit it: you are. You’re actually scared of me.”

“If I’m not afraid of Draco, I’m certainly not afraid of you. I just happen to strongly dislike you. Excuse me for trying to be polite about it.”

He crossed his arms, tilting his head a bit to one side as he regarded her. “Well, that’s a shame, because myself, I’m rather fond of you.”

Ginny felt the hairs on the back of her neck rise. Draco had promised her so long as she was supposedly his, she didn’t have to worry, but she was beginning to worry maybe he’d been a bit too confident. “Draco wouldn’t be too thrilled to hear that,” she pointed out, praying the reminder would deter the boy.

He gave a soft chuckle. “Malfoy’s not thrilled by much in my experience.”

“You know what I mean.”

“I do. Perhaps I don’t care.”

A sick feeling curled low in her belly, and suddenly the deserted library seemed as dangerous as any back alley. She tried a different tactic. “Well, I suppose that makes sense. Draco’s not much of a threat compared to the hexing I would give you if you tried anything.” She threw him a falsely sweet smile. “Everything they say about redhead’s and temper? All true.”

“My, my, my. Quite the spitfire, aren’t we? No wonder Draco’s so taken.”

Ginny crossed her arms. “Just try me. Because I’ve got to say, I’m getting tired of you and your veiled hints. It needs to stop.”

“Still wearing that lovely little gift I see,” he remarked.

She blinked, momentarily thrown by the total one-eighty in the conversation. It took her several seconds to realize his eyes were focused on her throat, and her hand instinctively flew to Draco’s necklace.

She’d never taken it off. She’d promised herself she would return it as soon as she talked with him again, but she hadn’t seen the blond since her hasty exit from his rooms the day before. He hadn’t shown up for their morning jog or even to breakfast, which now that she thought about it, was a little odd. He hadn’t been at lunch, either, but then she’d only just slipped in and out again. Maybe he’d arrived late.

“And?” she snapped, closing her fingers around the heart-shaped pendant protectively.

“Merely making an observation,” he answered innocently. “Very nice of Malfoy to give away such a valuable piece.”

She could feel his eyes like two needles pricking into her skull as she battled to hold her features neutral. Being around Draco had taught her the trick to an extent, but she doubted her amateur skill would stand up against that shrewd gaze. She should have known Nott would guess about the necklace. “I’m leaving,” she announced, turning on her heel.

“So soon?”

“I told you, I’m sick of your stupid Mr. Mysterious rubbish. I don’t need to listen to it.”

“Fair enough. What if I just came right out and asked you a frank, no-nonsense question then?”

She folded her arms, eyeing him warily. “Like…?”

“Like, is your darling relationship with our dear Malfoy really genuine?”

Ginny felt her heart jump against her ribs. She prayed her face didn’t betray it. “What’s that supposed to mean?” she demanded, trying to sound scornful.

He leaned back, pushing his book away from him to fold his hands together on the table. “I have my doubts, is all.” His half-smile crept onto his lips. “I think you’ll agree you two aren’t exactly a…likely pairing.”

“You’ve got to be joking. Of course it’s real.” Ginny found herself quite grateful for all those years spent deceiving her brothers. They made her an excellent liar. “Honestly, why would I fake something like that?”

“That’s what I’ve been trying to figure out myself,” he admitted, eyes never wavering from her face. “And Potter?”

She swallowed reflexively. “Harry? What about him?”

“You two were dating, weren’t you?”

She fought to hold his stare. “Harry’s not here,” she finally managed, voice quiet as a tear drop.

“Ah. But Malfoy is.”

“Yes.” She felt a wave of guilt wash through her and wondered at it. What did she have to feel guilty about? It wasn’t as if she was really involved with Draco. Their relationship was completely platonic. She had remained nothing but loyal to Harry.

A sly whisper in her mind asked why it was Draco’s token around her throat then and not Harry’s, but she smothered it almost immediately in denial.

Nott leaned forward, regarding her with a critical eye, obviously skeptical yet. “You trust him then?”

She let out a noise of exasperation. “Am I being interrogated?”

“Well, I could go back to tricking the answers out of you if you prefer, but you didn’t seem to appreciate my usual approach very much.”

Ginny rolled her eyes. “I’m leaving.”

Nott sighed and pushed away from the table. “No need. I was just leaving myself.” He got to his feet and brushed past her, pausing at the door. “I’ll be watching, Weasley.” And with that, he left.

Ginny watched his exit so flustered that she could feel her cheeks growing hot. Theodore Nott was a mystery she could not bear any longer. She’d never told Draco about the boy’s odd behavior, mostly because she felt horrible adding to the burden he already carried because of her, but after this episode, Ginny decided it was time to just break down and do it.

Because Nott had been right about one thing: he did frighten her, and not just a little.

- - - - -

A/N – I know, I know…we didn’t get to see any more D/G interaction. It’s coming, I swear. Next chapter.
A Little Chat Overheard by Hearts Cadence
A/N – Thanks so much for all the support! I love reading your reviews!

- - - - -

Chapter 21 – A Little Chat Overheard

Draco stared at his drawn bed curtains, feeling rather numb. It had been nearly twenty-four hours since Pansy finally managed to corner him, but the conversation still resonated in his mind, a harbinger of his doom. At least, that’s what it felt like. Pansy wanted him to take his Dark Mark at long last, and she wanted him to do it over the Christmas holiday.

“It’ll be such a brilliant surprise!” she’d enthused, eyes shining with anticipation. “We won’t tell anyone, and then when we get home, we’ll just shock them all with the news! Oh, it’ll be the best Christmas present to your parents ever, Draco!”

And what could he say? His mind had scrambled frantically but couldn’t conjure up any plausible excuse to refute the logic of her suggestion. After all, if he were really devoted, he would be eager to take the Mark as soon as possible, and what better opportunity than the hols? Draco felt an entirely all too familiar sensation, one that he had hoped to have escaped for good. He felt trapped.

He had to do something. He couldn’t take the Mark. After that, any sort of freedom would cease to exist, and his life would be forfeit to the whims of a lunatic. Avoiding this disaster was his one hope, but how? He had no reason to stay at the castle, and no reason to go anywhere else…not that he had anywhere else to go.

Panic would have claimed him at this point if only he hadn’t been through it all in his mind a hundred times before. He needed a door out, but he couldn’t even find a window to jump through.

His dark thoughts were interrupted by an insistent knock at the dormitory door. He’d locked it with a particularly strong charm when everyone else had gone off to lunch, lacking an appetite himself and wanting some solitude to think. Whoever it was, the git could wait.

The knock came again, and then again, and finally, an exasperated Draco called out, “Sod off!”

A pause, and then a timid, “Draco?”

He closed his eyes at that voice. Ginny. Damn. He couldn’t face her right now, he just couldn’t. How could he tell her? She would blame herself, of course, and he would have to assure her, and he just didn’t have the energy. He needed to reassure himself before he could even think about anyone else.

“Draco, let me in. I really need to talk to you.”

He sighed and slid back the bed curtains, rolling out of the bed to trudge to the door. He opened it to reveal a wide-eyed Ginny Weasley, hands twisting in her robes and cheeks flushed. She immediately pushed past him and moved promptly to his bed where she sat and clutched at the mattress edge as if holding on for dear life.

“How the hell did you get in here?” he asked as he shut and re-locked the door.

She blushed. “When you whispered the password yesterday…I have good hearing.”

He shook his head. “And you didn’t see fit to tell me you knew it?”

She blushed all the more. “I thought it might come in useful.”

He snorted. “I really have corrupted you.” He looked around awkwardly for a moment, unsure of what to do with himself. There were no chairs, and sharing the bed with Ginny didn’t seem entirely appropriate, so he finally just leaned back against the door.

“What’s wrong?” she suddenly demanded of him, releasing her death grip on the mattress and scooting forward in concern. “You look terrible. And I haven’t seen you since yesterday.”

He cursed her perceptiveness and ran a hand through his admittedly unkempt hair. “Didn’t you say you had to talk? I assume you didn’t sneak down here just to check up on me.”

She bit her lip in that maddening way that he loved and loathed in equal measure, then spilled out, “Look, I’m really sorry, but I figured no one would be here during lunch, and since you weren’t in the Great Hall I just assumed…and I know I have no right to be pestering you with this or anything, but it’s just getting to me and I wanted to talk to someone about it and, well, you’re pretty much the only one I do talk to anymore, so — ”

“Ginny,” he held up a hand, “if you don’t slow down soon, steam’s going to start coming out your ears.” She blushed, and he continued, “Now, why don’t you take a deep breath, and tell me, slowly, what you’re talking about.”

She did as he said and sucked in a great breath, releasing it slowly. “It’s Nott.”

Draco narrowed his eyes. “What about him?”

“Lately he’s been kind of…I don’t know. Creepy.”

“Creepy. Ginny, you’re going to have to be a bit more specific than that.”

Her hands were back to clutching the mattress edge. “It’s just he’s been talking to me a lot lately. Warning me to stay away from you, hinting that he’s…well, as he put it, ‘fond’ of me. And then today he asked me whether or not my relationship with you was genuine. I said of course it was, and then he said he’d be…watching me.” Ginny gave a little shiver and started fiddling with her necklace. He glanced at it and felt a flush of triumph when he saw it was his necklace and not her usual locket. “Usually I’m not such a baby,” she went on, “but something about Nott…he’s just unnerving.”

Draco felt a slow, hot rage at Nott kindle through him. “How long has this been going on?” he demanded.

“I don’t know…I guess it started right before I tried to stop seeing you.” She hung her head. “That’s actually kind of the reason why I tried to stop seeing you.”

Draco straightened from the door. “Why the hell didn’t you say anything sooner?”

She leveled a fierce stare on him. “I didn’t want to give you another thing to worry about because of me! I thought I could handle it, but I’m just getting too freaked out now!”

He cursed, rubbing at his eyes. “You should have told me right when it started, you idiotic girl. I could have handled it.”

“Well excuse me for caring about you!” she snapped, tears springing to her eyes. “But I hate seeing you so constantly stressed out like you are, and I know it’s because of me, and I just…just…” she broke off in a strangled sob.

“Oh, hell…” Draco took an awkward step forward, then stopped, rubbing a hand at the back of his head. “It’s not worth crying over.”

She sniffed. “I know. God, I’m so embarrassed. I swear I’m not usually like this. I’m not that emotional. I’m just tired, and dealing with Nott earlier, and now you’re mad, and I should have never come, and — ”

Draco shifted uncomfortably on his feet, and after a moment’s longer hesitation thought, Oh bugger it all, and walked over to sit down next to her. Awkwardly, he put an arm around her shoulder and pulled her against his chest. She immediately burrowed her head beneath his chin like they’d rehearsed it a hundred times, and Draco closed his eyes, wondering angrily why it had to be so easy.

“Ginny, I’m not mad at you,” he tried quietly. “I’m mad at Nott, and I just wish you would stop feeling so bloody guilty all the time. You need to tell me when things like this go on. I want to know.”

“I’m sorry,” she whispered against his shirt. “I don’t mean to be so difficult.”

He sighed, rubbing his thumb absently over her shoulder. “I know you don’t. It just comes naturally to you.”

She pulled away and gave him a solid punch to the gut, which succeeded in doubling him over but not in wiping the smirk off his face.

“You’re a prat,” she sniffed, nearly all traces of her earlier tears vanished, for which Draco was immensely relieved. He had absolutely no inkling of how to deal with crying women.

“Yes, well, that’s just what comes naturally to me.” He abruptly turned serious, rising and disappearing into the bathroom.

“What are you doing?” he heard her call after him.

“Getting decent,” he answered. “I’m going to have myself a chat with Nott.”

She appeared in the doorway, wearing a worried line between her eyebrows as she watched him comb out his hair and splash water over his face. “Do you really think that’s a good idea?”

“I think it’s a fantastic idea.”

“But…what if he does…something?”

“Something.”

“I don’t know!” she exclaimed, planting her hands on her hips. “I just don’t want anything happening, or for you to get in trouble or something.”

He dried his face on a towel and gave her a grim smile. “Thanks, but I’ve dealt with his sort my whole life. Trust me, I know what I’m doing. Right?”

She pouted but still grumbled, “Right.”

His smile grew a little, and he had to fight the insane urge to bend down and give her a quick kiss. Instead, he suggested, “You better leave too. Lunch will be over soon and you probably don’t want people seeing you down here.”

“Yeah. Just…at least be careful, okay?”

“I promise.”

She nodded, seeming somewhat appeased by that. “All right.”

He stepped forward and placed a hand on the small of her back, gently steering her to the door. He slipped ahead to make sure the common room remained deserted, and finding it safe, waved her on. When they stood outside in the halls, Draco said, “Best get ready for class.”

She looked startled. “Oh…right. What about you?”

“I’ve got this period free. Now go on.”

She nodded and started to turn away but stopped, seeming to debate something. Finally she turned up her face to him. “Draco? Thank you. For everything. I never would have imagined…” she shook her head. “Well, anyway, thank you.”

She rose on her toes and, balancing a hand on his shoulder, softly brushed her lips against his cheek, letting the touch linger for just a second. “I mean it,” she murmured, still close to him. Then backing away with a bright flush splashed across her cheeks, she turned and fled.

Draco watched her go with his heart thudding against his chest, the memory of her soft lips seared into his brain forever. Did she even have a clue? Taking a deep breath, he shoved it all to the back of his mind and started out of the dungeons.

He didn’t pretend to know Theodore Nott that well, nor did he particularly care to, but Draco knew how to observe and had often noticed the boy hanging about that tree with such a massive canopy of leaves that the branches seemed to be reaching for either end of the grounds; a person could almost hear them groan with the effort. Draco decided it was as good a place as any to look.

The sunshine blinded him even as the biting chill froze him, Mother Nature’s favorite trick, and he hunched his shoulders to pull his cloak closer. He scowled at nothing in particular, angry with the cold, furious with Nott, hopeless in the face of Pansy’s stupid idea.

He finally approached the tree, and sure enough, Nott leaned against its broad trunk, scribbling away at a piece of parchment. Draco walked right up next to the other boy and leaned against the trunk, arms folded across his chest.

“Hullo there, Nott. Homework?”

Nott’s hand froze, and he slowly lifted his head up to Draco. An obviously false smile found its way across the boy’s lips. “Malfoy, what a surprise.” He glanced down at his parchment. “Yes, actually. Transfiguration.” He set it aside and unfolded his legs, rising up so that he and Draco were of equal height. “What can I do for you?”

Draco pushed off the tree, straightening his back but relaxing his shoulders in a show of boredom. “Just thought we could have a little chat.”

Nott assumed Draco’s earlier position against the tree. “You honor me. I don’t believe I remember the last time you initiated one of our heart-to-hearts.”

Draco thought that was probably because he never had. Aloud, he said, “Mmm. Shame.” He hated the way Nott just stared, a faintly amused twitch to his lips, totally calm and unblinking…waiting, patient. Ginny was right — it was unnerving. “It’s about Ginny.”

Nott’s face gave the impression that he harbored some secret joke, and Draco had to check his annoyance. He was beginning to think Nott was more dangerous than he’d first judged, and until he could figure out the other boy’s game, he needed to stay sharp on his guard. “I figured,” Nott responded coolly.

That irked Draco, but he suspected that was why he said it. Oh, he was a clever one, no doubt about it. But so was Draco. “You were right, you know.”

“Well, of course. Pray tell, which instance are you referring to?”

Damn arrogant git. “When you guessed that I actually cared about Ginny. You were right.” Draco took great enjoyment in the brief glimpse of surprise on Nott’s face before he hid it behind his accustomed mask.

“Yes, well, it didn’t take incredible intelligence to figure that one out,” a recovered Nott said in a bored tone.

Draco wanted to laugh at Nott’s feigned disinterest. They both knew curiosity raged in him. Draco shrugged. “Nevertheless.”

Nott held his silence an admirable minute or so before finally breaking down. “Honored as I am that you felt the need to inform me, any particular reason you decided to come and state the obvious?”

And with that, Draco had him. The second he asked the question, it became Nott who wanted information, no longer Draco, and that gave Draco the power. “I’ve just been hearing some interesting things. Things that suggest perhaps you’ve got an unwise interest in my lovely redhead.”

“Have you now? I’m assuming these things come directly from said lovely redhead.”

“Who else? We have a very open relationship, you see.”

“Ah, of course.” Nott slowly took his weight off the tree, standing to his full height but staying loose, relaxed. Draco wondered how much of it was a front, and guessed a lot. “And you’ve come to warn me off, is that it?”

Draco shrugged and slid his back down the tree, stretching his legs out in front of him and folding his hands behind his head. He closed his eyes to the sunshine. “Right in one, mate.” He settled his shoulders more comfortably against the knotted tree bark. “I guess you’ve got some sense after all.”

Draco didn’t open his eyes, but he could hear the amusement in the other boy’s voice when he replied, “Well, well, well. Look who’s turned into a sentimental sod.”

Draco didn’t let the jibe get to him, but kept his face a mask of serene calm, by all appearances simply enjoying the chill sunshine. “Terrible, isn’t it?” He knew better than to fight the accusation — that would only color him weak — but he could surely twist it to his advantage. “Oh, I know we could never be married, but she’ll make a charming mistress some day. Quite the entertaining plaything, and, you see, I just get very defensive of my property.” He opened his eyes and gave Nott a pointed look. “Must be an only-child complex. I don’t share well.”

Then Nott burst out laughing. It turned the tables so fast it left Draco stunned for several seconds; he didn’t even think he’d heard Nott really laugh before. Maybe a chuckle or a guffaw, but nothing like this. “Hell, Malfoy,” he gasped, “so sorry to ruin the fun, but I can’t play along anymore. It’s just too damned funny!” He sank to the ground, holding his middle in mirth.

Draco was on his feet, eyes narrowed down on Nott. “If you think this is some bloody joke…”

Nott shook his head, wiping away a tear. “Your mistress?” Nott had to choke down another wave of laughter. “Bloody hell, Malfoy, I’ve barely spoken to the girl and I know better. If you’re still going to try and play at being a cold-hearted bastard like your father, at least take the time to come up with something believable.”

Draco could feel the anger clouding over his face, but he let it. “Future aside, she is mine now,” he gritted, furious at how easily Nott had checkmated him. “I told you once I didn’t want you bothering her. I thought you understood, but perhaps you need a better explanation.” He slipped his wand free.

Nott raised his eyebrow at the wand, smiled like an adult humoring a small child, and stretched out with his back against the tree. “Calm down, I don’t want your girl. She’s attractive and all, but I like my women a tad more submissive than our darling Weasley.”

“Then why the hell have you been stalking her?”

“Stalking? Oh, I think that’s a bit of an exaggeration. What’s got you so paranoid?” A sly, knowing smile slipped over his mouth. “Ah, Pansy did finally have her talk with you, didn’t she? I can understand, then. I’d be a little on edge too.”

Draco’s eyes narrowed. “What’s that got to do with it?”

“Well, you’re pretty much stuck committing a life-changing act you really, really don’t want to, and there doesn’t seem to be any way out, does there?”

Draco felt his stomach drop to somewhere around his feet as he fought not to give anything away. Nott might only be guessing. “Do you hear yourself? Why wouldn’t I want my initiation?”

“Oh, I don’t know, perhaps because you renounced the Dark Lord, your father, and all the rights to the Malfoy name just to avoid it last summer. Seems a bit far-fetched to go reconsidering after all that bother.”

“I told you I changed my mind,” Draco ground out.

“So you did. You also lie. Regularly.” Nott held up a hand to stop Draco’s arguments. “Spare me the excuses. I’m sure you have plenty of reasons, all highly convincing, but the fact is, I won’t believe them. I’m rather stubborn once I’ve come to a conclusion.”

Draco aimed his wand at Nott’s head and growled, “I refuse to have anyone questioning my loyalties. Take it back, or be ready to regret it.”

Nott rolled his eyes and pushed away the wand. “Put that damned thing away, would you? Your secret’s safe with me. No worries. Both your secrets.”

Draco didn’t trust Nott as far as an ant could throw him, but a curious weariness stole over the other Slytherin that gave Draco pause. Nott was winning. Why should he look so defeated? “You still don’t have a clue what you’re talking about,” Draco snapped, “but even if it was true, why in Merlin’s name would I ever be thick enough to trust you to keep quiet?”

“You wouldn’t,” he answered simply. “But you should.” Nott’s smile was so brittle Draco expected it to break. “Not everything’s what it seems, mate.” He climbed laboriously to his feet, looking more exhausted than ever. “Maybe you’ve been pointing that wand in the wrong direction.” Then without even deigning to give a farewell, Nott bent down for his homework and started off.

Draco watched him, mind racing at break-neck speeds trying to figure out what exactly just occurred. Then he remembered something. “Nott!” The boy stopped and turned back expectantly. “You said both secrets. What’s the other one?”

Nott smirked. “Why, that you’re hopelessly in love with Weasley, of course.”

Draco could only gape, stunned into silence by the bluntness of it. He’d thought it before, but he’d never spoken it aloud, and hearing Nott say it so casually shocked him so badly that by the time he thought to deny it, Nott was already gone.

Draco collapsed down against the tree, drained. That had been a disaster, an utter train wreck of a conversation. Nott had claimed the upper hand the entire time, but that wasn’t even the worst part of it. Dropping his head into his hands, he muttered, “The bastard’s right.”

And that was the worst part.

- - - - -

The man across the room tipped back his shaggy head and inhaled the contents of his tankard in one decisive swallow, slamming it back down again with a loud belch. Pierce wrinkled his nose and turned away from the sight. The establishment wasn’t as inviting as The Three Broomsticks, but he wanted to be away from Hogsmeade completely, take Naomi out of her comfort zone for this conversation. This place was conveniently located in a tiny, obscure Wizarding village about thirty minutes north by broom.

He wished Naomi would hurry up. The little pub and restaurant was packed from wall to wall with people looking either to get drunk or just have a good time, in most cases both. He’d sent Naomi an owl asking her to meet him here for lunch, but he was beginning to wonder if the bird had gotten lost.

“Oh goodness, I’m so sorry Jon.” Just then a breathless Naomi appeared through the crowd, skin pale and dark circles showing under her eyes. “I was up late last night and slept in.”

“It’s all right. I waited to order.”

She nodded wearily and collapsed across from him, offering a weak smile. He returned it, but not as enthusiastically as he probably should have. He couldn’t bring himself to believe Snape’s ridiculous accusations against the woman…but something more instinctual in him couldn’t entirely discount them either. Naomi was stained by suspicion now, and a desperate Pierce was here to wash her clean of it.

A middle-aged waitress wandered over and sat down glasses of water before taking their orders, scratching it all down in a worn-looking notepad before drifting off again.

Naomi circled the rim of her glass with a fingertip, leaning her weight on her elbow. “So, why did you want to meet here?” Her eyes did a quick sweep of the room. “It doesn’t seem much to your taste.”

Pierce downed a large swallow of water, wishing it was something stronger. “I wanted to talk, and I didn’t want anyone around we might know.” It was a perfectly conceivable lie, he knew.

“We could have just met in my rooms.”

He allowed a wry smile to sneak onto his face. “Yes, well, I couldn’t help but notice that every time we’re alone in your rooms, not much gets accomplished.”

She laughed softly, that warm intriguing sound of hers. Pierce felt a tightening in his chest at the thought that she might not be what she claimed. “I see your point. What’s so important that it had to be discussed, and in private even?”

The bored-looking waitress saved him from having to answer immediately by trudging over and dropping a plate in front of each of them. “Anything else?” she asked in a tone that suggested she would be less than happy to oblige further requests.

“No, everything looks wonderful,” Naomi assured her with an assuring smile.

Pierce glanced skeptically at the substance on his plate that was supposed to be roast beef and steamed vegetables, thinking he wouldn’t go so far as to say that, but the waitress took it at face value and promptly left them.

Pierce took a bite of his lunch, finding with relief that it at least tasted better than it appeared, and avoided Naomi’s searching gaze. Finally she urged, “Well? You’re driving me mad making me wait like this.”

He swallowed the bite in his mouth and, reluctantly, set down his fork. “Naomi…why did you come back?”

She looked a little surprised. “What do you mean?”

“You know what I mean. Why did you come to Hogsmeade and send me that owl? And why did you start things up between us again? Generally, two people who haven’t seen each other in years start with being friends again first…”

She gave him a look that told him she was analyzing and took a bite of her chicken, which Pierce interpreted as a stalling gesture. Finally, she admitted, “I’m trying to decide whether or not you just called me a slag.”

Pierce shook his head with a faint smile. “You know that’s not what I meant. It just seems a little off, is all. How eager you were to pick up the pieces again.”

She took another bite, chewing slowly. “What exactly are you insinuating, Jon?”

He gave a frustrated sigh and tipped back more water. “I just want to know. You said it yourself in that owl you sent me: I have to know everything. It’s been bothering me.”

“Then why didn’t you bring it up earlier?”

Pierce wished she would stop side-stepping all of his questions. The woman would have gone far in Slytherin, a thought not entirely comforting considering his purpose for being here. Well, he could dodge a few of her queries too. “Is it really such a terrible reason that you don’t want to answer this badly?”

She blinked and shook her head. “No, I just feel a little accused, and I can’t figure out for the life of me what my crime is.”

He decided a softer approach was in order. He took her hands, rubbing his thumbs over them, and looked directly into her eyes. He said as softly as he could and still be heard over the other patrons, “That’s what you think? Naomi, I would never accuse you of anything.” He gave her his most charming smile. “You’re my Ravenclaw sweetheart, what would you be guilty of?” He lifted one of her hands to his lips. “I just truly am curious. I guess I don’t…I don’t feel worthy of you. I need to understand what on earth would posses such a perfect woman to want me.”

Her expression softened, her hands relaxing in his grip. “Oh, Jon, don’t be ridiculous.”

Seeing that had gotten him somewhere, he gave her hands a tender squeeze and continued, “I’ve just been trying and trying to reason it out for myself, but I can’t find any explanation. You’re so good and sweet and fun and I’m…well…”

She pulled his hands closer to her, dropping her eyes to their entwined fingers. She said so softly he had to strain to hear, “I think you’re giving me too much credit. Maybe I’m the one who doesn’t deserve you.”

That gave him a moment’s pause, making him wonder if she was implying something, but he shook it off. “You’re mad if you think so. I broke your heart the last time. That’s why I can’t understand why you would possibly want to try again.”

She slid her hands free of his hold. “I thought we’d been over this. I missed you.”

“But you’re smart, Naomi. You know when something’s not good for you, and you’re strong enough to stay away.”

She smiled dryly. “Trying to convince me to leave? If you want me gone that badly, you can just say so. You didn’t have any trouble last time.”

Pierce sat back and rubbed at his temples. “Naomi…”

She watched him a moment, wearing a slight frown, then with a sigh she pushed aside their plates and laid her palms face up between them. “Give me your hands again,” she told him.

Raising an eyebrow, he slowly placed his hands in hers. She closed her fingers around his. Her eyes found his and held on firm. “Now I’m only going to say this once, Jonathon Pierce, so I want you to listen and listen good. Got it?”

Lips quirking at her tone, he nodded dutifully.

“Right. You want to know why I came back? Well, at Hogwarts I fell in love with this utter git, a Slytherin of all things, but Merlin I couldn’t resist him. It was the first time I was ever really in love…and it was the last, too. I never found anyone close. Then years later I found out I could see him again if I just took that first step, and I had a choice.” She paused, making sure she still had his attention. “I could forget about it and move on, not have to worry about being hurt again…or I could give it a try and maybe, just maybe, this time it would work. Maybe this time we would find our happy ending.”

She dropped her eyes to their joined hands and gave a squeeze. “I agonized over it a long time, but, well, I’ve always been an optimist.” Her eyes rose back up to his, shining with unshed tears. “And maybe I’m making a fool of myself, maybe it was always a one-sided thing, but…the love I had with you all those years ago, it’s an amazing thing, and so rare, Jon. I didn’t want to risk my heart again…but I knew I would never forgive myself for risking love.” She gave a watery laugh. “And I’m sure I’ve just overloaded your Slytherin tolerance for fluffy mush, but you asked for it. There’s my answer. Satisfied?”

Pierce leaned over the table and caught her lips in a slow, tender kiss, still holding their hands between them. He pulled away so he was just a breath away and murmured, “Very.”

- - - - -

Pierce apparated just outside Hogwarts with a crack and a silly grin. He slipped his hands into his pockets and strolled up the path towards the castle, whistling softly under his breath. Snape could harp about his paranoid suspicions all he wanted; Pierce knew Naomi, and after their conversation just now, no doubt as to her loyalties remained. She was true, and the very idea that he ever questioned that made him want to laugh.

Pretty much everything made him want to laugh at the moment. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt so light. For years and years all he could see in the bluest of skies were the clouds, and the only thing he had to look forward to was the day it would all end one way or the other. He’d just been biding his time, trying to stay above water. But now…but now.

A sudden shout made him freeze, then immediately relax again when he realized it was a call for that boy, Nott. He cocked his head, though, upon recognizing the voice as Draco’s. Snape’s warning to take his mission more seriously echoed in his mind, and with a sigh, he decided he would go see what was going on.

He was about to walk up in plain sight, but he could see the two boys seemed tense, and curiosity sparking, Pierce stepped behind the tree next to him. He was too far away to pick up anything, but a simple hearing enhancement spell, ironically an adaptation from the Weasley twins’ Extendable Ears (or so he was told), solved that problem.

“You said both secrets. What’s the other one?” Draco was demanding of the other boy.

Nott answered as if it should have been obvious. “Why, that you’re hopelessly in love with Weasley, of course.”

Silence fell, but Pierce hardly noticed over the sudden roaring in his ears. In love? Pierce had suspected that the time was near, but had it really already arrived? He ran a hand through his sandy hair, trying to force his heart to slow down so he could think. Now was the time to act, before Draco could reconsider. Young love was too fickle to take chances with. God, he should be thrilled! All his work and planning had finally come to fruit.

But oddly enough, he wasn’t. He felt a vague nausea twisting low in his stomach, and he realized he didn’t want to act. Something held him back, and when he closed his eyes, Naomi’s face swam behind his closed lids. What would she think if she knew? It’s not that he loved her. He wanted her surely, cared for her even, but he was far beyond an emotion so pure as love. But still…

All of it sped through Pierce’s mind in a second, and he forced himself to slow down. He didn’t even know if it was true. Nott was probably just goading Draco on or something. He had no proof, and couldn’t consider making a move until then.

All of that logic scattered on the wind a half a beat later when, through the aid of the hearing enhancement he still maintained, Pierce heard Draco mumble, “The bastard’s right.”
Invitations All Around by Hearts Cadence
A/N – thanks for all the reviews and support!!! You guys are absolutely amazing!

- - - - -

Chapter 22 – Invitations All Around

The rooms seemed smaller than they used to, cramped and gloomy and dank with the damp chill of the dungeons. Well…the dungeons weren’t really damp, or even much colder than the rest of the castle thanks to several well-placed charms…but like the rooms, they seemed that way.

Pierce’s whole world seemed that way. For the past several weeks, indecision over the Draco situation had been gnawing away at him like a slow, certain cancer, attacking every thought to enter his head and dominating all else. He’d hardly even seen Naomi. On the few occasions that he had, she’d noticed his distraction and inquired about it, but he’d given no answer. She’d let it be.

Now his hands glided across the dozens of volumes on the bookshelf, most pertaining to potion-making, left behind by Severus after his hasty flight. Some dealt with darker matters. It was these that his fingers sought out.

His hand fell across the spine of one book, Of Curses and Poisons, and he slipped it free of its neighbors. Carrying it to the sofa, he lowered himself down and cracked open the tome to a random page. It was in a section on poisons, this particular one a silent killer that the Potions Master in question could design to simulate all manner of natural death — sickness, choking, even suicide. Very effective. Very complex. Beyond Pierce’s ability.

He shut the book with a sigh. For once, opportunity seemed to have failed him. Nothing but murder presented itself in regards to the Weasley girl. Perhaps it was his own fault for not looking hard enough. One drunken night, he’d ranted to no one in particular that it was Naomi’s fault for taking his eye off the goal. The next morning, sober but hung-over, he took it all back. He couldn’t bring himself to accept Naomi was a weakness. She wasn’t; she was merely a reprieve.

Pierce grudgingly turned back to the book, the one that claimed it could teach anyone to manufacture all sorts of fascinating and sneaky deaths. His hands leafed aimlessly through the contents while his mind wandered somewhere in the castle up above where Weasley was probably with Draco right now. Maybe laughing, or flying, or simply talking about things of absolutely no importance just for the fun of it.

This would destroy Draco. Not that Pierce particularly cared one way or the other about the boy, but he couldn’t help but see a lot of himself in the youth. He knew that a conclusion like this to Draco’s first experience with love would sour it for him for life. Pierce would, in effect, be taking any hope the boy had of caring for another human being. Especially after Voldemort got his hands on him.

Shame; he never even really experienced it this time around. As far as Pierce knew, Weasley remained clueless. Pierce could say this much at least: his life might have been shattered by Voldemort and the Death Eaters on a hundred different levels, but at least he’d had love.

His hand froze over the page it was on. What had he just thought? He stared wide-eyed out in front of him, oblivious to how comical he must appear. Did he just tell himself he’d had love? But he wasn’t in love with Naomi. He wasn’t.

Annoyed, he re-attacked the book with new vigor, scowling at nothing in particular as spell after spell, potion after potion flashed by his eyes, a hundred different paths to the same dark end. He needed the cleanest one, the one that would look the most innocent and would seem totally unlikely of him. If any fingers pointed to him, he was finished.

After several minutes of this frantic searching, though, he gave a frustrated sigh and flung the book across the room, taking some small satisfaction in the way it thumped against the tapestry-covered stone. His heart wasn’t in it. He couldn’t build up any enthusiasm, and so his mind didn’t want to cooperate either.

He drummed his fingers against his knee. What was he doing? What was wrong with him? Restless, he got to his feet and walked over to the chest at the foot of his bed. He freed both the manual locks and the numerous wards he’d personally set to protect it against any meddling. Inside, he shoved aside piles of random books and papers, lifted out a secret compartment, and gazed down at the contents.

A silver mask stared back at him, empty eye-sockets hideous and black as they looked vacantly on. He lifted it out carefully, feeling a vague tingling in his fingertips, but he knew that was only in his head. He pulled out the thick robe next, so black it seemed to absorb and swallow down the light around it, and then he tossed both onto his bed.

Stepping back, he rested his chin in his hand, the other one holding his elbow, and he gazed at the costume. He felt his old sarcasm boiling up in him, thinking that the thing looked like some child’s cheap Halloween disguise for the Grim Reaper. Ridiculous, really. How had something otherwise so laughable become such a symbol of terror? But therein, Pierce knew, lay Voldemort’s real power.

Pierce sighed. Too bad he wasn’t impressed by any of it. Otherwise, this would be a whole hell of a lot easier. But he had no respect for the man, no belief in his cause, no awe of his devices — he had only his personal ambition to keep him strong. And for some reason, that was waning.

He suddenly decided he had to get out to where he could think. These quarters were stifling him, shutting down his brain. If he just got somewhere else, maybe he could find his answers, sort things out. Like a man fleeing from a smoke-filled room, he jumped to his feet and strode through the living area to his adjoining office, and on out through the door.

At first he didn’t know where he was going, but when his feet started heading towards Hogsmeade, he couldn’t say he was all that surprised. In minutes he was standing before the Three Broomsticks, staring at the sign swinging lazily in the wind above the door and wondering what he thought to accomplish by coming here. He could tell Naomi nothing, so she could advise him in nothing. It was pointless. He went in anyway.

He let his eyes have a moment to adjust to the dimness inside, giving Rosmerta a familiar nod when she called out a greeting, then made his way towards the stairs. He thought their usual creak sounded particularly mournful as he made the ascent this time.

Naomi opened the door after only a brief pause, eyes widening a bit when she saw him. She twisted around to get a look at the clock and said, “Jon? It’s only two o’clock.”

“I know.” He looked at the wall to the right of her doorway. “I just…I don’t know. I wanted to see you.”

“You don’t have any classes?”

“They were all in the morning today. The last one finished at noon.”

She studied him curiously a second, then stepped back to let him in. “Well, don’t just stand out there in the hall.”

Pierce stepped into the now familiar rooms feeling like he was both coming home and walking into a danger zone. It was comforting and thrilling all at once — just like Naomi herself, really.

“Want some tea? I could send down for a cup…”

He shook his head, finding a seat on the room’s one chair. “That’s all right.”

She sat on the bed facing him, a tiny frown tugging at the corners of her mouth. “Everything all right?”

Pierce closed his eyes. What could he say? “I have a problem,” he finally admitted.

“I’d gathered. What sort of problem?” He opened his eyes and gave her a look, and Naomi’s mouth formed an “o” of understanding. “A Death Eater problem,” she supplied gently.

Pierce said nothing, but that was confirmation enough.

Naomi sighed, shifting around so she lay on her belly, chin in hand. “Are you going to tell me more?”

He met her stare, but said nothing.

“All right. Can you at least tell me if you’re in any danger?”

“No, I’m not in danger.” He rubbed absently at his Mark. “It’s nothing like that.”

“Something you don’t want to do then.”

He nodded.

“Something you have to do?”

Pierce slid down in his chair, eyes going towards the ceiling. “I don’t know. There might be a way around it, somehow. I just can’t see it.”

“You know, this conversation would be much easier on me if I knew what we were actually talking about,” she pointed out with a small smile to soften the words.

He shook his head. “I can’t tell you. I’ve told you a lot of things, Naomi, but not this. Don’t push me.”

Something in his tone must have struck a chord because she stayed silent for a long while. Finally, she said, “Then why did you come here?”

“I don’t know.” He pushed himself up straight in the chair again, running both hands through his hair. “I honestly don’t know.”

Naomi got up then and moved over to him, perching sideways on his lap. “Maybe you just wanted to remember you’re not alone?”

He smiled wryly up at her, pulling her head down for a brief kiss. “Damn Ravenclaws. Always been too smart for your own good. That’s why we Slytherins can’t stand you.”

She grinned. “Lucky me I found the exception, huh?”

“Yes. Lucky you,” he said softly, not sure she really was all that lucky at all. But so long as she believed it, he would take advantage of all she had to offer him. He had no qualms over that.

She wound her arms around his neck and stared at him frankly. “Look, Jon, you’re the most clever person I know. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you without a dozen tricks up your sleeve. Whatever your problem is, you’ll figure it out and fix it. Just don’t force anything. This stuff comes natural to you, so let it do just that — come natural.”

He blinked. He hadn’t really considered that. Why couldn’t he just wait till he figured something out? Nothing dictated that he had to act now, and he always said opportunities tended to present themselves if you knew how to look. His opportunity just hadn’t presented itself yet. That was why he struggled so much with this. Some innate part of him understood there was a better way if he just had the patience.

At least, that sounded like a damn good excuse to him.

“You know,” he said slowly, sliding his arms around her waist, “I think you might just be right.”

“Of course. I was a Ravenclaw.”

He chuckled. “What are you doing for Christmas?”

She raised her eyebrows. “Christmas? Did I miss something?”

He smiled. “No, I just remembered something I wanted to ask you and don’t want to forget. So what are your plans?”

“Probably what I’ve been doing. Maybe a hang a few decorations around this place. Why?”

“I’m going to Italy. I bought a little villa there a few years back, just south of Naples. I think you should come with me.”

Her eyes went a little wide. “Really? Are you sure?”

“Positive.” The hols would begin in just two short days. Pierce decided all of this Death Eater business could just wait until after. Draco and Weasley both would still be there when he got back, after all. They weren’t going anywhere. “I want you there.”

“You might regret it,” she warned with an impish grin. “I can get rather obnoxious when I’m around all the time.”

He chuckled. “Then I’ll just have to find ways to keep you quiet, won’t I?” Then he pulled her mouth down to his.

- - - - -

Draco jogged along the border of the Forbidden Forest, taking care to avoid patches of ice hidden in the dusting of snow and ignoring the way the cold seared through his lungs as he went.

Ginny wasn’t with him. She claimed anyone who went outside to run in temperatures like this was barking mad and chose to simply jog through the halls of the castle very early in the morning while everyone else still slept instead. Draco didn’t think students were technically supposed to do that, but she didn’t seem to care. He thought she must have inherited the twins’ disregard for rules.

But Draco needed the openness of the outdoors. He needed the freedom of it and he even needed the burning in his chest. The hols would arrive in two days, and Draco felt a panic crawling up his throat as bad as the night he’d turned his back on his father. He still had no answer to the problem and certainly no way out.

Pansy, on the other hand, couldn’t have been more thrilled. It was like the bint was on a bloody sugar high twenty-four-seven.

And as for Ginny, he knew she suspected something. As the days fell away, he grew quieter. She’d made a few attempts to coax the reason out of him, but had just given up after he shortly dismissed each and every one. He could feel her eyes on him constantly, though, curious and sympathetic to a hurt she couldn’t begin to guess at. He didn’t know why he didn’t tell her. He supposed he just didn’t see a point. What could she do?

He reached the edge of the grounds and turned round, moving back in the direction of the castle. His muscles tightened painfully from the frost-bitten air, his lungs ablaze in his chest by now, but he ignored all of it, maybe even reveled in it a little. It took his mind off of Pansy’s “brilliant” idea at least.

He had to do something. That much he knew. He would not take the Mark even if it killed him…literally. He would rather be dead than live a life with so little control that he might as well have been dead, a puppet to a madman.

Of course, he would rather like to avoid that fate, but what else could he do? If he went home, it was sure to happen. He had no reasonable excuse for staying at the castle, so Pansy would immediately know something was up, and that would endanger Ginny. Draco couldn’t bring himself to do that either. There was only one option he hadn’t explored yet, one he’d hoped he wouldn’t have to resort to, but as the castle drew nearer, he knew he had no choice. He would have to speak to Pierce.

Draco stopped off in the Quidditch locker rooms to shower, wanting to avoid the Slytherin common room where Pansy seemed to lay in wait for him like some spider hoping for a fly to stumble into its web. The freezing cold as he stepped back outside, his hair still slightly damp, mirrored the chill in his heart perfectly while his feet started carrying him towards Pierce’s office.

He couldn’t place why he distrusted the professor so much. Yes, Pierce displayed a Slytherin cunning worth taking note of, and yes, Draco knew the man used him for his own means, but there was something more. It was there in Draco’s head, peaking around some mental wall, teasing him but never quite showing its face. Whatever it was, it made Draco want to shun the man as much as possible. But the thought two days reared up in his mind and overpowered the reluctance.

Pierce’s door was closed, no sign of life coming from within. Draco frowned. Gone again? He knew the professor had made a habit of leaving most nights, but usually never in the middle of the day. Draco knocked anyway, unsurprised when he received no answer. He thumped his back against the door in frustration, letting his chin drop to his chest. Now what?

He straightened out, telling himself that maybe Pierce had just cast a silencing charm so he could concentrate on his work or something. It was a stretch, but Draco would cling to any hope he could find at the moment. He tried the knob, finding it locked, but Draco reasoned that if Pierce cast a silencing charm it meant he didn’t want to be disturbed, so locking the door only made sense. Again, Draco knew he was being vaguely ridiculous, but he was desperate.

Draco slipped out his wand and after trying about four different spells, he found one that released the catch to the door with an audible click. He smiled to himself. His father’s lessons on Dark magic hadn’t been a complete waste, even if he only ever used the more innocent variety.

He pushed the door open slowly and slipped inside, closing it again behind him. His heart sank when all that met him was an empty office, neat but not to the extreme. A book lay open here and there, a quill and jar of ink sitting on a blank sheet of parchment. No sign of where the professor might have gone.

Draco cursed under his breath and walked over to the desk, collapsing into the chair. Just perfect. It was official, everything had failed him — even his failsafe had failed him. He let his eyes wander darkly around the office, but his gaze stopped at a door in the back. It was the entrance to Pierce’s quarters, Draco knew, a definite off-limits for any student…but light pooled onto the floor from the thin space at the bottom.

His heart leapt. Of course, Pierce was just in his rooms! Draco’s feet carried him to the door in seconds, not even caring that knocking would condemn him of breaking and entering. Pierce would understand once Draco explained. Only he never got that chance; Pierce didn’t answer.

Draco cursed and slammed a fist against the door. Where the hell was the man? Draco was fast running out of time, and he needed to speak with him now. Angry and not ready to give up, he turned the handle, this time finding the door unlocked as it swung silently open. He looked around cautiously before stepping inside.

A half-drunk glass of water sat on a side-table next to a dimly burning lamp. Why hadn’t he doused it before leaving? Curiously, Draco walked further in and nearly tripped over a huge book lying open on the floor with the spine facing up, half the pages being crumpled beneath it. He stooped over to pick it up, carefully smoothing out the pages and closing it before reading the title, Of Curses and Poisons.

He sat down on the sofa and flipped through the pages, finding inside a slew of Dark hexes and potions that all ended with the same fate: death. His eyebrows went up. What was Pierce doing looking at something like this? Draco remembered his distrust of the man, but forced down his doubts. He had no choice, he reminded himself.

Laying the book aside, Draco got up and kept moving. He didn’t know what he was looking for. Pierce obviously wasn’t here. But Draco found the opportunity to explore the professor’s rooms just too tempting to pass up.

The next room was obviously where Pierce slept. It housed a four-poster bed, a dresser, a nightstand, another bookshelf, and a door that led off into what Draco figured to be the bathroom. Everything appeared completely normal except for the trunk at the foot of the bed. Its lid was thrown back, the contents inside jumbled and pushed hastily aside, and when Draco peered inside, he saw a false bottom had been lifted out. What had been so urgent that Pierce would leave the place in such a state?

Then Draco’s eyes lifted to the bed, and every muscle in his body froze at once. He hadn’t noticed them at first, but now he could see nothing else; silent as an assassin poised to strike, an unmistakable silver mask and a set of midnight black robes lay strewn across the duvet. He didn’t know how long he stood there staring…but he did finally know what had bothered him so much about Pierce.

The bed’s items seemed to shatter whatever dam he’d constructed in his head, and a river of memories flooded him, all so obvious now that he couldn’t believe he’d been so incredibly stupid not to realize what they meant earlier: the glimpse of a dark spot on Pierce’s forearm before he yanked down his sleeve, his quoting a line from the branding ceremony itself after Draco overheard Pansy’s kidnapping scheme, Pierce’s talk of knowing what it meant to be bound during that same conversation, and a hundred other little things that should have set off all kinds of alarms in Draco’s head. How could he have been so dense?

Of course, Draco knew how. Pierce didn’t fit the Death Eater persona, and Draco had never questioned that. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Didn’t he tell Ginny himself that a man who smiled was more dangerous than one who was at least honest about being a bastard? And still Pierce had pulled the wool over his eyes. It was pathetic.

How had Pierce even gotten into this position? Shouldn’t McGonagall have known better, researched more thoroughly? And furthermore, what was a Death Eater doing in the school? Before he would have said in order to kill Dumbledore, but the man was already dead and buried. Did Voldemort just want to abolish the school completely? Or had he hoped to get to Potter, only Scarhead wasn’t here, and Pierce couldn’t very well just up and leave upon finding that out?

Slowly coming out of his frozen shock, Draco stepped towards the bed and lifted up the mask and robe, feeling his stomach churn sickly at the touch. Here they were, the symbols for all he tried to avoid…and the symbol for everything he seemed destined to take on. Even after avoiding it on the first round, here they were again, back to taunt him.

Something new occurred to him, and it made him dizzy enough to sit back on the bed. What if Pierce was here for him? Draco had guessed all along that the “professor” had some ulterior motive, even besides the ones he claimed. And now, looking back, the man had paid far too much attention to Draco’s affairs.

And Ginny. God, how did she figure into all of this? Pierce had also used her in whatever twisted scheme he was playing out. Did that put her in danger? Damn it, and Draco had trusted the man with so much information! Just like he’d meant to do again today.

Fear started inching up Draco’s legs, threatening to swallow his whole body. Pierce couldn’t find out that he knew; he had to get out of these rooms.

But then what? Where would he turn?

He shook his head. He would have to worry about that later. Rearranging the mask and robes on the bed as he’d found them, he strode out of the rooms and then the office as fast as he could. He didn’t slow down until he was out of the dungeons and in the Entrance Hall where he stopped to let the pounding of his heart slow.

Hate wound its way around every corner of Draco’s mind, a rage so intense that he wanted to shout to relieve the tension. Anger at himself, fury at the Death Eaters, but most of all, loathing for “Professor” Pierce. For the first time in his life, Draco honestly felt like he could kill a man.

He didn’t realize he was moving again until the frozen air from outside cut through his thin cloak. He had no idea where he wanted to go, but he kept moving anyway, needing winter’s bite to keep his head clear, needing the movement to burn the energy. His hand itched for his wand, indifferent to the fact that Pierce was nowhere in the vicinity.

Another emotion slowly seeped into his consciousness now: helplessness. No answers were left to him — no options, no roads, no anything. His life consisted of one great concrete wall, gray and indifferent and immovable.

“Draco?”

He nearly tripped. He looked around to see Ginny walking back from the greenhouse, a little smear of dirt across one cheek. He felt his heart ache a little, but he forced himself to stand up tall and look her in the eye. “Hi.”

She wrapped her arms around her as she came to stop in front of him. “What are you doing just wandering around out here? It’s freezing.”

Draco shrugged, but before he could get another word out, Ginny’s eyes narrowed sharply.

“What’s wrong?”

He hated how she could do that. “What do you mean?”

“Don’t lie. Something’s wrong. What is it?”

“Ginny, you’re imagining things.”

She planted her hands on her hips. “Draco Malfoy, I’ll stand here all day if I have to.”

He sighed. He probably should tell her. If his guess about Pierce was right, then she could be in danger from him too. She had a right to know. Glancing around, he grabbed her hand and pulled her back towards the greenhouses. “Fine, but I don’t want anyone hearing.”

The greenhouse gave off a welcoming warmth as Draco shut the door and cast a Imperturbable Charm. Turning around as Ginny hopped onto a stool, he decided he was in no mood to break it to her gently. “Pierce is a Death Eater.”

Ginny stared at him for a minute, then burst out laughing. “Right! And I’m secretly rich.”

He glared at her. “Ginny, stop it. I’m serious.”

“Draco, come on. Pierce? I know you don’t trust him and all, but don’t you think you’re being just a tiny bit paranoid now?”

“I was in his rooms,” Draco said quietly. “I saw the robes…and the mask to match.”

This time Ginny’s silence lasted much longer, her face paling. “Maybe…maybe someone…I don’t know…planted it all or something…”

Draco shook his head. “No one planted it. I remember now, other times, other clues. I think I might’ve even seen his Mark once.”

“You might have?”

He shrugged. “It happened too fast, and I was already distracted. It was ages ago, the day after I beat you at Quidditch when you bet my broom. I went to talk to him really early, and he had his sleeves pushed up. But he yanked them down so quick I wasn’t sure if I saw anything or not. I forgot about it.”

Ginny was shaking her head slowly, more in an effort to clear it than in denial by the looks of it. “But…how? He’s nothing like a Death Eater!”

“I know.” Draco walked over to the stool opposite her and slumped onto it, utterly drained. “And that’s why he’s so dangerous. I’m sure that’s why they sent him in the first place.”

“I can’t believe this.” Ginny propped her elbows on the table top and ran her hands through her hair. “What’s even the point, though? Dumbledore’s dead and Harry’s gone.”

Draco shook his head. “I don’t know. He might just be spying in general. The Dark Lord likes having eyes everywhere. Or maybe he’s just a watchdog for in case Potter ever decides to come back.”

Ginny gave him a searching look. “But you don’t think so.”

He felt one corner of his mouth lift slightly. He couldn’t believe how good she’d gotten at reading him. Or maybe he was just slipping. Who knew. “No,” he admitted.

“What do you think?”

He sighed. “I really don’t know anything, Ginny.”

“But you have a guess.”

Only a guess.”

“Well?”

He rubbed at the back of his head, irritated. “Like I said, I don’t know anything really. It’s just…Pierce has paid a lot of attention to me. He said he wanted me to help him bring Slytherin to the top but…it always seemed a little funny to me.”

Her eyes widened. “You? He’s here for you?”

“I told you, it’s only a guess.”

She nodded absently. “Merlin, I just can’t process all of this. I mean…it’s Pierce for goodness sake.” She made a visible effort to collect her wits back about her. “What would he want with you?”

“My guess is either to get me back to the Death Eaters or else…make sure I don’t spill any secrets.”

Ginny’s face went ashen as she discerned his meaning. “He couldn’t kill you, could he? I mean…not right here at school.”

Draco shrugged. “Dumbledore was murdered here.”

She flashed the briefest of looks at him and quickly looked down, but he still knew what she was thinking: yes, Dumbledore had died here…but only by Draco’s doing.

“Look, I wouldn’t worry,” he said, ignoring the palpable tension between them. “If he just wanted to off me, he would’ve done it by now. I’m more worried about you.”

She looked surprised. “Me? What do I have to do with anything?”

“You fit into this somehow. I have no clue how, but if I’m right and he’s here because of me, you’re definitely involved.”

“How am I involved?”

He gave her a frank look. “D’you honestly think I started talking to you because I woke up one morning and decided it sounded like fun to hang around a Weasley?”

She frowned, her eyebrows bunching up a little in thought. “I guess I never gave it much thought. Now that you mention it, he did talk to me a few times trying to get me to give you a chance.” She shook her head. “But why would he encourage a relationship between us?”

“Who bloody well knows why they do the things they do.”

“But he must have a reason.”

Draco nodded. He wouldn’t argue with that; Slytherins always had a reason, followers of the Dark Lord especially.

“Well? What could it be?” she pressed, sounding anxious.

“I don’t know, Ginny!” he snapped, feeling something in him break. The pressure mounted too high, the helplessness too much, and he just couldn’t handle it anymore. “I don’t even know if he’s here for me at all! I don’t know anything, damn it, and now I’m totally screwed because he was my last chance!” His breath came hard, his nails digging into his palm, and he didn’t even realize his slip until he caught Ginny’s look of confusion.

“Your last chance?”

He closed his eyes. “Never mind.”

“No, not never mind. What do you mean, he was your last chance?”

“Ginny, just let it go.”

“Draco…”

His open palm slammed down against the tabletop. “You want to know? Fine! Pansy decided it would be a brilliant idea if I got my Mark over the hols. If I go home, there’s no way around it — they’ll kill me if I refuse a second time — but I can’t stay at the castle because I have no good reason to and that means it would just put you in danger, and I have nowhere else to go! So basically, I’m getting my Mark or I’m sentencing myself to death. Those are my options at this point, and Pierce was supposed to be my last ditch attempt for a solution, only now as it turns out, he’s bloody one of them!”

Ginny stared at him through wide, shocked eyes. “What? You’re…you’re going to get…inducted or whatever?”

“No,” he told her harshly, “I won’t. I won’t have my life lived for me.”

“But…you said if you don’t…”

He met her eyes, letting her connect the dots herself. When his intentions finally dawned on her, she jumped forward in her seat so that she barely balanced on the edge, her hands clutching the table edge.

“No! You are not going to die!”

“What do you suggest, then?” he asked, voice tight. “That I become a Death Eater? Go and kill all your friends, your family? Because that’s the alternative.”

“There’s got to be another way! Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”

He looked away uncomfortably. “I didn’t want you to have to deal with it.”

“Oh, Draco….” she groaned, shaking her head. “You great pillock.”

“Insulting me makes me feel loads better,” he drawled.

She wasn’t paying attention, her forehead all crinkled up in thought. Abruptly she looked up at him, eyes bright and eager. “Come home with me.”

He raised his eyebrows. “Come again?”

“Come home with me. Over the hols. You could stay at the Burrow with me, and no one would ever think to look there for you!”

He shook his head. “Ginny, be realistic.”

“What? How is that not realistic?”

“Oh, I don’t know, I just have this funny feeling your parents wouldn’t welcome me with open arms.”

Her face instantly fell. “Oh. Well…maybe we could disguise you or something.”

“Disguise me.”

“Yeah, like say you’re a new friend of mine and I want you to stay over.”

“Short of completely changing my appearance, your parents are still going to recognize me.”

“So we’ll completely change your appearance.”

“And how do you suggest we do that?”

“Polyjuice, of course.”

“We leave in two days, in case you forgot. We don’t exactly have a month to just whip up a batch, even if we did have the ingredients, which we don’t. So unless you just happen to have some on hand…”

Ginny smiled wickedly. “As a matter of fact…”
Meeting the Parents by Hearts Cadence
A/N – thanks again for all the wonderful reviews! Quite a few of you caught some of the holes in Ginny’s plan, but don’t worry, so far, no one’s come up with one I didn’t already think out and come up with a solution to. (It’s amazing: it might be the first time I actually thought out a plot without holes lol.) Just be patient; some things might not get explained till later chapters, but eventually it all will be solved.

Thanks again! Enjoy!

- - - - -

Chapter 23 — Meeting the Parents

Ginny sat in the tower room again, momentarily ignoring the enchanted candle on the floor in front of her. Instead, she stared at the locket nestled in the palm of her hand, the one Harry had given her before leaving. His promise that he would come back. The symbol that she would never forgot him.

Ginny had forgotten.

The guilt was crushing, so bad she wasn’t sure she’d ever felt worse about herself in her life. She told herself it was because the events at Hogwarts commanded all of her attention by necessity, that as traitorous as it sounded, Draco was her friend now too, and he was someone she could actually help, whereas Harry was off Lord only knew where and far beyond the sphere of her influence. But it was rationalizing, and she knew it.

She couldn’t remember when exactly it happened, which exact day marked the first that she didn’t once stop to think about Harry. It was over a week, though. The problem was that she hadn’t been wearing the locket to remind her like she’d promised. Draco’s necklace had stayed around her throat instead, and though Ginny told herself every day she would return it because it was just too expensive a gift, it somehow kept…slipping her mind.

She’d only remembered Harry this morning by mistake. Today they were going home for the hols and while packing away her spare set of robes, Ginny had felt the locket that she’d never taken back out again. She should have put it on right then. But for some reason, Draco’s pendant still glittered at her neck even now.

Her fingers closed around the locket and she picked up the candle. She had to see him, if nothing else, just to tell herself that she had. It would make her feel better…if only a little.

Blackness clamped around her, and then she emerged into the same tunnel-like setting she’d last seen him in. She looked around and found Harry asleep, Ron snoring loudly next to him and Hermione curled up at the latter’s back. She swallowed down the claustrophobia of being underground and knelt next to Harry.

She studied his face. It seemed smooth, unworried, and it looked like he slept a peaceful, dreamless slumber. She wondered if that meant anything, or if that was just how he looked when he slept. It bothered her a little that she didn’t know. Shouldn’t she knew something like that, how he looked asleep? Or was that just her guilty conscience looking for any reason to open up a new wound?

She glanced up and noticed her surroundings again, which inevitably brought on the familiar panic. She instantly squeezed her eyes closed until the wave subsided, then careful to ignore where she was, stretched out next to Harry. Their faces were only centimeters apart, noses almost touching…if the candle would have allowed her to touch him, that was.

She stared at Harry for a long while, trying to make herself want to hold him, kiss him, have his hands on her in return. But the feeling she’d only just started to notice on her last visit now loomed undeniable in her mind: she didn’t feel attracted to Harry anymore.

A tear slipped down her cheek as she scooted away, chased closely by a second and then a third. She wiped them away furiously, hating to admit it, wanting nothing more in the world than for it to be false, but no matter what she did or how hard she tried, there was no way around the truth of it. She just wished she knew why. Had she changed? Or was it just the prolonged separation, and as soon as she was with him again, really with him, it would all come rushing back?

She didn’t know, but it was giving her a headache, and the claustrophobia was becoming unbearable, so she quickly crawled over to the candle and blew out the flame. She experienced the moment of oblivion, and then the tower sprang up around her once again, giant windows letting the afternoon sunlight stream through. For a long minute she just sat there, staring into space with the locket digging into her palm.

The sound of a train whistle signaling that the students should start boarding pulled her out of her trance. Dropping the locket into her pocket with guilty fingers, she quickly hid the candle and jogged out of the room and down the twisting steps and corridors to the carriages that would take her to the train platform.

Draco was already waiting for her in a back compartment, and he raised his eyebrows when she plopped down across from him. “What took you?”

She shook her head. “Just some last minute things I forgot I had to take care of.”

He looked unconvinced. “What sorts of things?”

She feigned an embarrassed smile. “Err…‘girl’ things.” That shut him up quite nicely, and Ginny thanked, not for the first time, that incredibly useful tool of her gender.

“So when am I taking this thing?” he asked.

She could tell he was nervous about this whole affair, but she couldn’t really blame him. “I told you, not until right before we get off. I’ve got just enough for you to sit through supper when we get there, and then breakfast the morning before we go back to school. That way you’ll have a ride away from and back to the train.”

“I still can’t believe you’re making me stay in a bloody treehouse the whole time,” he complained.

“I told you it’s not what you’re thinking. Ron and I made it before we went to school when we got bored, and it’s really nice and furnished and even has heating charms and the whole works. You’ll be fine.”

“But it’s a treehouse.”

She rolled her eyes. “Look, I’ve told you a hundred times: I stole this potion from the twins’ stash. Polyjuice is a pain in the arse to make, so they only had a little on hand just in case. If I’d have taken more, they would have noticed it was missing. And besides, at the time I didn’t realize I would be using it to smuggle a friend away from Death Eater clutches. I just thought it might come in useful for a prank, so there’s not enough to keep you disguised all break. Just for those two meals and the ride…hopefully.”

“Hopefully.” Draco made a face. “That’s the bit that scares me. And your brothers scare me too, for the record. It’s a little weird that they make sure and have stuff like that sitting around ‘just in case.’”

She laughed. “I took some too for ‘just in case,’ didn’t I?”

“I don’t recall ever saying that you didn’t scare me.”

She threw her carry-on bag at him, but he caught it just before it hit his face. “Hey, me and my brothers’ scariness turned out quite useful to you, so I’d keep my gob shut.”

He chuckled and sat her bag on his lap, opening it up and rummaging through.

“Better hope I don’t have any, you know, ‘girl’ things in there,” she told him sweetly.

He rolled his eyes at her and pulled out a vial that was indeed rather small. “Is this it?”

“Yup.”

“Whose hair?”

Ginny shrugged. “Some Hufflepuff girl. She’s in my year and has hair almost as freakishly blond as yours. The hair is first to change, so I figure that way if you start turning back too soon, at least your hair won’t suddenly go from black to white or something.”

“How comforting,” he said dryly, scrutinizing the bottle another moment before placing it carefully back inside and setting the bag next to him. “Did you really have to make me a girl?”

“Yes, you great baby. If I brought home a boy, there would have been all kinds of questions, and Mum would start talking about grandchildren, and Da would want to give you ‘the talk’, and they would both bug me about whatever happened to Harry, and trust me — this will be much easier. Not to mention safer for you. They won’t think twice about me inviting a girl over. They might get suspicious about a boy.”

“But I don’t know how to act like a woman,” he pointed out. “They might get suspicious of a masculine girl, too.”

Ginny grinned wickedly. “Oh, I don’t think you have to worry about being overly masculine, Draco.”

He glared at her. “Did I mention I’m not too fond of this plan?”

“Many times. Do you like the alternative any better?”

He sighed, looking out the window.

“Didn’t think so. Don’t worry, it won’t be that bad. I’m going to bring you three meals a day, I swear the treehouse is nice and comfy, you’ll be fine.”

When the train pulled into the station in London, Draco was still sulking.

“Just shut up and take the stupid potion,” Ginny told him tiredly as she unstopped the vial and dropped in a platinum hair she’d managed to take from the Hufflepuff girl. “Your name is now officially Lizzy.”

“Lizzy?”

“I had a pet lizard named Lizzy once. I thought it was cute. Besides,” she added with an impish grin, “you look kind of like a Lizzy.”

He only shot her a dirty look and knocked back the potion in one swift swallow. His face became a mask of disgust, and he let out a low moan, doubling over as his features began to change. His hair grew, tumbling down past his shoulders, which were rapidly growing thinner just like the rest of him, except for his hips and chest which grew rather a lot.

When the transformation was complete, Draco fell back onto the seat with his head in his hands. “Oh, God,” he groaned…in a distinctly male voice.

“Oh…shoot. Draco…your voice. You still sound like you.”

He glanced up at her irritably through “Lizzy’s” sky blue eyes, then pointed his wand at himself and muttered a spell. “Better?” he asked, his voice coming out in a soft, female purr.

Ginny raised her eyebrows. “Well…you sound like a girl. You also sound like you’re trying to seduce me.”

Malfoy smirked, though the very Malfoy-ish expression looked sort of funny on the innocent female features. “Do anything for you? That might be interesting…”

She punched him in the arm. “Don’t think just because you look like a girl I’m going to forget you’re a guy. I’ll still beat the crap out of you.”

He chuckled, or would have if he still had his voice. Instead it came out like a light, delicate giggle. He explained, “I used to mess around with voice altering spells when I was younger. Of course, back then I was a hormone-driven boy, and I only really looked into the sexier varieties of the female voice.”

Ginny rolled her eyes. “Of course you did. And what do you mean, ‘back then’?”

“Oh, you’re just a riot, you are.”

Ginny had her head cocked at him. It was a little disconcerting talking to Draco in the Hufflepuff girl’s body. “So, what, you’re going to go through the whole night sounding like you’re trying to hit on my parents?”

“Well…I was putting it on a little,” he admitted with another smirk, voice significantly less suggestive. “It’ll sound a little…ah, flirtatious, but not obviously so. Just say I’m part Veela or something.”

Ginny shook her head with a small laugh. “Oh, Merlin, this is going to be interesting.”

Just then the compartment door slammed open, and Pansy stood outside with arms crossed, tapping her foot impatiently. “Weasley.” She sneered, eyes passing right over Draco. “Nice rags. Did your mum sew them together out of old dish towels?”

Ginny’s nails bit into her palm. “What do you want, Parkinson?”

Pansy stuck her pug nose into the air. “I’m looking for Draco. I thought you might have seen him, seeing as you’re obviously obsessed with him. Though I don’t see how you can think you have a chance. He would never lower himself to someone of your…class…”

Out of the corner of her eye, Ginny saw Draco’s now feminine hands digging into the seat, whole body tense. She wished she could offer him some comfort, but Pansy was ignoring Draco for now and she wanted to keep it that way. Instead, she said, “Obsessed? Don’t you think that’s just a little strong? Now, let’s say I’d been chasing him from the crib and wouldn’t give up even when he clearly was not interested.” Ginny smiled sweetly. “Then I’d be obsessed.”

Pansy’s face twisted into another ugly sneer, clearly catching the reference to herself. “You’re just jealous that Draco and I have such a long history.”

“Funny, for me lacking such a long history, I seem to be beating the hell out of you.”

Pansy glared. “In your dreams, Weaselette.”

Ginny placed two fingers against her cheek in mock thought. “Well, let’s see now, who has he been spending all his time with?” She put her finger in the air. “Oh, that’s right — me.”

Pansy tossed her hair haughtily. “I don’t have to defend myself to peasants. Have you seen him or not?”

“Sorry, ‘fraid not. But I’m sure you’ll find him. After all, you’ve had years of experience stalking him.”

Pansy just let out a hmph! and spun on her heel, throwing the compartment door shut with an echoing clang.

Draco arched a brow, another very Malfoy expression that looked odd on the girl’s face. “What was that all about?”

Ginny blushed furiously, refusing to meet his eyes even if they weren’t really his eyes. “Nothing.”

“Oh no, that was definitely something. If I’m not mistaken, you just had a little cat fight with Pansy over me.”

Ginny rolled her eyes at his smug expression. “Oh, get over yourself, would you?” She took out two spare vials and pressed them into his hand. “Here. The potion only lasts one hour, so make sure you remember to take more when this dose runs out. And pray supper doesn’t last more than three hours.”

Molly and Arthur Weasley were waiting outside when Ginny and Draco stepped off the train.

“Ginny dear!” her mother squealed when she saw her, sweeping her into a warm, suffocating hug, then promptly shoving her at arms’ length to get a good look at her. “Have you been eating?” she demanded sharply. “You look thin as a rail.”

Ginny smiled. “Yes, Mum, I’ve been eating.” She turned to her father. “Hullo, Da.”

Arthur grinned and pulled her into a gentler hug. “It’s good to see you, Gin-bug,” he said softly into her hair. Then he let her go and looked to Draco. “You haven’t introduced us to your friend.”

Ginny turned around. “Oh, right. Mum, Da, this is Lizzy. She’s in my year. Hufflepuff.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Arthur said solemnly, giving Draco’s hand a firm shake. Ginny had to stifle a giggle when she imagined what Draco must be thinking, shaking Arthur Weasley’s hand and having to smile while he did it.

Molly nodded, smiling politely. “Yes, it’s good to meet you,” she echoed.

“Please, the pleasure is all mine,” Draco returned, female voice sweet but a touch seductive.

Arthur raised his eyebrows just slightly, and Ginny hurriedly cleared her throat. “Lizzy’s part Veela,” she announced. “Isn’t that neat?”

Arthur’s expression cleared in instant understanding while Molly shot him a disapproving look. “Yes, very neat indeed. I imagine it can be a bit of a hassle for you at times, though, hmm Lizzy?”

Draco smiled. “Sometimes, yeah.”

Ginny cleared her throat again. “I was wondering if maybe Lizzy could come over for supper tonight? She already owled her parents and they say it’s all right as long as she comes home right after so they can see her again.”

Molly frowned a little at her daughter. “Ginny,” she scolded in a low voice, “you should have warned me if you wanted a friend over! I don’t have anything prepared for a guest!”

“Please, Mum, as if you would have any trouble getting a meal around. Besides, look at how thin Lizzy looks. If anyone could use one of your feasts, it’s her.”

Molly considered “Lizzy” through calculating eyes. “She does seem too skinny….”

Draco smiled shyly, twisting a lock of hair around his finger in a nervous gesture. It was all Ginny could take not to burst out laughing. “I would hate to be a bother, Mrs. Weasley. Ginny just tells me that you’re a simply brilliant cook, and I tried some of the biscuits you sent, which were divine, so when Ginny invited me, I just couldn’t resist. Really, anyone who tries the treats you send just raves about them. You’re practically a legend at Hogwarts.”

Molly positively glowed. “Oh, you’re giving me far too much credit, dear. I just muddle around in the kitchen for awhile until something turns up. But if you really want to try my cooking, by all means, we would be thrilled to have you. Wouldn’t we, Arthur?”

“Thrilled,” he agreed sincerely.

“Thank you, Mum! And Da,” Ginny said with a grin.

Molly waved her hand dismissively. “Oh, as if I’d say no to such a sweet young lady. Get your things, girls, and we’ll meet you at the car.”

As her parents walked out of hearing, Ginny turned to Draco and finally released a torrent of giggles. “For not knowing how to act like a girl, you did an amazing impression,” she teased. “And that was brilliant with Mum, by the way. I think she’d fully support me now if I decided to turn lesbian so long as it was with you.”

Draco flashed an evil grin. “That can be arranged,” he purred, layering on thick the sexy undertones in his fake voice.

Ginny shoved him and scooped up her trunk. “Come on, you tart.”

“I resent that.”

Ginny shook her head. “I just can’t wait for this night to be over. It’s too weird talking to you like that. Even if it is highly entertaining.”

Draco sent a glare her way, and Ginny thought that the Hufflepuff girl would never know how fearsome her innocent face could look with the right personality behind it.

“I’m glad someone is entertained,” he drawled, though the effect was much lessened in his new voice.

Arthur came striding up to them as they neared the car, taking their trunks. “Here, I’ll just pop these in the back while you two get settled.”

Ginny nodded and glanced over to see Draco regarding the car with something like trepidation. “What’s the matter?” she whispered.

“We’re not really getting into that Muggle death trap, are we?” he hissed back.

Ginny covered a smile with her hand. “It’s fine, trust me. I’ve done it dozens of times and I’ve always survived. It’s actually sort of fun.”

“I doubt that.”

“Just come on, you big baby.” Ginny grabbed his hand, again struck by the oddness of holding onto a girl’s delicate fingers rather than Draco’s strong grip, and tugged him towards the door. Draco clearly resisted, but Ginny had no trouble hauling him in. “I sort of like you as a girl,” Ginny teased under her breath while her parents finished putting away their things. “You’re easy to push around now.”

“Just wait till I turn back,” he warned. “I’m going to remember every one of your snarky little comments.”

Ginny laughed as Arthur opened up the door and slid behind the wheel, Molly joining him in the passenger seat. He twisted around and gave them a smile. “You girls behaving yourselves back there?”

“Yes, Da. Come on, Lizzy’s got to be home soon! I want to make sure we have enough time.”

“Of course, of course. I’m sure your parents are very eager to see you, Lizzy. My apologies.”

Draco immediately tensed as the engine rumbled to life beneath them, clutching at the door as they pulled out, but he didn’t utter a sound. He never relaxed the whole ride, barely contributing to the idle chit chat everyone else engaged in, and when the wheels rolled to a stop at the Burrow, Draco jumped out of the car like it might explode at any moment. Ginny shook her head as she followed him out.

She watched his face as he got his first look at her home — or rather, Lizzy’s face. She wished that weren’t the case; she’d gotten quite good at reading Draco’s expressions, but Lizzy’s were still a mystery to her.

“What do you think?” she asked, hoping she didn’t sound as anxious as she felt. When he opened his mouth she added, “I’d be careful. It probably wouldn’t be too smart to insult the person saving your arse.”

He smiled. “I was going to say that it’s different. From the Manor, I mean.”

Ginny laughed. “Yes, well I would imagine so.”

“It’s not what I expected,” Draco admitted.

“What were you expecting? A hovel?”

Draco shrugged, saved from having to give an actual response by Arthur Weasley, who was just then walking up with their trunks levitated behind him.

“Molly’s already at it in the kitchen, so you two might as well get washed up and whatever else you’d like before we eat,” he suggested, holding the door open for them.

Ginny glanced over to Draco, finding it weird that she didn’t have to look up for once. The Hufflepuff girl’s body about matched her modest height. “Come on, I’ll show you my room.”

She led him inside and up the crazy stairs to the next floor. Any embarrassment she might have felt for her home drained away as soon as she stepped inside, a tide of memories washing over her and that comfortable, safe feeling enveloping everything. Maybe it was smaller than Draco’s Manor, but where she imagined his as cold and indifferent, her home was just that — a home. She felt no shame, and realized she really didn’t care if Draco approved or not.

The realization lent her a boost of confidence as she opened the door to her bedroom and motioned him inside. It was a small space, of course, with a twin bed she was very nearly too big for and a battered wooden desk, but she beamed at it and tossed herself happily onto the bed. “This is it,” she told him. “I know it’s nothing like the suite I’m sure you’ve got, but I like it, so you can just hush up if you’ve got anything mean to say about it.”

He chuckled, though again it came out as that soft feminine laugh, and leaned against the door frame. “It’s you,” he told her.

She narrowed her eyes. “I’m trying to decide if you just insulted me.”

He shook his head. “I just mean there’s no pretense about it. It’s a change…nice.”

Ginny smiled, secretly pleased. “Even though I’m sure you’re just lying for my benefit — thank you. Here, I better show you where the treehouse is so you know where to apparate to.”

Draco’s eyes never stopped soaking in everything around him as they walked, from the house to the garden and the field out back. Ginny wondered what he was thinking but didn’t ask. When they reached a line of trees, she showed him one that had a marking carved into it, and how to follow other ones with a similar mark until they arrived at one particularly impressive-sized tree.

“Here she is,” Ginny announced, pointing up to a slightly ramshackle, cabin-looking structure nestled in the upper limbs. “My baby.” She laughed at Draco’s face and lifted up her wand, pointing at the entrance. “Chudley Cannons.” A rope ladder instantly unrolled and fell at their feet.

Draco raised his eyebrows at her, and Ginny gave a helpless shrug. “I told you Ron and I built it together. He got to pick the password.” She shoved her wand into her back pocket. “Come on.”

She grabbed onto the first rung and started climbing, feeling the ladder quiver when Draco began his ascent as well. They had to crawl inside, and then Ginny stood up and dusted off her clothes.

“Merlin, it’s been ages since I was in here,” she said, wrinkling her nose at the dust. She pulled out her wand again and went to work Scourgifying the whole place. When she finished, the two of them were standing in a neat, one-room wooden house with a window, a single bed, and a miniature table, cluttered by a few old toys scattered on the ground and decorated with Chudley Cannons posters. “Well? What do you think? You can take down the posters.” She smiled.

He suddenly winced, squeezing his eyes shut.

Ginny frowned. “It’s not that bad…”

“No,” he shook his head. “It’s not that, I’m just…” he trailed off in a groan, and then suddenly his hair was shrinking, his shoulders growing broader as he grew taller, and moments later, Draco — really Draco — stood in front of her. He took out his wand to undo the voice spell, and in his familiar, drawling voice complained, “That stuff hurts like hell, you know.”

Ginny smiled sympathetically. “I would think so. All right otherwise?”

He nodded, then looked around the treehouse. “I guess it’s tolerable. At least it’s warm.”

“I told you it would be. I was really good at charms when I was little, so I did all the heating spells myself. You’ll be as toasty here as you ever were at Hogwarts.” She crossed her arms as she looked around her old childhood playhouse, a smile suddenly tugging at her lips. “It’s just so weird to have a Malfoy in here. Who would’ve guessed?”

“I sure as hell wouldn’t have,” he muttered, bending down to examine one of her old dolls.

She laughed. “Come on, Mum’s probably about got supper ready. Better take your next dose so we can get back.”

His mouth formed something suspiciously like a pout, but with a resigned sigh, he took out the next vial and tipped it back.

Ginny’s guess proved correct as they stepped back into the Burrow, Draco once more Lizzy. Delicious smells from the kitchen floated through the whole house, and Ginny breathed in deeply with a content smile. “You’re going to love Mum’s cooking,” she promised.

The meal went without a hitch, and when Draco complimented Molly’s cooking Ginny thought it actually seemed sincere. Only one tense moment occurred when Draco suddenly stopped eating and kicked Ginny under the table. She glanced over and saw his hair starting to grow shorter.

“Do you need to go to the loo?” she asked quickly. “It’s right down the hall there.”

Draco wasted no time in jumping up from the table and disappearing around the corner. He tossed her a wink through one of Lizzy’s sky blue eyes when he returned. Thankfully, dessert didn’t take quite as long, and “Lizzy” was on her way home before another hour came to a close.

“It was just wonderful having you, Lizzy,” Molly enthused, wrapping Draco in a big hug. Ginny wanted to laugh again at what must have been running through Draco’s head. “You’ll have to come by again sometime.”

Ginny saw her opening and grabbed on. “Oh, can she come over for breakfast before we go back? That way she can just ride in the car with us again on the way back to the train.”

“I don’t see any reason why not,” Arthur agreed. “As long as your mother doesn’t mind, of course.”

“Of course I don’t mind!” Molly exclaimed. “Just be sure and make sure your parents don’t mind, Lizzy.”

Draco nodded dutifully. “I will, but I doubt they’ll have a problem with it.”

“Right! And you’re sure you’re all right apparating back by yourself?”

“I’ll be fine, Mrs. Weasley. Thank you again, it was a wonderful meal. You more than lived up to your reputation.”

Molly beamed. “Oh, stop. It was nothing. Well, we’ll just let you girls say goodbye, then.”

Once her parents were safely away, Ginny shook her head. “Do you know how hard it is not to laugh when you start in on her?”

Draco smirked. “Hey, you told me to be polite.”

Ginny just laughed. “Go on,” she told him. “I’ll come by in the morning with breakfast.”

Draco nodded and cracked into thin air, making her parents believe he’d gone home, but really just traveling the small distance to the treehouse. Ginny looked out in that direction, absently pulling the necklace he gave her out from where she had it hidden beneath her shirt. She knew that the heart-shaped pendant would raise more than a few questions if her parents spotted it, so a little regretfully, she reached back and undid the clasp. She carefully slid it into her pocket along with Harry’s locket, her fingers pausing momentarily over the latter. Then she pulled her hand empty out of her jeans and turned back to the Burrow.

- - - - -

“Are you just utterly impressed, my lady?” Pierce joked, offering Naomi a mock bow.

Holding a coat around her to ward off the chill present even in southern Italy, Naomi took a step forward, her eyes bright with awe. “It’s beautiful, Jon.”

They stood on a hillside in front of a one-story Italian villa, the roof made from cinnamon-colored shingles and the smooth walls the color of terracotta. Pierce led her around back to the veranda that sat at the hill’s very edge, and from there the land seemed to fall away into an infinite stretch of rolling plains, dotted here and here by clusters of rustic buildings that made up the surrounding villages.

Naomi reached out and squeezed Pierce’s hand. “This is amazing. I’m not even going to ask how you could afford it.”

Pierce didn’t say anything, but he thought that was probably a good idea. He hadn’t been entirely honest when he told her he’d bought this place. More like he’d assumed ownership after the last landlord, an influential and outspoken opponent to the Dark Lord, met an unfortunate end at the point of Pierce’s wand.

“It’s even better in the summer,” he assured her. “All of that,” he gestured to the hills below them, “is greener than anything you’ve ever laid eyes on, and it’s absolutely covered in flowers. The house, too. Plants and blossoms grow all over the thing. It’s something you just have to see.”

Naomi smiled playfully up at him. “Maybe I will one day.”

He smirked. “You think so? I don’t know. I might tire of you by then,” he teased.

She ran a hand up his chest. “Well, I’ll just have to make sure and keep things interesting.”

Pierce reached back and tossed away the clip securing her hair, watching as the light wind blew it forward across her shoulders. “What did you have in mind?”

“Well,” she entwined her fingers with his, “I was thinking we could go inside and have some tea to warm up and unwind, and then maybe go down and have supper at one of those charming little villages. But first, I think maybe we should make sure the bedroom is all right, don’t you?”

Pierce chuckled. “You’re going to wear me out, you know that?”

“Oh, I think you’ll be all right.” She dropped one of his hands, keeping the other to pull him after her through the back door. It led directly into a tile-floored kitchen, the table and chairs made from dark, weathered wood and filled with rustic iron ornamentation. Naomi went over and turned on the kettle for tea, smiling at her surroundings.

“I love this place,” she told Pierce with a happy little sigh. “It’s just gorgeous.”

He smiled, watching her move around and brush her fingers over an old brick oven, the cast iron pots and pans hanging on the wall, the tile counter. Her white sweater showed her figure without looking overly tight, her gray trousers fitting her hips just right, and her hair still fell windswept around her clear face.

“I think you’re rather gorgeous yourself,” he told her, voicing his thoughts aloud.

She flashed him a brilliant smile and walked over, holding out her hands to him. “Dance with me.”

Chuckling, he spun her around and pulled her back to him, dipping her down low and just barely touching his lips to hers. He felt her give a little sigh, and then he pulled her upright again. They waltzed around the modest kitchen to music only they could hear, and when Pierce pulled her close for perhaps the dozenth time, he murmured, “Why are you with me?”

“I want to know everything about you,” she whispered back, swaying against him. “I want to be yours, and you to be mine, and we can live here forever and forget the rest of the world exists.”

He smiled faintly. “It’s a nice dream.”

“It doesn’t have to be.” She spun gracefully away and back into his arms. “Why couldn’t we do it?”

“These nasty things called obligations, for one. Responsibility.”

“What obligations do you have, Jon? The school? You couldn’t care less for teaching.”

He sighed, turning them about and changing direction. “You know that’s not what I meant.”

“Right. Of course not.” She sounded bitter, so Pierce tipped her back again for another teasing kiss. She straightened again and leaned her head on his shoulder, squeezing his hand to indicate she wanted to slow their pace a little. “They’re ruining your life, you know? Just leave. We’ll run away together. Jon, we could start over, just the two of us.”

“Where would we run to, Naomi?”

“Here. It’s so lovely here. And it’s secluded, too. No one would ever find us.”

Pierce smiled wryly. “Except the Dark Lord knows about it.”

She frowned. “All right, somewhere else then. I don’t care. Just as long as we’re together. We could do it, Jon. It’s a wide world out there. It doesn’t even have to be Europe. We could go to the States, or…I don’t know, China or something.”

Pierce suddenly stopped their dancing, stepping back to stare at her. “You’re serious, aren’t you?”

She stared stubbornly back. “Why shouldn’t I be?”

“Do you hear yourself? You’re talking treason against Lord Voldemort.”

She flinched at the name, but didn’t drop eye contact. “And? Loyalty to him is killing you! I can see it, every time I look in your eyes. And it kills me too. Please. Just…just think about it. At least this way you’ll have a chance to live.”

“You don’t know what you’re saying, Naomi.” He turned around and strode into the other room where their trunks sat. He tugged them into the bedroom.

“Jon, don’t be like this,” Naomi pleaded, following.

He flung open the lid and started stuffing his clothes into the empty dresser drawers.

Naomi walked a little closer. “I’m sorry, all right?” she said quietly. “I shouldn’t have brought it up. I just…I want so badly for you to be happy. And I want to be with you. I’m…I’m so afraid he’s going to take you away from me. That’s all.”

He slowly stopped his furious unpacking, hanging his head. He didn’t want to give in to her, but like always, that magical voice poured over him like warm honey and melted away his walls. He hated it almost as much as he loved it.

He lifted his head towards her. “Don’t worry about that,” he told her quietly. “He won’t ever take me away from you. I’m too important.”

“For now,” she said softly.

He took her hand and pulled her close. “Forever,” he corrected.

She buried her face against his chest, her words coming out muffled. “But he does make you sad,” she insisted.

Pierce sighed. “Ever hear that old saying, nobody likes their job, that’s why they call it work? Well…this is my job. And I’m good at it.”

Naomi tilted her head back to look at him. “Promise me you’ll at least consider it? Even if for just a minute in the shower or something?”

He gave a pained smile. “Would that make you feel better?”

She nodded.

“Then I promise.”
Unthinking by Hearts Cadence
A/N – AH! Great news!!! I got hired on as a reporter for my local newspaper! I prefer novel/fiction writing to journalism, of course, but a job in any kind of writing is still pretty exciting, so I’m optimistic haha.

Unfortunately, between the new job and school I’ve been a bit hard-pressed, as you can tell by how long this chapter took, but I’ll try to keep it fairly speedy in the future. Sorry about this or any forthcoming delays.

Enjoy!

- - - - -

Chapter 24 — Unthinking

Naomi Lawson struggled against the morning sunshine, bright even against closed lids, but eventually lost. With a sigh of regret she opened her eyes and, for a moment, forgot where she was. She gazed around at the charming interior, became aware of the body lying next to her, and remembered everything as sleep’s fog lifted away. Jon. The villa in Italy. Right.

Pulling the blankets higher up under her chin, she turned on her side to stare at Jon, a little smile stealing across her lips. She really did love him, loved his exaggerated features and the unkempt fall of his sandy hair and even his Slytherin wiles. Perhaps most of all his Slytherin wiles. She wondered if he would believe that after…Naomi gave a mental shake of her head. Dangerous thoughts.

“You know, it’s rude to stare,” Jon muttered, face not changing by a degree.

Naomi smiled. “How do you know I’m staring?”

His hazel eyes flicked open, so deceptively friendly, glittering happily now. “I could feel it.”

She smiled again, not doubting that a second. She lifted her finger and traced the side of his throat. “How’d you sleep?”

He lifted his hands above his head in a huge stretch. “Mmm, pretty good, actually. Still too early though. You?”

“Same.” Naomi hesitated. “Still waking up, then?”

He nodded, letting his eyes fall shut again.

“How about I go down and explore the nearest village and pick out a nice little spot for breakfast,” she suggested. “By the time I come back you can be all wide awake and ready to go.”

He sighed. “No, that’s all right, I can drag myself out of bed.”

Naomi pushed him back firmly. “I insist. I wanted to do a little exploring anyways, so just take your time waking up, and I’ll be back in awhile. Okay?”

Jon’s eyelids were already drooping closed again. “Are you sure?”

“Positive.” She eased her way out from beneath the blankets, arranging them closely around Jon again before tip-toeing out of the room. She slipped into the loo to cast a few quick freshen-up charms, changed into a set of robes, and walked out into the kitchen.

She didn’t walk out the door. Instead, she craned her neck back behind her, making sure Jon wasn’t coming, then when she was satisfied, turned to the hearth, grabbed up a good fistful of Floo powder, tossed it in, and as loud as she dared, murmured, “Malfoy Manor.”

She felt herself whisked away in a blaze of emerald fire, and then she was stumbling out of a grand, black marble fireplace, echoing halls with floors and walls of a similar make-up leading into vaulted ceilings all around her. The House Elves kept everything polished so that every surface became a mirror, reflecting only vaguely distorted images as through a dark glass. It all spoke of exquisite taste and wealth and high class…and it was so very, very cold, Naomi thought.

A House Elf cracked into the space before her, giving a low bow. “Master says to bring Ms. Lawson to his study,” it told her somberly in its high, rasping voice.

She wondered if the creature used to smile. “All right.”

Walking into Malfoy Manor felt like being swallowed whole, a vague sense of entrapment falling over her so that she had to fight the urge to turn around and run. She asked herself what the hell she was doing here, but then, she knew the answer to that.

Everyone’s got a little Slytherin running through his or her veins, dear. Even you.

He had the right of it, she knew. He always had the right of it, damn the man. God, she hated him.

But she had no other choice.

The House Elf stopped in front of an innately carved ebon wood door inlaid with silver accents. Real silver, of course. The tiny thing gave a timid knock.

His cold, indifferent voice floated through the thick wood. “Enter.”

Naomi walked inside the study, the dim glow of a lamp giving the whole room a crimson tinge. Even his pale skin and white-blond hair took on the blood-colored cast, and she found herself thinking, Now all he needs is horns and a pitchfork.

“Naomi.” His voice remained as flat as always, like he thought her little better than some boring insect.

“Lucius,” she answered tightly, moving uninvited into the seat opposite his massive desk. Ebon wood, of course.

Back ramrod straight, Lucius Malfoy folded his long-fingered hands on the desktop and regarded her through piercing gray eyes. “It’s been a few days since you last checked in. I was beginning to worry.”

She wanted to laugh. Worry, her arse. “Jon brought me to Italy.”

One perfectly shaped eyebrow lifted. “Italy?”

“He has a villa there.”

Lucius seemed to consider this a moment, then a slow smile stretched his thin lips. “Oh, right. The hilltop villa in Italy. Acquiring that little spoil of war was a bloody business, as I recall. Or, so I’ve heard. I wasn’t actually there when Pierce murdered the previous owner.”

Naomi blinked, going a little stiff in the chair and struggling to keep hidden any further outward signs that this news came as a surprise. She didn’t want to give this man any ammo. But it did shock her. She knew Jon had killed since their separation, he’d freely told her as much. Still…hearing it always cut through her as sure as any dagger.

Lucius unthreaded his fingers, tapping at the desk impatiently. “Well? Any progress?”

She shook her head. “I thought I got close the other day, but as soon as he realized I was serious…well, he got a little angry. He said he would consider it, but….”

“But you don’t think he will.”

Naomi shrugged. “I can’t say for sure, but like he said…it’s treason against You-Know-Who. You would have to be mad.”

“I seem to remember you assuring me he was mad about you.”

“He is,” she quickly assured him. She couldn’t let him doubt her usefulness, not even for a second. “But he’s also not an idiot. Time, that’s all I need. Just a little more. I know I can convince him to leave, and then you can be back at You-Know-Who’s right hand. I just need time.”

Lucius examined his nails. “I’ve given you ample time already, Naomi my dear. Is it motivation you require? Perhaps I should cut off one of little Ben’s fingers.”

“No!” Her knuckles went white around the arms of her chair. “Soon. I swear it will be soon. Just…please. Please don’t hurt Ben.”

Lucius studied her a moment. Suddenly he lifted one of those elegant, manicured hands and snapped his fingers. Almost instantly, a House Elf cracked into the room.

“Master.” It bowed so low it looked like it was trying to kiss its own knobby knees.

“Fetch young Master Benjamin from his rooms,” he instructed airily. When the Elf didn’t move immediately, he added, voice soft as velvet, “Now.”

The thing sprinted from the room so fast that the lines of its body seemed to blur.

Naomi hardly noticed. Her brain had stopped functioning after the words “fetch young Master Benjamin.” She hadn’t seen her son in months. Lucius had never let her before. Now she could hardly breathe at the prospect of it.

It took an eternity for the House Elf to return, or maybe only seconds; it felt like both. All she knew was that when that door opened again, her baby boy was standing in the doorway, brown hair tousled and eyes wide with fright.

“Ben!” she cried, nearly falling in her haste to get out of the chair.

When he saw her his eyes went even wider, and with a shout of, “Mummy!,” he dashed towards her even as she ran to meet him, so that when they met, it nearly knocked the air out of both of them. It was the most beautiful feeling Naomi had ever experienced, and falling to her knees, she only crushed him all the tighter to her.

“Oh, Ben, Ben, Ben,” she sobbed into his neck, pressing kisses all over his beautiful, perfect head. “My poor, poor baby. Are you all right? Did they hurt you?” She held him out, critical eyes searching over every visible inch of him.

He shook his head, tears standing in his eyes. “I’m okay,” he told her, forcing out a tremulous smile.

She pulled him close again, holding on as tight as she could. “Oh, my brave little boy,” she whispered. “Mummy missed you so much.”

“How touching,” Lucius drawled, standing and walking round to face Naomi. “I almost regret breaking up this little reunion.”

She lifted her face out of Ben’s hair and glared at him. “What do you mean?”

Lucius snapped his fingers again. “Take the boy,” he ordered the House Elf.

“No!” Naomi shrieked, refusing to let the Elf take Ben until the thing stung her hands with some spell. With a pained cry, she slackened her grip by reflex. It was only for a second, but it was long enough for the surprisingly strong House Elf to tear Ben from her grasp.

Lucius walked over and snatched Ben roughly by the wrist, yanking the boy in front of him like a rag doll. Still on the ground, Naomi reached for her wand, deciding she was going to kill the bastard and damn all the consequences in the world, but he stopped her by raising his own wand to her son’s temple.

“Ah, ah. Be good now, Naomi. Wouldn’t want an accident, would we? Magic really is so volatile.”

Ben was whimpering, visibly shaking as he struggled not to move. Slowly, eyes emanating loathing like she’d never felt before, she moved both her hands to where they were visible.

“Excellent. Now, listen closely. You have one month to persuade him. Just one month more. If not,” Lucius wrenched up one of Ben’s arms, “see this cute little hand? All those pudgy little fingers? If you take even one day too long, I’m going to give you this cute little hand all wrapped up in a box.” Lucius threw down Ben’s arm with such force that the little boy stumbled to the ground, sobbing quietly.

“Ben,” Naomi choked, tears transforming the room into a reddish blur.

“Do you understand?” Lucius demanded harshly.

She hung her head, grinding her teeth together and digging her nails into her palm hard enough to draw blood. “Yes.”

“What was that?”

“I said yes, you bastard!” she shouted, eyes flashing with hate.

Lucius smirked. “Now, that wasn’t very nice.” He glanced to his House Elf. “Hit him.”

Before Naomi’s horrified mind could fully wrap around that, the Elf had stepped up, round eyes clearly tortured by the command, and delivered Ben a stinging slap.

“Ben!” She tried to crawl over to him, but Lucius pushed her back with the toe of his boot, sending her sprawling onto her back.

“Now, I’ll ask again. Do you understand the terms, Naomi?”

Naomi cried silently, eyes fixed on her son, so small in this huge, cruel place. “Yes…sir.”

Lucius gave a satisfied nod and waved his hand towards Ben. The House Elf immediately jumped and lifted her son to his feet, herding him out of the room. Naomi watched her world disappear behind a door, feeling everything in her threaten to fall apart. The only thing holding her together was the hope that she could save Ben.

“You’re free to go,” Lucius told her, demeanor bored and bland once more as if they’d just conducted a very dull business meeting. “I trust you remember the way.” He sat behind his desk, took out a piece of parchment, and began scratching away as if she had already left.

Naomi stayed on the floor a long time, numbly staring at the door, then without saying a word, she got up and walked out of the room. Walking towards freedom should have felt like just that. But she only felt like she was being swallowed all over again.

She stopped at the fireplace and gazed at it for several minutes, trying to get her jumble of thoughts in order long enough to remember what she was supposed to do next. Just as the words “Floo powder” had passed through her conscious and she began to decipher what exactly they meant, the flames turned brilliant green, and Severus Snape stepped out of them.

He looked startled, onyx eyes blinking a few times behind a curtain of greasy hair. “Oh…excuse me Madam,” he mumbled, almost grudgingly. “I hadn’t realized…” he trailed off, eyes narrowing and shoulders squaring off. “Lawson? Naomi Lawson?”

Naomi felt her stomach twist in on itself and it was all she could do to keep from turning the opposite direction and running. Snape used to know about her and Jon, and far as she knew, they were still friends. Oh, not good, not good, not goo —

“Interesting place to bump into you, Lawson,” he snarled, taking a menacing step forward. “I knew it,” he muttered, apparently to himself. “I tried to tell him.”

Then Naomi made one desperate attempt to escape. She started to dart past him, hand straining for the pot of Floo powder, damning Lucius for his bloody apparating wards, but she didn’t make it. Snape snatched her wrist and pulled her back against him, hooking his other arm around her waist to pin her against his chest and stop her struggling.

“So, spying for Lucius, are we? Should’ve guessed that.”

“It’s not like that!” Naomi cried, twisting in vain in his cold, bony grip. Was Jon the only Death Eater with a pulse? He was always so warm…

“Of course it isn’t.” He swung them around, tucking her more securely under one arm as he reached for the Floo powder.

“What are you doing?” she demanded, growing frantic.

“Lucius didn’t know I was coming, so I’ve got time to spare, and a cozy little dungeon room for you at my home.”

“No!” she screamed, kicking and flailing with all she was worth, but the thin man had a shockingly strong hold. “You can’t! My son! Oh, God, please,” she started choking on sobs, “my son….”

He actually paused then. “What?”

She sucked in a big breath of air, grabbing on to the wisp of hope he just gave her. “Lucius has my son. If you lock me away somewhere…he might think I ran. I…I don’t know what he’ll do to my son. Please…I-I’m begging you. Severus, please….”

He turned her about roughly and locked black, shadowed eyes on hers for several seconds. Then he shook his head. “I don’t believe you. Remarkable acting, though. You should have gone into theatre.” And his hand scooped out a fistful of Floo powder.

Naomi struggled wildly then, shrieking for help, calling for Lucius, for a House Elf for anyone. Her shouts echoed around in the marble halls and bounced back to her like a slap in the face.

But nobody came, and her world faded away in a whirl of green flame and the words, “Snape Estate.”

- - - - -

Ginny got up with a catlike stretch. “I’ve been sitting too long,” she announced to her parents, both sitting in the living room. “I’m going to go get a sandwich or something and walk around.”

Molly nodded. “Just be sure to be back by supper. The twins are having us over at the shop, remember.”

Ginny grimaced. “How could I forget? Remind me again why they’re not coming over here for Christmas Eve dinner?”

“Oh, be quiet. They wanted to show off all the improvements they’ve been making to their shop, and you haven’t seen any of your brothers this whole time, so you’ll go and you’ll smile about it.”

Ginny muttered to herself all the way to the kitchen, slapping together a couple sandwiches, wrapping them up and hiding one under her heavy jacket. She again gave thanks to the weather which mandated she wear such big coats and gave her a way to smuggle Draco’s food.

“I’ll be back,” she called as she slammed out the back door into the yard.

This whole thing had been working wonderfully so far. Well, Draco complained far too much about the indignity of a treehouse, and that his food was often cold by the time it got to him, but aside from that, everything was going according to plan, much to Ginny’s relief.

Ginny reached the treehouse and summoned down the ladder, cramming her sandwich into a pocket as she started climbing. She emerged into the little space to find Draco sitting on the floor, his back against the wall and an outdated magazine open on his bent knee.

“What’s that?” she asked. She was a little disappointed when he didn’t even flinch. One of these days, she promised herself, she was going to sneak up on him unawares.

“Quidditch rag,” he answered with a shrug.

She smiled as she plopped down next to him. “Kind of old, isn’t it? Where’d you find it?”

“Under the bed. I probably read it before, but if I did, I’ve forgotten by now.” He let it fall shut and tossed it across the room. “Of course, surprise, surprise, it’s all about the Chudley Canons’ big victory in the Quidditch World Cup.”

Ginny giggled. “Here,” she handed him his sandwich and took out her own.

He regarded it skeptically. “You know, I miss the days when I got a meal that hadn’t been smashed all to hell in someone’s coat pocket.”

“Hush up, or soon you’ll be missing the days when you got a meal at all.”

“You’re enjoying this power,” he observed, taking a bite out of the sandwich.

“I am, actually,” she admitted with a sweet smile. She pulled out a packet of crisps and tossed them over to him. “Here, you can have these too, since I’m sure you’ll still be hungry after that.”

He nodded gratefully and ripped open the bag. “So, your father do anything to make your mum hex him today?”

She smiled, taking a bite of sandwich. She’d been regaling Draco with tales of her parents’ antics the past few days, and she got the feeling they actually entertained him. “No, not today. I do have to go see the twins, though. They’ve got it in their heads to host the Christmas Eve supper this year. Merlin only knows why.”

Draco just smirked at her.

She punched his arm. “Oh, shove off, or I’ll risk the Polyjuice running out and invite ‘Lizzy’ to come.”

“I think Lizzy has other plans.”

“I think Lizzy will change her plans if she doesn’t want to starve.”

He rolled his eyes. “Draco thinks you’re a sadistic, manipulative bint.”

Ginny laughed. “I think you’re confusing us.”

He shrugged, taking another bite out of his sandwich.

Ginny followed suit, letting her eyes roam around the room. She glanced over at Draco and smiled.

He caught her looking and raised an eyebrow, swallowing down his current bite. “What?”

She shook her head. “Nothing, just thinking how mad this all is. That you’re here, I mean. Ron would have a conniption if he knew.”

Draco smirked. “If you ever tell him, can I watch?”

She laughed, then let out a contented sigh, slouching down comfortably against the wall. “Just all of this is unbelievable. I mean, not just you being here now, but all of it. Especially Pierce. It’s so backwards that you’re the one avoiding the Mark and he’s the one that’s got it.”

Draco finished his lunch and slid his back down the wall a ways, letting his head lean against the wood and as he closed his eyes. “Mmm.”

Ginny was quiet a moment. “Draco…I’ve been thinking, and I kind of realized something last night.”

“What’s that?” he asked, folding his hands over his stomach, looking for all the world like he was about to drift into an afternoon nap.

“When we go back to Hogwarts…well, how are you going to go back? Pansy’s going to want to know what happened to you.”

A grim, not-quite smile pulled at his lips. “Finally thought of that, did you?”

Ginny furrowed her eyebrows. “What?”

He sighed. “I knew I couldn’t go back from the start. I thought of the Pansy issue as soon as you suggested this inane scheme.”

“But…then why…?”

“I reviewed my options, and despite that one little complication, this was still the best one.”

Ginny felt herself growing angry. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

He still had his eyes closed as he gave a shrug. “I knew you would obsess over it, and I didn’t want to ruin your hols.”

“Oh my goodness, Draco! This is the same problem we had with you almost getting forced into initiation, remember? You need to tell me things like this! I thought we agreed on that.”

He gave a non-committal grunt.

She rolled her eyes. “You’re hopeless. And I wouldn’t exactly call this a ‘little’ complication. You do realize that when I go back, no one will sneak you food.”

“I didn’t say I wasn’t going back on the train.”

“But….”

“I’m going back. I’m just not going back to the castle.”

“And where exactly do you plan on staying, then? If you’re thinking the Three Broomsticks or something, you’ll get caught in a day.”

He rolled his head to the side to look at her. “Remember when I took you to that old abandoned shack in Hogsmeade? The one I said used to be my hideaway as a kid?”

Ginny understood his meaning immediately. “You’re going to hide in a shack?”

“Until I think of something better.”

“But…Draco…”

“Can you think of something else?” he demanded.

Ginny bit her lip. “No.”

“Didn’t think so.”

She drew her knees up to her chest. “How will you get off the train without someone seeing, though?”

“I’ll make sure and show up to breakfast as ‘Lizzy’ a little late so that I won’t have to use anymore than an hour, maybe an hour and a half of Polyjuice. We’ll keep the compartment door and the curtain shut, plus a locking charm to make sure no one barges in, and then I’ll take the rest of the Polyjuice before getting off.”

“What about eating? You can’t exactly waltz through Hogsmeade for a spot of shopping, even if you still had the money to do that. Someone would snitch on you for sure.”

He looked at her frankly. “I was hoping you could help me there.”

Ginny shook her head. “Oh, no. There’s no way I’m sneaking down to Hogsmeade three times a day to feed you. It’s hard enough doing that here, at my own house when you’re just out back!”

Draco rolled his eyes. “Obviously you wouldn’t do that. Just get together enough food for about a week, stuff that won’t spoil right away, and bring it all at once, like every Saturday or something. Or every other Saturday, even, if the food you filch will keep that long.”

“I don’t know…”

“Ginny.” He said her name softly, voice gentle in a way she’d never heard before. She looked up at him, and their eyes met. “Please. I don’t know what else to do. I don’t have anyone else to turn to. I need you, Ginny…again.” He smiled ruefully, but his eyes reflected the seriousness of his request.

Ginny tore her gaze away from his with an effort. “Bloody manipulative Slytherin git,” she muttered.

Draco chuckled. “I take that as a yes?”

“You couldn’t just…I don’t know. Go to the Order or something? McGonagall, maybe?”

“After what I did? Be realistic.”

Ginny frowned. “They might listen…”

“Or they might decide I’d make a brilliant hostage.”

“I think you’re being a bit dramatic.”

“I think I’m being honest. This is war, Ginny. Even the good guys play dirty. You just don’t hear about that because the good guys are the ones who tell the story afterwards.”

Ginny was silent a long time. “It’s not fair,” she said at last.

“What isn’t?”

She shifted around on her knees to face him, her shoulder to the wall. “You’re doing the right thing! You shouldn’t have to hide in some shack! You should be getting help…or recognition…or something. But people will never see you that way. They’ll only think you’re bad, and…and it’s not right!”

Draco smiled faintly. “That bothers you?”

“Yes, it bothers me!”

“Why?”

She opened her mouth, then let it close again. She shook her head slowly. “I just wish people saw the side of you that I see now.”

His eyes searched hers. “And what side is that?”

She sat back on her feet, soaking in the sight he made as he reclined against the wall, regarding her through a platinum fringe that could do with a trim. “The one that knows it’s not perfect. You don’t try to save the world or go off and be a hero, but you’re still fighting. In your own way. And I think…I think that’s something to respect.”

His eyes seemed to grow more intense, gray gaze locking onto hers and refusing to let go. Ginny had to think very hard about breathing, for some reason. “I thought you liked heroes.”

“Why would you say that?”

“Isn’t that what you fancy Potter?”

Ginny wanted to look away then, out of shame or embarrassment or maybe something else, she didn’t know. But his eyes refused to let her go. She wished she could read the expression in them. It was something…something.

“That’s not why I fancied Harry.” She considered telling him she didn’t fancy him at all anymore, but decided against it. Discussing her love life with Draco just didn’t feel right.

“Then why?”

“I…I don’t know.” And Ginny realized it was true. She didn’t seem to know how she felt about anything anymore, everything was so muddled up, and Merlin, but it terrified her. “Draco?” she asked suddenly. “Are you afraid?”

He studied her a moment, curious. “Afraid?”

She nodded. “Because I am. Afraid of this war, afraid for my brother…afraid for you.” She laughed, except it came out more like a sob. “How barmy is that? A Weasley losing sleep over a Malfoy?”

He didn’t smile, and he never blinked. Keeping those mercurial eyes focused on hers alone, as if nothing else in the world even existed, he reached out and took one of her hands. “It doesn’t make you weak, you know.”

She blinked away the tears that threatened to fall. “What?”

“That you’re scared. It doesn’t make you any less brave. I know that’s what you’re really worried about. That you’re letting everyone down by not being strong or some rubbish like that.” Ginny bit her lip, realizing he had guessed correctly, even if she hadn’t realized it. “But if you weren’t scared, there wouldn’t be any need for courage, would there? And that you can admit it just makes you that much stronger.”

She forced out a shaky smile. “You think I’m strong?”

A corner of his mouth lifted, even though his eyes kept on burning into hers, feeling like they were laying her bare. “I know it. Elsewise you’d have been in Slytherin for sure, you conniving vixen.” She laughed, squeezing the hand that still held hers. “But you had too much guts. We Slytherins tend to lack that quality of derring-do, if you hadn’t noticed.”

“I don’t know. You’ve been pretty daring lately.”

“Ah, but only for self-interest. Self-preservation is entirely different.”

“What you did for me, to protect me from Pansy I mean, that wasn’t self-interest,” she pointed out.

He looked away then, and oddly enough, it left Ginny feeling a little colder, and a lot less safe. “No,” he agreed.

Now that she was on the topic, Ginny couldn’t just let it go that easily. “You never told me why you did do it.”

His eyes drifted slowly back to hers. He was quiet for so long she’d decided he wasn’t going to answer when he said quietly, “I guess I figured you were worth breaking tradition for. Just this once.”

Ginny stared at him, stared at those eyes and their indecipherable message, so vivid and almost desperate, like he was silently begging her to understand. “You never answered me,” she softly reminded him. “You never told me if you were afraid.”

He just kept on looking at her for a long while. Then: “Yes. I’m scared. Scared to die, scared of my father, scared of the Dark Lord, scared…well, I’m scared of a lot of things.”

“How do you deal with it?”

His mouth tilted in a grim smile. “The only thing anyone can do. I just live. I do what I have to, and I hope one day things stop being so damned scary.”

For a long time they sat locked in an unspoken staring contest, and Ginny felt something like a vague sense of vertigo, like the whole world was falling away leaving just the two of them. And then without ever making any conscious decision to do it, she put her hands on his shoulders, leaned forward, and covered his mouth with hers.

It took exactly one second for the horrifying realization of what she’d done to sink in, but the moment she made to jerk away, Draco’s hand flashed up faster than she’d ever seen it move for any Snitch and clamped around the back of her neck, holding her tight. And then he kissed her back.

Oh, this was wrong. So, so, so wrong that it should feel so amazing. She could feel his breath warmly mingling with hers, mouth frantic and demanding at first, but slowing when he realized she wasn’t trying to get away, carefully easing his lips over hers, pulling away briefly but always returning. She dug her fingers into his shoulders, trying to stay upright in the face of the dizzying assault on her senses. Anything that felt this good had to be a sin, but Ginny didn’t think she could stop even if it was damming her.

Draco slid the hand on her neck up under her hair, angling her head so he could deepen the kiss, each one lasting longer now, growing more intense, and she could feel a slow, hot thrum building low in her stomach. But then his other hand went around her waist, pulling her down onto his lap, and some part of Ginny’s brain seemed to switch back on.

She pushed against his shoulders with a gasp, wrenching away and leaving Draco looking a little dazed and very confused. She stared at him for a beat longer, unable to believe what they’d just done, what she’d just done, what she’d just felt.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered. Then she struggled off his lap and fled, going down the ladder and running all the way back to the house. Except…she couldn’t figure out what exactly she was running from. Only that it was huge, and if she didn’t want it changing her completely, she had better keep on running.

- - - - -

A/N – Well…you probably actually liked me! …There for a second, anyway, haha. *wanders off whistling innocently*
Missing by Hearts Cadence
A/N – All right there’s something I wanna clear up real quick. Someone mentioned in a review that they thought Draco was going to the Shrieking Shack, but that’s NOT where he’s going. If you remember, in Chapter 12 Draco took her to this little hut on the outskirts of Hogsmeade and told Ginny it was his hideaway of sorts as a kid. THAT is what I was referring to last chapter.

‘Kay, that said, thanks for the reviews, and on to Ch. 25!

- - - - -

Chapter 25 — Missing

Draco could still taste her the next day. It was Christmas morning, but that seemed a minor thing in comparison to the memory of yesterday, her kiss lingering in his mind peppermint flavored like she’d just eaten a candy cane, the taste only slightly subdued by the hint of her sandwich. He could almost feel her fingers clutching at his shoulders again, the soft sigh of her breath on his lips, and for just a few precious seconds, the feel of her Quidditch-toned body in his lap. Before she ran.

He still couldn’t understand it. Not just the running, but all of it. What prompted her to kiss him in the first place? He’d dreamt up fantasy after fantasy where he finally stole the kiss he so badly wanted, but never in a million years did it cross his mind that she might initiate one. Did it mean she felt for him? Or had it been impulse, a mistake that became regret? The running certainly supported that theory.

But she’d said she was sorry. That made him wonder if she was afraid he didn’t want it. But couldn’t she tell from his reaction that he more than approved?

With a huff of frustration, Draco rolled onto his stomach, burying his face in the pillow and absently wondering how long it would take to suffocate.

Even for all the confusion, though, it had been worth it. Behind closed eyes he could still see the sudden determination in her eyes before she did it, and his skin recalled every brush of hers. She had been fire, turning the blood in his veins molten as she burned her way through his defenses, as she seared the memory of her touch into his brain. And he wanted more.

He flipped over suddenly onto his back again, though he kept his eyes squeezed tightly shut. If only he know what the hell she was thinking!

He turned his head to look out the window, noticing the brightness of the sky. He rolled out of the bed and walked over, craning his neck to see the sun almost directly above. It must be lunchtime, or somewhere around there, and Ginny still hadn’t come. He hoped she wouldn’t start starving him now because she was too embarrassed or too disgusted to see him.

Could she be disgusted? Disgusted with herself for doing it, or disgusted with him for not responding how she wanted? Maybe he’d come on too strong, or, God forbid, kissed her like he was trying to inhale her face or some other equally horrifying display of bad skill.

Draco threw himself back on the bed with a groan. Lord, what was he anymore, a woman? He needed to stop obsessing like this. It was going to drive him mad.

Just then he heard the sound of the ladder coming unfastened as it fell to the ground. His heart jumped into his throat and he quickly pushed himself upright, his pulse pounding in his ears.

When Ginny crawled into the little room, she showed him a small, uncertain smile, glancing at him quickly and then immediately looking away without ever quite meeting his eyes. Draco could feel his stomach sink. So it was going to be awkward, then.

“Happy Christmas.” She pulled a foil-wrapped plate out of the bag slung over her shoulder and handed it to him before retreating to the room’s one chair. “Sorry I missed bringing you breakfast. Christmas morning, you know. With opening presents and all I really couldn’t find time to slip away until now.”

Draco just stared at her. He couldn’t believe it. She was going to pretend it never happened. He could tell from her tone and the guilty look in her eyes, pleading with him to play along.

Ginny quietly cleared her throat. “It’s…uh, turkey and roasted potatoes.” She waved towards the still covered plate on his lap. “Leftover from the twins’ dinner last night.” She attempted another smile. “Don’t worry, I ate all of it and seem all right, so it should be safe. It was actually pretty decent.”

Draco was utterly torn. He wanted more than anything to toss the plate aside and demand to know what it all meant, but the way her eyes begged him to keep silent held him back. Or, if he were honest, maybe it was just because he was afraid to find out the truth. So instead, he peeled back the foil and looked at the food.

“It’s good,” Ginny repeated. “Try it.”

So, mechanically, he picked up the fork off to the side of the plate and ate a bit of turkey. He hardly tasted it, but said anyway, “Good.”

Ginny exhaled slowly, smiling with a bit more confidence now. “So how are you today? I can’t imagine it’s been a very cheery Christmas, up here all by yourself, but besides that?”

How could she do it? How could she sit there and make small talk like nothing happened? “I’m all right,” he answered reflexively, still grappling with conflicting impulses, to bring it up or just go along.

Ginny chewed at her lip, running the toe of her shoe back and forth over the same spot. She suddenly looked up. “Oh, I have something for you. I mean…nothing special, but…” She tucked a piece of hair behind her ear, then abruptly got up, plopping her bag on the table. She dug around until she found a small box tied with red and green ribbon and laid it on the edge of his bed with a quiet, “Happy Christmas, Draco.”

Mind still not quite all with the situation at hand, he numbly picked up the tiny package and pulled the ribbon. It slithered apart, and he lifted off the top. Inside rested a small, thin silver chain, unornamented but shining brightly nevertheless. He scooped it out on two fingers and held it up.

“It’s real,” she told him. “It was my grandfather’s. His bracelet. I know…I know it’s not very manly or anything, but my Da gave it to me after,” a haunted look swallowed up her eyes, “after the Chamber. He wanted to show me I wasn’t evil, that he was proud of me for trying to stop it once I…once I realized. Anyway, Grandfather never would have been able to afford it, but he helped stop a Dark Wizard from murdering this woman one time, and the Minister of Magic gave it to him in recognition. A few others helped and got one too. They wore it on their wand hands because the circle was supposed to show the infinite bravery they showed by using that hand.” She shrugged. “Or, at least that’s what Da told me. He said now it would symbolize my bravery against the Darkest Wizard of all.”

“Why are you giving this to me?” he asked. It didn’t take a genius to recognize that this was something of profound value to her.

“Because…” she seemed to grapple for an explanation, “because it felt right. And it’s the only thing of any real value I have. After what you gave me, I wanted to find you something special.”

Draco felt the confused look that passed over his face. “What I gave you?”

She smiled and reached into her sweater, pulling out his necklace. “I haven’t been wearing it in case Mum and Da saw, but today…well, this morning I just felt like I needed to wear it. But you don’t have to wear the bracelet. I mean, I’ll understand. I know it’s kind of plain, not as fancy or expensive as the stuff you’re used to, but — ”

“Ginny,” he cut her off quietly, “this is the best present anyone’s ever given me.”

He saw her shoulders visibly relax, a warm glow shining in her dark eyes. “Supposedly, it has some special properties too, but Grandfather wouldn’t talk about them. Said if he went around announcing all the tricks he had up his sleeve, they wouldn’t be very tricky anymore.”

Draco nodded. “Can you put it on? I never was very good at working these ridiculous clasps one-handed, let alone one this small.”

She got up and walked over beside the bed, putting one knee on the edge to lean over his arm. He handed her the bracelet, their fingers brushing, and he noticed the way she stubbornly avoided looking at his face. With nimble hands, she unfastened the clasp, put the bracelet around his wrist, and secured it again. Her fingers still held on to the bracelet, though, hands hovering over his wrist. She looked up at him, and their eyes met for the first time since yesterday.

He saw so many emotions whirling through her stare that he couldn’t begin to pull out any individual ones. He felt his breathing slow, and the world grow silent, and he saw a questioning, almost nervous look grow prevalent in Ginny’s eyes. As they gazed at each other in that moment, an understanding passed between them, and Draco answered her questioning look with a silent nod. Obviously relieved, Ginny mimicked the gesture and finally released his hand to crawl back off the bed.

Upright once more, she looked around a little uncertainly and tucked her hair behind her ears. “I…uh, should probably be getting back. I just said I was going out to stretch my legs a minute, so they’re probably getting curious.” She smiled at him. “Happy Christmas, Draco.”

With a monumental effort, he managed to return her smile despite the slight ache left in his chest from their silent exchange, a regret he couldn’t dismiss so easily. “Happy Christmas, Ginny. And thank you.”

She showed one last small smile, and then disappeared down the ladder. Draco watched her go, wondering when — or if — she would finally be ready.

- - - - -

Pierce fisted his hands in the man’s shirt and slammed him against the wall. “You had to have seen her!” he shouted in his broken command of Italian. “You’re the last bloody person in the last bloody village!”

Shaking, the man stuttered, “I s-swear it! If I’d s-seen a w-woman that m-matched that description, I would t-tell you! Why w-would I lie?”

Pierce released the Italian disgustedly, whirling around to punch the café’s countertop. The man was right, he knew. He had no reason to lie, just like all the other villagers he’d already interrogated hadn’t. According to them, no one like Naomi had ever come down to this little town, nor any of the other surrounding villages.

So what happened to her?

Without a backward glance to the proprietor still cowering in the corner, Pierce turned and stormed out the door, nearly sending the thin wooden door swinging off its hinges as he bulled through. He walked until he was just out of sight of the townspeople before apparating back to his villa.

He stared at the terracotta-colored walls, the shingled roof and classic angles, and he tried to picture Naomi leaving it. He willed his mind to construct the truth, to envision her departure and the direction she might have gone, but it was a fruitless pursuit, and he shook his head and slammed through the back door into the kitchen.

He didn’t even bother with a glass as he snatched up a bottle of firewhiskey and tipped back a swallow big enough to make his eyes water and his throat burn on the first go.

He took the whiskey and threw himself on a sofa, flinging one arm over his eyes. The distinct crack of someone apparating out front forced its way through the oblivion Pierce sought, but other than an annoyed groan, he didn’t bother acknowledging the visitor.

The visitor, as it turned out, didn’t bother knocking either, but simply strolled right through the front door. Pierce sat up with an angry start at the sound of the intrusion, but relaxed when he saw the hooked nose and greasy mop of Severus Snape.

“Damn it, Sev!” he snarled. “Are you ever going to grasp the concept of knocking?”

The man showed the ghost of a smile as he helped himself to a chair. “I enjoy catching people unawares. It’s served me well all these years. I see no reason to change now.”

Pierce just glared and tilted back his head for another long swallow straight from the bottle.

Snape raised his eyebrows. “Does Christmas depress you that much?” he asked mildly.

“No, the world does that. Christmas just disrupts the natural flow of pain and agony.” He took another sip.

Snape eyed him critically. “So it’s one of those days, I see. Any particular reason you’re gulping down firewhiskey like its air?”

Pierce stared stubbornly ahead. Snape was the last person he would talk to about Naomi. The Potions Master would only gloat that he’d warned him about her.

At his silence, Snape sighed and pushed himself out of the chair, walking through the villa with his hands clasped behind his back. “It seems like ages since I’ve seen this place. How long ago did you get it?”

“Only about a year after graduating.” Pierce tipped back another swallow. “One of my tests. I went through more bloody tests for that Dark Lord of yours than I can count.”

Our Dark Lord. And it was his only way to be sure. You were — are — atypical of our lot. You know that.”

Pierce grunted, starting to feel that pleasantly fuzzy sensation in his head that told him the drink was taking effect. He took his next sip more carefully.

Snape wandered into the kitchen, opening random cabinet drawers and sweeping his black gaze over everything. “Certainly can’t say that the Dark Lord doesn’t reward good work. I wouldn’t mind a place like this.”

“What are you complaining about? He let you keep a mansion after you did in that one bloke. The one in the government.”

Snape nodded, finishing up his inspection of the kitchen. “Snape Estate. True, but a quaint villa would be a welcome retreat occasionally. Much nicer to summer in than Spinner’s End, I can assure you.”

Pierce watched him walk out of the kitchen and start going towards the bedroom, and suspicion broke through his dulled senses. “What are you doing here, Severus?”

“I can’t call on a friend on Christmas day?” Snape called over his shoulder.

“Since when do you celebrate Christmas?”

“Since when did my visiting bother you?”

Pierce got up and followed him into the bedroom. “It just seems a little…” he trailed off as Snape turned to him, one eyebrow raised and women’s lingerie in his hand.

“New look for you,” Snape drawled.

Pierce snatched them away. “They’re not mine, you wanker. I had…company.”

Snape pinched the bridge of his nose with a sigh. “Jon, please tell me those don’t belong to Naomi.”

Just hearing her name felt like a punch to the gut. “Fine. These do not belong to Naomi.” Pierce turned and jammed them into a drawer.

Jon…”

He whirled back. “What is so wrong with her? What is so terrible about me having something to look forward to?”

“Because it’s a false comfort!”

Pierce rolled his eyes. “Not this again. She’s not some bloody spy, Snape. You’re paranoid.”

Snape’s eyes narrowed. “Are you really sure about that?”

“Of course I’m sure,” he snapped.

“Then tell me,” Snape murmured, “where is she now, Jon?”

Pierce felt his fingers curl into fists, jaw clenching.

“Don’t know? How curious.”

“Something must have happened to her,” he gritted out.

Snape shook his head. “Would you wake up? She’s double-crossing you.”

“Why are you so damned bent on thinking that?”

“Jon.” Snape’s voice was quiet. “I know it.” He walked over to the window and looked out, hands held loosely behind his back. “I ran into her at Lucius’s.”

“You…ran into her…” It was taking an effort for his alcohol-fogged brain to process what the other man just said.

“She’s working for him, Jon. Has been all along.”

“No.” Pierce put the heel of his hand to his temple, giving his head a slow shake. “You’re wrong.”

Snape turned back. “Jon, I spoke with the woman. Lucius wants you to betray the Dark Lord, and he was using her to see that happen.”

He remembered one of the last conversations he’d had with her. They’re ruining your life, you know? Just leave. We’ll run away together. He felt sick. “When did you see her?” he demanded.

“A few days ago. The morning.”

Pierce had to sit down. He staggered over to the bed and eased down onto it. “Where is she now?” Snape was quiet for a very long time, only staring at Pierce through unreadable eyes. A frown tugged down his thin lips and made the lines in his face all the more prominent. Pierce’s fingers dug into the bedspread. “Damn it, answer me! Where is she now, Severus?!”

“I don’t know.” Snape’s voice barely rose above a whisper. “She ran, Jon. I tried to catch her, but….”

“She ran.” Pierce felt his insides turn to ice. Could it be true? No, it couldn’t. But Snape had seen her, the same time she had first gone missing. If she feared discovery, it only made sense that she would flee and not come back. What other explanation was there?

“Are you all right?” Snape asked, voice almost gentle for once.

“Sev?” Pierce lifted his hazel eyes up to the former professor’s, locking in his gaze. “Get the hell out of my house.”

Snape’s lips pressed tightly together for a moment. “Jon, I was only trying to help. I — ”

Get out!

Snape stared at him another second, then shook his head slowly. “One day you’ll thank me, Jon.” Then he turned and walked out of the room without another word. Seconds later Pierce heard the crack of his disapparating outside.

Jon eased himself down onto his back, eyes staring unseeing up at the ceiling. Had he really let himself be played so thoroughly? He remembered all the times he thought of how she could manipulate him with that voice of hers, and needle-like pains flared behind his eyes. And I still let her use me, even after recognizing that.

It was just sheer stupidity on his part, a selfish desire to feed some part of himself that he should have let starve until it died and could plague him no longer. His emotions, his heart, his soul, whatever it was, he should have let it wither away. Instead he let it rule him, and look at where it got him. A brief moment of happiness, and then all the pain of betrayal.

A man in love does stupid things, Jon, he reminded himself. And he had been in love with Naomi. Now, in the clarity of truth’s painful searing away of falsehoods, he realized that. His own clever trick, the one he planned to use against Draco, had been turned against him. And he let it, damn it. He let it because he let someone in. Snape had been right all along, damn the man. He was always right.

Pierce let his eyes slide shut, the calm of his face belying the torment ripping him apart. Never again, he promised himself. No one would make the fool of Jonathon Pierce ever again.

He swung his legs off the side of the bed all at once and stood up, feeling remarkably sober. Actually, for the first time in a long while, he felt like his old self. Strong, capable, clear-headed. Before, he swore to find a seat at Voldemort’s right hand, to attach himself to the man so thoroughly as to ensure his own security. That goal changed now. He’d been pushed too far, and he wouldn’t be satisfied with playing second best.

Pierce would kill Weasley as soon as they returned to school, and he would frame the Order for her death. It would take no effort at all to convince a grief-torn Draco of that, especially when he would already be looking for someone to blame. Just a simple explanation like Weasley knew too much, or was a weakness to Potter, and the Malfoy heir would be sprinting to take his Mark and avenge her. Voldemort would be pleased, which would get Pierce closer, and when he got close enough…Pierce would find a way to take the lunatic’s place completely.

Lord Pierce. He gave a slow, bitter smile. The title sounded much less ridiculous when his name followed it.

He looked around the bedroom, feeling impatience churning around inside him. He knew right away he would not be able to stay in this villa even another night, so despite the fact that it was early yet, he turned immediately and hauled out his luggage, shoving his things into it without regard to organization or wrinkles. In minutes he was packed, and after a quick sweep of the house to make sure he hadn’t missed anything, disapparated. He simply left Naomi’s things where they were. He would burn them later.

The gates of Hogwarts rose up before him, the grounds eerily quiet. He pushed inside, setting down his luggage and taking out his wand to levitate the heavy bags in front of him. He managed to avoid any contact with passersby as he descended to the dungeons, and once he was in his rooms, he promptly locked and warded the door.

The following days dragged by at a snail’s pace, setting Pierce’s nerves on edge. Never in his life had he wanted so badly to fast-forward time, but the more he wished for it, the slower it seemed to go. So he simply went through the motions of living, ordering his food from the kitchens, sleeping whether he felt tired or not, and forcing himself to only think of Naomi when he wanted to reinforce his will — even a passing thought of her filled him with enough cold rage to make him feel capable of anything.

After what felt like months, the wait finally ended, and the students returned. He was sitting at the Head Table with the rest of the professors when they flooded through the doors to the Great Hall for their supper. Their chatter expanded to fill the entire room, bouncing off the walls and having a nearly deafening effect on Pierce, who had spent the past days in near utter silence.

“Boisterous bunch, aren’t they?” McGonagall called over the ruckus.

Pierce summoned his familiar smile. “True, but honestly, what would we do without that noise?”

The Headmistress smiled. “You have a point.” Her sharp eyes swept across the room. “I have grown attached to them.”

Pierce nodded along, though he didn’t agree in the slightest. The color of Ginny Weasley’s fiery mane suddenly jumped into the corner of his vision, and he turned his head as quickly as he dared to find her. She sat with one of the Creevey boys, the older of the two. Her mouth smiled, but Pierce thought her eyes looked troubled.

Reflexively, Pierce started searching more intently for Draco. He shouldn’t be too surprised that the boy wasn’t with Weasley, given their House differences, but it still struck him as vaguely odd that they wouldn’t be together after having been apart all through the hols.

A quick scan of the Slytherin table turned up nothing, so he started going through each person in turn. Draco was not among them. By now all the students were seated at their respective tables, so there was no chance of him being anywhere else. Feeling the beginnings of panic, Pierce looked anyway. No Draco.

McGonagall was on her feet, arms out wide in a welcoming gesture as she spoke, but Pierce didn’t hear a word of it. Where could he be? Had he gone to the dormitories early? Were students allowed to do that upon returning? Pierce decided that must be it. What other explanation was there?

McGonagall sat, and the tables exploded with an array of food fit to make a king’s mouth water. Pierce hardly tasted any of it as he shoveled forkful after forkful into his mouth. He cleaned his plate in record time, excused himself with an easy smile, and slipped out of the Great Hall. He jogged the rest of the way to the dungeons.

The Slytherin common room looked ghostly, the usual student traffic having left it untouched through the hols. The fireplace mocked him, dead and cold, as did the perfectly fluffed sofas and armchairs. Draco obviously hadn’t stopped in this room.

Pierce continued on. He found Draco’s dormitory, and after knocking to no result, walked into the room uninvited. His stomach churned at the sight of the perfectly made beds, all with a trunk at the end…all except Draco’s. The foot of his bed remained empty, his trunk missing.

Pierce swore. What did it mean? How could Draco have just not come back? Where would he go? He had nowhere else. Come to think of it, where had he gone over the hols? Certainly not home to his father. By all rights, Lucius still wanted nothing to do with his son. Draco would have had to find someplace else, but where?

Pierce cursed again, kicking the doorframe. Why hadn’t he thought of that earlier? But he knew the answer. Naomi. The woman had blinded him to everything, to the truth of who she was, to this, to every shred of common sense he had.

He stomped back out of the dungeons, shoulders rigid, just as the students stared trickling out of the Great Hall. He watched them jostle by until he caught sight Ginny Weasley’s bright banner of hair. He sprinted over and grabbed her wrist, pulling her out of the stream.

She let out a surprised yelp, and when she twisted around to see who had her, the color drained from her face, making her chocolate eyes look even darker as they widened at him. “P-professor,” she stuttered. “I…uh, didn’t see you.” She glanced down at his arm then hastily away again.

Under normal circumstances Pierce might have paid closer attention to her odd behavior, but tonight he had more important things to worry about. “Hello, Miss Weasley.” He forced a charming smile, forced a calm, polite tone of voice. He couldn’t let her know anything was wrong. “How was your Christmas?”

She was eyeing him warily now, but that wasn’t surprising. He would be a little curious too if his professor randomly snatched him away for small talk. “It was good,” she said, stealing a quick look over her shoulder at the thinning line of students.

Pierce nodded. “Glad to hear it. It’s important that you children find time to relax.” When she only gave him an uncertain smile in response, he continued, “So, how about Mr. Malfoy’s vacation? Did he say if his went well? I actually haven’t seen him yet.”

Something flickered behind Weasley’s eyes, but it was gone so fast he couldn’t be sure if he’d just imagined it. She shrugged. “I’m not sure. I haven’t seen him since the train when we left.”

“You didn’t see him on the train coming back to the school?”

She shook her head. “No, but Pansy probably wanted to sit with him or something.” The girl made a face. “She’s been especially annoying about that lately.”

Well, that probably explained where Draco spent his hols, anyway. He might have considered staying with Weasley herself, but he couldn’t imagine her parents being very receptive. No, Parkinson would make more sense. But that still didn’t explain Draco’s absence now.

Pierce looked back to Weasley, who was shifting her weight back and forth, eyes constantly darting behind her. He gave an inward sigh. She hadn’t seen Draco, and she was obviously eager to get to her dormitory. “You may go, Miss Weasley. I just wanted to say hello.”

She smiled, though it seemed a tad forced as she backed away. “Thank you, Professor. Have a good night.” Then she turned, feet carrying her to the stairs in long strides.

As Pierce watched her retreat, it occurred to him that he couldn’t kill her now, not without knowing where Draco was. Lord only knew what trouble the boy had gotten himself into, and Weasley may very well come in useful when it came to getting him back.

Pierce stood alone in the Entrance Hall for a long time, indecision racking him, then he finally made up his mind to do what he never imagined he would do willingly: he decided to go see McGonagall.

He jogged to her office and muttered the password without announcing himself. He wasn’t in the mood for formalities tonight. He climbed up the winding stairs and found the woman seated behind her desk, spectacles perched on the tip of her nose as she peered at some document or another. Her eyes flashed up at his entrance, though her head didn’t move a muscle.

“Professor Pierce.” She straightened up, posture as severe as ever. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”

Pierce shot an uncomfortable glance at the rows of former Headmasters staring down at him. His gaze fell last on Dumbledore, dozing in his portrait at the moment, kindly face wrinkled and at peace in his slumber. At least I didn’t have anything to do with that mess, he told himself. He’d been in Germany at the time. He caught McGonagall pressing her lips together impatiently and turned his attention back to the matter at hand.

“Sorry to disturb you, Headmistress, but I seem to have a student missing.”

“The child’s probably wandering the halls, trying to impress his housemates by breaking curfew. I’m sure one of our prefects or a patrolling professor will turn the student up soon.”

Pierce shook his head. “No, it’s nothing like that.” He was very aware that he was still standing when manners dictated that he sit, but the thoughts of settling down beneath the watching judgment of all those dead men in their paintings made his skin crawl. “The student never even returned on the train.”

McGonagall reached up to remove her spectacles and released a small sigh. “Draco Malfoy, yes.”

Pierce blinked. “You know?”

One corner of her mouth twisted in something that resembled a smile. “Of course I know, Professor. They are my students. It is my responsibility to know.”

“So what are you going to do about it?”

McGonagall returned her glasses to perch on her long straight nose, picking up the parchment again. “Absolutely nothing.”

Nothing?”

Her cutting stare settled on him from above her spectacles. “Professor, it is not my responsibility to ensure that every student who is accepted attends this school. That is solely up to the child in question, or their parents. A student only becomes my responsibility when he steps on that train. If he never boards,” she raised her eyebrows, “well, then he never becomes my concern.”

Pierce felt his temper threatening to overpower him and had to clasp his hands behind his back, pinching the soft inside of his wrist to keep calm. “But he attended the first half of the year. That must count for something.”

“If he chose not to return, then no, it does not.”

“He could have gotten into trouble!”

McGonagall’s smile came out sour. “I’ve no doubt of that, Professor.”

Pierce was sorely tempted to send a good strong Cruciatus her way. “Then why are you ignoring this?”

She finally put down her parchment again, flattening her hands atop it with her fingers spread wide. “Let me put it to you this way, Professor Pierce. Draco Malfoy has been a thorn in my side from the moment he stepped onto these grounds seven years ago. He has since only proved himself to be an abomination of a human being, and if it weren’t for the Ministry of Magic ordering it, I never would have let him near school grounds again after what happened last year. As far as I’m concerned, Draco Malfoy’s absence is the best thing that’s happened to this school since Dumbledore’s murder.” Then she resumed her examination of her parchment, a clear dismissal.

Pierce stood there seething for several minutes before he could bring himself to speak calmly. “And if he’s absent against his will? If he’s hurt?”

McGonagall lowered the parchment, slowly placing the full weight of her gaze on him. “As far as I’m concerned? All the better.”

Pierce stared in open disbelief at her bluntness, and this time when she refocused her attention on the documents, he knew better than to try again. Without a single word of farewell, he spun on his heel and strode out of the room, away from all those former Headmasters and their watching eyes, away from Minerva McGonagall’s apathy…and towards panic. Because he knew that if he couldn’t find Draco, his mission failed in the worst possible way.

And Voldemort did not deal kindly with failures.
Watching by Hearts Cadence
A/N – IMPORTANT (meaning, not my usual ramblings and excuses lol). Two things:

1) A lot of people have expressed concern over Draco’s whereabouts, but actually, that’s already been covered. In case you forgot, in ch. 24 right before the kiss Draco and Ginny decide he’ll hang out in the abandoned shack I first introduced in ch. 12 (NOT the shrieking shack). Might not hurt to do a quick re-read of that.

2) A few people think that McGonagall was too harsh last chapter. I admit she was a little vicious, but keep in mind two things. First, she loved Dumbledore very much (not necessarily romantically, but certainly platonically), and Draco brought about his murder. Think of someone that means everything to you. Got it? Okay, that person was murdered, and the killer got off. Regardless of usual behavior, don’t you think you would be a little less than gracious too? Finally, she hasn’t seen the slightly more moral Draco presented in this fic, so she still maintains the image of him as a vile brat who craves his Dark Lord’s approval. I think all that constitutes grounds for a certain degree of uncharacteristic hatefulness, personally. But then…I’m also biased, being the one who wrote it and all haha.

ANYWHO just wanted to clear up the confusion with number 1 and defend myself a bit there with number 2 lol. On to the story!

- - - - -

Chapter 26 — Watching

Ginny could still hear her heart thudding in her ears even after Pierce was well behind her, and no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t swallow down the lump in her throat. She couldn’t decide whether or not Pierce believed her or not, but judging from the near wild look in his eye and his distracted manner, she didn’t think so. Was he that upset over Draco’s absence?

The corridor stretched before her like a void, the soft slap of her shoes the only disruption to the emptiness. It made her feel very small, and she found herself wishing Draco wasn’t so far away, holed up in some hut on the outskirts of Hogsmeade. She felt safer with him around, even though she would have committed herself to St. Mungo’s just a few months ago for thinking that.

She felt an uncomfortable, prickly feeling at the back of her neck; her shoulders instantly tensed, but she forced her feet to keep moving. Only half the wall sconces were lit this late, creating large gaps of darkness between them. She walked faster through those spots. Stupid little girl, she scolded herself. Quit letting your imagination get to you. It was just the close encounter with Pierce. It had her all on edge.

Then a shadow detached itself from the wall, fast and fluid as a dancer. Ginny would have screamed had the shadow not shot out a hand and covered her mouth, reducing the sound to a muffled gurgle as the shadow’s other arm wound around her waist, trapping her.

Her eyes were open so wide it felt like they would fall out of her head, but when her captor inched them both closer to another torch, she recognized the shadow as Theodore Nott. Her eyes narrowed to slits.

“Know me now, then?” he asked softly. She couldn’t answer with his hand still clamped across her mouth, so she only glared. “Good,” he said anyway. “Don’t scream.” She thought he was probably the only Slytherin who wouldn’t follow that command with a threat. But when he removed his hand, she didn’t scream.

“What are you doing up here?” she hissed instead, pushing him away from her as his arm unwound from her waist. “Shouldn’t you be a few floors down in your snake nest?”

Nott treated her to his favorite half-smile, part mocking, part amused…and always part dangerous. “I feel I should remind you that your boyfriend comes from that snake nest, too.”

She felt her cheeks heat up. “He’s not my boyfriend.”

“You’re kidding. Still? I would have thought you could have seduced him by now, especially after having him all to yourself over the hols.”

Ginny felt the blush spread down to her neck and folded her arms over her chest, her jaw tightening. The kiss flashed through her mind, but she forced it down. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

His expression turned amused. “Oh, well, that explains it, then. You see, seducing is what one does when — ”

“Not that, you complete arse,” she snapped. “About the hols. I haven’t seen him since the train ride out.” Merlin, she knew there would be questions, but two attacks on her first night back? And by two Death Eaters, nonetheless. Despite all her bravado towards Nott, she could feel her stomach churning.

“Weasley,” he said in a sigh, “I’ve spent the past week and a half listening to Parkinson harp on and on about poor missing Malfoy, and how that dirty old Order must have kidnapped him because they realized the greatest heir to the Dark Lord’s throne, her betrothed, though I’m quite sure Malfoy has no idea about that last, was planning on claiming his rightful place again.” He rolled his eyes, the tenseness in his usually relaxed posture emanating waves of annoyance. “So please, spare me the denials. He ran away with you to avoid the Mark. I know he never truly changed his mind.”

Ginny straightened out her robes to buy herself time, mind racing, but when her clothes were all perfectly in order, she still had no brilliant comeback. So she settled with flippancy. “Think what you want. I’m too tired to care. You can keep your barmy notions, just as long as you let me go to bed.”

Nott never blinked, eyes roaming her from head to foot. Ginny had the uncomfortable sensation of standing in front of him starkers. “I don’t know what it is about you,” he remarked. “You are attractive, but the school’s filled with girls a great deal prettier than you.” Before an affronted Ginny could react to the insult, he continued, “And pure blood or no, you’re still a blood traitor. I suppose you’ve got spirit, but that just doesn’t seem enough.” He sighed. “I suppose it doesn’t matter why. Just that it is.”

Now what are you on about?” Ginny had a feeling she was playing right into his hands, but she couldn’t beat down her curiosity either. “That what is?”

Nott’s half-smile came slower this time, secretly pleased. “Why, that he’s in love with you.”

It felt like a horse kicked her in the gut, but she remembered to at least try and keep her face a mask. She wasn’t sure that she succeeded, and wished she could master the trick as well as all the Slytherins she knew seemed able. Well, except Pansy. That girl was just hopeless all around. “Do you even hear yourself?” She gave a derisive laugh, though it sounded forced even to her ears. “He’s not in love with me!”

“Oh, I assure you that he is, my darling Weasley. There’s no other reason for him to risk his life, and even more dangerous, to risk the attentions of Parkinson again. He’s a rather selfish git, you see.”

“He’s not in love with me,” Ginny snapped again.

“Mmm. Compelling argument as that is, I’ll still have to disagree.” He slipped his hands into his pockets, tilting his head at her. “I’m just curious, though, do you really believe that, or is all the denial simply for my benefit? Because his feelings are embarrassingly obvious, so if you still don’t see it…well, it’s a bit pathetic, really.”

Ginny only glared at him, not giving him the satisfaction of a response, but somewhere in the back of her mind, a niggling doubt started to crack her resolve. The idea of him loving her was utterly ridiculous…but the way he’d kissed her….

She closed her eyes, remembering. In the blackness behind closed lids, she heard Nott’s amused voice murmur, “Or, I suppose the bigger question: does my darling Weasley love him back?”

Ginny’s eyes flew open, heart pounding. Her fingers balled into fists. “I’ve just about had it with you! Get out of my way before I move you out of the way!” She shouldered past him roughly, but she needn’t have. He didn’t put up any resistance.

His taunting laughter followed her down the hall, though, and he called, “I think that answers that!”

She ignored him, but the jeer still rang in her mind long after she’d slammed into her dormitory. She couldn’t love him. It was bad enough she no longer felt that way for Harry; she couldn’t betray him so completely as to give those feelings to one of the people he hated most in the world. She wasn’t that cruel.

And besides, it didn’t matter, because this was Malfoy and she didn’t love him. She didn’t even think she knew what love was. She’d had fuzzy feelings for other boys, most of all for Harry, but if that was all love ever amounted to…well, it fell a bit short of all the songs. Even with Harry it was never as spectacular as everyone made it out to be.

But Draco’s kiss was pretty spectacular… she couldn’t help but think guiltily. Every time she remembered it her toes curled. But that didn’t necessarily mean love or even fuzzy feelings. Draco must be a good kisser, that was all. She didn’t want to mistake love with lust.

But that still doesn’t explain why I kissed him in the first place. The decision to do that certainly hadn’t been lust. She had no idea about his kissing abilities then. Why did she do it? She had been racking her brain every single day since she did it, but she could find no answer. She’d just…done it. And honestly, she couldn’t say that she regretted it. At least, not now that she knew things wouldn’t be awkward. Draco seemed to understand her desire to just forget it ever happened.

But all of this was stupid to worry about anyway because he didn’t love her! She yanked her covers over her head, biting back a scream. So he kissed her back. Big deal. He was a healthy male with all the hormones inherent in that condition, and she was a female practically throwing herself at him like some common scarlet woman. Of course he would react that way. It was only instinct.

Ginny fell asleep without ever resolving anything, and not even her slumber could lend her any respite.

In her dream, she was back in the treehouse. Draco was there, sitting on the bed with his back propped against the wall. The smell of tree sap and newly blooming wild flowers filled her nostrils, and when she glanced outside, she saw the branches bursting with fat green leaves, the sky a brilliant blue backdrop for a blinding sun.

It was beautiful, but uncomfortably hot. She glanced down and realized she was still wearing her winter robes. Confused, she slipped them from her shoulders and let them fall to the ground. She could see Draco watching her every move like a hawk, clear gray eyes never blinking. In the bright sunshine pouring through the windows and the cracks in the wood, his eyes looked even paler than usual, almost surreal.

When the robes hit the floor she gave a little sigh of relief, then glanced down and squeaked when she realized all she wore underneath was a bathing suit. She bent to scoop up her robes again, but in the blink of an eye Draco was beside her, holding her wrist.

“Don’t,” he said. His strangely pale eyes locked on hers, then meandered over the rest of her. He leaned forward until his lips were against her ear. “You’re beautiful,” he whispered.

She felt a shiver from the crown of her head to the tips of her toes. “What are you doing?”

He pulled away with a smirk, but a kind one. Affectionate, even. “I’m looking. I’m appreciating.”

She swallowed. “But…why am I in this?” She looked down at her attire.

“Don’t ask me. I voted to go skinny-dipping. The bathing suits were your idea.”

“What? But…we don’t have a lake.”

He raised an eyebrow. His hands slid down her arms, rested on her waist, and Ginny’s breath caught as her mind frantically tried to decide if she should stop him or not, but he only steered her towards the window. He pointed with one hand, keeping the other on her waist. “Then what do you call that?”

Ginny’s forehead wrinkled in confusion. Just outside the window, a huge lake glittered in the sunlight, soft ripples disturbing the surface as the occasional breeze swept over it. Had that always been there? She couldn’t remember…

Draco’s lips were on her neck. She gasped, but he only chuckled, sliding his palm around to her stomach to press her back into his chest. His lips brushed along her jaw, her ear.

“What are you doing?” She sounded breathless, but she couldn’t help it. She barely noticed the way her fingers dug into his arm for support.

His breath was hot in her ear when he whispered, “Why do you keep asking me that, when it’s perfectly obvious what I’m doing?”

She twisted around in his grip, eyes searching his face. “I don’t understand.”

He smiled a little mockingly, but still warmly. He ran a hand through her hair and brushed the very tips of his fingers down her spine until his hand rested at the small of her back. “Ginny,” he murmured. “I’m loving you.”

Ginny woke with a gasp just before she fell out of the bed. She groaned, rolling up into a sitting position. The blankets tangled around her feet on the floor, leaving the rest of her exposed to the icy winter air, but sweat made her pajamas stick anyway. She lifted her hair off her neck and leaned against the side of the bed.

“Shite,” she muttered.

“All right there, Ginny?” she heard one of the other girls — Audrey Hamilton, it sounded like — call.

“Yeah.” She kicked off the blanket and crawled back onto her bed. “Just a dream.”

Audrey wandered out of the loo, combing her hair. “Must’ve been one heck of a dream to knock you right out of bed.” She grinned.

“Yeah…one heck of a dream….”

Audrey gave her a strange look, then shrugged and warned, “I wouldn’t get too comfortable. You’ll want to start getting ready if you don’t want to miss breakfast. They’re having Belgian waffles today!” She grinned again and bounced back into the bathroom.

Ginny watched her go, then fell back heavily onto the mattress. She took her pillow and covered her face with it, trying unsuccessfully to forget the feel of Draco’s touch. Would he ever really touch her like that, look at her like that…say those things? Did she want to find out?

Throwing her pillow on the ground with the blankets, she scooted off the bed and padded into the bathroom. When she reemerged, everyone else was already gone and her bed was still a wreck. She decided to fix it later.

When she walked into the Great Hall, she automatically looked to the Slytherin table for Draco. She glanced away when she caught herself. Merlin, had he really become such a central part of her life that quickly? She sat with her back to the Slytherin table.

The waffles were stacked on a plate in front of her, so she speared one with her fork and plopped it onto her plate. She was reaching for the maple syrup when she felt eyes burning into her back. She paused, slowly lowering her hand and waiting for the feeling to go away. It didn’t. She twisted around, gaze flicking over the other students until it fell on the Slytherin table and Nott.

He never so much as blinked, not even when she boldly met his gaze. He offered her his damnable half-smile instead. Ginny frowned and turned her back to him with a toss of her hair, promptly drenching her waffle in syrup. She cut off a small bite and chewed it slowly, refusing to let him see her squirm. She sat there and ate the whole thing that way, but every second of it she wanted to jump up and scrub at her crawling skin.

After she swallowed down her last bite and drank her final sip of milk, she realized she couldn’t follow her plans anymore. She’d intended to grab a waffle to bring Draco, figuring if she wrapped it up with a cooling charm it would keep all right, but she couldn’t very well do that now with Nott staring a hole through her back. She knew better than to underestimate the Slytherin, and he would doubtless catch on quick if she started nicking extra food.

Annoyed, she shoved away from the table and made a point of walking leisurely out of the room, not giving Nott even the small satisfaction of sparing him a passing glance. But she could still feel his eyes following her all the way through the door.

That night she crept down to the kitchens and coaxed Dobby into giving her portions from the day’s meals. The next night found her doing the same, Nott’s ever-watching gaze rarely seeming to shift away from her anymore. It kept up all week, and soon it became habit to ignore the creepy-crawly feel of Nott’s analyzing by day and to sneak down to the kitchens by night.

“It’s getting out of hand, Draco!” she cried when she visited him for the first time that weekend.

He was tearing into his food, the small supply Ginny had managed to filch from home having run out a day too soon, but now he stopped with concern showing in his eyes. “Has he tried talking to you again since that first night?” he demanded.

Ginny collapsed into the chair across from Draco, a week’s worth of food piled on the tiny, rickety old table between them. “No. He just…stares. And stares, and stares.” She rubbed her arms. “It’s disturbing.”

“He’s trying to intimidate you.” Draco ducked his head down until he was in her line of vision, catching and holding her eyes. “Don’t try and approach him, understand? That’s what he wants. You’ll just be playing right into his hands.”

Ginny looked away. “But I don’t know if I can take it much longer, Draco…”

“You can. You will.”

She looked back at him, but could only keep eye contact for a few seconds before she felt her cheeks heat up and had to shift her gaze away. Every time she looked at him she remembered the dream, and it was all she could do to keep from fidgeting.

“Right, Ginny?” he prompted.

“Right,” she agreed reluctantly.

Draco sighed, leaning his elbows on the table and running both hands through his hair. It was clean thanks to the daily charms he cast on himself for the purpose, but not even magic could completely replace the benefits of a good shower, and the blond sheen was starting to lose its luster.

By contrast, the one-room hut showed enormous improvement. Draco kept the curtains drawn for caution’s sake, but even in the dim light the shack fair sparkled with nary a speck of dust in sight. Ginny knew that Draco had little else to do with his time but tidy up and think. She didn’t know if she could stand that without going nutters.

“I just wish I knew what that bastard’s angle is,” Draco groused. “There must be something he’s looking to gain. He’s just always been so quiet, not the ambitious type at all. Of all the sneaky good-for-nothings in that house, I never dreamed I would have to worry about him.”

“People have a way of surprising you sometimes,” Ginny pointed out quietly, letting their eyes meet for a heartbeat. She swallowed and glanced away, tracing the whirls in the wood of the tabletop. “Uh…Nott, he um, he said that Pansy doesn’t suspect any betrayal on your part. She thinks the Order found out you were ‘claiming your rightful place’ or whatever, and that they kidnapped you because of it.”

“I figured she would think something like that. She wants it to be true so bad she’ll convince herself of anything.”

“She thinks you two are engaged.” Ginny watched his reaction from beneath her eyelashes.

Draco’s nose wrinkled up. “Oh, Lord.” He looked at the plate of bread and cold chicken in front of him. “I think I just lost my appetite.”

Ginny felt oddly smug at that, then berated herself for it. If she started getting jealous of Pansy Parkinson, then she knew she was in trouble. “I don’t think Pierce suspects anything, at least,” Ginny offered, trying to give him some good news. “I already told you how he asked about you, but he seemed so worked up over it that he didn’t even question what I said. At least, I don’t think.”

Draco nodded. “That’s good. Just don’t get too comfortable with him. That one’s Slytherin to the core, and more dangerous than Nott ever will be. At least with Nott you know when he’s up to something.”

“Yes, Mum.”

Draco reached out and covered her hand, instantly spiking Ginny’s pulse. She looked up, startled, and got caught in Draco’s stare. He wasn’t smiling. “I’m serious,” he told her. “These aren’t the type to mess around with. If I could somehow help…”

Ginny pulled her hand free before he made her heart gallop right out of her chest. He frowned slightly, a strange expression crossing his face, but he hid it before she could decipher it. Hesitating a second, she dismissed the look and scolded, “Don’t be ridiculous. You put yourself in danger for me before. Now it’s my turn. Trust me, all right? I can handle myself.”

“Just promise me you won’t underestimate anyone. Not even Pansy. She’s clueless most of the time, but she’s vicious too, and much as I hate to admit it, she has an edge sometimes. And she absolutely hates you.”

“I know, I know.” Ginny looked at the failing light filtering through the drapes. “I should probably get back.”

He nodded, scooting back his chair and standing to hold his hand out to her.

She hesitantly accepted his help and let him pull her up. They stood there for a minute staring at each other, less than half an arm’s length away with their joined hands between them. “When did you turn into such a gentleman?” she kidded to break the tension. “I remember a day when you would have just grunted towards the door.”

Draco dropped her hand and lifted his chin. “Malfoy’s do not grunt.”

She laughed. “I see none of this has hurt your ego any. It’s a miracle you can fit that monster in this place.”

He went and sat gingerly behind the table again, buttering a slice of bread. Never looking away from his task, he said, “Door’s right there. Do feel free to use it.”

Ginny grinned. “Now there’s the Draco I know and love.” She stopped short, realizing what she just said, then scolded herself for being so ridiculous. It was just a saying, for heaven’s sake. How paranoid could she get? “I’ll be back next week with more food.”

“Hey, Ginny.” She stopped and looked back at him. He seemed to fumble with words a moment, then he mumbled, “Thanks. For the food…and dealing with all those lunatics in my House.”

“I’m only returning the favor, Draco.”

“Still. And remember not to underestimate them.”

“I’ll remember.”

“Promise?”

“Swear.”

He studied her a moment, then nodded. “It’s getting dark. Better head out.”

Ginny bid him a final goodbye and slipped out the door where the dusk swallowed her up. The last of the sun’s glow spilled across the village, all shades of orange and pink and purple, and in that moment, Ginny wondered how a world of such beauty could be corrupted by people so ugly at heart.

Shaking her head at the folly of it all, she looked around to make sure no one was watching, then snuck from shack to shack until she reached the more populated parts of Hogsmeade and could melt into the crowd. She reached Hogwarts without incident, but it was getting dangerously late, so as soon as she caught sight of the castle she broke into a jog.

The physical exertion felt good, and it reminded her that she missed her run this morning, being so frazzled over having to sneak into Hogsmeade later. She decided to keep going even after she reached the steps, which she realized probably wasn’t the most brilliant idea when she slammed right into someone leaving the castle. Her heart stopped for a second when she looked up into familiar hazel eyes.

“Professor Pierce!” She scrambled for something to say, and finally settled on, “I’m so sorry. I didn’t see you.” She wasn’t sorry at all. In fact, the way he was rubbing his gut where one of her elbows had connected made her feel rather good.

“Not a problem, Miss Weasley,” he said, still wincing slightly. “Just next time try walking.”

“Right, sorry. I’ll keep that in mind.” She tried to slip past him, but he caught her elbow as she went by.

“Where were you coming back from in such a rush?”

He asked it mildly enough, and his unsuspecting face with its exaggerated features revealed nothing, but Ginny still felt her lungs constrict. Did he guess something? It was impossible to tell with him, as Draco was always drilling into her head.

“Flying practice,” she lied. “I’ve got some things on my mind, and flying always helps me forget everything…but I guess I let myself forget too much. I didn’t realize how late it was getting.” Let him believe I’m worried about Draco. Please let him believe that.

As if in answer to her silent prayer, he asked, “Still no word from Draco, then?” His eyes showed sympathy that Ginny didn’t believe for a second.

“No.” Ginny looked away, wishing that she could cry on cue. She couldn’t, though, so she gave a little sniff and bent her head so that her hair fell as a barrier between the two of them. She could at least make it look like she was crying.

She felt Pierce’s hand rest on her shoulder, and it was all she could do not to slap it away like a bug. “We’ll find him, all right?”

She nodded, wishing he would just stop touching her. It wasn’t so long ago that she couldn’t help but adore this man, but now, knowing the truth, everything about him felt like slime and filth. Especially his easy, completely fake smile.

“You and I, we’ll work together,” he promised, giving her shoulder a light squeeze. Ginny forced herself not to squirm away. “If I hear anything I’ll come to you before anyone else. And you’ll do the same for me, right?”

Not even if you held a wand to my head. Ginny gave another little sniff and a tiny nod, keeping her hair in front of her face.

Pierce gave her shoulder one last squeeze, then finally let go. Ginny exhaled quietly. “Goodbye, Miss Weasley. Good luck getting some sleep.”

“Yes, sir,” she murmured in a small voice. She watched him turn and walk away, her mouth instantly dropping into a scowl when he did. Night had pretty much won the battle over dusk by now, transforming the world into a midnight blue sea just barely tinted with pink. She watched the land’s beauty envelop the equally handsome Jonathan Pierce, and she thought it was like he had tricked nature itself into accepting him and his easy charm.

- - - - -

Draco stared at his meticulously portioned piles of food. Seven of them, enough for one week until Ginny could come back with more. He wondered how long he would have to live like this, measuring the time by the number of meals he had stored up, just existing from week to week. The thought depressed him.

He gazed about his new home, a sour smile curling his lips. From a Manor to a one-room shack. Oh, how the mighty have fallen. But it was freedom, and that was something his Manor had never afforded him. It didn’t matter how big a place was when a man like Lucius Malfoy lorded over it.

He tapped his fingers on the tabletop. He’d already organized his food, and the stupid hut shone from all the times he’d scoured it with wand and old fashioned elbow grease alike, the latter simply because it took longer. All that remained was to think, and he was getting bloody well sick of thinking.

Mostly, he thought of Ginny. He mused on the irony of going from having no relations with the girl, feeling only distaste for her when she did happen to cross his mind, to her being his only source of human contact. And, of course, that little matter of being in love with her. Couldn’t forget that. He shook his head. Oh, hell, he was going mad. The fates, he decided, definitely had a sense of humor. A sick, perverted one, but there nevertheless.

He still didn’t know what to make of what she was feeling, though, and today’s visit had him more flummoxed than ever. She barely ever made eye-contact, and when she did, she looked away so fast he was tempted to ask if it gave her whiplash. And the one time he’d touched her hand, she’d yanked away like he burned her. Did she detest him now for some reason? What could he have done when he never even saw her all week? It made absolutely no sense.

But since when did anything make sense with her?

He had to stop brooding over this. It was turning into a habit, and he wanted to break it right now. He got to his feet, pacing restlessly. He walked to the windows and pulled back the curtains just enough to peek out, but all he saw was a great pool of black, so he let them fall shut again in disgust.

He started practicing old fencing lessons. His father made him take them as a child, but he hated every second of it. He wasn’t anymore fond of the sport now, but if he didn’t want to lose his mind and have his body deteriorating to the point of muscles like a twelve-year-old girl, he needed to do something physical.

Wielding an imaginary foil, he thrust and parried, danced back and lunged around the room. After awhile he could feel a fine sheen of sweat break out along his hairline, and smiling grimly, he only picked up the tempo. Miming a particularly brutal stab, he lunged forward, falling heavily on his right leg.

He heard a hollow thump.

Draco froze, looking down at the wooden floor. Thinking maybe he’d misheard in the heat of the moment he stomped again, but there was no mistaking that sound. The spot was hollow.

Casting about for something to mark the spot, his eyes fell on an orange sitting on the edge of the table. Careful not to move his foot, he stretched his whole body to reach for it, but the tips of his fingers only just touched. Frowning, he steadied himself, then used his fingertips to flick the orange in his direction. It fell from the table, and quick as the blink of an eye, he snatched it out of the air before it fell beyond reach.

Wearing a smug smile, he replaced his foot with it, then stepped back. He started stomping around the rest of the room, but just as he’d thought, it only gave off the dead thud of solid ground underneath thin wood planks. Just that one spot was hollow. He went back and knelt in front of the orange, rolling the fruit out of the way. It was too dark to see well, so he muttered a Lumos charm and bent down closer, squinting as he moved his wand slowly over the area.

He paused at a spot above his knee, bending down even closer. Sure enough, there was just a hairline seam in the wood. It could easily have just been a crack, a sign of old age, but Draco doubted it. He inserted the tip of his wand into the fault and wiggled it around, using it as a lever to try and pry up the plank. It was stuck firmly in place, though, and Draco was afraid to put anymore pressure on it in case it broke his wand.

Annoyed, he sat back and stared at it a second. Then he remembered the silverware Ginny had brought him. Rolling the orange back into place, he climbed to his feet and scooped a butter knife off the table. He returned to the seam, jammed in the knife, and heaved.

With a groan and a puff of dust, the plank shifted and dropped down about an inch. He gave it an experimental wiggle, and it grated forward. He pushed harder on the second go, and this time the plank slid underneath the plank in front of it. Feeling a flush of triumph, Draco fumbled around for his wand and held the lighted tip down to see what he’d found.

It was nothing fancy, just a clumsily dug hole in the clay-like earth, but it wasn’t empty, either. Two full bottles of Ogden’s Old Firewhiskey sat side by side beneath a fine coating of dust. He laid his wand aside and lifted them out, smirking. Some peasant wanted to hide a vice from the rest of the family, obviously. He set them aside, and when he looked down again, he found more.

A leather bound book, brown, battered, and stained, had been serving as a pillow to the bottles of firewhiskey. Draco picked it up and sat back to prop it on his lap. When he opened it up he found a quill stuck inside and a page filled with an uneven scrawl. Draco took a few minutes to read, but it was incredibly dull stuff, just some housewife’s diary. He flipped through the pages, but whenever he stopped to skim through, he found nothing more interesting than on the first one. Whoever she’d been, she only filled up about a third of the book, though.

Draco found an inkwell down in the hole too, still sealed and miraculously not dried up, but nothing else. He slid the plank back into place, then carried his boon back over to the table. He sat down and twirled the quill around in his fingers, head cocked at the old journal. Too bad he hated writing. I might have composed love poems for Ginny, he thought sarcastically, smiling wryly to himself. Wouldn’t that just be the ultimate?

He leaned forward on one elbow, resting his head in his hand. He wanted to do something with the book though. He found it; he might as well use it. It wasn’t as if he had anything better to do. Flipping to a blank page and opening up the inkwell, Draco dipped in the quill and scratched a random line. From that he flicked out another stroke, and so on until somehow, he ended up with a rough sketch of his old room back at the Manor. He sat back to admire his handy work. It wasn’t that terrible, actually.

His eyes started feeling buggy so he set the book aside for now, deciding that he might do some more drawings like that tomorrow. His bleary gaze came to rest on the bottles of firewhiskey. He didn’t necessarily have any plans for those just yet, but they might not be so bad to keep around either. Just to be on the safe side. Better drunk than insane, he told himself.
To Cross the Line by Hearts Cadence
Chapter 27 — To Cross the Line

Ginny sat alone in her booth at the Three Broomsticks with her back against the wall as she sipped at a butterbeer. Students swarmed the place, and Madam Rosmerta looked like she was having quite the time just keeping her head above water but was still managing somehow. Of course, the woman had years of experience dealing with school trips to Hogsmeade. Ginny just wouldn’t have wanted to be her the first time it happened.

She glanced at a clock above the bar and saw it was just a little past lunch. She had been here about two hours, never staying in the same place for long, always moving and always trying to find the most inconspicuous places to hole up in when she did stop. It had been almost a week since her last delivery to Draco, but Nott still seemed to stalk her. Sometimes she wondered if he really was part snake; she’d once heard snakes didn’t have to blink.

In any case, it was starting to push Ginny to her limits, and without anyone to vent to, she feared for her sanity. That’s why when she heard the surprise Hogsmeade visit announced (the professors had stopped publicly scheduling them in an effort to keep students safer from Death Eater plots and the like. Some wanted to terminate them all together, but McGonagall insisted on the importance of normalcy in times like these), she’d grabbed on to the opportunity to see Draco before the weekend.

She hadn’t counted on the prickly feeling of being watched to follow her all the way into the village, though, and Ginny would be damned if she led anyone to Draco after all this work keeping him hidden. She still desperately wanted to speak with him though, so she had been playing this duck and hide game all day.

For all she knew it might just be paranoia. After living under someone’s scrutiny for so long, Ginny suspected that the feeling of being watched was just ingrained in her now. She didn’t even think Nott came on these trips, so it was more than likely all in her head. But it never hurt anyone to err on the side of caution, so she’d played the game. Now, holed up in her corner, she felt a little more secure, the prickly feeling having faded some. She decided now was the time to take her chance, while the inn was still packed to capacity.

Setting down her drink, she flipped up her hood to hide her tell-tale Weasley-red hair and slipped into the masses, winding through them casually to avoid drawing attention. She made it outside into the bright sunshine and still freezing air without picking up the stalked feeling again, so glancing around quickly for eyes, she started off.

Even feeling more secure, she didn’t dare take a direct route to him. She wound around out of her way, weaving randomly in an out between houses and establishments until about a half hour later she ended up at Draco’s hut, coming from round the back. She leaned against it like she was taking a rest, all the time eyes searching every nook and cranny she could spot for signs of pursuers. She couldn’t detect anything amiss, though, so she turned and gave the door a soft tap.

For several seconds no response came, and Ginny felt a stab of fear, but then she heard a chair scrape across the wood floor and moments later, the door opened. The Draco standing in the doorway looked a mess. His hair went every which way, his body swaying slightly even with one hand clutched on the door, and he peered at her through overly bright eyes.

“Draco…? Are you okay? Did something happen?”

His eyebrows came together as if in concentration. “You’re early,” he concluded, louder than was probably smart.

Ginny blinked, then understanding dawned. “You’re drunk.” It occurred to her she’d been standing outside too long and pushed past him into the shack. She spun on him with her hands on her hips. “Where did you get alcohol from?”

He scowled and shut the door. Then he walked over to the bed and promptly collapsed onto his back. “Found it,” he mumbled.

“You found it? Here?”

“Mmmm. In the floor.”

Ginny massaged her temples. Just perfect. He was drunk and talking nonsense. “Draco, why are you drunk?”

He sat up suddenly, eyes even brighter than before and his mood suddenly angry. “Have you ever tried living all alone in a bloody shack?”

Ginny crossed her arms. “So your solution is getting so drunk you’ll probably do something stupid and give everything away? Is that your plan?”

He smirked. “Just the first part.”

She shook her head. “Oh, my sweet Merlin. I can’t believe this…”

“Oh, don’t start with your greater-than-thou shite. You’d do the same if someone shoved you in a bloody cell.”

“This was your idea! I told you it was mad!”

“My idea,” he agreed. “But you’re the reason.”

Ginny stared at him for a long time in shocked silence. Her face probably glowed red with anger, but she didn’t care. She had to grit her teeth when she said, “How dare you say that to me. You know how terrible I feel, and I never once asked you for anything.”

He gazed at her for such a long time Ginny took an unconscious step backwards, physically pushed back by the weight of it. Then he stood up and walked over with slow, measured steps. Something glinted in his eyes, and she didn’t realize she’d been retreating until her back hit the wall. He stopped so close she had to lift her head to see him.

“But you did,” he mumbled, brushing back a strand of her hair. “With those beautiful dark eyes and that damned naïve smile, you begged me to help.”

Ginny’s temper helped her forgot her misgivings for a second. She snapped, “I never — ”

He pressed a finger over her lips. “When you looked at me like I wasn’t either a monster or a bag of Galleons, you were getting down on you knees and asking me to defend you. When you made me feel again, you demanded it.” He smiled ironically. “And the whole bloody time you were clueless about it.”

She couldn’t decide if he was speaking poetry to her, or if his words were only the ramblings of a drunkard. “You’re not making any sense.”

He didn’t seem to hear her. He outlined one side of her face with his fingertip, dragging it down her throat, over her collar bone, across her shoulder, eyes following the motion with intimidating intensity. “And I couldn’t say no,” he whispered. “Lord knows I tried, but I was just too weak, and you were too, too strong…”

Ginny could hear her heart thudding in her ears, her hands shaking. She took a deep breath and finally gathered enough of her wits back to snatch his hand, still stroking lightly at her arm. Holding it away, she forced eye-contact, making sure he heard her this time. “Draco, why don’t you just stop and think a minute about what you’re saying, and then — ”

“No,” he growled, and so fast she had no idea how he did it, he turned their grip around so that it was his fingers grasping her wrist. “I’m tired of bloody thinking.” Then he twisted her arm behind her so abruptly Ginny cried out, but more from surprise than pain. The move made her fall forward on his chest, Draco pressing her as tight as he could without hurting her.

All she could think to say was his name, “Draco,” and she hated herself for how shaky it came out. Why was she so afraid? Maybe he should have scared her, but she knew him, and she couldn’t bring herself to fear him. But something else, something she couldn’t name, terrified her.

“Ginny,” he breathed, closing his eyes. He was so close now she could smell the alcohol on him. Firewhiskey, she realized, knowing the smell well enough from the times her brothers managed to sneak some. No wonder he was so drunk.

She didn’t know what was happening, but she knew a line was about to be crossed, only this time there would be no going back to the way things were. Desperate, she tried again. “Draco, just think a minute. You’re drunk, you — ”

“I told you!” he snapped, forcing her tighter against him. “I’m sick of thinking! I’ve been in love with you too bloody long to wait another damned second for you to admit it too!”

Then he kissed her, and in that second before his lips crashed against hers, she thought dizzily, He said it. He crossed the line.

And it was consuming. Her entire world shrank down to just him, his mouth demanding submission, his tongue shoved into her mouth, the taste of firewhiskey, the hard lines of his body crushing her. In those moments of frustrated, savage passion Ginny forgot everything, forgot Harry and forgot that this was the wrong time, wrong place, wrong circumstance, wrong, wrong, wrong but so wickedly right. He let go of her arm to grab her waist, and her fingers wound into his hair, searching blindly for anything to hang onto.

Ginny’s lungs got so tight the pain made her whimper, and she had to yank away, gulping down huge swallows of air. She let her head fall back as her chest rapidly rose and fell, still pressed against Draco so that she could feel his own torso moving in tandem with hers. Seconds later Draco’s lips descended on her exposed throat, scorching a trail from her jaw to the hollow of her throat and eliciting a gasp. Oh, sweet bloody Merlin, she clutched at his back and arched into his touch, it shouldn’t feel this good.

He abandoned her neck for her lips again, but when he did a sudden whiff of the alcohol on his breath reached her nostrils with the same effect as a bucket of ice water, and reality bulldozed through the haze of sensation.

“Draco, stop.” His mouth muffled her words, so she flattened both her hands against his chest and shoved him back a step. “I said stop.”

They were both panting, and the look Draco gave her was so full of unabashed desire her resolve almost disintegrated right then. She forced herself to look away, wrapping her arms around her middle. “We can’t.”

“Why not?”

“You’re drunk!”

“Yeah?” He took a step closer, and Ginny backed up to the wall again. But she had nowhere to go when he stepped closer still. In a low voice he said, “I meant what I said earlier. And I know you feel the same. Don’t forget who kissed who first.”

Ginny flushed. “That…I didn’t think. It…it was…”

“A mistake?” Draco’s eyes darkened so fast Ginny actually felt a tiny stab of fright, especially when she saw his hands curl into fists. She knew it was the alcohol giving him such terrible mood swings, but that didn’t make the situation any less volatile. “Is that what you were going to say, Ginny?”

“I…”

He suddenly whirled away from her, hands fisting in his hair. “Why are you always acting like I’m such a bloody mistake?!”

Bolstered by the distance between them now, Ginny felt her own temper returning. “I act like that? You were the one who just blamed me for the mess you’re in now!”

He spun around. “Well I sure as hell wouldn’t be here otherwise, would I?”

Ginny stared at him a long time, trying to reign in her emotions enough to form a coherent thought. “You know something, Draco?” she finally said in a calm, cold voice. “I’ve never actually thought of you as a mistake…until right this moment.”

Then before he could think to stop her, she darted past him to the door and slammed out, never sparing a thought for caution or who might be watching. The streets of Hogsmeade blurred past her as she ran, and she didn’t slow even when she reached the castle and pushed through the heavy wooden doors into the Entrance Hall.

Just as her foot hit the first step of the great marble stairway, she heard someone call, “Hey, Weaslette!” Ginny almost lost her balance, and the sudden stop after such a long run made her stomach cramp as little black spots danced in front of her eyes. She clutched at the railing as her muddled brain tried to figure out who wanted her. When she saw Pansy Parkinson standing by the dungeons, she thought she should have known just from that stupid nickname “Weaselette.”

“What do you want?” she snarled.

Pansy sauntered over and stood on the next step up from Ginny so that she could look down her nose at the other girl. “I think you know what I want, little Gryff.”

Ginny rolled her eyes. “I’m not in the mood for this.” She started to climb the next step, but Pansy shot out her arm and grasped the rail, blocking Ginny’s ascent.

“Too bad for you, I don’t really care.”

“Parkinson, I’m warning you; get out of my way.”

Pansy gave an ugly sneer. “Oooh, I’m so scared of the midget Weasley!” She tossed her hair, smirking. “Look, I know you and yours stole Draco.”

More to herself than Pansy, Ginny muttered, “You have got to be kidding me….”

Pansy ignored that and leaned in close, pug-nose almost touching Ginny’s. “I know your precious Order found out somehow.” She crossed her arms. “Now you’ve got him, and I want him back.”

Ginny smiled sweetly. “Do you find yourself saying that to other girls often, Pans?”

Pansy’s eyes narrowed, and in the next instant she reeled back and slapped Ginny across the face. Ginny’s head snapped to the side, her cheek stinging where Pansy had hit. Slowly, she turned back to face the other girl. “Do that again, and I promise you’ll be spending the next few nights in the Hospital Wing.”

“Tell me where he is,” Pansy countered, “or a lot worse will happen to you.”

Ginny rolled her eyes. “I’m shaking.”

Pansy suddenly yanked up her sleeve, shoving the Dark Mark at the other girl’s face. “See this?” she hissed. “Got a nice good look? I have the entire power of the Dark Lord at my disposal. One wrong step, and you’ll wish I’d just given you a quick, clean Avada. So if I were you, little Weaselette, I would start cooperating.”

Ginny crossed her arms and leaned against the railing, unimpressed by Pansy’s Mark and her threats. She knew about the former long before now, and the latter were as empty as the Entrance Hall around them. Ginny didn’t know Voldemort personally, but somehow she doubted that he was in the habit of lending his “entire power” to spoiled teenage girls.

Pushing away from the rail again, Ginny said, “Right, well, I think I’ll take my chances,” and shoved past Pansy. She only gained a few steps before she felt the other girl grab her wrist, yanking her back around.

“You don’t leave until I say you can leave, Gryffindor slut,” Pansy snarled.

Ginny’s patience had reached its limit, and she decided to cut where it would hurt most. She gave a venomous smile and wrenched her hand free. Slut, am I? Fine.

“You’ve really got a thing for Draco, don’t you, dear? How long’s it been since he’s reciprocated? Puberty?” Ginny descended a step so she was just above her and whispered, “Shame. You don’t know what you’re missing. That scrawny boy you stole baby kisses from wasn’t anything compared to the man he is now. And I can tell you from experience that there’s nothing scrawny about him anymore…if you know what I mean.”

Pansy’s face reddened, her lips rimmed in white. “Liar,” she seethed.

“If that helps you sleep at night.” Ginny shrugged. “But if by some freak chance you do ever get another go at him, ask him to do that thing with his tongue. Mention me. He’ll know what you’re talking about.” She winked and turned to walk up the stairs, leaving Pansy trembling with rage below her.

She didn’t know the word Pansy shrieked then, but in the next instant she heard the girl cry out indignantly, and a half a second later a body slammed into Ginny’s back. She fell heavily to the stairs, her hands breaking the fall enough to save her head, but her knee wasn’t as fortunate. It cracked against the marble, shooting hot arrows of pain through her left leg. She hardly noticed it, though, because at the same time a wicked black beam crackling with crimson sparks exploded on the steps above her, right where she’d been standing.

Ginny stared wide-eyed at the spot. The polished marble was scorched black and smoking, shards of the hard material floating lazily through the air. She was finding it near impossible to breathe. At first she assumed it was from fear or shock, but then she realized that whoever had thrown her to the ground was still on top of her and weighed no small amount. As if on cue, her savior rolled away, and Ginny greedily refilled her lungs.

“What the hell were you thinking Parkinson?!” an angry voice demanded, not quite shouting but a far shot from asking politely. “You would’ve killed her!”

Ginny realized that it was the person who had saved her, a boy whose voice sounded incredibly familiar but which her numbed brain, still struggling with aftershock, couldn’t place right away.

“That was the point!” Pansy sounded outraged at his interference. “What’s it to you if the Weasley whore dies?”

And then Ginny’s brain finally caught up and identified the voice of her rescuer, but the answer was so unlikely that she didn’t believe it even then. Impossible. There’s no way… But when she pushed herself to her knees, biting the inside of her cheek when a sudden flare of pain reminded her of her less than graceful fall, she looked up and sure enough, there stood her “savior”…none other than Theodore Nott.

His attention was focused on Pansy, which was just as well as she could feel herself gaping like an idiot. His eyes shone fiercer than Ginny had ever seen them; he had always been a little frightening, but now he looked downright terrifying. Pansy, however, seemed oblivious to that.

“My skin, that’s what it is to me!” he returned sharply. “That was black magic, you idiot girl! They could have traced you as easy as if you were waving a bloody neon sign in their faces!”

Pansy flushed but refused to back down. “So? What’s that got to do with you? You should have let me have the bitch and left the consequences to me.”

Nott narrowed his eyes. “Are you really that dense? After you used that kind of magic, they would have investigated, found your Mark, and you can damn well bet they would start checking into the rest of the House too. Most of us have a rather hard-to-explain tattoo, and I’d really prefer to stay out of Azkaban, if it’s all the same to you.”

“But you didn’t hear what she said to me. She — ”

“I know what she said, Parkinson,” he cut her off. “And it’s no excuse. You let your emotions get to you like some Gryff. It’s pathetic.”

Her eyes narrowed. “You can’t talk to me like that.”

“I believe I just did. Get out of here. Down to the common room, whatever, just get out of my sight.”

Ginny watched fascinated as Pansy’s mouth opened and closed like some disoriented fish, then with a hmph!, she spun away and stomped down to the dungeons. When she was gone, Nott looked down at Ginny for the first time. He didn’t offer her a hand up, and he didn’t say a word.

Avoiding his eyes, Ginny pushed herself to her feet. Was she supposed to thank him now? He did save her life, but this was Nott.

He spoke before she could make up her mind. “Well. That was downright bloody stupid of you. Almost as idiotic as what Parkinson did.”

Ginny blinked. “Pardon?”

“You provoked her on purpose.”

“How would you know? You weren’t even here!”

“I saw everything, Weasley. How else do you think I stopped her in time?”

Ginny glared. “You were spying.”

“Call it what you want, it saved your life. That spell would have killed you, and not cleanly either.”

Ginny glanced back at the charred step, wisps of charcoal smoke still curling into the air above it, and she couldn’t say she doubted that in the least. She took a deep breath. This was going to be painful, but she had to do it. “Thank you. I — ”

“Save it,” he snapped. “I wasn’t lying when I said I did it for my own skin. I would have let your arse fry otherwise. You deserved it after being that thick.”

Ginny bristled. “Look, I’ve had the week from hell, no thanks to you, and today just topped it off, so excuse me for losing my temper!”

He grabbed a fistful of her robes and yanked her close, his nose mere centimeters from hers. “Listen close, Weasley darling,” he hissed. “Parkinson may be a half-wit, but she’s a half-wit with power, and that makes her twice as dangerous. So I don’t care if you just found out your whole bloody family burned alive in your own house along with your favorite bloody teddy, you don’t provoke her!” He gave Ginny a hard shake. “Understood?”

Ginny could feel her hands shaking and clenched them into fists. “I thought you didn’t care about me. You just did it to save yourself, remember?”

“Yes, and if you go and get yourself killed the next time I’m not around, I’ll be just as screwed, won’t I?” He shoved her away in disgust. “In the future, do control that temper.” He made to leave, then paused and turned back. “Oh, and I would be careful from now on. You just made yourself one hell of an enemy.”

- - - - -

Draco stared at the contents of the table. Two slices of bread, an apple, a handful of carrots, some dried beef. All the food he had left. It would have been all right since today was the day Ginny was supposed to come with more…but that was before he’d made such a botch of things earlier in the week.

He couldn’t believe he’d said those things, done those things. To be honest with himself, he couldn’t remember everything: short periods of time showed up as little more than fuzzy, disjointed pictures, but he recalled enough to know he would be lucky not to starve to death.

He lifted up his hand and turned the bracelet around that she had given him for Christmas. She would probably want this back now, and of course he would return it if she asked, but he wanted sorely to keep it. It gave him comfort when the solitude became too much. It had a sort of…presence to it.

Though not quite enough to save him from that drunken disaster of an encounter. He sighed as he looked at the place in the floor where the remaining bottle of firewhiskey stayed hidden. It had just gotten to be too much. He was going crazy not talking to anyone for days at a time, nothing productive to distract him but to doodle in that stupid journal, and once he could have sworn he heard someone prowling around outside. He decided later it was just his imagination, though, and that was when it got to be too much, and he unstopped that first bottle.

It was supposed to be safe, he told himself for the hundredth time. He wasn’t supposed to have seen her again for days, but for whatever reason, she came early this week. And it had ruined everything.

His stomach growled loudly to remind him he never ate breakfast that morning. Resigned, he picked up a slice of bread, spread on the few traces of butter he had left, and bit down. He would just have to hope that Ginny’s conscious would win over her personal wishes and force her to come with more food. Water, too. Even that was running low, and he certainly wouldn’t turn down a good tall glass of pumpkin juice either. So, that prayer in mind, Draco sat down to wait.

It was a long day. He watched the beam of curtain-filtered sunlight creep across the floor in sync with the sun’s trek through the sky, his heart and hopes sinking every time it gained another inch and no knock came at his door. The beam was all the way across the floor and climbing up the wall before one ever came, and when it did, Draco was so surprised by the sound he just stared for a second. Then he jumped out of the chair so fast it fell over as he ran to the door to open it.

“Ginny,” he breathed when he saw her, all pale freckles and flaming hair in the dusk’s weak light. How could he have screwed up so badly? Drunk or no, what could he have been thinking to risk her?

“Hi,” she returned stiffly, then thrust a bulging sack at him. “Here.”

He took it, and she turned to leave. “Wait, Ginny!” He ran after her and grabbed her wrist. She looked back, eyes narrowed dangerously, but he didn’t back down. “Please…just, just let me explain, yeah? Just come in a minute.”

“There’s nothing to explain.” Her voice sounded flat. He recognized it as the tone he himself used to hide his feelings, and thought, Oh, Ginny, what’ve I done to you? “You made your real feelings perfectly clear a few days ago.”

He shook his head violently. “Those weren’t my true feelings. Well…I mean, not everything, only…” he trailed off in frustration, dropping her wrist to run his hands through his hair. “Just please let me talk to you. Come in. Ginny, I’m begging you, and Malfoy’s don’t beg.”

She considered him a silent moment, then without so much as a change of expression, she brushed past him back into the little shack. He exhaled softly, closing his eyes as she went by him. He followed her and closed the door behind them, finding Ginny sitting ram-rod straight in the chair he hadn’t overturned in his haste.

He gazed at her a minute, then walked over to the chair lying on the floor, righting it and taking a seat. He propped his elbows on the table and gave a hollow laugh. It sounded more like a sob. “You know, I had everything I was going to say to you all planned out,” he confessed. “I rehearsed it a thousand times. Now all I can remember is, ‘I’m sorry.’”

“It’s a start,” Ginny replied neutrally.

At least her words, if not her attitude, gave him some hope. “I shouldn’t have been so weak. I shouldn’t have gotten drunk.”

“It’s not being drunk I care about, though I’m not particularly fond of that side of you. It’s what you said to me. Do you even remember?”

He let his eyes fall shut. “I didn’t mean it, Ginny. I just….”

“Then why did you say it? It’s not like you were in any condition to strategize some clever tactic, so I’m assuming that means it was the truth coming out.”

“Ginny, no, I just — ”

“You just. Ever notice that ‘you just’ a lot lately?”

“I said something else, too, if you remember,” he reminded her quietly. “Before I kissed you.”

For the first time he saw a flicker of life in her dark eyes, but she looked away quickly. “I remember. But honestly Draco, I’m so confused I don’t know which to believe. It can only be one or the other.”

“I never meant to blame you,” he insisted, feeling desperation crawl over him. “I don’t blame you, never have. Everything I’ve done has been my decision, and — ”

“Exactly!” she cried, jumping up from the chair to pace. “It was your decision! I never even knew about it until after, so I certainly didn’t do any begging with my eyes or whatever you said.”

Draco slouched down, overwhelmed. How could he explain what he’d meant? “I didn’t…I didn’t mean it that way. You misunderstood.”

“So explain it to me. Why did you say those things if you didn’t mean it? Because quite frankly, I’ve tried and tried, and I can’t see any other explanation for it.”

“I just wanted to hurt you!” he suddenly let out, slapping his hands against the table top. He took a heavy breath. “I wanted to hurt you like you were hurting me, and I knew that would do it.”

She never blinked. “You wanted to hurt me.”

“It was selfish,” he mumbled, slowly relaxing back into the chair, refusing to look at her. He feared what he might see on her face. “But I wanted to get back at you somehow.”

She stopped pacing and stood with her arms crossed, staring down at him. It felt weird, not looking down on her for once. “Get back at me? What did I ever do to hurt you?”

Draco felt an itch of irritation and got to his feet. “What did you do? You played with me, Ginny! You kissed me and then you ran, and the next day you wouldn’t say a damn word about it!” He paused to take a calming breath, then more quietly: “You know how I feel about you now. Knowing that, do you have any idea what I’ve been through since that day in the treehouse? The mental torture I’ve put myself through every second, wondering what it meant?”

For the first time, he saw a hint of doubt reflected in her dark eyes. “I….”

“You didn’t think,” he finished tiredly, knowing what she would say. “Well, guess what? Neither did I.”

Ginny rubbed at her arms, eyes on the floor, on the walls, on the ceiling — anywhere but on him. She shuffled her feet around then walked back to the table and sat balanced on the edge of her seat. She traced the knots and whirls in the wood of the table. “You should have said something.”

“When it was so obvious you didn’t want me to?”

Ginny’s fist suddenly crashed down on the table, tears standing in her eyes. “Damn it, I don’t know what I want Draco! I don’t know what I should do, or what I should think, and I just feel so bloody guilty!”

Draco hesitated, then making up his mind, neared her and took her hand, pulling her to her feet. She rose without resistance, and Draco pulled her against his chest, terrified all the while that she would lash out again, but she let him do that too. She kept her arms folded up between them, her head lying just above his heart as the tears started falling.

“What do you have to be guilty over?” he murmured. He wanted so badly to brush a kiss on the top of her head, but he didn’t dare. That would be going too far too soon.

She didn’t say anything for awhile, just shook lightly in his arms, and he could feel the hot dampness of her tears going through his shirt. Finally, she whispered, “You’re his enemy.”

For a minute he didn’t understand, but then it all fell into place and his arms tensed. He forced them to relax, not wanting Ginny to catch on, but he felt a wave of annoyance nonetheless. Potter. It always came back to bloody Potter.

He thought a long time about what to say before he finally decided to ask the question whose answer he feared most. “Do you still love him?”

She turned her head so that her other cheek rested on his chest, glossy eyes fixed on the curtained window. “I don’t know.”

He swallowed, working up the courage for his next question. “What about me?”

He felt her tense, all her muscles bunching up beneath his hands. Then, very softly, “I…don’t know.” She twisted away then, pulling out of his arms and putting her back to him. She hugged herself. “I’m sorry, Draco. I’m sorry I kissed you, and I’m sorry I can’t give you any answers, and I’m just…sorry for everything.”

He walked up to her and rubbed his hands down her arms, but she stepped out from beneath his hands.

“Draco, please…no.”

He swallowed his disappointment and said, “Don’t apologize. I’m the one who’s supposed to be begging forgiveness, remember?” He tried to muster up a wry grin, weak as it was.

She laughed a choked, sad laugh. “Yeah, how did that get turned around?”

“Look,” he began, suddenly serious, “we both acted without thinking. It’s in the past. As for what to do about it now…” he trailed off a second, rubbing a hand at the back of his head. “I don’t know what to tell you if you don’t know how you feel. That’s something you’re going to have to decide on your own.”

“I’ve been trying. I’ve been obsessing over it night and day it seems like, but I just can’t…I can’t sort it all out.”

Draco gave a grim smile. “I’m not really the right person to give advice on emotions. But I’ll say this. I don’t know how Potter feels, but I know that if you were ever mine…I would never let you go.”

She tensed, lowering her eyes. “He only left me here to protect me.”

Draco stepped closer. “And that’s the difference between me and him. I know better than to treat you like porcelain, Ginny. I know to let you live.”

She stared at his chest, crossing her arms like a barrier between them. “He only does it because he’s afraid for me.”

“You don’t think I’m scared? Every time you walk out that door and go back to Pierce and Nott and all the rest, I’m terrified for you. But I trust you too. We both know you’re anything but weak, and if Potter can’t see that too, he’s a damned fool. And he doesn’t deserve you.”

Her eyes met his then. “You do?”

He laughed dryly at that. “Hell no. But at least I wouldn’t try to hide you away in some corner where nothing could touch you. I would never compromise your freedom; I know better than anyone how important that is. Freedom’s why I’m not cowering at the Dark Lord’s feet right now, and it’s why I’m here. Not because of you. Blaming you was a stupid lie, and I’m…I’m sorry for that.”

He reached out and tucked a piece of her hair behind her ear then. “And Ginny,” he said quietly, “more than all of that, I’m ridiculously in love with you. If you think Potter can match that, fine. But I sure as hell don’t see how anyone can.”

- - - - -

A/N — I know, I know. That was fluff at its utmost, but what can I say? I like it : ) Hopefully no one has a tummy ache from the sugar overload haha.

Thanks so much for reading, and especially for reviewing! It makes me smile : )
A...Slight Complication by Hearts Cadence
Chapter 28 — A…Slight Complication

At least she had a window.

Most dungeons, Naomi knew, didn’t have even that small luxury, so she supposed she ought to be grateful for that much. Hovering at least two floors above her, it was too high up to actually look out of, but she could follow the light through it. She could count the days.

Of course, after enough little tick marks cluttered up her cell wall, she realized her “blessing” only brought despair. Perhaps it would have been better to remain oblivious to time. At least then she could lie to herself and pretend it had only been a few days. Now the horrible truth stared her in the face, scratched irreversibly into stone.

The days crawled by slowly with only the gradual change of sunlight to keep her entertained. She thought mostly of Ben, what Lucius might be doing to him. She thought of Jon, too, though. What did he think of her now? Naomi held no illusions that Snape kept her betrayal a secret, and she doubted he explained about her son, either. He obviously hadn’t believed it himself.

She could say this for the man, though: as far as jailers went, Snape wasn’t as cruel as she first expected. When he initially tossed her in this cell of black iron bars and rough stone walls that stretched several floors up, making the ceiling only a vague presence, her terrified mind had conjured up all sorts of torture he might inflict on her. So far, her fears all remained unrealized, thankfully.

He brought her three meals a day. It was always the same thing — a large portion of bread, a little jam, a hard-boiled egg, and some kind of fruit or vegetable — but variety was the last thing she was concerned about at the moment. It kept her strong, and that’s all that mattered in these circumstances. He only gave her water, though once he had given her a strong wine before he questioned her. She knew he was trying to loosen her tongue, but she didn’t care; she had nothing to hide that he didn’t already know, so she drank freely, taking advantage of the rare opportunity for temporary escape.

She told him exactly what she told him before, that Lucius somehow found out about her history with Jon and stole her child. To get her son back, she was supposed to convince Jon to betray the Dark Lord. Simple as that. Naomi couldn’t tell if Snape believed her or not. He left, and when he returned with her next meal, things returned to usual: he gave her the food without making eye-contact and without speaking. Even when she tried to initiate conversation, he ignored her.

That had been a week and a half ago, according to the tick marks. She tried not to think about that.

She sat on the floor, her knees drawn to her chest and her eyes fixed on the distant window. It looked just past mid-afternoon, judging by the light, and the fact that she’d eaten two meals but not yet received her third. She pretended for a moment that she had wings, and any moment she would lift off the ground and fly through that window. It was a nice dream.

She decided then that the window tormented her in another way. It teased her. It offered her freedom, but just out of reach. It was enough to keep her hope alive, but not enough to actually realize that hope. It was the cruelest form of torture she could imagine. She wondered if Snape knew that, and had it installed for that specific purpose.

Her concentration was so focused on this new revelation that at first the sound of boot heels against stone didn’t register with her. The key turning in the ancient lock finally snapped her out of it, but she still didn’t bother turning. He wouldn’t acknowledge she existed, so why should she do any differently for him?

Only, she never heard the sound of the bars locking up again. She held her breath, counting silently to twenty, and when the sound still never came, she turned to look. Snape leaned against the bars, food in one hand and an unreadable expression on his face.

Naomi burned to ask him what he had planned now, but she kept her lips firmly pressed together. She wouldn’t give him that satisfaction. She was so tired of playing right into this man’s hands.

Jon warned me, she couldn’t help but think. He warned me being with him might end this way. She supposed he knew what he was doing when he ended their romance back at Hogwarts.

Snape regarded her for another several minutes before he finally broke the quiet. “You were telling the truth.”

Naomi wasn’t sure how to respond to that, so she just said, “I told you I was.”

His smile was ironic. “Forgive me, but I tend to be surrounded by liars and schemers. I’m skeptical by nature.”

“So why do you suddenly believe me?” She heard how bitter she sounded, but she didn’t care.

“I spoke with Ben.”

Naomi felt her heart stop. “You spoke with...my Ben?”

He walked over and placed the food in front of her. “Yes, your Ben. Rather charming boy. Bright.” Snape returned to his spot against the bars. “Resembles you, too, except for the nose and chin. I’m assuming those come from his father.”

“He’s not Jon’s,” Naomi volunteered suddenly.

Snape blinked. “Pardon?”

“I knew that’s what you were getting at, and I thought I’d save us a lot of trouble and just tell you right now that Jon’s not the father.”

Snape folded his arms, not at all successful at hiding his relief. Naomi could practically feel it coming off the man in waves. “I didn’t think so. The boy’s too young considering the last time you two were together. Still, it’s interesting.”

“What? That I had a life after Jon?”

Snape shrugged. “From the way he talked, you spent the past several years pining away for him, unable or unwilling to move on.” The man rolled his eyes to show what he thought of that.

Naomi scowled at him. “That’s what I told him,” she mumbled. “It made things…easier.”

“Of course.” The corner of Snape’s mouth lifted. “Jon always said you would have fit right in with Slytherin.”

Naomi didn’t say anything.

“So tell me, Lawson. Who is Ben’s father?”

Naomi stared at the floor, face hard. “Ben’s father is a mistake. That’s all.”

“Does he have a name?”

“Does it matter?”

“I’m a Potions Master and a Slytherin. I’m curious by nature, so to me, yes, it does.”

Naomi leaned her back against the stone, eyes wandering through the dim expanse of open room above and the suggestion of the ceiling there. “I’m sure he does have a name. I just don’t happen to know it.”

Snape raised his eyebrows.

Naomi glanced at him. “Alcohol is a dangerous drug, Sev. I would advise against it when around strangers.”

An amused smile curled the man’s lip. “So precious Ben is the product of a night gone awry. You would risk your life over a drunken mistake.”

Naomi jumped up and lunged at him, but he easily caught her, pinning her arms behind her back. She gritted her teeth and seethed, “He is not a mistake! He’s the only thing I have in the world, and thanks to you he’s probably dead or worse!” All the strength went out of her then, and she sagged in his grip. “I hate you,” she whispered.

Apparently sensing her defeat, Snape threw her to the ground. “Don’t be so dramatic,” he drawled. “Your son is just fine.”

Naomi’s head snapped up. “How do you know?”

Snape rolled his eyes. “I took a little visit to Lucius’s house and did some investigating. He never would have told me anything, of course; he knows I would side with Jon over him. But a few simple spells located the only youth in the manor, and the brat confirmed your story, as much as a toddler can. I brought him back with me.”

The room spun around Naomi, and her fingers clutched at the grooves in the stone floor. “He’s…here?”

“And quite comfortable, I assure you. Certainly better off than you.”

“So…so you’ll let us go?” She could hardly believe it, and the elation was enough to make her heart pound.

Snape crushed all that with a sneer. “I’m not that much the fool. I’ve already risked enough as it is. If Lucius ever found out who interfered…” Snape shook his head. “But Jon never would have forgiven me.” More to himself than to her he muttered, “That idiot will be the death of me….”

Naomi didn’t even hear that last. The elation turned into grief in the blink of an eye, the pain of lost hope too much. “Why? You know I’m telling the truth! You know it! Just let us go, what harm would we do? Now that I have Ben, we could run away, we sure as hell wouldn’t go back to Lucius. Please…”

“You wouldn’t go back to Lucius,” Snape agreed. “But you may go to Jon, and even if you don’t, Lucius may come to you. Either way, you’ll be a hindrance to Jon and his mission, and I can’t have that. I’m merely acting in his best interests, you understand.”

Naomi stared numbly at him a long time, unable to find even the strength to shout anymore. “You’re as bad as Lucius,” she whispered. “You’re all the same.”

“Not quite. At least I’m not threatening your son. In fact, he’s making himself quite cozy in my nicest guest bedroom, and he’s already charmed half of my House Elf staff into sneaking him all sorts of treats they think I don’t know about. You may not be free, but neither you nor your son are in danger. That will have to be sufficient.”

“If it’s not?” she snapped.

“I’m afraid you don’t have a choice.” With that, Snape turned and shut the door to her cell, locking it with an echoing clang behind him.

- - - - -

Thump, thump, thump, thump. Ginny’s feet pounded out a steady rhythm as she jogged along, her breathing a different sort of cadence in her ears. She ran her usual route along the Forbidden Forest, ignoring the chill in the air. She needed to be outside again. She needed that openness after the claustrophobia of the castle.

Trees came and went in a blur of brown and green and glittery morning frost. It felt good to be out here again, running free. She ran from her doubts, from the feeling that Nott was always watching her, from her memories, from Draco and from Harry — from her mind. She ran, and she didn’t look back. It felt good.

The feeling faltered as she neared Hagrid’s hut. The hairs on the back of her neck rose, an awkwardness falling over her, and Ginny could have cried at the familiar sensation. Nott was watching. She was tuned to it now, and she feared soon it would drive her raving mad. Draco’s warning rang in her head, Don’t approach him. You’ll be playing right into his hands.

But Ginny didn’t care anymore. She slowed to a jog, and then a walk, and then stopped altogether. Her breathing stayed loud in her ears as her eyes searched the early morning shadows, but she couldn’t see anything out of place. She didn’t doubt her instinct, though. It had received far too much practice lately for that.

Cupping her hands around her mouth and praying Hagrid was out caring for his animals like he usually did this early, she called out, “Nott! I know you’re watching me! Quit being a coward and just come out!”

For a long pause nothing happened, and Ginny wanted to scream from frustration, but then a shadow detached from Hagrid’s back wall and stepped towards her. She flashed back to the night he did much the same from the castle’s shadowy walls, and wondered if he was just that good, or if he used some kind of concealing spell to stay so well hidden.

“Weasley,” he greeted, inclining his head and sporting a particularly amused half-smile.

Ginny didn’t bother with pleasantries. “I’ve had it, Nott! I’ve bloody had it, and it’s got to stop!”

He crossed his arms, looking down on her like a scientist might study a particularly interesting bug. “I’m sure I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“You know exactly what I’m talking about! I’ve been trying to ignore it, just hoping it would go away, but here you are weeks and weeks later still stalking me! I’m done!”

His mouth quirked. “Stalking? That seems a bit extreme, don’t you think?”

“I can’t go anywhere without feeling you staring at me!” she cried, pacing in a little circle. “I jump every time I go around the corner, and now you’ve even ruined my morning runs!”

He shrugged. “I wanted to see where you disappeared to every morning.”

“But why? Why are you always, always following me? Why can’t you just let me have a moment of peace?”

He raised his eyebrows and made as if to speak, then suddenly froze and turned his attention towards the forest.

Ginny scowled, “What — ?”

“Shut up,” he muttered, cocking his head.

“No! You can’t — ”

He was on her in three quick strides, one arm trapping her against his side while the other hand clamped across her mouth. “I said, shut up,” he hissed. He squinted into the forest for a few more silent seconds, then whispered, “Better run along, my darling Weasley.”

He shoved her away and started edging towards the forest, drawing his wand. Ginny watched totally perplexed, caught somewhere between curiosity and lingering rage. What was he doing? She hadn’t heard anything. Or was he just trying to get out of explaining?

Ginny narrowed her eyes and crept into the forest after him. He didn’t turn around at first, but when they were well inside the trees, her foot snapped a branch and he whirled, wand trained right between her eyes. He jerked the wand aside with a muttered curse, his eyes flashing, and he pointed emphatically back towards the castle. Ginny stubbornly shook her head. He pointed again, more insistently this time, and when she only crossed her arms, he made a slashing motion across his throat. Ginny felt a slight flutter in her stomach, but she didn’t budge.

Glaring, Nott shook his head and turned back to the forest, wand held out before him. Ginny experienced a sudden change, apparently in the very air. The temperature seemed to drop, and with it her spirits.

She felt depressed.

How had everything gotten so turned around? She remembered when she was a little girl, and she had it all figured out. Nothing had gone according to plan.

She shook her head, trying to force herself to stay focused on the situation at hand. Nott was edging along even more slowly now. She wondered if he’d felt it too.

Then another wave hit.

Merlin, she was supposed to grow up and have her fairy tale, Harry was supposed to be her prince, and that was the plan. Then Draco had to go and mess it all up with his declarations of love, and she had to ruin it by not feeling attracted to Harry, but to Draco instead.

Because she was attracted to Draco; she knew that much, at least. What kind of person did that make her? A horrible one, that’s what kind. It was terrible, it was a betrayal, but there it was.

Of course, the irony of it all was that there was no option for a “Happily Ever After” in this fairy tale. She could no longer see a future without Draco. But even if she was with him, it would never work. No one would accept it. The two of them would have to go into hiding, they would have no friends, no family, no Sunday afternoon dinners at the Burrow, the word would be black, lonely, empty, black and black…

“Weasley!”

Then Ginny saw a flash of light and a beam from Nott’s wand slammed into her stomach, lifting her an inch off the ground and throwing her back several feet. She hit the ground hard, curling to save her head, but nothing could save her breath, all of it knocked right from her lungs so she felt like a fish out of water, gasping for air. Groaning, she rolled to her side and looked up.

And saw something that no witch or wizard would ever mistake. Where she was just standing a moment ago loomed a tall creature, robed head to toe in blackest black, face a midnight void. Ginny understood the inexplicable depression now, understood the distraction. A dementor was in the Forbidden Forest…and it was coming at her.

Ginny couldn’t move. The thing drifted towards her purposefully like its awareness was narrowed only to her: it never even acknowledged Nott.

“Weasley!” Nott shouted again, voice rough and full of authority. “Run! I can handle it, just go!”

It seemed to be staring at her, but she didn’t know how she could tell with its face just a black wall like that. Besides, they don’t have eyes.

Dimly she heard Nott still screaming at her. Was this how it felt when you knew you were about to die? She wasn’t seeing her life or anything, which disappointed her a little. All s