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…

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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 na´ve 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...
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