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.)

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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.”


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…
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