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 na´ve 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 na´ve 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.
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