Chapter 9 – A Little Home-Brewed Assistance

Ginny, distracted and nearly oblivious to her surroundings, walked slowly after leaving the greenhouse. Her feet automatically headed towards the tower room with the hidden candle, her nightly visits there a ritual by now, but her mind stayed with Malfoy. She wondered what in the warped mind-game of his life had finally pushed him too far tonight, because she could tell that something obviously bothered him. She wondered if he would take her advice, and if he did, if there was even anyone out there that he honestly could trust. She wondered why she cared.

It took a second for her to realize that the door was already in front of her, and she shook her head slowly to clear it before reaching out and turning the handle. With movements smooth and decisive from practice, she uncovered the candle and waited to be transported. Familiar oblivion closed on her as the candle started to work, and Harry’s face slowly took shape in front of her.

Suddenly, though, the picture stopped forming. His face wavered, grew watery and flickered, then started to morph into something else. The angles on his face sharpened, the skin paling a shade or two, and for the first time in Ginny’s life, she saw his hair lay down smooth. It fell over his forehead, hiding the already fading scar, then degree by degree, turned a platinum color. Ginny’s fingers tightened painfully around the candlestick holder because she only knew of one person with hair that blond.

“Harry?” she whispered, but he was already gone. For just an instant, the newly transformed face of Draco Malfoy stared back at her, so real she felt her breath hitch uncertainly. Then the instant shattered when the candle suddenly guttered out, despite the fact that there was nothing to extinguish the flame. She went blind as the sick feeling from the candle’s transition overcame her.

When her vision cleared, she was kneeling on the floor as usual, the candle on its side next to her. She gulped in several breaths and stared incredulously at the candle. She had only ever seen Harry in its mysterious fire, and this first failure stung like betrayal.

And why Malfoy of all people? What was that supposed to mean? Did it even mean anything? But the question most prevalent in her mind: Had she lost Harry for good?

Almost afraid to know the answer but unable to resist, she picked up the candle again with shaky hands and watched as the flame burst to life. Again the tower room fell away, and again a new image began to take its place. She almost sobbed in relief when Harry came into view.

The rest followed quickly after—a bed in yet another of a long succession of small inn rooms, Ron and Hermione sleeping in their respectful beds off to the side, a low-burning hearth and an open window streaming in moonlight. She stood for a long time, waiting to see if the scene would disappear. It never did, and exhaling long and slow, she blew out the candle.

Back in the tower, she sat staring at nothing for a long time, a frown etched into her mouth. Collin swore that the candle revealed the person you missed most. Ginny always sort of thought it worked something like the Mirror of Erised Harry had told her about. The only trouble with that theory was that if it were showing her what she most wanted, she would see Harry with her, safe in her room at the Burrow. Now, though, she didn’t know what to think. She definitely neither missed nor wanted Malfoy.

Slowly, she rose and moved over to the window facing the greenhouses, pressing her nose against the glass so that she could see out into the night. A light still burned inside one of them. Her troubled frown deepened, and she stepped back.

Putting the candle back as almost an afterthought before leaving, Ginny closed the door behind her; for the first time, she was anything but comforted as she did so.

- - - - -

Pierce stood, walked to the liquor cabinet, gazed longingly at an unopened bottle of whiskey, then gritted his teeth and stalked off again. He repeated this process several times before tossing himself onto the bed, trying hard not to think about it. Severus would be arriving any moment now, and he knew he needed a clear head for what was coming. Unfortunately, what he wanted was to be drunk for it. Practicality won out, but not without some difficulty, as his frequent trips to the liquor cabinet made clear.

Voldemort wanted a progress report. Severus volunteered to get it, of course. It wasn’t that Pierce didn’t want to see the man, but he did wish for someone a bit more open-minded. Even though he thought he was doing quite well — Draco was playing right into his hands, and even if the boy suspected something, Pierce doubted it was of anything Dark-related — he knew Severus would never like a plan that involved romance (or even friendship) with a Gryffindor. Pierce was going to have to employ some serious persuasion to convince him to bring Voldemort a good report.

Pierce rolled onto his back and scowled at the ceiling. It wasn’t as if Severus would be able to come up with anything better. Knowing him, he would just try and drug the boy with some potion or another. Severus didn’t seem to think there was any problem that couldn’t be solved with one of his quick-fix brews. Pierce, never too fond of Potions back in school anyway, couldn’t say that he agreed.

Because there was nothing better to distract him, he idly amused himself with what the once-professor might try and slip Draco were he in Pierce’s shoes. There wasn’t a hell of a lot that would really do the trick in this sort of situation. Severus Snape would never have pursued this Ginny Weasley plan in the first place, of course, but if he had, Pierce figured his first impulse would have been to jump for the love potion. Naturally, that idea had already occurred to Pierce, but he’d dismissed it almost immediately. Severus might favor artificial means, but Pierce knew that the only way to get true lasting results was for it to be real. Manufactured emotion just did not work, especially in the case of love potions, since the “love” vanished when the potion did.

What would be brilliant, Pierce mused, was if there was some way for Draco to just forget that he hated her so much, even if it was only temporary. He was positive that the Weasley girl was exactly his type, only the blasted boy couldn’t see it because he was blinded by so much damned prejudice. If he could just look at the girl without bias, Pierce knew all of her good traits would jump at him. Then even if the prejudice returned later, the damage would be done — there would be no forgetting the favorable characteristics.

In actuality, that was what Pierce was trying to accomplish right now, and really it was working, but at this rate arriving at that happy state might take months. Months, he knew, were a luxury he did not enjoy. Voldemort had a notoriously short attention span. Too bad Severus couldn’t whip up a batch of instant “hate-dissolvent” or something for him, he thought wryly.

Slowly, he sat up with a thoughtful look on his face. He’d said it sarcastically in his head, but the more he considered it, why couldn’t Severus do just that? So far as he knew nothing like that existed, but Severus was always bleating that there were no decent challenges left after one became a Master. Pierce admittedly didn’t know the first thing about inventing a new potion, but he didn’t imagine it would be all that difficult for someone like Severus.

By the time his fireplace flared emerald and spit out the greasy-haired man, he was so eager over the idea that he completely forgot his earlier dread.

“Severus!” he greeted, walking up and clasping his hand firmly. “Just the man I wanted to see.”

Severus arched one eyebrow. “Jonathon,” he returned with considerable more restraint. “I take it you’ve had some success, then?”

Pierce blinked, then laughed. “Oh, no it’s not that. I mean, yes, I’ve made progress, but I wanted to see you about something else.”

The other man took a seat without invitation, summoning up his own drink—something red and rich looking. “Oh, Merlin. Does it at least pertain to the reason I’m here?”

“Certainly. Do you think you could make a potion to make a person forget every bad thought they’d ever felt towards someone else?”

Severus frowned. “You mean a memory erasing potion?”

Pierce shook his head. “No, no I don’t want his memories gone. That would cause all sorts of problems. No, I want him to remember, just not feel the same hatred. Can you do that? It only has to last an hour or so.”

Severus arched the same brow again. “Are you referring to Draco? Because if you are, it’s a good idea, but even if I could manage something like that and he didn’t resent all of us, we would have to keep him constantly on the potion to maintain the effect, just like any other potion. It’s not practical.”

Pierce was shaking his head again before the man ever finished. “It wouldn’t be for the Death Eaters or the Dark Lord. Someone else. But is it possible is what I’m asking you?”

“Who else would you want him to stop hating?”

“Just answer the question, Sev.”

Severus studied him speculatively, raising his goblet to his lips and taking a careful sip. Finally, he said, “I don’t think anyone’s ever tried to produce that particular effect while keeping the subject’s memories intact.”

“I didn’t ask if it’s been done before. I asked if you could do it now.”

It was another several moments before he answered, “Yes, I probably could.”

Pierce clapped his hands together, pacing excitedly with a broad grin. “Excellent! I knew you could. How long do you imagine it would take?”

“How about you tell me what this is all about first, Jon,” Severus suggested.

Pierce slowed and sighed. He dropped into a chair of his own. “You have to promise not to automatically dismiss me out of hand like you always do, because you’re not going to like the sound of what I’ve been attempting these past weeks. At first.”

The man’s eyebrows rose high on his forehead. He consented with the barest inclination of his head.

Pierce took a deep breath and decided just to come right out with it. “I’m trying to get Draco Malfoy to fall in love with Ginny Weasley.”

Severus choked on the drink he’d been taking, coughing little drops of the red liquid onto his front. He didn’t even bother vanishing it away. “What?”

“You promised you would keep an open mind,” Pierce reminded him.

“You’re trying to get Draco to fall in love with Ginny Weasley?”

“Just listen, would you?” Pierce snapped. He proceeded to tell Severus his logic, how really it was his advice to give Draco something to care about that inspired him in the first place.

“When I said that,” Severus spat, “I didn’t intend for you to orchestrate a bloody romance with a Gryffindor. And a Weasley nonetheless!”

Pierce shrugged. “Well, that’s what happened. I think it’s a rather brilliant plan, if I don’t say so myself. And this is what I’m best at—a little faith would be appreciated.”

Severus shook his head, firmly pinching the bridge of his nose. He’d given up on his drink ages ago. “You’ve lost it, Jon. You’re absolutely certifiable.”

“Probably, but that’s neither here nor there. What is important at the moment is how fast you can get that potion to me.”

“What if I don’t want to do it?” Severus asked, a sharp edge to his voice. “What if I think it’s so damn mad I won’t even consider risking my reputation by taking any part of it?”

Pierce smiled drily. “Because you know that somehow, I always come out on top. And you know that if you help get me there faster, it will only benefit you. Who knows? You might even take Lucius’ place as the Dark Lord’s right-hand-man.”

Severus considered this a moment, then narrowed his eyes suspiciously. “You wouldn’t be trying to manipulate me, would you Jon?”

He chuckled. That was exactly what he was doing. Pierce learned a long time ago that Severus needed to feel important—some inferiority complex derived from his bullied childhood. Promising him recognition and status was exactly the way to play the man. “I wouldn’t dream of it,” Pierce said aloud. “You’ve known me too long to fall for it, anyway. You know all of my tricks.” Severus may be the closest thing he had to a friend, but that didn’t exempt him from serving as a useful pawn on occasion.

Severus stared hard for another couple seconds, then nodded slowly. “I still don’t think this is going to work.”

“Yes, you do,” Pierce countered confidently. “You just don’t like that this is the only solution either of us can find at the moment. But you know I can handle it all the same.”

Severus snorted. “I always wonder sometimes whether you really belong in Slytherin, but you could qualify on arrogance alone.”

Pierce smiled wickedly. “So, how about that potion, Sev?”

He sighed, pinching his nose again. “It’s more complicated than you’re making it out to be.”

“In that…?”

“In that you won’t want him suddenly warm and fuzzy towards everyone. That would start all kinds talk, and besides, he would suspect something for sure.”

“So what do you suggest?”

Severus frowned, his eyes sliding down to his forgotten drink. He raised the goblet to his lips and tipped it back. After he’d drained it, he said, “Get me something of Weasley’s. It doesn’t really matter what, just as long as she’s had it for awhile. Jewelry, clothing, whatever you can manage. I’ll work on a recipe and be back tomorrow night.”

“Thank you, Severus. Really. You won’t be sorry.”

“I can tell you right now it won’t last long,” Snape warned. “This sort of mind alteration is tricky. It’ll only be a couple of hours at best. And that’s ambitious.”

Pierce smiled. “That’s all I’ll need.”

Severus looked at him and shook his head as if he couldn’t quite believe he was actually agreeing to this crazy scheme. “Just make sure and have something of hers by tomorrow,” he restated.

Pierce’s opportunity to do just that came the next day during class. He finished his lesson early and gave the students the time to start their assignment in class, something Weasley usually took full advantage of. Today though, she sat with unfocused eyes, wearing a troubled expression. Her work lay untouched in front of her, a ragged quill resting on top so battered that she must have been using the thing for ages. Certainly long enough to qualify for Severus’s potion. Pierce fought back a smile — it was almost too easy.

Class ended, but she didn’t move, not even as everyone else around her piled out of the room. Her eyes still stared vacantly, the fact that she was deep in thought obvious by the little crease between her eyebrows. Pierce did give a small smile now, thinking that he couldn’t have hoped for better circumstances.

“Something the matter, Miss Weasley?” he asked, strolling over to lean casually against her desk. His hand came to rest naturally on top of her worn quill.

She blinked rapidly several times like someone waking up from a dream, then forced a smile. “Oh, no I’m fine. I was just thinking.”

“Nothing bad I hope.” He shifted his weight slightly, giving his fingers the chance to wrap around the quill.

“No…” she sounded uncertain of that. Suddenly, she asked, “Have you ever heard of the Mirror of Erised?”

Pierce considered the girl curiously. “I believe so. Isn’t that the one that shows you what you want most?”

She nodded. “Do you know…I mean, is there anything else like that?”

“Another mirror?”

“Not necessarily a mirror. Just anything enchanted to work the same way. Or maybe things that act sort of like it, but not exactly?”

“I really can’t say, Miss Weasley,” he answered honestly. “I would imagine so, though. One’s deepest desires are surprisingly important to some people.”

He’d meant to draw a smile out of her with that comment, but instead her face paled and the little worry line between her brows deepened. He was perplexed by the reaction, but that didn’t stop him from taking advantage of her distraction by inconspicuously slipping the ragged quill under his hand and up into the sleeve of his robe.

“Any particular reason you ask?”

She hesitated, meeting his eyes and opening her mouth as if she might actually tell him, but then she seemed to think better of it and answered lamely, “No, not really. Just wondering.”

Pierce raised his eyebrows and she quickly broke eye-contact, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear and busying her hands with packing up her materials. Midway through she stopped, and her forehead crinkled in confusion.

“Is there a problem?” he asked.

She lifted up the few pieces of parchment left on her desk, then started digging through her bag as she said, “I can’t find my quill. I could have sworn it was right there….”

“I wouldn’t worry. Those things go missing on me so often I swear they grow legs and wander off sometimes. Here.” He strode to the front of the room and bent down behind his desk. While he was out of the girl’s view, he deposited her pilfered quill into a drawer before pulling out a new one of his own. He returned and handed it to her. “Go on,” he insisted when she hesitated. “I’ve got dozens on hand for occasions like this.”

She frowned and vainly cast about the area one last time. “You’re sure?” she asked when the search turned up no results.


Smiling shyly, she thanked him and took the quill, carefully tucking it behind one ear. He nodded and closed the door behind her when she left. Turning back to his empty classroom, a grin spread over his face. He still wondered what in Merlin’s name she wanted to know about the Mirror for, but that was the least of his concerns. Severus had told him via coded message, delivered by owl just that morning, that the potion would be ready as early as two days from now (provided he obtained something of Weasley’s by tonight). That meant he had two days to devise a plan, and he needed to get started right away because this was too critical to botch up. Nothing could go wrong.

Five minutes later, and Pierce had already forgotten all about Ginny Weasley’s odd behavior.

- - - - -

Draco went to Pierce’s office as soon as he received the professor’s summons. He’d only been reading a fairly dull book anyway, and besides, he was curious. This was the first time Pierce actually sent for him.

“It’s unlocked,” the man called at Draco's knock. He sat behind his desk, already wearing a smile that showed nearly all of his teeth. “I’m glad you could come so quickly.”

Draco stepped inside, a wave of heat immediately hitting him. Why on earth did Pierce keep it so hot in here? He glanced at the fireplace, taking a seat without being told, surprised to find it dead. It felt like a bonfire was blazing in here. “I wasn’t busy,” he finally said when he realized Pierce was waiting on a response.

“Good, I’d hate to disturb you. I just wanted to discuss a few things.”

“Something wrong?”

Pierce chuckled. “You’re not in trouble, if that’s what you’re asking. I am curious how you’re doing with Miss Weasley, though.”

Draco immediately scowled. “Pretty much the same.” He sighed, slouching down a little in the chair. “I suppose we have had a few almost-civil conversations. Here and there.”

Pierce inclined his head. “Better than nothing. These things take time.”

Draco couldn’t say that he really shared in the man’s optimism, but distracted by the temperature he could swear rose by the minute, he nodded anyway. He loosened his tie surreptitiously, but Pierce didn’t miss the gesture.

“All right, Mr. Malfoy?” he inquired mildly.

“Just a bit warm in here,” Draco admitted.

Looking concerned, Pierce said, “Is it? I think I must be coming down with a little something, then. I’ve been chilly all day. Can I get you a cold drink?”

Normally, Draco didn’t accept offers like that. Maybe it was some of his father’s paranoia carrying over, but he didn’t trust them. Just then, though, his skin felt a few degrees away from catching fire, and a fine sheen of sweat was breaking out along his hairline. He barely hesitated in answering, “That would be fantastic.”

Pierce gave a minute smile and held up a hand, indicating for Draco to stay seated. He disappeared through a door in the rear of the office, returning a moment later carrying a glass filled with what looked like pumpkin juice. Draco downed half of it in one swallow, exhaling gratefully as the ice-cold beverage relieved the heat a little.

“Better?” Pierce asked, seeming quite cheerful for someone supposedly under the weather.

Draco was too intent on the cool liquid, which he took another, more measured sip of, to pay much mind to the incongruity. “Much.”

“Wonderful. So did you ever manage to get those ridiculous gardens working?”

“Almost.” Draco tipped back the glass for another healthy swallow. “We were working on it last night, but it got too late before we could finish.” He paused and considered his drink with a slight frown. His mind felt foggy. “Is this pumpkin juice? It tastes a little off.”

“It’s my own recipe. The school’s is too bland for me,” Pierce explained absently. “You’re playing Ravenclaw tomorrow, correct?”

“Easy,” Draco dismissed, deciding to just ignore the funny feeling still in his head.

“Then that gives us how long before the first Gryffindor match?”

Draco did some quick mental calculation. “Well it depends on how well they do, and how well we do, but the very earliest would be about two weeks.”

Pierce sat back. “Not much time,” he observed.

Draco shook his head in agreement, then finished off the drink. Pierce’s eyes followed the movement, which made Draco a little uncomfortable.

“Well, might as well do what we can,” Pierce said. “It probably wouldn’t hurt for you to spend some time with her tonight. Your excuse can be finishing the work on that Portable Garden.”

Draco made a face. “I’m really getting tired of all this. And I honestly don’t think it’s working.”

“You gave your word to go along with whatever I said,” Pierce reminded him pointedly.

Draco sighed. “Right. Fine, I’ll go find her.”

“Do you need me to send a message?”

Draco shook his head. “I know where she’ll probably be. It’s okay.”

Pierce silently raised his eyebrows, then inclined his head with a tiny smile. “All right then. Good luck.” His eyes glanced to the clock. “Oh, and I’ve been getting some complaints about students out past curfew, so make sure and be back in a couple hours.”

“Not a problem,” Draco assured him, thinking that it wasn’t like he was all that eager to spend more time with the girl than absolutely necessary. He got up and returned Pierce’s glass, exchanged farewells, then wasted no time in retreating to the blessedly cool hallway.

He started off towards the Quidditch pitch, knowing Weasley was bound to be out practicing. The vague, cottony sensation in his head was almost gone by now, and he just attributed it to the office’s heat. He always could take cold better than hot.

The air outside was already starting to wane from summer’s stifling warmth to fall’s crisper feel, especially now with the sun only hours from setting. He breathed in deeply, closing his eyes and welcoming the breeze that ruffled his hair. When the wind died down, he grudgingly sacrificed the moment by opening his eyes and took off at a brisk walk.

The pitch came into view moments later, and unsurprisingly, a miniature figure with vibrant copper hair flew daring flips and turns above it in the distance. As Draco got closer, he noticed the way the sun bounced off that hair, picking out little flecks of gold and making them shimmer. He wondered why he had never realized that her hair was so much richer than the usual, garish Weasley-red.

She performed a flawless back-flip, and Draco couldn’t help but admire her grace in the air, the way her lithe body moved in perfect harmony. Well, it should,, he mused, eyes glued to her, she practices enough. It paid off, though—she was definitely impressive on a broom, not to mention the aesthetic side-effects of all the exercise. That body could easily make a boy weak at the knees.

Draco suddenly stopped short, jaw dropping open. Had he honestly just thought that? He shook his head, slowly shutting his mouth. He’d just overheard too much guy-talk about her lately. That had to be it. And as for the admiration of her flying skill? Well…she was rather good. That was just the honest truth, and Draco made a point to never lie to himself. That was all.

He finally reached the pitch and hailed her with a raised arm. She spotted him and slowed, circling down in a lazy spiral. She touched down, easily hefting her broom over one shoulder as she walked up to him, dark brown eyes suspicious.

“Malfoy,” she greeted cautiously. “What do you want?”

Her voice held a bite to it. Of course, it usually did around him, but this seemed like something more. He wondered what the cause was. “I wanted to finish fixing the Portable Garden.”

She scrunched up her features, and Draco’s mouth twitched a little to fight back a smile at the gesture. It was cute, but he doubted that was her aim just then. Again, he caught himself, feeling a little stunned. Did he just think she was cute? What was wrong with him today?

“I’m really not in the mood, Malfoy,” she said.

“Come on, Weasley. We were almost done last night, and I just want to get it over with.”

She rolled her eyes. “Well, why didn’t you say so sooner? If I had only known your majesty was in the mood, then I would have dropped everything at once,” she spat sarcastically, offering up a mock curtsy.

Now his mouth did curve into a smile. Merlin the girl had fire. “What else would you be doing? More flying? You’ve practiced more than anyone else in the school. I think you’re safe to skip a few hours tonight.”

She wiped her forehead on the back of her arm, clearly frustrated. “Look, it’s just not a good time, okay?”

He opened his mouth to make some smart-arse reply, but caught himself when he noticed those dark eyes of hers were shining. He realized with a start she was fighting back tears. Perhaps even more startling, the knowledge actually disturbed him. He hesitated, then asked, “Everything all right?”

She laughed, turning around quickly to wipe furiously at her eyes. “Right, because you’d really give a damn if I said no.”

He knew she should be right. He knew it. But he found her distress oddly disquieting. “Just asking…” he muttered.

She suddenly whirled around, all trace of tears gone from her eyes, replaced by a hard, intense glint. “Play me.”

He blinked, thrown off balance by the sudden mood swing. “What?”

“Play me,” she repeated. “If you win, we’ll work on the stupid arse garden.”

“If I lose…?” he asked warily.

She thought it over a minute, then a slow, wicked smile spread over her face. “You give me your broom.”

He instantly shook his head. “Are you crazy? That thing cost a fortune!”

“What? It’s not like you couldn’t just buy another one anyway,” she said, sounding disgusted.

He opened his mouth, almost letting slip something he’d rather she didn’t know about that. He checked himself just in time and gritted his teeth. “Fine.

She grinned, pulled a practice snitch out of her pocket, and let it fly. “Well, what are you waiting for? Accio your broom.”

Annoyed as he was at being sucked into this, he experienced an entirely unfamiliar emotion rising up—respect. No one could say Weasley was weak, and he found himself envious of her strength. Funny that he never realized that about her before. He Accio’d his broom.

“Standard rules apply,” she reminded brusquely before kicking off into the air.

The match started out slow, as most one-on-one Seeker games do. Draco knew he should be worried. Weasley wasn’t bad to begin with, and after all of her extra time on the pitch, she must be bloody brilliant by now.

Oddly enough though, he didn’t feel intimidated. In fact, he realized as time went on, his entire mindset was different. Usually all of his focus was on beating his opponent, but for some completely inexplicable reason, that wasn’t such a concern to him this time. Instead, he simply concentrated on the Snitch alone.

By the time he spotted the glimmer of gold, he was practically oblivious to Weasley, watching only for sudden movements that meant she saw the tiny ball first. Now though, having spied it, he spared a split-second to gauge her position. She was in the middle of her favored grid search pattern, apparently unaware. And he was closer.

He leaned forward on the broom and rushed forward, feeling with exhilaration the wind whipping at his clothes. He was closing the distance fast, but to his absolute shock, he caught a glimpse of Weasley racing right on his heels from the corner of his eye. How did she move that fast on such a shoddy old broom?

He redoubled his efforts, nearly flattening himself to the broom handle, but she was still gaining on him. He risked a quick glance back to see her face fierce and intense, and it was that expression of pure determination that made something in his stomach lurch. The feeling was totally foreign to him, confusing him more than a little, and it caused him to falter for just a millisecond.

It was enough for Weasley. She pulled ahead until they were almost exactly even, and Draco swore out loud, urging his broom on. Obviously hearing the curse, Weasley grinned evilly, hair long and swept back from her face by the wind. The Snitch was close now, very close, and they were in a dead tie. Draco stretched out his hand, shutting out everything but that one sphere of gold.

With his field of vision so narrowed, he couldn’t recall later how he managed to pull ahead. He would realize that it was odd he never tried to knock her aside. Generally he wanted to inflict pain almost as badly as he wanted to catch the stupid Snitch. Maybe that was how he managed it. But whatever the cause, it was his hand that wrapped around the Snitch first.

He only had a second to exalt in his victory before — with both of them so close — the inevitable happened. They collided, hard. Draco managed to hold on to his perch, but Weasley’s much smaller frame couldn’t take the impact, and she plunged towards the ground at break-neck speed, her scream ripping through the air.

Draco only reacted. He sped after her, straining harder than he knew he was capable of, certainly harder than he had for the Snitch. His eyes were watering, distorting her into a blur of red hair, black cloth, and pink skin; every muscle ached, but he didn’t slow.

He caught her around the waist only feet from the ground. He didn’t have time to land properly, so he just brought the broom to as much of a stop as he could manage before they hit the ground, and then threw himself off, shielding her body with his. His shoulder connected first, followed by his hip and finally his back where he came to rest with Weasley sprawled across his torso.

For what felt like a very long time, neither of them moved. They were too busy trying to recuperate from the shock and fear, gasping for breath in tandem. Weasley recovered first, putting her hands at either side of his head and pushing herself up shakily to gaze down at him. He thought her eyes looked very wide, filled with residue fear and something else, something peculiar when directed at him — gratitude.

“Malfoy, I…” she swallowed. “Thank you,” she finished lamely.

Her lips were full and pink, parted slightly from still erratic breathing. The bottom one bled a little from where she must have bitten it by accident. He tore his gaze away, wondering angrily why that should seem such a difficult thing to do. He tried to recall all the reasons he hated her so much, but everything he came up with suddenly no longer seemed to bother him at all. “Yeah, well…” he trailed off uncertainly.

She nodded, though he wasn’t really positive what for. Then she rolled off of him and onto her knees. “Bloody hell,” she muttered.

He quite agreed with that sentiment. Wincing, he rolled up to a sitting position. He was going to have more than a few bruises tomorrow. Then he remembered something. “I won,” he announced.

She looked over at him, disbelief written all across her cinnamon-speckled face. Then, abruptly, she burst into laughter. It was the loud kind, honest and sincere, and soon she was holding her stomach, wiping at her eyes.

He watched in fascination. Could he even remember the last time he heard laughter like that, untouched by malice, not serving to cover anything up? The sound drew him, such a simple expression of mirth. No hidden motive, no games, just what it was — laughter.

He found himself thinking that this, this was what it was really intended for, not what the people he knew had distorted it into, and the revelation seemed profound to his mind.

Before he knew what he was doing, he was joining in. It felt strange to him, to laugh just for the sake of laughing without any reason, but it felt good too. It felt clean. It made him feel alive, and light, and free, and so he laughed harder. That, of course, made her laugh even harder as well, and soon they both had tears rolling down their cheeks.

“You know something, Malfoy,” Weasley gasped, grinning hugely and shaking her head in wonderment, “you’re right. You did. Let’s go work on the dumb punishment.”

Finally managing to get himself under control — though his lips still twitched a little towards a smile — he nodded and climbed to his feet. Without thinking, he offered her a hand. Clearly surprised, she glanced up at his face distrustfully, then hesitantly placed her smaller hand in his. He tugged her up effortlessly, and for one second they stood frozen with hands clasped. His eyes inadvertently locked onto hers, but whatever thoughts she may have been thinking stayed hidden behind her dark gaze.

She ended the awkward moment first, her fingers briefly giving the lightest of squeezes before pulling out of his grasp. She tucked her hair behind her ears, something Draco recognized as a common nervous gesture of hers, then said, “Right, well, we should probably get going.”

The trip to the greenhouse passed in uncomfortable silence. For his part, Draco was growing more and more confused by the second. Almost desperately, he kept retrying his earlier experiment, picking out things he couldn’t stand about her, only to find that now he found them captivating, compelling even.

Her obnoxious tendency to back chat he now saw as clever wit. Her insufferable stubbornness transformed into passion and drive. The infuriatingly condescending “advice” was just the compassionate nature she couldn’t quite manage to stifle completely, not even towards him. Little things changed too, like how her hair went from obnoxious to vivid, her eyes from plain to hypnotic.

Perhaps most alarming of his revelations, though, it hit him that he actually appreciated the challenge she posed. Looked forward to it, even — if nothing else, just to break up the monotony.

By the time they reached the greenhouse, Draco was nearly terrified to look at her, afraid he would find something else…pleasant about her. Cautiously, he did risk one quick peek, only to see all of her earlier merriment gone, her features somber. He remembered then how she nearly broke down in front of him before their game.

As they got settled at one of the tables, he couldn’t resist asking, against all better judgment, “So what was wrong before?” Perhaps not the most tactful way to go about it, he mused, but at least his tone wasn’t rude. That had to count for something.

She didn’t answer for a long time. Her lips pressed together, and she rolled one of the Portable Gardens around her palm, determinedly avoiding eye-contact. He waited anyway, but when she showed no sign of opening up, he sighed quietly and prepared to go gather some supplies.

“I’m lonely,” she admitted suddenly, barely audible but still halting his intentions.

He stared, honestly surprised she chose to confide in him of all people, and more than a little curious why.

As if reading his thoughts, she said with a rueful laugh, “I can’t believe I’m telling you this. I guess it’s not like I need to worry about you letting it slip during all those chats you’re always having with the people I know.” He snorted at that, and she continued almost to herself, “Besides, after what you just did, I suppose I owe you….”

Uncomfortable, Draco prompted, “Why do you say you’re lonely?”

She fiddled with a leaf. “You know Harry’s gone. So’s Ron and Hermione. I don’t feel like I even know my old friends anymore.”

“What about that one bloke I saw you hanging around last year?”

She smiled faintly. “You mean Dean? I dunno. He’s great, but…well, he’s moved on. I think he just feels obligated to talk to me now because of our history.”

“There’s still that other kid. You know, the one that worshipped Potter.”

Weasley laughed. “That would be Collin. And he’s great too, but he’s got his own life. Everyone’s got their own bloody life.”

“But you,” he ventured.

She nodded miserably. “Right in one.” She looked up and suddenly seemed to remember who she was talking to. Her cheeks colored, but she straightened her back and stared him straight in the face as if challenging him to make fun.

And that was the crux of it all, he realized. He should be making fun and taking advantage of her weakness. Opportunities like this rarely presented themselves, and normally he would have grabbed on with both hands, but now he just couldn’t dredge up enough malice to go through with it. Instead, he caught himself admiring her for putting on such a brave front all this time when inside she clearly hurt, and it made him want to smack his head against the wall because obviously something was seriously wrong with him for having these thoughts. For the life of him, he just couldn’t fathom what.

In the meantime she sat across from him, waiting to see how he would respond with a warning look on her face. Despite all his best efforts he couldn’t mock her, he sure as hell didn’t know the first thing about consoling anybody, and Draco found himself at a loss for the first time in ages.

“Maybe it’s partly you,” he finally offered, the awkwardness of the moment and the infuriating thoughts careening through his mind necessitating he say something.

Her eyes narrowed dangerously. “If you’re making some smart-arse remark about my looks or personality or family…”

Draco quickly shook his head. “No, no I didn’t mean it like that. I just mean…well, you don’t have to be lonely.”

Her forehead crinkled, the warning in her face giving way to confusion. “What are you saying?”

Draco sighed, absently rubbing his hand at the back of his neck. “I’m saying that there’re plenty of blokes who would love to…spend time with you.”

She showed a tiny smile. “Like you, Malfoy?”

He glanced up sharply, but for some reason her face momentarily arrested his response. Her hair, deep crimson in the failing light, framed it perfectly, bringing out her dark eyes and fair, freckle-dusted skin. For one insane moment, he understood what all the boys were constantly harping on about. Then he remembered who he was looking at and snapped his eyes away, gritting out, “Don’t be ridiculous, Weasley. I have more sense.” What the hell was wrong with him tonight?

She watched him a silent moment. “You know, if I didn’t know any better, I’d almost think you were trying to be halfway decent. Failing miserably, but trying.”

He valiantly fought down the urge to curse out loud. “Good thing you know better then,” he said instead.

Her mouth hinted at a smile. “Yeah. I suppose so.”

Not wanting to look at her, afraid again of what new and disturbing revelations he might encounter if he did, he let his gaze wander aimlessly around the room. His eyes passed over a clock, and he thought that a more beautiful sight never existed – it showed that it was almost curfew.

“We’ve gotta go,” he announced abruptly, hoping his relief sounded less obvious to her than it did to him.

She gave him a puzzled look. “I thought you wanted to work on these stupid gardens? We haven’t even started yet.”

“I did,” he admitted, “but we spent too much time playing. Professor Pierce warned me earlier that I had to be back in the dormitory by curfew tonight. I guess there’s been complaints or something. We’ll have to reschedule.”

Weasley groaned. “Just brilliant.” She sighed. “Fine, you go on. I’ll just put everything away and then I’ll go in too.”

As a prefect, Draco knew he should probably make her go first, but just now he didn’t feel particularly inclined to it. He wasted no time in getting to his feet, offering her only a curt parting nod of agreement before turning around to leave.

He had his hand on the door when her soft call of, “Hey, Malfoy?” stopped him. He squeezed his eyes shut a moment, forcing himself not to think of how musical her voice sounded when it wasn’t screeching at him like a banshee, then turned and asked, “What is it, Weasley?”

She hesitated. “Just, well…thanks, I guess. For not letting me fall, I mean.” She paused again, clearly struggling with what she wanted to say next. “And for just now,” she finally added, though he thought she seemed to be speaking through clenched teeth just to get the words out. “I…” she took a breath. “I appreciate it.”

He stared for a long moment, having not even the slightest inkling of how he should respond to that. Finally, he just settled on, “I’ll let you know when we can reschedule.”

She smiled, apparently unsurprised by his lack of acknowledgment. “Okay.”

He lingered a moment longer, opening his mouth, thinking he might say something, but no words came so he simply shut it again and turned around. This time she didn’t stop him as he walked gratefully out of the greenhouse, more disconcerted than he’d ever been in his entire life.

- - - - -

A/N – holy cow guys, this sucker is almost double the length of my normal chapters! Myself, I actually prefer them a tad bit shorter (makes them easier to proof/edit haha), but this just ended up being the energizer bunny chapter — it kept going and going…

Hey, whatever happened to the energizer bunny? I haven’t seen him in years…

Lol anyway, thanks for reading!
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