CHAPTER 10

**AUTHOR'S NOTE: Happy Easter, my friends! Or if you don't celebrate Easter… Happy Zombie Jesus Day. Or better yet, Happy Chocolate Future Chicken Generation Consumption. Because who doesn't like chocolate eggs, right? Lol ^_-

In celebration, I have combined two chapters for your reading enjoyment. Please review and let me know how you like it (too angsty? Or does everyone approve?) Whatever you are celebrating today, I hope everyone has fun with friends and family!

Dinner was a spectacularly entertaining affair. Snape, the only one in attendance who was peeved (as opposed to pleased) with the additional company, became the target of playful teasing. The adrenaline that had been coursing through the teenagers' veins upon their arrival was transformed into giddy relief, making them bolder with the tetchy professor than they normally would have ever dared.

Harry's father got the best of them all, however. Laughing over the fact that Snape's permanently puckered expression looked as though he was constantly sucking a lemon, there was suddenly a sound like popcorn as everyone around the table turned into river trout. Gasping for breath (or water in this case), Harry and the others helplessly flipped and flopped on the seat of their chairs.

"Silence," Snape muttered appreciatively as he leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes to enjoy the moment. "Finally…"

Just as the edges of Harry's vision were beginning to darken and he was truly starting to panic, Snape produced a tank of water in the sitting room that was just large enough for them all. His father hovered them into it one by one, and Harry gratefully gulped water over his gills. But as the tank grew more crowded and he barely had room to move, Harry became increasingly outraged at the absurdity of the situation. However, the only thing any of them could do as they swam in monotonous, repetitive laps was glare at Snape.

Snape took his time in cleaning up dinner, completing the task strictly as a muggle, without any magic to speed up the process. Even when Harry could plainly see that his father's hands were hurting, Snape refused to use his wand. Stubborn git, Harry thought opening and closing his mouth in angry indignation.

After cleaning the kitchen his father perched himself in the arm chair beside the fireplace, settling in to read a large book from the borrowed library. He never once looked up at the tank.

Harry was just beginning to relax into being a fish when without warning, he and the others were sitting on their bums on the sitting room floor, soaked to the skin and dripping all over the plush rug beneath them. Harry realized that he wasn't the only one to be taken by surprise, as all of them continued to open and close their mouths in a very fish-like manner for long moments.

"Now," Snape announced as he loomed above them. "If the lesson needs more time to sink in, I am happy to oblige." He arched a brow, and everyone was still too shocked to say anything at all. "No? Well then, you three–" he waved his wand and Remus, Tonks, and McGonagall were suddenly on their feet and being pushed toward the door by an unseen force. "I will unfortunately be seeing you tomorrow. You–" another wave of his wand and Jillian, Celine, and Lily were standing before him. "Baths. You smell like pond water. And you three–" Harry, Ron, and Hermione scrambled to their feet before he could use his wand. Snape smirked before announcing in a silky, dangerous tone, "Trunks ready tonight, robes freshly laundered and folded, school supplies packed nicely – I will be inspecting them at 7:30 tomorrow morning, before breakfast, and if I don't approve the way things are packed, you will lose said things.

"Remember: others need to believe you were away over the summer. Pack all of your belongings so that you can publicly unpackthem tomorrow." And with that, he strode the few paces to the fireplace and flung a handful of floo powder into the flames, sneering, "Have a pleasant evening."

Although Harry was still a little annoyed at their treatment, he had to admit the next morning that their departure to King's Cross Station was going much smoother than normal. After his father's inspection, the three of them even had time for a relaxing, unhurried breakfast in the Common Room. They sat gazing quietly out the window, each consumed in their own thoughts about the coming year.

Suddenly the fireplace roared to life with green flames, emitting Remus and Tonks.

"Morning!" The teens chorused.

"Oh good, you're up!" Remus greeted with a warm smile. "After everything that happened last night, we didn't exactly get a chance to… ah… speak about the plan for this morning." Although their former professor sported a sheepish, tolerating grin, Tonks didn't look so happy about the reminder of their time spent as fish.

"Not the best dinner party I've ever attended," she grumbled, sitting backwards with her legs straddling a chair and popping a grape into her mouth. The others couldn't help but chuckle in agreement.

"Are you escorting us to King's Cross, then?" Hermione asked.

"Well," Remus answered hesitantly. "Yes and no. Do you have a photograph of your parents, Hermione?"

"Yes. Let me get it," Hermione mused, a look of confusion crossing her features as she pushed herself away from the table. Kneeling next to her trunk, the bushy-haired girl rummaged around until she found what she was looking for. As she walked back to the table and handed the silver-framed photo to Remus, Harry realized that this was the first time he'd ever actually seen Hermione's parents, except in brief passing on the train platform.

Even though it was a muggle photograph, Harry could plainly see how proud the Grangers were of their daughter. Mrs. Granger shared the same long, bushy hair as Hermione, and had visible laugh lines around the edges of her mouth and eyes. Mr. Granger reminded Harry of his father's last disguise – balding, bespectacled, and quietly unassuming. But the man's chest was puffed in content, satisfied pride as he held his family close.

But what struck Harry most was just how normal they seemed, as if plucked from one of the catalogs Harry grew up watching his Aunt Petunia read. He wondered how different a person he would have been if he'd had surviving parents that were anything like Hermione's. But even as the sad thought crossed his mind, Harry couldn't bring himself to regret the family he had now. As irritated as he currently was with the man, he felt extremely lucky to call Severus Snape his father. And Lily and Jillian were just as precious to him.

Hermione seemed as lost in thought as Harry, for she gazed down at the photo with a mix of pride, love, and a worried expression that she couldn't quite conceal. After a moment, her eyes flicked questioningly up at Remus and she silently handed him the gilded frame.

Remus smiled warmly as he took the picture. "You're close with them, aren't you?"

"Yes. Very."

Remus seemed to study the photo for a long moment before handing it across to Tonks. The Auror carefully examined the picture, and with a brisk nod transformed into a perfect replica of Hermione's mother.

"What?!" Hermione yelped, almost falling out of her chair.

Tonks immediately changed back to herself as Remus quickly explained, "The best way to keep others from being suspicious is to keep your behavior patterns as normal as possible. You three and what happened at the Ministry has been mentioned by the Daily Prophet almost every day this summer. If you lot were to be escorted to King's Cross by two suspected members of the Order of the Phoenix, people would notice – especially the wrong people. But if you arrive with Hermione's parents, no one will bat an eye."

"Well... I guess that's true," Hermione conceded grudgingly. Still, she stared warily at Remus before quietly asking, "Can you assure me that they will be given protection? My parents… They don't really understand how serious–"

"The Order has been tailing them since the beginning of the summer," Tonks assured her. "We have eyes on them twenty-four hours a day, and we will continue to watch them until the war is over. You have my word that they're safe."

Hermione seemed to deflate in relief. But a moment later she straightened as her eyes widened in shock. "Since the beginning of the summer? I never noticed anything!"

"Well that's kind of the point, right?" Tonks responded with a wink. But then she grew more serious. "We don't want anyone to know we're there – including You-Know-Who's people. It's not exactly a secret that you come from a muggle background, so..." They all knew perfectly well what horrors Voldemort and his Death Eaters were capable of, especially if they thought their torture would draw out Harry and his friends. It was a horrific thought that didn't need repeating.

Hermione sat back in her chair. No one said anything as they waited for her decision.

"Alright then," she finally murmured. "But… can we head to King's Cross now? I'm not really hungry anymore."

It said a lot about how much everyone empathized with her fear for her parents, for even Ron pushed himself back from the table and away from a half-eaten breakfast without complaint.

.:HP::SS:HP::SS:.

Draco sat in the shadows, knees to his chest and his back pressed uncomfortably against the old, uneven brick wall of Platform 9 & ¾. He'd been waiting on the empty dais for hours, the bulk of his trunk partially obscuring him from view. The young wizard had arrived alone, early enough to watch the scarlet steam train pull into the station.

It wasn't that he was eager to get to Hogwarts, but more that he was eager to get away from home.

After asking the Drak Lord late last night for permission to see his mother, Draco had been unceremoniously informed that he would not be allowed to say goodbye. "But not to worry," the Dark Lord had said with a smile that looked more like a sneer. "You can give her the news face-to-face when you have successfully completed your mission."

As he turned and walked bitterly away, Draco wondered if he would ever see his mother again. Somehow, he doubted it.

He picked at a hangnail on his thumb, but didn't notice until he saw the blood welling between the nail and the skin of his finger. Fitting, he thought with a humorless smile. Death by a thousand little cuts… Kind of like my father.

He wasn't even sure if he should call Lucius Malfoy that any longer.

The man was a shell of his former self since losing favor – and his wife – to the Dark Lord. Draco had seen him only a handful of times over the summer, mainly when the Death Eaters were summoned to the Dark Lord's side. Even then it was only at a distance, for Draco had been relegated to the back edge of the group.

Once, only a few days after his mother had been moved to the Dark Lord's quarters, Draco had used the hidden passages within the manor to invisibly traverse the halls without any particular destination in mind. Even if it only for a moment, he simply wanted to make his own decisions regarding his destiny – however insignificant. Creeping through the dark corridors, Draco somehow found himself standing before his parent's bedroom door. He knocked for almost an hour, quietly attempting to get his father's attention. But the man never answered.

And thus, Draco's life began to irreversibly, irrevocably morph into a nightmare.

As the days turned into weeks and the weeks into months, Draco began to look forward to going back to Hogwarts like he never had before. Even with his horrific mission hanging heavily over him like a dark cloud, Draco yearned to return somewhere that his world made sense again. Unwilling to admit to himself how different this year would be, he began a mantra that was the only thing that kept him sane during the last weeks of the horrendous summer: "Fifteen days. Only fifteen days until I leave for Hogwarts." Days would trickle by, the horror around him almost too much for his mind to bear. But his mantra always kept him tethered to reality: "Ten days until I go back to Hogwarts."

"Six days…"

"Two…"

"Tomorrow…"

Finally, unable to stand the imprisoned feeling a moment longer, Draco had snuck away before dawn and apparated directly to King's Cross Station. And here he sat in the shadow of the old train, hidden by the thick, billowing clouds of steam as he attempted – without much success – not to watch as students and gathered with their doting parents for one last, loving goodbye. The platform became crowded as more families moved through the barrier, making it nearly impossible for Draco to suppress the feeling of abandonment that was threatening to choke him. He'd go to his grave before he ever admitted it, but for the first time in his life, the hollow sting of envy burned strong inside. He blinked furiously, trying to convince himself it was only the smoke bothering his eyes, and not bitter tears.

As the train continued belching steam and obscuring his vision, the shadows of a family moved past the crowd to the end of the platform, close to where Draco sat unnoticed. Unable to see their features clearly, he peered at the ethereal figures – a mother, father, two sons, and a daughter. The family talked quietly amongst themselves, the words too low for Draco to hear. Once they even broke out in laughter, the sound taking Draco off guard. He'd forgotten there was anything in the world to laugh about.

As the boarding whistle finally pierced the air, the mother and father reached out and pulled their daughter into a tight hug. An overwhelming wave of confusing emotion swept through Draco at the sight. He tore his gaze away, stumbling to his feet on cold, numb legs.

As he began to drag his trunk toward the train, the mists parted enough for him to recognize the faces of the unknown family. He stopped short when he realized it was none other than Potter, Weasley, and Granger. The adults must be Granger's filthy muggle parents, Draco thought, for neither adult sported the distinct red hair of the Weasel family.

Without warning a voice inside him quietly taunted, Filthy muggles they may be, but they're here. Where are your parents? Full-blood or not, they are nowhere to be seen… It was like Draco was in a trance, and the words continued slithering through his brain like a parasite.

"Well, I'll um, see you soon," Granger declared, distracting Draco's dark musings as she pulled away from her parents and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear.

"Love you, Pumpkin," her mother cooed, reaching out to squeeze her hand.

"We can't wait to hear all about your classes," her father chimed in. "Do well."

"She always does, sir," Weasley smirked with a sideways glance at a blushing Granger. He extended his hand to the father, who shook it with a warm smile.

"You take care of my girl, now."

"Yes sir, we will."

"Thank you for letting us come stay, Mr. Granger," Potter added, also shaking the man's hand. "It was nice to, err… get away."

"Harry! Hey!" Weasley's sister suddenly jogged towards the group, smiling broadly. She was followed close behind by two adults that were surely her parents, judging not only by the red hair, but also from the old, second-hand clothes they wore.

The group of parents spoke quietly to each other for a moment, and the teenagers hugged and laughed as they greeted one another. For some inexplicable reason, Draco felt like a voyeur – as though he were doing something horribly wrong – as he watched them.

"Oh, wait!" The Weasley matriarch suddenly cried. "Before I forget, here: I made everyone's favorites," she announced, handing out bundles of sandwiches and snacks to each of the teens. She sighed as she caught sight of her son and asked, "Ronald, how do you always manage to get dirt on your face?" With an outraged cry of, "Mum, c'mon!" Weasley easily ducked out from under her outstretched arm, which had obviously been aimed to swipe at the dirt.

It was in that moment that Potter must have felt his gaze, for his eyes suddenly searched the crowd. As they landed on Draco, a look of utter surprise crossed the other boy's face. But the shock wore off quickly and was replaced by a dark, accusing glare. Draco narrowed his eyes, his defenses immediately raised. Hefting his trunk and storming past the group, he refused to meet their gazes.

Of course, he thought bitterly. Nothing has changed – not for them, anyway. Potter has no idea what's happened to my family over the summer, or that I hate the Dark Lordas much as he does.

Glancing over his shoulder, he saw that the entire group – including both sets of parents – was now staring silently back at him. It took all he could not to hurl curses at the lot of them.

Fuck Potter! Draco thought as he spun on his heel. Fuck Granger and her clueless muggle parents! Fuck Weasel and his entire happy family! Fuck everyone!

The line to board the train was crowded, and in that moment an urge to turn around and disappear into the London streets almost won out. But an image of his mother – eyes soulless and empty, unresponsive to almost everything around her – kept Draco where he was, being jostled about by other students as they all attempted to climb on board the steam engine.

"Move," he snarled to a group of first years, taking none of the normal satisfaction from how they jumped to get out of his way. Still dragging his heavy trunk behind him, Draco forced himself to the front of the line and onto the train, hurrying through multiple cars in search of one that was empty. He was so desperate to get away from the other students that he didn't notice a compartment door slide open just a few steps ahead of him, and he unceremoniously crashed into the person leaving it.

Pansy Parkinson stumbled, then angrily spun to face him. "Hey, watch–! Oh." Her face immediately changed as she realized who it was. "Hi Draco," she bubbled, a flirtatious smile softening her lips.

"Hey," he muttered unenthusiastically, glancing past her to see if the next car was empty.

"Are you headed to the Prefect carriage? I was just going there, myself. We could go together, if you'd like."

Prefect duty, Draco inwardly groaned. I forgot. That's the last thing I want to do right now, not on top of everything else… I need to be alone to think, dammit!

"Yeah, um, let me just…" But suddenly another image of his mother drifted through his brain, followed close behind by the image of Granger's parents with their arms wound tightly around their daughter. He remembered Weasley's doting mother on the platform, making sure every child around her felt cared for, even those that were not her own.

Draco's face hardened.

"You know something, Pansy?Stuff Prefect duty. I've got bigger problems." He pushed past the stunned girl and continued his search for an empty train car, desperate for a quiet place where he could sit and think.

Nearing the end of the train, he finally found a compartment that was blissfully silent. Draco was beginning to realize that he would be forced to put on a show for the rest of the school this year, and he wasn't sure how he was going to pull it off. The mental strain he was already experiencing was enough to push him over the edge. But losing it was a luxury he couldn't afford – not with his parents' very lives relying on his success. Shoving his trunk onto the rack above his seat, Draco sat down with a heavy sigh and let his head fall into his hands. The train began to move, and he heard the voices of the parents on the platform die away.

Draco was starting to understand that Hogwarts may be just as difficult to endure as Malfoy Manor, and he was grateful for the time to collect himself and gather his thoughts.

Unfortunately, the moment was short-lived.

The compartment door flew open with a bang, making Draco jump as his heart galloped painfully within his chest. Luckily the intruders didn't notice, and Crabbe and Goyle guffawed stupidly as they lumbered in.

"Hey Draco," bellowed Goyle, tossing his trunk up onto the rack with a hefty clatter. "Pansy said you were all alone back here–"

"So we thought we'd keep you company," blurted Crabbe, plopping heavily down beside Draco and making the entire bench rattle.

"Great," Draco sighed, his voice dripping with sarcasm as he lay his head against the headrest and stared morosely at the ceiling. But as usual, the big apes didn't catch his meaning.

"So how was your summer, Draco?" Goyle asked, slipping into the seat across from him.

Draco slowly raised his head and blinked at the two of them. "Spectacular," he murmured cynically. My father had his eye torn out and isn't speaking to me; my mother is the Dark Lord's punching bag and concubine; and my family's home has become the headquarters for everything dark and evil currently happening in our world. Oh yeah – and I'm now officially a Death Eater. He stared resentfully out the window, watching the clouds throw the landscape outside into dark shadow. "You?"

Crabbe and Goyle launched into long, detailed explanations of their summers, but Draco wasn't paying attention. It was sometime later, when the scenery had changed from busy inner city to rolling hillsides dotted with villages, that Blaise Zabini entered the compartment with a bored look covering his haughty features. Without asking for consent, the other boy slid his trunk into the rack above, then sat next to Goyle as if he owned the place. Although Zabini was tolerable enough, he usually didn't consort much with Draco and his friends. But Draco was too tired to press the point, and instead simply nodded in greeting at his classmate before turning his gaze back out the window.

Goyle, however, had no such qualms. "What do you want, Zabini?" he scowled at the other boy. "Come down out of your tower long enough to consort with us commoners?"

"I'm not sure what you mean," Zabini murmured, inspecting the nonexistent dirt beneath his fingernails. "We're all Slytherins here, why not show a little comradery? Especially with what's going on outside. And I don't know about you and Crabbe, but Malfoy is definitely not a commoner," he smirked.

It took a long moment for Zabini's words to sink into Draco's brain. When they finally did, he turned to the other boy and asked, "What's going on outside?"

"Just that Weasley girl stirring up trouble. Some Hufflepuff was asking her about what they've been writing in the Daily Prophet, so she hexed him. I wasn't interested in getting involved, especially when I saw the new teacher headed her way. So I came here."

"New teacher?" Draco asked, his interest piqued.

"Yeah – Slughorn, I think is his name."

"Horace Slughorn?" Draco asked in astonishment, sitting up straighter. Perhaps my luck is about to change! He thought hopefully.

"I don't know," Zabini responded with an elegant shrug. "Why, do you know him?"

"Maybe… If he's the Slughorn I'm thinking of, he may be a close friend of my father's."

Goyle's eyes flicked back and forth between Draco and Zabini, the look on his face clear that he was not a fan of the sudden, unexpected friendliness between the two. Turning to the dark-skinned boy Goyle scoffed, "So what exactly do you want from Draco anyway? Fancy him making some introductions in high society? Someone rich your mum can marry and then abscond with all their money when they mysteriously turn up dead?"

Zabini's eyes flashed in warning. "You leave my mother out of this, Goyle."

"Or what?" Goyle laughed cruelly. "What're you going to do?"

Zabini was suddenly on his feet, his wand in his hand with the tip pointed straight at Goyle's chest. "I told you to shut your fat mouth!" Goyle, still sitting, only laughed harder.

But before Zabini could respond, the compartment door slid open to reveal a breathless third-year girl. "Er… I'm supposed to deliver this to… Blaise Zabini?" she asked, her gaze nervously flicking between the two larger boys who were moments away from flinging hexes at one another.

When no one moved, Draco sighed heavily. "Knock it off, Greg. He's Blaise Zabini," he pointed out, motioning to Zabini before the girl had a nervous breakdown right there in the doorway. With a scowl aimed at Goyle, the other boy shoved his wand into his pocket and snatched a tightly rolled scroll from the girl's outstretched hand. With a last nervous glance at the Slytherins, the third-year made a hasty retreat before she could get caught in the crossfire.

"What is it?" Crabbe asked nosily, lowering his comic to stare at the scroll. But before Zabini could answer, they were once again interrupted, and one of the last people that Draco wanted to see shouldered his way into the compartment.

"What's going on in here?" Weasley demanded self-importantly, his Prefect badge pinned to his robes while Granger peeked curiously over his shoulder. "We heard yelling."

"Nothing that concerns you, Weasel!" Draco snarled, giving him the finger. "Get the fuck out!" He couldn't explain why the rage was so quick to surface when he saw Weasley's ugly, freckled face. As much as he hated the muggle-loving bastard, his emotions had never been so easily riled simply by his mere presence before.

"C'mon Ron," Granger murmured with a glance at the riled Slytherins. "He's a Prefect. He can handle it."

But Weasley wasn't so easily deterred. "Why weren't you at the meeting?" he insisted, shaking off the bushy-haired girl and glaring suspiciously at Draco. "You're supposed to be on Prefect duty patrolling the corridors."

"What are you, his mum?" a female voice drawled from behind, and Pansy Parkinson forced her way through the two of them. Draco could see his fellow members of the Slytherin Quidditch team creeping out from the compartment across from theirs, obviously sensing trouble and willing to jump in if it looked like they were needed.

Thick-skulled and stubborn, Weasley didn't seem to recognize how outnumbered they were. "You don't deserve to be a Prefect," he spat. "You're just as evil as your Death Eater father and all the rest of You-Know-Who's cronies!"

"Go cry to Dumbledore, why don't you?" dismissed Draco, the rage draining from his body as suddenly as it had come. After all, we're technically on the same side…

However, the rest of the Slytherin compartment seemed to take Weasel's words toward Draco as a personal insult, and he realized that every one of them had slipped their wands into their hands and were readying for the attack.

Thankfully Granger wasn't as hot-headed as Weasley, and sensed the dangerous tension. "Ron, come on! We need to go see Harry!" Refusing to take no for an answer this time, she pulled the redhead along behind her until they were safely near the exit.

"Say hi to your boyfriend for us, Weasley!" Pansy called, and the rest of the car erupted with laughter. All but Draco, whose faraway gaze had returned to the rugged landscape whizzing by outside their window.

I can't afford to be distracted this year with petty rivalries. I have too much at stake, too much too lose, too much–

"What's wrong, Draco? Are you ok?"

With a start, Draco suddenly realized that Crabbe had been unceremoniously kicked from his spot beside him, and that Pansy was now sitting there. Glancing around the carriage, he noticed that Zabini was missing but that everyone else had gone back to what they were doing, talking and laughing amongst themselves. Surrounded by the familiar sight and sounds of his classmates, Draco felt a pang of loneliness.

His eyes landed once more on Pany's worried face.

He'd never really given much thought to the girl, although he'd known for a while that she harbored certain feelings for him. They'd always been friendly with each other, and in fourth year Draco had even asked her to be his date to the Yule Ball. But as hopeful as she'd obviously been that night, he'd never taken it any further, and he couldn't explain why. She was exactly the type of girl that his parents would be thrilled to see him with: a pureblood like him, whose family shared the same sentiments regarding muggles and the second coming of the Dark Lord. But for some reason Draco never fully understood, that only made the thought of a relationship with her more… unsavory.

Now, seeing the genuine concern in her eyes, a wave of guilty remorse swept through him for never taking the next step. I suppose she has an appeal, in her own way, he considered, and the silent tension between them lengthened.

He sensed a longing in Pansy, an honest desire to comfort him in his time of need. And after being isolated for so long, the idea of finding comfort in another who truly cared for him was too tempting to disregard.

Knowing he was inviting danger by allowing himself to be distracted from his mission, Draco couldn't bring himself to care. I won't tell her anything, he vowed, hesitating as he reached for her hand. But I can't… I just… I don't want to be alone anymore…

. . . . .

A long while later when the sun was beginning to dip behind the horizon, Zabini finally returned. Draco was almost asleep, more relaxed than he'd been in longer than he could remember, with his head in Pansy's lap and the girl continually running her fingers through his hair.

"What's wrong with this thing?" Zabini angrily snapped as he repeatedly attempted to slide the door shut. Draco's eyes flicked lazily open to watch his struggles.

"Something must have gotten wedged into the track when you left," Pansy muttered, not looking up. As Zabini seized the handle and attempted to shove it closed, the door bounced off whatever was stuck in the track and the dark-skinned boy was thrown sideways into Goyle's lap.

"Get off me!" Goyle yelled, horrified. His luggish face turned beet red from his neck to the roots of his hair.

"Stop moving, dammit! I can't get up!" Zabini cried in response, obviously just as unhappy about the position in which he'd ended up. Draco grinned at their predicament, laughing with the others as the two of them pushed and shoved at one another in their attempt to disentangle themselves.

Suddenly movement out of the corner of his eye caught Draco's attention, and his gaze flicked upward to curiously inspect the luggage rack.

"Get OFF!" Goyle snarled, dumping Zabini unceremoniously to the floor as he stood and slammed the door shut. Draco searched the luggage rack a moment longer, but seeing nothing, glanced back at the commotion amongst his classmates.

Zabini stood and attempted to appear dignified as he brushed himself off, but still looked somewhat ruffled as he collapsed into his seat with a glare at Goyle. Crabbe returned to his comic, and Malfoy made himself comfortable once again with his head in Pansy's lap.

"So Zabini, what did Slughorn want?" Draco casually asked, trying not to look too eager as he contemplated the fact that he quite possibly could have another ally here at school.

Judging by the surprise that flickered over Zabini's features, he had correctly assumed who the scroll was from. "He was just trying to make up to well-connected people. Not that he managed to find many," he scoffed.

"Who else did he invite?" Draco asked, trying to affect a bored expression.

"McLaggen from Gryffindor–"

"Oh yeah, his uncle's big in the Ministry," Draco confirmed.

"Someone else called Belby, from Ravenclaw–"

"Not him, he's a prat!" Pansy exclaimed with a huffy expression.

"–and Longbottom, Potter, and that Weasley girl," finished Zabini.

Malfoy raised his head very suddenly. "He invited Longbottom?"

"Well, I assume so, as Longbottom was there," said Zabini indifferently.

What in Merlin's name could Slughorn want with that pudgy, useless lump? And how did Longbottom manage to get an invitation when I was completely overlooked? Sitting up completely Draco asked, "What's Longbottom got to interest Slughorn?"

Zabini shrugged, and Draco felt the rage that he had so successfully left behind begin to creep back into his conscious. It was as if his emotions were no longer his own, and he was simply a passenger on a dangerous roller coaster that could veer off the track at any moment.

"Potter, precious Potter, obviously he wanted a look at 'the Chosen One,'" Draco sneered, unable to help himself. "But that Weasley girl! What's so special about her?"

"A lot of boys like her," grumbled Pansy, watching out of the corner of her eye to judge his reaction. "Even you think she's good-looking, don't you, Blaise, and we all know how hard you are to please!"

"I wouldn't touch a filthy little blood traitor like her whatever she looked like," Zabini announced coldly, and Pansy looked satisfied.

Deep in thought and attempting to strategize, Draco sank back across Pansy's lap and allowed her to resume stroking his hair. "Well, I pity Slughorn's taste. Maybe he's going a bit senile. Shame, my father always said he was a good wizard in his day. My father used to be a bit of a favorite of his. Slughorn probably hasn't heard I'm on the train, or–"

"I wouldn't bank on an invitation," interrupted Zabini. "He asked me about Nott's father when I first arrived. They used to be old friends, apparently. But when he heard he'd been caught at the Ministry he didn't look happy, and Nott didn't get an invitation, did he?" The boy looked carefully across at Draco, his face neutral as he muttered, "I don't think Slughorn is much interested in Death Eaters."

Draco paused, the sudden evaporation of hope making him feel isolated and abandoned all over again. His face dropped. What's the use in even trying…?

But when he realized that everyone had gone quiet and that all eyes were on him, Draco forced out a singularly humorless laugh. Don't be so obvious, Malfoy, he sneered internally at himself. If there's any hope of you and your family getting out of this alive, remember that you have a role to play. "Well, who cares what Slughorn is interested in?" he declared carelessly, as if it were an insignificant side note. "What is he, when you come down to it? Just some stupid teacher." He yawned ostentatiously. "I mean, I might not even be at Hogwarts next year. What's it matter to me if some fat old has-been likes me or not?"

"What do you mean, you might not be at Hogwarts next year?" Pansy asked indignantly, her fingers faltering in his hair.

"Well, you never know," Draco murmured quietly, refusing to meet anyone's gaze. He attempted without much success to picture himself succeeding in his mission, instead of being murdered by the Dark Lord. Forcing the thought from his mind he muttered, "I might have… er… moved on to bigger and better things."

As his eyes flicked up to his friends, he saw that Crabbe and Goyle were gawping at him, their mouths open like gargoyles. Not surprising, for in the few missives they'd exchanged over the summer, Draco hadn't said a word about the many dreadful things that were happening at Malfoy Manor. Glancing at Pansy, he noticed the girl looked equally awed and horrified, and Draco couldn't decide which was worse. And she wasn't the only one – even Zabini sported a look of open curiosity that marred his haughty features.

Although he usually relished being the center of attention, Draco was unexpectedly uncomfortable and squirmed under their intense gazes. When he saw the flickering lights in the distance, it was with a strange sense of relief that he muttered, "I can see Hogwarts. We'd better get our robes on."

This seemed to break the trance that had settled over the compartment, and everyone started moving at once. Goyle reached up for his trunk, and as he swung it down Draco distinctly heard someone gasp in pain. He looked up at the luggage rack, frowning. He thought he had imagined the movement at the corner of his vision when Zabini first came back from seeing Slughorn. But now he wasn't so sure…

A recollection from three years previously floated up through his memory. Draco, Crabbe, and Goyle had stumbled upon Weasel and Granger at the Shrieking Shack during a cold Hogsmeade weekend. Intent on harassing the outnumbered Gryffindors, the tables had suddenly, inexplicably turned. After being attacked by what he thought was a wandering spirit, Crabbe had stumbled on something invisible and revealed the bodiless head of –

Harry Potter.

Suddenly everything fell into place. Did Potter possess some sort of invisibility cloak that he was now using to spy on them? Draco's vision tinged with red, and he could feel the rage bubbling beneath the surface. Why you foul, nosy, interfering little scar head! How DARE–! But he forced himself to breathe, compelling his mind to calm down and think.

We'll see who outsmarts who, Potter.

With an effort to look as normal as possible, Draco never glanced up at the luggage rack. Instead he pulled on his robes like the others, locked his trunk, and as the train slowed to a jerky crawl, fastened a thick new traveling cloak around his neck. At last, with a final lurch, the train came to a complete halt. Goyle threw the door open and muscled his way out into a crowd. Crabbe and Zabini followed.

Pansy halted at the door and raised her hand, a plea in her eyes that clearly said she hoped he would take it.

"You go on," Draco dismissed. "I just want to check something."

Pansy left, and he ignored the hurt look that crossed her face. That doesn't matter. Nothing matters anymore. Now it's just you and me, Potter... He moved to the compartment door and let down the blinds, so that the people moving past in the corridor beyond could not peer in.

"Petrificus Totalus!" he cried, spinning on his heel and aiming his wand directly where he knew Potter was silently watching him.

Without warning, the Gryffindor toppled out of the luggage rack and fell, with an agonizing, floor-shaking crash, at Draco's feet. An Invisibility Cloak was trapped beneath the stupid prat, his whole body revealed with his legs still curled into an absurd kneeling position. The interfering twat looked like a ridiculous turtle trapped on its back.

Draco smiled broadly, the look anything but happy. "I thought so," he hissed, narrowing his eyes dangerously upon his nemesis. I could do anything I want to him, and no one would know. Not until he reached London in the wee hours of the morning and the spell wore off, at least. "You didn't hear anything I care about, Potter. But while I've got you here…"

And he stamped – hard – on Harry's face. He knew at once that he'd broken the other boy's nose, felt it in the way it crunched beneath his boot heel, spurting blood everywhere. However instead of the sense of satisfaction he was expecting, Draco felt an unexpected shame wash through him, as though he was betraying a partner. Confused by the foreign feeling, he shoved it savagely into the back of his mind.

"Now, let's see…"

Draco dragged the cloak out from under Potter's immobilized body and threw it over him. "See you around, Potter… or not." And taking care to tread on the Gryffindor's fingers, Draco left the compartment.

It wasn't until he was on the platform, the last of only a handful of students remaining, that the rage receded as quickly as it had come. It left him feeling exhausted and even more confused than he was before. What am I doing? The Dark Lord is desperate to kill Potter, which can only mean that the rumors are true and that he is 'The Chosen One'. Does that make him my enemy… or my ally? He sighed deeply, feeling a migraine taking root deep in his brain.

"Draco!"

Turning toward the sound of his name, Draco saw that Pansy had waited and was now hurrying toward him. Even more surprising – and a huge relief, if he were honest with himself – was who Pansy hastened past on her rush to Draco's side.

He'd only seen her once, in an old photo from his Aunt Andromeda that his mother had hidden away so his father wouldn't know. But as he looked more closely he recognized some of the Black family features from his mother's side, a few that he even shared. He'd also know that flaming pink hair anywhere, for it had been the same shade in the photo when she was young.

It was his metamorphmagus cousin, the one his father forbade them to speak of: Nymphadora Tonks.

Making a spur of the moment decision, Draco hurried to intercept Pansy before she was out of the Auror's earshot. "Draco!" the girl panted. "Is everything alright? You were taking so long, I thought something happened..."

"Don't worry, I'm fine," he answered a little louder than necessary. "I can't say the same for Potter, though." Risky… But that ought to get her attention.

"Potter?" Pansy gasped.

"Let's just say that I hope he enjoys his ride back to London," Draco smirked, putting on a show of bravado to protect his cover. Even if she's in the Order, the more people who know my true motives, the more danger my family and I are in.

Pansy snickered, and Draco felt a prickle of unsavoriness run down his spine. "Let's go before all the carriages are gone," she said. He hesitated only a moment as Pansy reached again for his hand, but allowed her to entwine her fingers within his own.

As they walked past the pink-haired Auror, Draco took a chance and glanced in her direction. He wasn't sure if he imagined it, but when their gazes met he thought he saw a flicker of comprehension in her eyes. Then she turned and hurried toward the train.