Chapter 46

Draco sighed in frustration at the complete lack of subtlety with which a group of nearly ten Gryffindors were attempting to sneak back to their tower after their M.A. meeting.

The M.A.

Marauder's Army.

Sirius had nearly exploded with pride when Harry and Hermione told him what they'd decided to name their little rebel group. There had actually been whooping and fist pumping. The only one to escape a hug had been Lucius. They had all been thankful for that fact. Actually, Draco had just been thankful that nobody had seemed to notice how very un-excited he was by the idea.

Merlin save him from overly excitable Gryffindors.

He ducked behind a tapestry so that nobody in the group would see him deliberately not catching them and leaned back against the wall to wait. Sometimes he really wished he was a little more successful at telling Hermione 'no.'

He'd known the minute he'd seen Educational Decree #24: No student organizations, societies, teams, groups and clubs may exist without the knowledge and permission of the High Inquisitor that it was no coincidence it had appeared just days after Hermione and Potter hosted their first information session about the possibility of starting a defence club. The Ministry was determined to keep them meek and powerless.

Hermione had been outraged. She'd almost done several very stupid things as a result. Draco tried to appear unruffled by it all, but actuality the fact was that their government being threatened by the idea of a populace possessing even basic defensive skills bothered him more than he really cared to think about. So he did his best not to.

What he could not do was ignore his betrothed. However, he had hoped that they would just give up on the idea of the defence group once it had been officially forbidden. And Potter had seemed mostly content to do just that.

Draco suspected it was due to his discomfort over the way that he'd been made the de facto leader of the group. But, of course, Hermione was not. She was fundamentally incapable of sitting back and letting any perceived injustice pass by. On parchment she was a terrible match for somebody as naturally selfish and self-centered as he was. But she made him better and he adored her for it.

She declared that she didn't care if it was against the rules. They were lucky enough to have parents and guardians who had the knowledge and resources to teach them to defend themselves. But most of their fellow students didn't, and so they were going to proceed with their plans for a defence group. And he'd known immediately that he would do whatever he could to help her. Whether he liked it or not.

And he decidedly didn't.

But that was how he found himself huddled in a small alcove on the last night before the Christmas holidays were to begin like a scared first year. An Inquisitorial Squad badge ('Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition' Hermione had quipped with a roll of her eyes when the name of the group was announced) pinned to his robes next to the Prefect's badge he'd actually once been proud to wear, instead of in his common room enjoying some spiked eggnog and leftovers from the Feast.

His only consolation was that the lure of sweets had been too much for Crabbe and Goyle to resist and they'd stayed behind, so he was patrolling alone. Because not only did he find their presence beyond tiresome but, even as stupid as they naturally were, if he had to confund one of them again to keep them from seeing something they shouldn't, somebody was going to notice.

And then the newest irksome presence in his life made herself known.

He heard her humming before he saw her coming from the crack between the wall and the tapestry concealing him. She was skipping, her long blonde hair flying behind her like the tail of a kite. He resisted the urge to groan; she was even more conspicuous than an entire crowd of Gryffindors. And just his luck, she stopped directly in front of him, then pulled the tapestry aside and stepped right into his space, smiling at him but not quite meeting his eyes.

"Hello Draco, I see that you're doing an especially bad job of catching students out of bounds tonight."

"Hello Luna," he said, biting back a grimace. "I do my best."

He wanted to like this girl, as much as he'd ever wanted to like anybody, which wasn't a lot. But she meant something to Hermione, he'd even go so far as to say that Hermione admired her. More than that, she'd never had to lie to Luna, which meant a great deal to her, bleeding heart that she was.

But the younger Ravenclaw frankly scared the hell out of him. She saw things she shouldn't, knew things without being able to explain how. And if he was being honest, he resented her intrusion into his little world. His relationship with both Hermione, but especially Harry, had been hard won and here she'd waltzed right in and they treated her like she'd been their friend for years.

When Hermione had pointed out that she was his cousin, he'd reminded her that they were actually second cousins. He'd also made sure to note that there were few people in the castle he wasn't related to in some way, and told her that if a blood relationship was a litmus test for trustworthiness, then he expected she'd be organizing a field trip to visit his Aunt Bellatrix in Azkaban.

She had been less than impressed by his flippancy. She had then given him her 'I'm so disappointed in you' look. Which was actually worse than his mother's version of the same look- and that was saying something- and quietly informed him that she simply thought it was always nice to have more family.

So, he was trying.

"I know Hermione appreciates it," Luna added, interrupting his thoughts. "It's lovely, what you're willing to do for her."

"You think stalking her around the castle like I have some kind of perverted sexual interest in her is lovely?" He snorted.

She smiled brightly at him. "It's actually rather funny to those of us who know better," she sobered. "But I can see how it would be disturbing to you, which is why it's lovely that you're willing to do it anyway."

Draco didn't have anything to say to that, but felt oddly touched. He'd been struggling all term with his order from the Dark Lord to pursue Hermione in order to essentially deliver her into his service. It made him feel dirty no matter how much his betrothed tried to reassure him that she knew he would never actually use her in such a way. It especially disturbed him how she tried to act like it was no big deal. So, he appreciated the younger girl's compassion.

Luna reached into her bag and removed a hoop about the size of a dinner plate, wrapped in leather cord, it contained the same cord woven across the diameter in a pattern which was something like a spider web. It was decorated with iridescent glass beads and had feathers dangling from it. It was rather pretty in a rustic, primitive sort of way. She pushed it into his hands.

"Happy Christmas."

"Um, thank you, but what is it?"

"You're braver than you think you are, but you need some help keeping your brain uninfested. Just hang this over your bed and it will protect you." She went up on her toes and kissed his cheek. "I'll see you next term. Hermione will be along momentarily, she and Harry were going over some plans for our next meeting while this one was fresh in their minds."

She ducked out and then skipped down the corridor, leaving Draco with a healthy helping of guilt. "Damn it," he muttered to himself, he was going to have to find something to send her in return. Whatever she'd just done had been weird, but he couldn't question that it had also been nice.

It was mere minutes later when Hermione slipped out from under Potter's invisibility cloak and into his hiding place. He was unsurprised, he had assumed they would use the Map to locate him. They were, thankfully, quiet and subtle about the entire maneuver.

"Go away Potter!" He hissed.

There was a slight chuckle and whoosh of cloth and Draco was confident he'd left before he kissed Hermione.

She grinned at him when he pulled away. "Hey, what's this?" She carefully touched Luna's gift which he was still cradling in his hands- not really knowing what else to do with it.

"Luna stopped by to give it to me."

"Oh! It's a dreamcatcher! How thoughtful!" She took it from him and tucked it into his robes, leaving it with a small sticking charm, as it was too big for any of his pockets. "Keep it safe."

Again, he hid his grimace. "Hi," he greeted her officially, covering her mouth with his again.

She giggled. "You'll see me tomorrow, Draco. You don't have to act like this is the last bit of me you'll get for weeks." However, despite her words he felt her pleased smile against his lips at his neediness.

He pulled her further against him. "Don't tell me that I'm the only one to be tired of this game."

"No, of course not, but I have an early Christmas present for you."

"Oh?"

"The Weasley twins made it very clear that they plan to prank Umbridge as a parting gift for the holidays. They wouldn't give me the specifics, but I have faith in them."

"I guess I'll have to console myself with that." Another thing to hate about this term: his father had politely asked (ordered) them not to bother Umbridge too much, because apparently the devil you knew was better than the devil you didn't and if they ran the woman out of the school she might be replaced by somebody Lucius had less control over. Draco had a hard time imagining how that could be worse, because Delores Umbridge was the most odious person he'd ever had the misfortune to meet, but Lucius assured them that she was both predictable and easily manipulated which was in their favor; and he trusted his father.

Hermione held out her hand for him. "I'd like to stay here with you but it's a stupid risk to take, especially on the last night of term. Escort me back to my dorm?"

He took her hand and squeezed it very briefly. "I love you," he whispered.

She touched her finger to the side of her nose and winked at him.

Then they stepped out into the corridor and made a big show of loudly half-fighting, half-flirting all the way to Gryffindor Tower. Draco didn't know exactly what his father had said to Umbridge, or maybe even the Minister, but he and Hermione were never bothered when they were together, even after curfew- as long as they didn't push it too far. The only thing Draco enjoyed about the entire arrangement was that he was allowed to make sure Hermione got home unmolested on a regular basis.

He couldn't say what he wanted to say to her in full view of several portraits, so he just kissed her hand like a pureblood engaged in a traditional courtship, and watched her disappear through the portrait hole. He then made his way down to the dungeons. The Slytherin common room was sparsely populated, but not empty.

"Hey Malfoy!" Theo Nott called from his place, lounging on one sofa.

"Yes?" Draco arched one eyebrow at the other wizard.

"Where have you been?"

Draco sighed and went to sit in an armchair close enough to him to converse. He and Nott were only fifth years, but their wealth and family status assured that they were already at the top rung of their house, and everybody in their vicinity scattered to allow them to have a private conversation.

"I was patrolling, you know that."

"On the last night of term? We both know you could have made somebody else do it for you and stayed here for the party."

Draco shrugged, trying to appear unaffected. It felt like the line he was walking got thinner everyday. "I had a lady to escort back to her tower," he explained loftily.

Nott snorted. "Are you seriously trying to seduce Granger? Your family can't be happy about that."

Draco narrowed his eyes. "I do as I'm told. You know that better than anybody."

"Do you?"

It was said with such disbelief that Draco almost reared back in surprise. On top of that, it felt like Nott's eyes were boring holes into him. He'd never before noticed how blue his eyes were- it was a little unnerving. But that paled in comparison to watching the series of emotions flash across his housemate's face: doubt, incredulity, disgust, fear, and then the worst of all- something which took Draco a few moments to process...disappointment.

It was the most open his pseudo-friend had ever been with him and it left him feeling cold.

"I do," he swallowed.

"Well I suppose this was always going to be the way of things," Nott answered, and then he got up and walked towards the door to the boys dormitories without another word.

Draco rushed- while putting in a considerable effort not to appear to rush- back to his room. He threw himself onto his bed and tried to figure out what had just happened. He felt like he'd just been judged and come up lacking.

He considered calling Hermione but almost immediately decided this was something he wanted to work out without her. Probably because he couldn't be certain if he should be ashamed of himself for some reason- because he certainly felt ashamed.

He couldn't work past the fear and disappointment on Nott's face. He lay flat on his back rubbing the heels of his hands against his eyes repeatedly until he decided to call the person who might, might just be able to understand his dilemma.

"Sirius Black."

It was close to a minute before the older man answered, he'd obviously been asleep but Draco was relieved to see he apparently hadn't been interrupting anything else.

"Hey kid, what's up?"

"Sorry to wake you."

"It's okay, I assume you wouldn't have if it wasn't important."

Draco sighed. "Nott confronted me in the common room earlier. Actually," he paused, "it would be an exaggeration to call it a confrontation, it wasn't anything dramatic. I was out after curfew and he wanted to know where I had been. I made a quip about walking Hermione back to Gryffindor and he asked if my family wasn't upset in my interest in her. I told him I was just doing what I was told. Implying heavily that, you know, the Dark Lord had given me an order to get close to her which I'm certain he already suspected. But when I said that- Sirius- he just looked so...let down."

"I'm sorry, Draco, I'm not following. I'm obviously aware of the situation but I don't know what you're asking me."

"I feel like he's been testing me since the beginning of term. Wondering where my loyalties really lie. His father- I don't really know all that much about him other than he's a lot older than my parents. Like maybe the age of the original Death Eaters. I've spent the past few years being very quiet about my ideas about blood purity, I wonder if he thought I'd changed my mind. My family is kind of riddled with blood traitors. And I wonder if he thought he could maybe seek refuge with my family like you did with the Potters."

Sirius' eyes fell shut. "Oh kid."

"It's just a hunch, but I feel terrible for not considering it before. He's a friend."

Suddenly Sirius was surrounded with a bunch of ghost like animals that Draco recognized as patronuses, he could tell they were speaking to Sirius but he couldn't hear them.

"Okay, okay," Sirius said, "I hate to do this but I need to go, but we'll talk about this over the holidays, I promise."

"That's fine, I understand. I never thought anything could be done tonight. Whatever's going on, be careful."

"I'm always careful."

Draco rolled his eyes. "Whatever, old man," he said, closing his mirror at the sight of the older wizard's rude gesture.

He let his head bounce against the mattress and allowed himself a few moments to wallow.

He was pretty sure that his teen years were supposed to be full of discovery and- at least if the muggle magazines Hermione had purchased and laughed uproariously at over the summer were any indication- a lot of unnecessary drama. She'd read some of the articles aloud to him and Potter and he'd counted himself lucky that he hadn't had to face such utter nonsense. He would do so gladly now, in exchange for their circumstances.

He recognized that he could be totally misreading Nott's intentions. He hoped that he wasn't because he did actually consider the other wizard a friend and he didn't fancy fighting a war against him, but he would wait for advice on that matter.

But this all just made him recognize another issue he'd completely ignored: all of Slytherin. Whatever Theo Nott intended there were surely people in Slytherin who were scared and felt boxed in by familial circumstances or due to their house affiliation, and didn't feel like they had anywhere to escape. Little kids- in many cases- who didn't have open minded parents, a Hermione, or a family like the Potters willing to take them in. And they were no more prepared to defend themselves than the rest of the Hogwarts population- except they also didn't have an M.A.

"Fuck," Draco said aloud to his canopy.

They were going to need yet another plan.

0000000000

Hermione was anxious to get home. She thought that things would be better, that she would feel a little bit more centered once she was away from Hogwarts. But then she entered the common room the morning that they were set to return home for the Christmas holidays and found Harry waiting for her.

He looked like he'd barely slept.

"What's up?" She wondered, plopping herself down next to him.

"Mr. Weasley was injured in the Department of Mysteries last night and Sirius called me first thing to let me know. They don't know if he's going to pull through."

She let out a long breath. "Okay," she took Harry's hand. "We have to be strong, if for no other reason than we don't want Umbridge to know that you have a method of communication outside of the castle which is faster than an owl."

"Good call." He squeezed her hand and then pulled her up and led her to breakfast.

Once they were settled Hermione glanced over at the Slytherin table to see that Draco looked completely untroubled, which in the scheme of things was meaningless. Both because he was a startlingly good actor, and because it was entirely possible that he hadn't been alerted to any possible emergency in the Weasley family. Especially considering that even Hermione hadn't been. But mostly it was just that, even from across the enormous room, she knew that he was putting up a facade; she just didn't know why

They ate breakfast in a daze, very aware of the lack of redheads at the Gryffindor table. They were able to speak to their Head of House who assured them that Mr. Weasley was alive, but that he was hanging on by a thread. They took a walk around the Black Lake to try and settle down but it didn't do much to help.

Soon they were boarding the Hogwarts Express. They found a free compartment and Luna quickly found them.

"Draco is very troubled," she warned Hermione almost immediately.

"I- yes, I had a sense. I'll talk to him as soon as I can."

The other witch just nodded.

"Thank you for what you gave him, that means a lot."

"You don't believe in them. Or in the things that I see."

Hermione swallowed her pride. "I'm not sure that I do, but it's enough for me that you care."

Luna smiled. "That's a very lovely and open minded thing to say."

It made Hermione feel a little ashamed of herself, she should probably start cutting Draco a little slack when it came to her new friend. It really wasn't that easy accepting new things into your life. "Thank you."

When they arrived at Kings Cross they were quickly hustled off the platform by Sirius, he was more no no-nonsense than she'd ever seen him. Once they arrived at Potter House and were greeted by the Grangers who had come for this very reason, Sirius made a floo call to Malfoy Manor to ensure that they had the all clear to come through.

Hermione and Draco had a brief reunion but made a mutual, unspoken decision not to draw it out- it had been less than a day since they'd really seen each other, not to mention that Harry and Sirius both were known to be vicious with their teasing.

They sat down for what Sirius had termed 'family dinner' over the summer, despite the fact that it had usually only been the four of them; and Lucius had never been present at all. It made Harry beam and Hermione feel warm inside so she'd never protested.

Harry was fidgeting terribly and Hermione was shocked he'd been able to hold out this long. "What happened to Mr. Weasley?" He blurted as the soup was served. "Is he okay?"

"Mr. Weasley?" Draco asked, "what is Potter talking about?"

And so, in turns, Lucius and Sirius explained to them how Mr. Weasley had been guarding the Hall of Prophecies. Voldemort had gotten impatient trying to find a hole in the Ministry security and had sent Nagini in as a scout. He had called Lucius to his side to help tell him how to direct her because Lucius had been in the Department of Ministries many times as a Wizengamot member.

Lucius explained that hadn't been too concerned, he'd known Voldemort couldn't actually get to the prophecy unless he went to get it himself, or was somehow able to convince Harry to do so. He hadn't expected that the Order was still guarding it. Thankfully, Voldemort's glee over Nagini's assault on a senior Order member distracted him enough to allow Lucius to excuse himself, flee, and sound the alert.

Until Sirius had informed him he'd had no idea that the Order member in question had been Arthur Weasley.

"Will he be okay?" Harry asked.

"They don't know," Sirius answered, "there's something in that snake's venom that keeps blood from coagulating, which isn't unheard of, but she's just not a normal snake… he can only be given so much blood replenisher before it stops working."

"What about a blood transfusion?" Hermione's father interrupted.

"I'm sorry, what?" Asked Sirius.

"We muggles don't have magic to power a blood replenishing potion, obviously. So when somebody needs blood, it can be donated from another person with the same blood type. That might be better for Arthur so he doesn't use up his reserves of magic simply keeping enough blood in his body to keep him alive."

"Oh, I'm not a healer but it certainly seems like it has potential."

"It's not a perfect solution, but it might buy more time, maybe alternating it with the replenishing potion," he continued thoughtfully and then looked around the table and sighed. "This isn't mealtime conversation, come with me and I'll give you the details.

Sirius nodded, "yes, we can floo St. Mungo's and see what they think," and followed him out of the room.

Hermione found herself wringing her hands, she understood at least the basics of what her father was thinking. She was proud of him, but her anxiety had little to do with Mr. Weasley's condition.

"What are you thinking, love?" Narcissa asked gently.

"I thought you had convinced Professor Dumbledore that guarding the prophecy was a waste of time. I- he confuses me so much. I see him almost every week, he's a great teacher, absolutely fascinating! I don't understand how somebody so brilliant can also be…" she wiped at her face, beyond exasperated.

"I truly think he's doing his best, dearest," Narcissa attempted to comfort Hermione, "But I also think he's spent too much time being regarded as the smartest, most powerful person in any room he enters. And on the other hand considering anybody who doesn't necessarily bow down to that personae, to be the enemy. You're right, he is brilliant. But I believe that can be as much a curse as it is a gift and that it's skewed his perspective. I think it's been a very long time since he truly trusted another."

"So he's making all of his decisions on his own?"

Narcissa just nodded.

Hermione looked around at the people she loved most dearly in the world. "Well that just sounds terrible."

The silence in the room following her statement spoke volumes.

Author's Note: I just want to make it clear I haven't forgotten about the blood quills, I have not mentioned them because they haven't been made to use them. This Harry knows better than to constantly go around arguing with her and screaming that Voldemort is back. Also, and more importantly in my mind, he has Sirius' protection. Umbridge is a terrible person, but to reach the position she did in the Ministry she must be at least somewhat politically savvy, i.e. she's not going to go around torturing Lord Black's godson (or his ward, Hermione, though in canon Hermione never used the quill). Canon Umbridge targeted Harry because he was vulnerable and she considered him to be a threat, this Harry is a lot less of both.

I put A LOT of thought into these story choices. If you are confused or think I've forgotten something you are absolutely welcome to ask me about them- in fact I really like talking to y'all- explaining my thought processes and I'm so thankful when somebody finds a plot hole so I can fix it. But please be polite about it. 99% of you are fabulous but a rude review can be really disheartening and I don't care how you feel about a piece of writing, I don't think there's really any excuse for calling somebody stupid. Ever. Okay I'll get off my soapbox.

But while I'm writing an A/N as long as the chapter, just to clarify, sorry guys, I don't have an update schedule. I've gotten a few questions about how many chapters I anticipate this story having. 60-65 is my best guesstimate, but I admit it's hard for me to know how many words it'll take me to get from point A to point B. Whew! Thanks for staying with me!