Strap in, folks.
Draco caught up to Blaise outside the Potions room right before their lesson on antidotes and took up his arm, pulling him aside. Blaise straightened his Slytherin robes and put on his best, most affable smile, though even Draco could see it looked distinctly queasy. "Hullo, Potter; can I help you?"
"I hope so," said Draco. "Have you heard anything about Horcruxes?"
Blaise hustled him away from the Potions classroom, tucking them in an alcove where passers-by wouldn't catch sight of them. "Merlin's sake, Potter, don't go spouting off about that in the middle of the hallway where anyone can hear!"
"So you have," Draco checked, ducking his head and gazing into Blaise's eyes. He caught a skittering of Legilimency that said Blaise knew the vague outlines of what a Horcrux was, and nodded. "Sorry, I told Dumbledore that you told me."
Blaise's features shuttered. "Why would you do such a thing?"
"He wanted to know how I knew about them," Draco said plainly.
"Let's leave aside why you were looking to learn about them in the first place and jump straight to why you named me," Blaise hissed. "Was I the first Slytherin that came to mind?"
"The first from a traditional pureblood family," Draco returned. "Listen, I didn't mean to get you into trouble; just imagine how much I'd have been in, if Dumbledore thought his precious Potter was looking into the darkest of Dark magic!"
"Which begs the question of why he was," Blaise returned. He eyed Draco. "You aren't going Dark, are you, Potter? You'll break the hearts of good little boys and girls everywhere."
Draco heard genuine concern behind the taunt, so he clapped Blaise's shoulder. "No," he said, pulling on the Potter palimpsest to ensure he looked earnest and true. "I learned about it the same way you did, I'm sure – by looking for something else. You know I'm learning how to counter these Dark magics for the DA, so of course I'm reading up on them."
Blaise eyed him. "You're a lot more Slytherin than you look," he said, voice tinged with respect. He sighed. "A lot more Slytherin than your friends."
"You don't know the half of it," Draco muttered, raking his hand through his hair. "Look, Blaise, I'm not about to become the next Dark Lord. I haven't got it in me. I'm just trying to protect everyone, and to do that I sometimes have to look at things I'd rather the others didn't have to see."
Blaise sighed, crossing his arms. "Very well."
"One more thing," said Draco.
"Oh, you aren't through spoiling my day?" Blaise muttered.
Draco smiled. "Oh, I was only wondering if you'd heard about the Defense meeting next week," he said. "We're going to cover some of the wand motions to uncover deleterious potions."
The lines of Blaise's face relaxed into relief. "Oh! Yes, of course; Hermione told me…"
"Wonderful. And I presume you'll be dragging Crabbe and Goyle in your wake?"
Blaise's expression froze, and for a moment Draco thought he was going to actually say he'd never met anyone named Crabbe or Goyle, he looked so blank-faced. But finally, a furrow appeared at his brow. "You've got to stop volunteering Hermione for things," Blaise said. "You've got her tutoring the DA in resisting the Imperius Curse, doing opposition research on the entire Wizengamot, and now you want her to look after the slowest two students in our year?"
Draco blinked, a grin creeping slowly across his face. "You really are quite fond of her, aren't you?" he said. "Fine. Thanks for volunteering, Blaise. Take Crabbe and Goyle off her hands; they're more used to following a pureblooded wizard anyway."
Blaise frown deepened. "No, no. They need Hermione. Give me the opposition research."
"Done." Draco allowed his smile to grow distinctly nasty, pushing the Potter palimpsest aside. "And if you hurt her," he said, "I'll destroy you and make it look like Death Eaters."
For a moment, Blaise looked appropriately intimidated, but then he blinked his shock away into a surprising burst of warmth Draco wasn't sure he could trust. "If I hurt either of them, eh? More Slytherin than you look, Potter," he repeated.
"I mean it, Blaise."
"So did Ron, before he and I came to an understanding."
Draco tilted his head to one side, raising both brows in invitation.
"Mutual heartbreak," said Blaise, with a half-smile so like Ron's from the evening before that Draco had to blink a few times before he believed his eyes, "the great equalizer." He jerked his head in the direction of the Potions classroom. "Come along, then, Potter, or we'll be late."
"Hmph," said Draco, but he followed Blaise into the Potions classroom. "Hey – did you chip in for the jacket?"
Blaise's lips twitched. "Of course I did. So did Pansy and Millie, you know."
"Of course. Sorry," said Draco.
Blaise clapped him on the back. "You started off the year opening your circle to Slytherin, and it's working. Relax."
Malfoy looked up from the back, left-hand corner of the Potions room to glare at them both, eyeing Blaise's hand on Draco's shoulder and curling his lip.
"Relax," said Draco. "Sure."
Between the Wizengamot research, planning and carrying out the lessons with the DA, meetings with Dumbledore, and their ridiculously heavy NEWT courseloads - including a fiendishly difficult antidotes lessons in Potions and practicals in Defense and Transfigurations - Draco found himself wondering more than once where Hermione Granger had time for a boyfriend, never mind for two.
Perhaps that was why Zabini had taken to spending time in their Common Room, and as he was generally well-regarded in the DA due to his willingness to help with the Imperius Curse, few of the Gryffindors batted an eye.
He could be found, sometimes, sitting with Hermione as she did her homework, tucking her wild hair away from her face, bringing her a drink, or poring over his own work or a novel a few times a week; eventually, it stopped being strange.
But when Luna waltzed in one evening and drifted over to their small group by the crackling fire, Draco stood in surprise. "Luna!" he said.
"Harry!" she exclaimed, with the usual, unwonted force she gave the name these days. "Hullo; I heard from some of the others that you were all hanging around here, but if it's just Blaise who's allowed since he's dating Hermione, that's fine."
Hermione looked up from where she was revising, cheeks pinked by more than the flames. "Er, no, Luna, we'd love it if you joined us…"
"Sure, yes, absolutely, don't be distracting," said Blaise, who was scrawling an essay for Snape with manic speed.
"Lovely, I've got a Potions assignment that seems, well, as though Slughorn might have allowed the Trebachets to wriggle through his hands and manifest on the board," she said solemnly, "and I could use some help…"
"That's it," said Ron angrily, storming down the stairs; but he was brought up short by the cosy sight of all of them sprawled out before the fire. Seeing Hermione's and Blaise's heads bent so close, he swallowed, then visibly rallied, stomping over to them. He shook a box in his hands. "Romilda Vane," he added, as though that explained everything.
"What is it, Ron?" said Hermione, looking up.
"Well, I was practising the Charms we learned last DA and I pointed it at the box on a bloody lark," said Ron. "Only it came up positive. Harry, tell me Romilda Vane didn't give you these."
Draco's eyes widened. "Er…"
"Because either her crush has turned murderous, or she's got a love potion in," Ron growled.
Blaise stood. "Someone needs to have a word with Vane," he said coolly.
"That's really unethical," Luna warbled. "You should go to her Head of House."
"No," said Hermione, standing as well. "Remember the Imperius Curse! It could be real poison, Ron. Let's take it to Slughorn. Even if it is a love potion designed to wear off in a few hours, he'll want to know where she got it, and he'll want to check his ingredient stores and see if she brewed the thing herself. Not that I credit a girl with such a – silly nature – with being so clever, but stranger things have happened."
"Fine! But this has got to stop," said Ron, and Draco had learned it wasn't worth trying to stop Ron in a froth. So the group gave him his head and let him stomp forward holding the chocolate box, Hermione's arm tucked into Blaise's.
"Did you have a good break?" said Luna, tucking her arm into Draco's. "I feel we haven't had much of a chance to chat…"
"I did," said Draco. "And you?"
"I did," she replied. "Father didn't fix a hole in the roof, and so it whistled: it told me the most interesting stories! I wondered, too, how you were doing at the Burrow. I'm sure it's," she said, pausing.
"It was brilliant," Draco said, forcefully – before realizing that more than anyone else, Luna was someone to whom he had nothing to prove.
"I'm glad." She paused. "These sorts of spells are time-delimited in all the tales, aren't they?" she said after a thoughtful moment. "I've begun to wonder when your time will be up."
Draco would later wonder if she didn't have a touch of prescience.
"Not that I'm not fond of your company!" she exclaimed, patting his hand. "I am, ever so. But I do miss Harry."
Draco fumbled for words. "I… perhaps I do, myself. In a way. But Luna…"
She turned to him, colourless eyes wide. "Mmm?"
Slughorn was opening the door to his offices, yawning and looking perturbed at the interruption, then worried when he saw all of them arrayed in the hall, Ron distinctly wrathful, shaking the chocolate box in his hand wordlessly as though it were explanation enough.
It would have been easy to employ Slughorn's appearance as a distraction, but Draco rested his free hand atop Luna's and prevented her from hurrying after the other three into Slughorn's rooms.
"Luna," he said. "Luna, I don't know that it's possible."
She turned to him, face open. "That what's possible? Most things are possible, I find."
Draco didn't let himself wince. This wasn't his sorrow to bear, even though sometimes…
Nonsense, he told himself sharply. Don't pretend that you knew him, that you were close!
"For you to get Potter back," Draco said, gently.
"What?" said Luna.
Draco darted a glance towards the open door. "Potter is not… retrievable."
Luna's eyes went impossibly wider. "You think he's dead?"
Luna's hand dropped from his arm and she blinked several times, swiftly, half-turning away.
She held up a hand for silence, and Draco waited.
When she looked up again, her eyes were shining with unshed tears. "You said you're sure you didn't plan it."
Draco shook his head. "I didn't," he said. He shook his head again, ducking it so he didn't have to look at the raw accusation in the girl's pale eyes. "But I might as well have. I would've hurt him if I could've. I was – things were different."
Luna nodded, vehemently. "You certainly were!" But then she shook her head. "No matter what, Harry, we aren't responsible for our nastiest thoughts. You didn't plan it, it happened to you. All the same…" She looked up, and her cheeks were wet with tears. "His face! You have his face, and his eyes, and his everything, you took it and you have it and you can't give it back…!"
A scream sounded from the open door, and Draco darted for it, heart in his mouth – the bravery must live in Potter's skin, he thought, running towards the sounds of danger…
Ron was convulsing on Slughorn's expensive Persian rugs, foam spilling from his mouth as he seized, an empty glass by his outstretched hand…
"Oh no," breathed Luna.
Hermione was trembling. "How do we – how do we figure out the poison fast enough… wait, wait, wait," she said, and vaulted Slughorn's table, to reach Slughorn's Potions kit, throwing things around. "Blaise!" she shouted, and the other boy looked up just in time to catch the item she'd thrown him, ducking down to Ron and stuffing the object into his mouth.
Ron went limp and sightless, his wheezed breathing sounding in the pin-drop silence of the room.
"Shove a beozar down their throats," said Hermione. "The Prince's book…"
Draco found himself by Ron's side without any idea of how he'd crossed the intervening space. He looked up to find Blaise staring down at Ron with a curiously blank expression.
"Come on," said Luna, tugging at Draco's sleeve. "Come on, let's get him to the infirmary…"
"Professor," Hermione added with razor-sharpness, "you'll come with us." Her fierce gaze darted to the table, where an innocent-looking decanter still stood.
"And bring the mead," she growled.
The group camped outside the Hospital Wing after Madam Pomfrey booted them out. They watched Snape and Dumbledore rush inside, closing the doors behind them, and Hermione began to cry. Blaise wrapped his arm around her and she turned into his chest.
Draco wondered if Luna would like an arm around her, too, before deciding she definitely would not. She kept eyeing him uncertainly.
But after sitting there a full twenty minutes, she opened her own arm, and Draco tentatively leaned into her, instead.
"There, there," she said. "He'll be all right. Think of Katie – she was cursed much longer, and I hear she's due out of the Wing in a few days if she continues to improve."
"It looked like Katie's curse," said Blaise, "didn't it? Like convulsions."
Hermione sat up. "You think the two are connected."
"They have to be. Don't they?" said Blaise. "You lot are the ones who are so experienced at derring-do," he said.
Hermione felt for his hand, gripping it hard, before turning to the others. "I believe if we were to question Slughorn, we'd find that the bottle in his possession was meant for Dumbledore, somehow – like the necklace was."
Draco turned to her, slowly. "Malfoy. He did this?"
His ears were ringing; he shook his head to ward off the noise, but it was so loud he had to lift one hand to the side of his head.
" –oy," Hermione was saying. "Harry, are you listening to me? We agreed on this, we agreed that it's some Death-eater-in-training, but you don't know it's Draco Malfoy!"
Draco shook his head, not looking at her. "You won't believe me. Of course you won't; I haven't got any proof, and you'd need proof before labelling anyone a murderer… you and Albus Dumbledore…"
"Harry, please, you're scaring me," said Hermione, wet eyes wide.
"Oh, scaring you, I'm not scaring you," Draco spat, "nothing scares you. Not exams or Death Eaters or werewolves and certainly not Draco Malfoy!" He stood.
"Silencio!" Blaise cast, and yanked Draco away from the doors; it was only then that he realized Snape and Dumbledore were emerging from the Wing…
Luna tugged him back and they flanked him, Luna on one side and Hermione on the other, Blaise with his wand drawn before them, looking half-wild himself. Draco had the mad thought that if Snape saw them crouching in the shadows, Blaise might take it into his head to hex him, he looked that fierce. Luckily, neither man gazed in their direction; but Draco heard Hermione cast a Disillusionment charm on their huddled little group, anyway.
"…to start with your own House," Dumbledore was saying quietly.
Draco froze, watching as Dumbledore passed Snape, placing a paternal hand on his shoulder.
Dumbledore said something too low for Draco to hear, then: "…are accelerating… all faster than we'd hoped…"
"I understand," said Snape. "But you ask so much of me. Are you even aware of how much I have borne for you? Do you have the slightest care?" He gazed around himself as though only just now realizing he and Dumbledore were ostensibly in public; Blaise shrank back, but he still kept the others behind him, one iron hand around Draco's forearm.
"I do," said Dumbledore. "But needs must, my boy."
Snape slumped, and Draco could have sworn his eyes glittered, and not with malice. "You'll be the death of me, old man," he said.
"Hopefully not," said Dumbledore, and there was a beat of silence before both men chuckled as if at some shared joke, though Draco thought Snape's laugh sounded harsh and lonesome as the cawing of a crow.
"Poor boy," said Dumbledore, after a moment.
"Which one?" said Snape.
"Ah," said Dumbledore. "Neither. The Weasley boy, I meant."
Snape waved a hand. "Oh, he'll be all right."
Draco slumped, and it was only Blaise's firm grip that kept him from thumping to the floor. The hall was spinning again, and Draco took fresh gulps of air. Potter had the tendency to lose consciousness, he thought… he'd never seen anybody lose consciousness as many times a year as Potter did… he himself had already lost consciousness as Potter a few times already… he wouldn't let it happen again... he needed to hear the rest, and he refused...
"…few days in the Hospital Wing, keep taking essence of rue…" Snape was saying, and then the pair disappeared down the hall.
Draco saw that Hermione had both hands clapped over her mouth; tears were running down her cheeks, and she reached blindly for them until even Luna consented to be pulled in. For a long moment, they breathed together.
Blaise raised his wand and Draco nodded in acquiescence. The blind rage had bled away, leaving him weak. Blaise cast a wordless Finite, and the impediment on Draco's voice fell away.
He felt the way he had when Voldemort had told him he would lose his parents unless he was successful. These were Potter's feelings, he tried to tell himself, firmly. This was all how Potter felt, just the palimpsest with its deathgrip on his emotions, who was Ron Weasley to him, anyway? No one. Just one of the redheaded, poverty-stricken Weasleys, a sickle a dozen; Merlin, if Ron had been killed, Mr and Mrs Weasley would probably just have had two more.
But the thoughts felt foreign and revolting, like a scrim of mold over rotting fruit.
Mr and Mrs Weasley weren't contemptible caricatures of blood traitors any more than Ron was. Mr Weasley was trusting and friendly and funny, and Mrs Weasley gave hugs that went a little too long and were a little too desperate. And their Christmas mantel was strung with hand-looped garlands and they didn't deserve this.
"Mr and Mrs Weasley will have been called by now," Draco said. "We can't let them face this alone. Does Ginny know?"
"We'll be able to see them approach from here," Luna said.
"Draco Malfoy," Blaise said, plainly. "How sure are you?"
"He told you he was planning something, on the train to Hogwarts," Draco said. "Something big."
"He did," Blaise confessed warily. "He didn't say what."
"That he was given a monumental task. That it would elevate his family…"
"Were you there under the Invisibility Cloak?"
Draco paused, remembering Harry's face crunching under his boot. "…yes."
"What was it?"
"Killing Albus Dumbledore," Draco said. "Only… he's missed. Twice."
"Harry!" Hermione gasped. "Are you sure?"
"The necklace. The mead," said Blaise.
"Yes. But it's worse than that," said Draco. "He intends to bring the Death Eaters to Hogwarts, through a Vanishing Cabinet in the Room of Requirement."
Blaise stared into Draco's features, eyes wide; Draco didn't even try to Occlude. Even if Blaise could, he no longer cared. Luna had a deathgrip on his arm, and Hermione was blink-blinking, as though she could scarcely believe it.
"How do you know all of this?" Blaise said.
"I can't tell you," said Draco.
"Did you tell Dumbledore?" Hermione pressed.
Draco nodded. "He said we needed to give him a chance."
"Oh Merlin," said Blaise.
"He nearly killed Ron with that chance," said Draco, "and I won't take any more chances."
"So, what? You intend to kill him?" Hermione whispered, fiercely.
Blaise scoffed. "What do you think will happen, next? Think, Potter. Even the Savior of the Wizarding World can't go killing people he doesn't like."
It was much what Mr Weasley had said, and coming first from a Gryffindor and then from a Slytherin, Draco felt bound to take it as good advice.
"Fine, then. We'll ensure he's expelled." Draco's gaze darted up. "Get Pansy in on it and convince her it's for his own good, that he'll end in Azkaban or worse if he doesn't leave Hogwarts immediately, and he won't suspect a thing. I've seen her face, she's worried enough to agree."
A distinctly malevolent smile was making its way across Blaise's face.
"Never liked him much, did you?" said Draco, eyeing him.
"Who does?" said Blaise. "Pansy excepted, I mean."
"Hang on," said Hermione, raising a hand in the air. "For what crime are we going to get him expelled?"
"For attempted murder," said Draco. "Obviously."
"Do you believe Malfoy would be so foolish as to keep the ingredients lying around after he'd made a poison?" Blaise returned.
Draco's lips thinned. "We'll just have to plant them, then."
"That's too suspicious," said Hermione. "A dozen things could give us away, and if it went wrong, we'd be in trouble and he'd be near-untouchable."
Luna tilted her head to one side. "Has anyone considered talking to him?"
When the others stared, she raised pale brows in Draco's direction.
"It doesn't seem to have occurred to anyone else why he might have done such a thing," she commented – sharply, for Luna – "when he never has, before."
Hermione started to stammer something about there always needing to be a first serious crime, but Luna was implacable.
"Harry," she said, "what do you suppose could be the reason for Draco to do such a thing?"
"His family was threatened," Draco parroted.
"Remove the danger, and we remove the threat," Luna said serenely.
"Oh, so shall I go and off Voldemort now?" Draco queried. "I was only awaiting permission."
Luna's lips quirked. "I mean," she said, "spirit away Mr and Mrs Malfoy, someplace he'll know they're safe."
"By convincing Dumbledore they're in danger?" said Hermione, curiously.
"That could actually work," said Blaise, slowly. "Dumbledore would have connections, places to tuck them away where he wouldn't think to look."
"We might not be able to plant evidence for a specific crime," Hermione mused, "but I think it would be easier to build a case for the Malfoys being in danger, and for that having the potential to influence Draco's actions."
"That still requires we make a case for him being dangerous," Draco argued.
"Does it?" said Luna. "Couldn't we say they're just in trouble and they need help?"
"We'll have to plan out our arguments carefully…" Hermione said, and Blaise smiled at her a little hopelessly, as though he could barely help himself.
But before their plotting could go much further, the Weasleys came rushing down the hall, Dumbledore at their side; Draco caught sight of one curler still wound in Mrs Weasley's hair. The tiny group crept 'round the corner to pretend to have just come from Gryffindor, and they went en masse to visit Ron, only he still hadn't woken.
Later, Draco and Hermione stumbled through the Fat Lady's portrait exhausted and morose to find that half of Gryffindor was awake; Professor McGonagall had come in and woken Ginny, who had inadvertently woken her dorm-mates, and from there a wave of panic had extended to the rest of her House like waves lapping up from a lakeside. The first face Draco could make out in the sea of unsettled features was Cormac McLaggen's.
"Shame," he said feelingly, reaching out for Draco's hand to shake; Draco took it and shook in sheer surprise, glancing down in shock when Cormac patted his clasped hand. "So, you'll be wanting a replacement Keeper, given that Weasley's down for the count, and we both know who's best for the job…"
The next thing Draco knew, McLaggen was sprawled out on the Common Room floor and his fist was stinging as though he'd burnt it on a kettle. Shaking it out, he pointed down at McLaggen, who was clasping his streaming nose and cursing loudly. "Ron almost died, you utter waste of space!" He took one, threatening step closer, and McLaggen scrambled back.
Hermione was at his side, and for a moment, Draco thought she meant to drag him away from McLaggen, but her voice was fierce when she shouted at him. "There's a time and a place, McLaggen!"
McLaggen scrambled to his feet. "You can't treat me like this," he swore, speaking through a spatter of blood. "You can't speak to me this way! You'll regret this!" he growled, and lumbered off.
The Common Room fell to dead silence as he stomped up the steps, and the door rattled on its hinges as he slammed it behind him; Draco figured the rest of Gryffindor was awake, now.
"Will he be all right?" Lavender Brown murmured into the lull.
"He will, Lavender," Hermione said comfortingly. "I'm sure Harry didn't mean to cause a stir, or worry anybody," she said, elbowing him.
Draco cleared his throat. "Sorry, everyone. Ron will be all right. But it's left me rather – out-of-sorts." He looked up the stairs after McLaggen. "I don't know even McLaggen deserved all that. Thomas, you've a deft hand with an Episkey – mind braving the lion's den?"
Dean shrugged and tipped an imaginary hat, making his way up the stairs after McLaggen. There was some subsequent shouting from the seventh-year dormitory that Draco and the others did their best to ignore.
"All right, Harry?" said Seamus.
"We've got to stop this." He looked up, seeing nearly half the members of the DA and added, "I'll be speaking to Dumbledore soon, and hopefully we can figure out where our security is failing."
"It doesn't take a Mastery to figure it out," said Ginny, stumbling through the portrait-hole. "It's a student who's making all this trouble. It's the only thing that makes sense." She sighed. "Katie says she's out tomorrow – guess we've replaced one Gryffindor patient for another."
Draco could feel Hermione, still pressed up against his side, hold her breath; but he didn't bring up Draco Malfoy. He feared some over-eager DA member would try and take him out personally, and that couldn't end well.
Dean descended the stair to loop his arm around his girlfriend, and together they made their way to a couch; some of the girls clustered there made room for Ginny to sit.
"Who could be doing it, though?" said Lavender, holding hands with Parvati.
Parvati squeezed Lavender's hand and stood. "Listen, we all heard Hermione the last time something like this happened: they weren't after her, they were after Dumbledore. These two events must be connected. So who could've had the opportunity to get an order to murder the Headmaster?"
"It's got to be a Slytherin," Ginny mused, and Dean nodded.
"Easy," said Hermione, hands in the air.
"We know you're dating one," Lavender interjected. "No one's saying it's Blaise."
"No one's even saying it's Pansy," Parvati muttered.
"No one's saying it's anyone in the DA at all," Seamus tacked on.
The Gryffindors were edging perilously close to the truth.
"We're going to discuss it with the Headmaster at the earliest possible opportunity," Hermione said. "For now, no witch hunts, please!"
Everyone turned to stare.
"Errrr, Muggle saying," Hermione said swiftly. "It means to accuse and assault someone without proof!"
"What do you say, Harry?" Seamus prompted. "You've been havering on about Malfoy for ages."
Draco shifted uncomfortably, but everyone had heard him say it, so denying it outright was out of the question. "I do think there's a possibility it's Malfoy," he said, "but I'm not doing anything about it until I speak to Dumbledore."
There was some muttering about this, and Draco found himself thinking that if the Headmaster didn't do something about Draco Malfoy, he'd have a posse eager to take up the cause.
A/N: Pretend a clever author's note is sitting here; I'm still hyperventilating.