Harry was still standing, contemplating his future when low cursing reached his ears. It was coming from upstairs, from where the light was trickling down the stairs. He followed it slowly, still sore and tired, drawn by curiosity more than good sense. He thought he knew who that was. What was he still doing here?
The light came from a room he'd hardly ever been in before—the Weasleys' junk room and library. The door was pulled to, and light leaked around and under it. Someone was definitely in there, shifting about in a creaky chair. Harry pushed lightly against the door' it opened. Draco Malfoy was lounging in a chair underneath a lamp. His gaze flickered up and then back down at his book. His posture didn't change in the slightest.
Harry didn't like being ignored, especially by a Malfoy who had almost sent him to his death not too long ago. "What are you doing here?"
Draco stared at Harry coolly and then snapped his book shut. "So you're alive. Perhaps the Wizarding World isn't doomed after all." He stood with a sneer, seeming to dislike Harry looking down at him.
So this was Draco without his father. Harry wasn't impressed. Draco looked bitter, extremely thin and disheveled. But his mouth worked fine. He went right in for the kill
"So, Severus told me what my father did to you. He's a master at humiliation, don't you think?"
Harry went cold and felt the blood drain out of his face. Then it suddenly flooded back, bringing hot anger. But he didn't know what to say. He practically choked on the nonexistent words.
Draco watched him without expression. "Death Eaters don't keep secrets very well, you know. They love to gossip. Consider yourself lucky. Things could have been far worse. My father's . . . appetites are legendary." Draco stood and walked over to the window, looking out. "I imagine, the next time you find yourself in Malfoy Manor, you'll find that out in even greater detail."
Harry was clenching and unclenching his fists, trying to work himself past one of the most uncomfortable moments in his life. He felt like he'd been kicked in the groin and he wanted to lash out. But he couldn't allow himself to do that. This year was about control, and Harry wasn't about to fail his first test.
He swallowed several times and finally settled on something to say. "There won't be a next time."
Draco turned back to look at him, seemingly amused. "Now, how many times have I said those exact words to myself?" Harry said nothing, not quite sure what Draco was hinting at. Draco's eyes went cold again and he turned back to the window. "I am not responsible for my father, you know."
There was a pause while Harry digested this. Was Draco disturbed by his father's actions? The way he ran the fingers of one hand lightly over the windowsill betrayed a slight nervousness. Once again, Harry felt an odd sympathy for Draco. "I know. If you were, I would probably kill you where you stand."
Draco froze, then turned to Harry again. "Pardon me, but did Saint Potter just issue a death threat?"
"Yeah. I did. And the funny thing is that I meant it, too. Unlike you."
Of course, he was referring to Draco's words at the end of school last year. The dig just made Draco smile. "Potter. Just because I haven't tried to do you in right here and now doesn't mean I hadn't been planning on doing it at all. Of course, things have changed, and my plans have . . . altered according to my new goals. Strangely enough, my need to have you survive has actually trumped my desire to see you dead and sprawled across the cold, stone floor at Hogwarts. Your little tete-a-tete with the Dementor earlier showed me that." Harry stared at him as he crossed back to the chair, stunned on the one hand by Draco's casual mentioning that he really had wanted Harry dead, and on the other hand by his sudden turnaround. "However, while you've been indulging in much-needed beauty sleep, I've been developing five different schemes of exactly how to take you down at Hogwarts this year, all of them extremely painful and unpleasant. I will not be exactly leaving you alone. "
Git. "Hogwarts? And exactly how were you planning on paying for that?" Harry cared nothing for money, but he was curious, and knew the question would rankle Draco.
Draco's cheeks tinged pink and his eyes widened. "I am not entirely without benefactors. You would do well to remember that."
"Benefactors who aren't loyal to Lucius?"
Draco issued a tight smile. "Exactly. Benefactors who no longer want to serve the Dark Lord's lapdog. People who want the Dark Lord to lose, but only because it suits their needs. They know I have the power to tip the scales. I'm watching every move you make, and I'll know every move He makes. Don't be surprised if I'm there, cheering you on when you fight Him, but watch your back, because even if you do survive, so will I."
The room was suddenly vibrating with tension, but there was a new flavor to it—anticipation, instead of bitterest hate. If Malfoy wasn't such a petty, whining prat, it might be fun. "Oh, I'll survive. Do your worst. But remember, Hogwarts belongs to Dumbledore, not to you. Watch your own back, Malfoy."
"Oh, I intend to," Draco smiled as if tasting a delicious fruit. "And speaking of tipping the scales a bit, I have two pieces of advice for you, Potter. There's a target on your back, so be careful of the Slytherins this year. And watch out for the littlest Weasel; she's dangerous."
Harry's jaw tightened. "Ginny would never betray me."
"Oh, too true," Draco agreed, giving Harry a scrutinizing look. "But, if my father knows as much about you as I do, and I've made sure that he does, then he'll know she's the best way to get to you."
"What are you talking about?" Harry asked blankly, but a sick feeling was blossoming in his stomach, as if it knew just what Draco was about to say.
"It's funny how much you can learn by watching a person, when your sole purpose is to exploit their weaknesses." He smiled mirthlessly. "It's simple: hurt her and it hurts you even worse. Knowing that you haven't even figured it out yet is a bonus; it makes it that much easier. Tuck her away someplace safe, Potter. She's your greatest liability."
Harry couldn't breathe. He was being suffocated by the mix of pain and horror that had reared up in his chest. If Lucius thought that Ginny was the best way to get to Harry, then he would go after her next. And if Lucius got hold of her . . . the tortures . . .
"Malfoy, what have you done?"
"What have I done?" He seemed irritated by the question. "What have I done?" Draco swept up his book and strode over to the door angrily."The same thing I've been doing for years, Potter. You're so damnable easy to manipulate. If you can't figure this one out, then to hell with you. I have very little use for a Savior, anyway." And with that, he stalked out.
Harry watched him, his mind reeling. Disbelief gave way to violent anger so desperate that it made his legs weak. He sat down heavily on the padded arm of the chair. He wasn't back to full strength yet.
From this vantage point, Harry could see a cot against the wall with rumpled covers. Apparently, this was Draco's bedroom. Made sense that he was here, since Grimmauld Place had been compromised.
Now that he was more calm, Harry forced himself to look at his reaction. Over the top. Completely over the top. Harry leaned back against the wall and looked across the room without seeing anything. Draco was right. It was the same thing Snape had been saying for years. The greasy git had been right all along. Just having someone suggest that Ginny was in danger made him lose it. He could not let himself be manipulated that way. Not again.
Now that he was calm, Harry mentally went over his list—the one that was supposed to help prevent him from making future mistakes—and amended it.
1) Listen to Hermione
2) Control temper.
3) Learn Occlumency and Procclumency.
4) Train to fight better
5) Become an unregistered animagus (if possible).
6) Learn to fight without a wand.
He also added one to it.
7) Protect Ginny (watch her, enlist others to help).
He didn't trust Malfoy, but the git made sense. The list was an intimidating
one. Harry took a few deep breaths and determined in himself to succeed. There was too
much riding on him for him to fail.
TBC . . . in Harry Potter and the Year of the One