Chapter Fourteen
In which Ginny finally gets into Draco's pants, and Ron is jealous
Thursday, December 24, 1998

It was the tremors that woke him. Even though he'd kept himself carefully on the far side of the bed as he fell asleep, at some point during the night they had both rolled towards the center of the bed, and he woke to find his forehead tucked against her shoulder blade and his arm loosely draped over her waist — a position that seemed to be becoming a favourite of his. Her back was warm against his chest, but shaking as she cried in her sleep.

"Weasley," he murmured. "Weasley." She curled into a tighter ball, but gave no indication of hearing him, nor of waking. "Ginny." She murmured something softly in response to that, so he tried again. "Ginny, wake up."

"'Raco?" she mumbled, sleepily trying to twist to look at him. The morning light that peaked through a crack in the curtains made something on her cheeks glimmer. Tears, he realized. His arm tightened around her instinctively, forcing her to stay facing away from him so that he couldn't see those tears.

"You woke me up," he said, then realized it made him sound both petulant and harsh. "Nightmare?" he asked, as gently as he could. He wished, suddenly and fiercely, that he'd been able to sleep in his own bed last night: that way, he wouldn't have woken to these tears he couldn't face.

"S'nothing," she answered, trying to draw away from him.

He held her firmly where she was. "Happens a lot, does it?"

The shake of her head was almost imperceptible. "Just... keep remembering his face when I put the knife on him." He could scarcely hear the words, she whispered it so quietly.

"You're not worried about repercussions, are you? The memory charm..."

"But I remember." Her voice was plaintive and weak, not a tone he associated with her. He wondered how many times she'd awoken like this — and how many times she hadn't awoken, but stayed trapped in some nightmare memory. Not my concern, he told himself firmly. Weasley was a strong woman — this was only a moment of weakness, one that he ought to forget as soon as he could. Somehow, he didn't think he would be able to.

She tried to roll over again, and this time he let her, biting back his instinctive protest when her arms went around him in a desperate hug. He lay there, silent and resigned, and let her clutch him as she fought for a semblance of her normal composure. When at last he thought she was calm, he said, "You're cutting off my air. I'd like to be able to breathe, if you don't mind."

The glaring eyes she turned towards him were red-rimmed but dry. "Don't be more of an arse than you have to, Malfoy."

From somewhere else in the house, there came the distinctive crack of Apparation. "Ginny?" a voice called. Weasley's eyes went very wide, as did Draco's own.

Half rolling over her, he snatched her wand from the bedside table. "Kreacher, hide my things," he ordered, having no idea whether the elf could hear him. "Hold on," he said quietly to Weasley, who still seemed too shocked to move. Then he Apparated away.

"That's strange. She doesn't seem to be here," Hermione said, peering around the dimly lit entrance hall.

"She might still be asleep," Ron pointed out. "It's early."

"It's almost ten, Ron," she answered, just the littlest bit impatient. She herself had been up since just after six.

"Ginny's not a morning person." 'And neither am I,' was added implicitly.

"It's the holidays, anyway," Harry said, peeking into the kitchen. "Nothing wrong with sleeping in."

Hermione rolled her eyes. "Even if she was sleeping in, she'd be awake now, what with you two rampaging around like a pair of hippopotamuses. She's not here."

"Where is she then?" Ron challenged.

"I don't know. Somewhere else. Diagon Alley, maybe," she added, hoping that would curtail the storm of brotherly worry that was brewing on Ron's face.

"I'd like to go to Diagon Alley," Harry said thoughtfully. "I know we only told McGonagall we were coming here, but... it's not a big deal, right?"

Hermione hesitated. They were all legally of age, now, and it wasn't like Diagon Alley would be dangerous. And after a year on their own, moving all around Britain, the halls of Hogwarts were somewhat stifling. A side trip really couldn't hurt. "Of course," she agreed. "But we're stopping at Flourish and Blott's."

Once again, Minerva was assailed by doubts. She was, technically, breaking the law by allowing Draco Malfoy his continued freedom. Ginny Weasley was seventeen, and therefore an adult, but that was hardly enough to qualify her as a warden for a convicted Death Eater. It was the sort of flagrant disregard for the law that had been so typical of Albus, bless his soul, and that worried Minerva somewhat. On the other hand, there was little in this world that would convince her that it wasn't right.

She'd been as surprised as anyone when Malfoy had taken the school up on its open offer of an eighth year. Her resolve to keep an eye on him had been prompted more by her worry over his reception — she would not tolerate fights in her school — than by the Ministry's request.

He got up to little enough, anyway. His marks were excellent — the best they had ever been, now that he didn't have Quidditch or evil schemes taking him away from his studies. All the teachers reported that he was quieter, more reserved, and that if he spoke in class it was to ask a relevant and insightful question about the course material in a way that bespoke a genuine desire to learn. Flitwick in particular seemed to have taken a shine to the boy over the last few months, and now considered Malfoy a favourite pupil; but then, Flitwick had always had a soft spot for ready intelligence.

Despite his apparent turn-around, Minerva had still been shocked when the boy fell in with Ginny Weasley. According to the Bloody Baron — who knew the most about Malfoy's activities, and told Minerva the least — the two studied together often, and occasionally met on a more social, but strictly platonic, level. There was no romance, no evil plots, just the strangest friendship that Minerva had ever encountered.

Sometimes, Minerva thought she should send the pair of them to visit Poppy so they could have their heads examined. That anyone should apparently take such joy from a series of vicious, and sometimes violent, fracases simply boggled the mind. Well, Ginny Weasley is related to the twins, Minerva thought, and perhaps all that Dark Magic scrambled the Malfoy boy's brains. It wasn't the most reassuring thought, but it might explain why they acted as they did.

However strange their relationship, it was solid, and Minerva had had only a few slight misgivings about letting the pair of them escape to Grimmauld Place. Perhaps she had been right to do so: according to the monitoring charm the Ministry had placed on him, and given her, he hadn't used magic at all this week. Such restraint, she thought. For a Pureblood who had grown up positively swimming in magic, not using a wand would be nearly torturous.

And now I've sent Potter to them.
It would have seemed strange if she had told Potter and his friends that they couldn't go to Grimmauld Place, and likely they would have gone anyway. But she worried about what would happen when those three found Malfoy there. I hope I did the right thing.

They landed with a crash on the edge of a bed, and fell to the floor in a tangle of limbs. "Cliodne's cunt, Malfoy, do you even have your license?" Ginny demanded when a bit of air found its way back into her lungs. She'd noticed that her language had become a bit more colourful over the course of her association with him, and at times like this she was glad.

"I do too," he snapped petulantly, disentangling himself and looking around the room. "I was rushed, was all. Oh, I see. Mother rearranged the furniture."

"She... where are we?" Ginny demanded, glaring at him as she stood. It felt like her body, especially her knees and elbows, were covered in bruises. It was a miracle he hadn't splinched them both, Apparating like that.

"Malfoy Manor. Wiltshire," he added, somewhat unnecessarily. Seeing her glare intensify, he added, "I panicked, alright?"

Knowing what the admission cost him, and not particularly caring, Ginny said, "So now what?"

"Breakfast?" he suggested, shrugging.

"Not dressed like this," Ginny told him, indicating her dishevelled pyjamas. She was about to elaborate, when she heard footsteps rapidly approaching.

"...Apparated in... unexpected..." she heard.

Malfoy heard it too, and his eyes widened. "Bathroom. Go," he ordered, jerking his chin towards a door. Ginny fairly flew across the room, getting the door closed behind her just as the door to the corridor opened. How much longer is this going to keep up? she thought, tired and annoyed. She'd wanted to sleep in but, failing that, she was willing to settle for breakfast — but she didn't look to be getting that any time soon, either.

Willing her breathing to stay quiet, she pressed an ear to the door. "...doing here?" a voice she almost recognized was saying.

"I decided to come home," came the answer in Malfoy's unmistakeable drawl. "I still live here."

"Does Minerva McGonagall know you're here?"

"Yes." Ginny wondered if Malfoy had also come to the conclusion that McGonagall had let them go, or if he was simply telling a barefaced lie.

"We didn't receive any notification that you'd be arriving."

"Maybe I was suddenly overcome with extreme homesickness," Malfoy retorted. Oh, please don't be an arse, Ginny thought at him, willing him to somehow hear her. For once in your life, pretend you care what someone's saying.

"You're alone?" the man asked suspiciously. If they had detectors for Apparation, no doubt they could identify the number of people, and would know if Malfoy tried to lie.

"No. Ginevra Weasley's with me." He said it calmly, as though it were the most natural thing in the world. And to some extent it did feel that way, although it wasn't quite enough to counter the strangeness of suddenly finding herself in Malfoy Manor, of all places.

"Where is she?"

"The loo," Malfoy answered dryly. "Is that all? I was in the middle of changing."

There was silence for a moment, then the man said, "I'm watching you, Malfoy."

"Not while I'm changing, you aren't," Malfoy retorted firmly. There was the scuff of feet, and then the sound of a door closing. "Weasley, you can come out now."

"Who was that?"

"One of the Aurors." Malfoy was rooting through a deep wardrobe, so his voice was slightly muffled. Even so, Ginny knew that his expression would have a wry twist to it when he said, "They keep a constant watch to make sure we behave ourselves."

"Sounds like a boring assignment."

"One nearly got eaten by the topiary last week." His shoulders moved in what might have been a shrug. "Mother warned them, but of course that just made them think she was hiding something out there."

Ginny felt a slight smirk tugging the corner of her mouth. "Perhaps not so boring."

"Perhaps," he agreed, emerging from the wardrobe. "Here. They'll be a bit too big, but they're the closest I have." He handed her a shirt and a pair of worn Quidditch corduroys. "You really ought to learn some tailoring charms."

"What makes you think I don't know any?" Ginny said, a bit defensively. She didn't, but that was entirely besides the point.

He gave her a withering look. "If you did, your clothes might actually fit. The only other explanation is that you have absolutely no taste."

She glared at him, but turned back to the bathroom without comment. Her looks and her family's financial situation were two topics she never wanted to discuss with him, and this conversation threatened to include both.

After she'd washed and dressed, and he'd taken a turn in the bathroom, he led her out of the room. "Mother's probably in the conservatory," he told her. "We can take breakfast there." That brought Ginny's attention rapidly away from the architecture, which she had been studying. The Manor was built elegantly, on a grand scale, but it seemed that that only served to make it feel empty.

"Your mother..." she murmured, suddenly unsure. She knew that Narcissa Malfoy had saved Harry's life during the Battle of Hogwarts — hence the clemency towards the family — but the only time she'd seen the woman up close had been at the Quidditch World Cup. Then, she had seemed imposing, aloof, and hopelessly aristocratic. Malfoy wasn't as bad as he first seemed (although in some ways he was perhaps worse), but that didn't mean the same would be true of his mother. And she dreaded the thought of meeting Lucius Malfoy.

The conservatory, like the rest of the house, was enormous and beautiful. Carefully tended plants lined the room, filling the air with a warm, earthy smell that was cut by the humid freshness of a slender waterfall. The high glass ceiling seemed to amplify the winter sunlight, aiding the illusion that they had been transported somewhere exotic and tropical when they stepped through the doorway. In the center of the room, a grand piano held the place of honour, looking as though it had grown there rather than out of place.

Seated at a delicate table, in a chair that looked as though it had been made of spun glass and spider silk, was a tall, stately woman. She might have been beautiful once, and some would probably still think her so, but to Ginny she looked careworn and tired. She looked up as they approached, and her smile made Ginny think that maybe she was still beautiful after all. "Draco. And Miss Weasley." She stood and kissed Draco lightly on each cheek, then repeated the greeting to Ginny. "I was just about to begin breakfast. Won't you join me?"

"We'd be glad to, Mother," Draco said gently. His firm grip, which suddenly appeared on Ginny's elbow, cut off any protest she might have made. He steered her to a seat at the table, likely looking gentlemanly and considerate, even as he gave her no option but to do as he wanted.

"Ginny." She started at the deep, rich voice, and looked around quickly to locate the speaker. Kingsley Shacklebolt, one-time Auror and now Minister of Magic, was watching her over the top of the Prophet. His strong frame was comfortably ensconced in a deep armchair that looked no less elegant for all its apparent comfort.

"Kingsley," she said, so surprised she nearly missed her chair as she tried to sit, no longer sure her legs would take the weight. "What are you... I mean..." Perhaps Malfoy had noticed him, and that was why he'd been so forceful about making her act as though nothing was wrong — but Ginny hadn't even realized there was anyone else there.

"It's very nice to see you too," he said, a cheerful, amused smile splitting his dark features. Now that he no longer looked so severe, Ginny managed to smile in return. "You look well."

"As do you, Minister," Ginny responded, finally recovering herself. "I hadn't expected to see you here."

"That much," he answered, "is evident. The reverse is true as well." His eyebrows raised slightly. "I am here bringing holiday wishes to the Malfoy family."

"Checking up on us, he means," Malfoy grumbled next to her. At least he had the sense to say it quietly.

"Malfoy — that is, Draco — said I might be able to use their library for my NEWTs research," Ginny said. From the corner of her eye, she saw Malfoy go very still when she called him by his first name, but by the time she mentioned the library he was nodding as though this was the reason they had come here all along.

"He didn't mention that the library was forfeit?" Kingsley asked, his voice tinged with something that might have been suspicion. Ginny saw Narcissa Malfoy's expression tighten slightly.

"But it's still here," Malfoy said, his bored arrogance dismissing the Minister of Magic as easily as it did an annoying first year. That's quite the trick he has, Ginny thought to herself. It'll probably get him killed one day. "Might as well make use of it before it goes. Oh, Mother — do you know if we have the first two volumes of Anecdotes of the Great Accountants?"

"You'll have to ask Anton." Any woman with less poise would have shrugged, Ginny thought, but Narcissa Malfoy's manner implied that such an action was beneath her dignity.

A bearded man that Ginny thought she might have seen before — at the Ministry, maybe, or with the Order — came in then. Kingsley looked up at him. "It's all in order, then?"

The man nodded. "She nearly took my head off when I asked if she was sure."

"Of course she did," Kingsley agreed, rising and folding his paper. "That's what you get for questioning Minerva's competence. She wouldn't let Malfoy escape."

Despite a brisk wind from the north that promised snow before nightfall, Diagon Alley was packed with last-minute holiday shoppers. The air, which tasted to Ron of pollution and freedom, seemed to fairly hum with tension: both excitement for the coming holiday, and stress from shopping under a tight deadline. After so many long months at Hogwarts, with only classes and Quidditch to distract him from the memories that seeped from the very stones of the building, it was glorious.

Harry seemed to have found new energy, too. He'd cheerfully recalled their adventure in Gringotts, and spoken kindly to everyone who had come up to shake his hand and wish him well. There had been one moment, when Harry had wanted to buy Christmas owl treats for Hedwig, when Ron had worried that things might blow up in their faces, but the treats had been purchased without incident. There would be some difficulty in disposing of them later, but Ron didn't want to think about it.

He hadn't seen Ginny yet, which was another worry. He'd agreed to come as much because Hermione had said his sister would be here, as much as because it was important to Harry. But though he'd looked and looked, craning his neck to see over crowds and straining his eyes to see through shop windows, he'd still found no trace of her.

It worried him, far more than he liked to admit. Too often these days, it seemed that Ginny was leading a life separate from theirs; almost as if she were purposely distancing herself from them. He'd first noticed it years ago, when he was in his fifth year, but he'd put it down to her growing up. After she'd started seeing Harry, things had seemed to go back to normal. But these past months — or perhaps even longer, perhaps since they had first left to find the Horcruxes — the space between them had grown alarmingly. Sometimes he thought he didn't even know her anymore.

But all that was probably just his brotherly worry, as Hermione would say. They'd find Ginny, and he'd realize that his paranoia had made things seem worse than they were, and everything would be fine.

Anton, Ginny learned shortly after breakfast, was the dour-faced ghost who served as the Malfoy family's librarian. Born in the seventeenth century to the wayward lady of the house and a village lad, he'd soon been shipped off to a monastery, only to be called back some years later to keep the house accounts for the incompetent heir. The ghost had glared in a dull, resigned sort of way as Malfoy related the tale, as though he disliked being reminded of his personal history. Whatever his attitude towards the house and the family, though, he clearly loved the library, and knew the name and origin of every volume it contained.

He was waxing nostalgic about Abraxas Malfoy, whose love of rare books had nearly doubled the size of the collection, when Ginny's eyes became drawn to the portrait that overlooked a small cluster of reading chairs. It was a still portrait, as though painted by a muggle: it must be very old indeed, because Hogwarts contained portraits from as far back as the fifteenth century, all of which moved. There was a curious flatness and lack of proportion to the woman's face as well which, had she paid more attention in History of Magic, Ginny would have recognized as typical of pre-Renaissance works.

With a shock, as though suddenly stung by a skrewt, Ginny recognized the woman. Though the style differed significantly from the portrait at Hogwarts, which had been painted several hundred years after the woman's death, with that dark hair, pale skin, and those sharp, thoughtful eyes, the woman in the portrait was unmistakably Rowena Ravenclaw.

"Malfoy," she said, not noticing the glare Anton sent her as she cut him off, "why is there a portrait of Ravenclaw in your house?" Some small part of her wouldn't have been surprised if it were Slytherin — indeed, she had half expected to see one somewhere in the house, perhaps above an altar.

"We're descended from her," Malfoy answered easily, as though this meant little to him. "At least, that's the story."

She looked at him sharply. With his personality, she would have expected Malfoy to have bragged to everyone who would listen that he was descended from Ravenclaw herself, despite being in Slytherin. "The story?"

"Have a seat," was his answer, coupled with a jerk of his head towards the chairs beneath the portrait. "It's a bit long. We'll call if we need you, Anton," he added, in clear dismissal. The ghost gave him a snooty look — perhaps arrogance really was genetic in this family — and drifted away.

"None of this is in the histories because no one can prove it — although enough of my ancestors have tried. It's just a story," Malfoy began. His gaze move from Ginny's face to the portrait of Ravenclaw, and then intensified until it seemed he looked through the canvas to the past. The Founder's time, Ginny wondered, or when he learned the story? It was an irrelevant thought, but she continued to watch his face as he spoke.

"In 1050, when Hogwarts was founded, Ravenclaw was still a young woman. The youngest of the four, actually: about twenty years old, while Gryffindor and Hufflepuff were in their thirties, and Slytherin was close to sixty. So of course, it's understandable that Slytherin was thought to be the greatest of the four, as well as the most set in his ways." His tone was thoughtful: he wasn't needling her, only mapping out how things appeared to have stood. "Ravenclaw was married, with a young daughter."

"The Grey Lady?" Ginny asked quietly, afraid to interrupt but unable to keep herself from doing so.

Malfoy didn't even glance at her, but continued to speak to the unmoving portrait. "I suppose. Ravenclaw's husband died, at some point. That part's a bit unclear, but it's not really important. Then, after Edward the Confessor died, William of Normandy came to claim the throne of England, and Geoffrey Malfoy came with him. Ravenclaw was at Salisbury when the town fell to them. Geoffrey asked William for land near the plain, and to be allowed to chose a wife from the conquered women, in recognition of his service. Decent of him, perhaps, considering that rape and pillage were more common. It probably seemed like a small reward to William, so he gave it easily.

"What William didn't realize was that Geoffrey was the most powerful wizard of the small handful that had come from Normandy, and it was his goal to be the founder of a line of the greatest wizards in the world." Ginny thought his smile at that was slightly rueful. "A home near a powerful ancient site, and an exceptional witch as a wife: those were what he needed, and by marrying Ravenclaw and building Malfoy Manor, he gained them. Everyone else probably thought he was insane, marrying an old woman like that."

"She wouldn't have been that old," Ginny protested. "Only..."

"Thirty-seven or so," he agreed. "Old, for that time — it was a miracle she survived giving birth to Geoffrey's heir. But she always hated him, and after the son was born, she put a curse on the family. Only one heir would be born to each generation. The family would never grow, as Geoffrey had wished, and it would die entirely if a son died without issue."

"No wonder you're such a brat," Ginny muttered. "Ridiculously coddled because of an old story."

Malfoy ignored her. "She died of a broken heart soon after. Well, that's the story, anyway. It's a thousand years old: it's just as likely she was madly in love with Geoffrey, and was broken hearted when he died. Or that neither of them ever existed. The curse is real, though."

"That's rot," Ginny informed him. "A curse that lasts a thousand years? Especially one that specific... it can't be done."

"There's curses on the pyramids that have been there for several times that," Malfoy pointed out dryly.

Ginny shook her head firmly. "Those are on objects, not bloodlines. Magic sticks better. And anyway, they don't last as well as you think — they start to mutate, or fall apart, which is why there's so many nasty things in there. Bill said the worst thing he ever saw was a spell that was supposed to preserve grain, which went bad. Anyone who went near the tomb would start to rot, only they wouldn't die or fall apart entirely." She waved a dismissive hand. "Anyway, the curse is impossible. It's just that no woman wants to bring any more of you arrogant bastards into the world than she has to."

The look he gave her was so intense, and went on for so long, that for a moment Ginny feared she had actually offended him. But then he smirked, and said, "But we're so handsome. What woman could resist?"

"Albino ferrets aren't nearly as attractive as you seem to think," Ginny countered, feeling inexplicably relieved that he had not been offended by her easy dismissal of something which he genuinely seemed to believe. She could remember his anger before, when she'd suggested that his family was so small because they all turned gay, and he'd first mentioned this ridiculous curse.

But now he actually laughed at her comment. "That's far more recent. My great-grandfather wanted to marry a beautiful woman, so he married a veela."

"Has anyone ever told you that your family is incredibly shallow, Malfoy?" One had married for magical power, one for looks, and though he hadn't mentioned it, there had probably been at least one that had married for money.

"Never to my face," he said with an inexplicable smirk.

"Anyway, I didn't think veelas liked marrying wizards." Fleur's grandmother was a veela, but she'd admitted to Ginny that neither she nor her mother knew who her grandfather had been.

"They don't. She killed him." He shrugged, a slightly wicked smile on his face. "She ate his liver, too."

"You're making that up."

"I'm not. Well, the bit about the liver, yes. They never proved that she tried to eat him, but I'm sure she did."

Ginny shook her head. "Suddenly, so much about you stands explained."

"I'll take that to mean my dashing good looks and stunning intellect," he drawled in return. Ginny rolled her eyes. The stories themselves hadn't been that revealing — interesting, yes, but they were just stories. But his current good cheer, and the thoughtful way in which he had told the stories had fully shown her a side of him that she had previously only seen flashes of. How uncomfortable he must be at Hogwarts, if this is how he acts at home, she thought. But she'd never say as much out loud: it would be an unpardonable voicing of his weakness, which he was loathe to show to anyone. Besides, it wasn't as though this was his true face, and his being an arrogant bastard was just a front: that was as much him as this relaxed, thoughtful young man. It was interesting, and somehow pleasant, to see this side of him, but she wasn't so foolish as to believe that he was inadvertently revealing a soft, squishy center that had been hidden under that prickly shell all along. There's absolutely nothing soft about him.

She suddenly became aware that he was speaking again. "...even listening?" he was saying.

"Yes, yes," she said irritably, waving him off, even though she hadn't heard a word he'd said.

"Liar. You were completely lost to the world. Flitwick could have done a naked Irish jig right in front of you, and you wouldn't have noticed."

Ginny winced. "I could have done without that mental image."

"Pervert," he answered, not sounding the least bit sorry for causing her mental pain. "What I said was, we should find those books for you."

"That was just an excuse for Kingsley," Ginny pointed out.

"I know." He looked up at the high shelves that ringed the room; sadly, Ginny thought. "But the books really are forfeit and I just..." He grimaced. "I don't want to lose them all," he admitted, grudgingly. He was probably afraid the sentiment sounded sappy, but Ginny understood.

"I can't take that many."

"Some of the oldest and rarest books in the collection are Dark Magic texts on almancy and sangremancy."

Ginny felt herself pale a little. "Malfoy, I can't... books like that are much too..." Precious was the word she wanted to use, but in her flustered state she had very nearly said 'expensive', which would have given him entirely the wrong idea about her objection.

"Come here," he ordered and, hesitantly, she obeyed, moving to stand in front of her chair. He reached up and gripped her hand, as though to shake it. "I, Draco Malfoy, heir to the Malfoy family, its titles, manor, fortune, and all its possessions, do grant permission to you, Ginevra Weasley, to borrow, indefinitely, any items or parts of the Malfoy library collection, and to have unrestricted access to them, as I would have." He released her hand, but his eyes remained steady on hers.

Ginny took a shaky breath, worried by the strange stirring she had felt when he'd held her hand, as though the very air around them was charged. "That sounded unbelievably pompous, you know."

"I can't help it," he said, a smirk tugging at the corner of his mouth. "I didn't write it. But it's the only way for you to get through the protections on the books. Ah, Anton," he added, as the ghost approached in a way that as much resembled a purposeful stride as was possible for someone who floated. "I didn't call for you."

"You released the wards on the collection," the ghost said angrily, no longer even slightly deferential. So that's what that feeling was, Ginny thought, inexplicably relieved to learn that it had only been magic. Just the wards. "Just what do you think you're doing?"

"What I can," Malfoy snapped. "We'll be wanting the books on almancy and sangremancy, Anton — the best volumes, please, and any that you cannot bear to have confiscated by the Ministry."

Ginny saw the ghost's transparent eyes widen. "You are protecting the library?"

"The best and most important, Anton. We cannot take many."

"Yes sir."

"And see what we have on accountancy and business. I'd like to sneak a couple of those, if I can." Anton was rapidly floating away, apparently elated by the imminent salvation of his precious library. "He's such a twat," Malfoy muttered, once the ghost was out of earshot. Ginny snickered.

"What do you mean, I can't fly?" Draco demanded. The bearded Auror just shrugged, as though he didn't care that he was denying Draco the thing he had most looked forward to ever since he realized all the opportunities that being home afforded him.

"Can't supervise you properly if you're on a broom," the man said. "It's Christmas — not enough manpower."

It was surprisingly difficult to resist the urge to reach over and throttle the man. Beside him, he felt Weasley twitch, and suddenly realized that they'd been standing with their shoulders touching. Sweet Circe, that's bad, he thought. At some point he'd become comfortable enough around her that he didn't even notice the contact. It was worrying: not only did it mark a dramatic change from his old self, but it was dangerous for him to be so unguarded, even if it was only Weasley.

"And why should he have to be supervised?" Weasley demanded, before Draco could stop her from interfering. "He's not a baby." The Auror muttered something about escapes, and Weasley growled in frustration.

"It's alright," Draco said quietly, putting a hand on her arm, although he wasn't sure if it was an attempt to calm her or preparation in case she tried to bodily attack the annoying man. "You go on to the shed, and try out the new Blaze. I'll just watch."

The eyes she turned to him were troubled. Worryingly, he felt a wave of annoyance towards the Auror because the man had upset Weasley like this. "It's not fair," she told him, as though she still believed, after all this time, that anything in the world was fair.

"It happens," he said. "Go on. You probably won't get another chance to ride something so expensive." Normally, he would have expected her to glare at him, or snap something in return. Instead, she just rolled her eyes at him, as though she knew he was deliberately trying to annoy her so she would stop being upset over the injustice done to him. Without a word, she went into the shed and grabbed the new broom, kicking off while she was still inside.

She passed through the door with a whoop of joy, the broom already flying at her old Comet's top speed. Draco found himself grinning a little bit as he watched her spiral up high above the Manor, although a part of him ached with the wish that it were him up there, feeling the rush of cold winter air against his face.

"It's a wonderful broom, isn't it?" Lucius said, coming up behind him. "The reviews don't do it justice."

"That idiot from the Prophet can't fly worth beans, that's why," Draco responded. The incompetence of the Prophet's staff — and most especially its Quidditch columnist — was one of Lucius's favourite topics.

His father hummed in agreement. "It would seem Miss Weasley can." The words were carefully approving. Draco didn't doubt that his father still harboured some grudges, against the Weasleys especially, but they all knew to play nice now that the fate of their family rested in the hands of the Weasleys and their friends. Too, Draco knew that in bringing Weasley here, and letting her ride the new broom that even he hadn't had a go on, he had sent a clear signal to his family that this was one Weasley that was not to be spoken ill of, at least in his hearing. He doubted much would be said, in any case — his mother had seemed quite charmed by Weasley's quick wit and unrefined politeness at breakfast.

"I haven't seen you yet today, Father. A new project?" Draco asked. Banned from many of his old activities, and unwilling to return to Bargles with a guilty verdict and an Auror guard, Lucius had turned his hand to a number of projects over the last few months, trying to stave off boredom. Narcissa's letters had described attempts at guitar, golf and once, disastrously, gardening. Lucius, previously an aristocratic man of leisure, now resembled a working stiff forced into early retirement and unable settle down to a life of quiet relaxation.

"I thought I'd make myself scarce. Miss Weasley has no cause to like me, and I thought it best not to jeopardize your efforts." While he appreciated his father's desire not to upset Weasley, Draco disliked the insinuation that their was an ulterior motive to his association with her. He enjoyed Weasley's company for its own sake, for much the same reasons he appreciated their enmity — if such it still was — and not because her friendship might benefit their family with the Ministry. In fact, he was sure many people would disapprove of his spending time with her, thinking, as Lucius did, that he was only doing it because he had an ulterior motive.

Instead of correcting his father, though, Draco simply said, "Thank you. I doubt the Aurors would be quick enough to protect you if she decided to hex you."

"A talented witch, is she?"

"Well..." Draco paused, thinking back over the hours he had spent studying with her. Weasley wasn't a brainy know-it-all, the way the Mudblood was, but she wasn't stupid like her troll of a brother, either. She was intuitive and bright and, unfortunately, very quick on the draw when he annoyed her. "Yes, I suppose she is," he said. Lucius, he felt instinctively, was not ready to hear more good of a Weasley than that. He'd been more invested in the Dark Lord's schemes than Narcissa and Draco, and had lost more, so it was understandable that his resentment would run deeper.

"Hmm. Pity about the red hair," was all Lucius said. Draco turned away, ending the conversation before his father could suggest that he marry Weasley for the benefit the match would bring their family, as he was sure Lucius would. Draco knew his parents loved each other, but their marriage had been a matter of business as well. Realizing, suddenly and horrifyingly, that he was thinking of marriage and Weasley in the same context, Draco quickly asked about his fathers attempts at gardening to distract himself. He really couldn't think about his enemy like that, even if it would only be a match of convenience.

He was waiting for her when she landed, leaning against the doorframe of the broom shed and watching her with what looked, at first, to be arrogant indifference. She spotted one of the Aurors standing guard in the shadow of the house, and realized that Malfoy's posturing was likely for the sake of his guard. Malfoy, arrogant little swot that he was, would never allow someone as crass as a mere guard to believe that they could discomfit the Great Poncy Ferret. She smirked a bit at the thought. She'd noticed how he tensed the moment he caught sight of one of the guards.

"How was the ride?" he asked, taking the broom from her. "Drat it, Weasley, you got fingerprints all over it. Don't you ever wash, or can your family not even afford soap?"

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the Auror frowning, obviously disliking Malfoy's tone. Could the man not tell it was a joke, if a rather poor one? "Malfoy, if you could actually fly, instead of buying your way onto the Quidditch team, you'd know that it's hard work."

"That's why I don't do it, then," he countered.

The Auror had relaxed again at his post, but he was still watching them carefully, not realizing that it was all bullshit. Malfoy hardly ever made jokes about her family's poverty, now — the Ministry's attempts to seize his family's property and fortune had made that a touchy subject for him, too — and she knew he'd earned his own place on the Quidditch team — if not initially, then many times since, keeping up with Harry in games. She knew that his hands, which looked so thin and aristocratic from a distance, were hard with calluses, although she couldn't for the life of her remember when it was she'd noticed.

"Thanks, by the way," she said quietly, and was pleased to see him look shocked to hear her say it.
He grunted. "Merry Christmas," he joked softly.

"Oh." Realization hit all at once. It was Christmas Eve, and she was spending it with Malfoy, of all people, at his family's opulent and soon-to-be-forfeit Manor, not with Ron and his friends, who were almost family, or with any of the rest of her family. She should say something about that, but what she heard herself saying was, "I didn't get you anything."

His eyes were a deep, strange grey when he said, "Freedom." He looked away awkwardly, and said, "Your brother's probably missing you. You should go see him at Hogwarts."

"But how will you get back?"

"I'll manage."

He wouldn't, she knew, not with Aurors watching his every movement. He wasn't expected on the train back to Hogwarts, and he didn't have his wand. And what was she to do, just swan up to Hogwarts with a box of stolen books on the Dark Arts under her arm? "No," she said, reaching a decision. She spoke loudly enough for the Auror to hear. "I'm going to head back to Hogwarts to see my brother and Harry." She thought he flinched a little when she mentioned the black-haired boy, but decided she must have imagined it. "Then I'd like to come back here and have another look at the library, before New Years. Maybe we could go back to Hogwarts together after that?"

"Alright," he said, watching her closely. "You'll have to floo, though. You got through the Apparation wards because you were with me this time, but next time..." She flinched at the idea that she might splinch herself. "Just call ahead so the bastards can let you through." The way his eyes flicked to his guard left her in no doubt about who he was referring to.

"So, I'll see you in a couple of days," she said, awkwardly.


"Have a good Christmas," she offered.

He sounded even more uncomfortable than her when he replied, "You too." Then Ginny walked into the house and went to find a fireplace to floo back to Hogsmeade, leaving Malfoy standing by the broom shed.

Even before the portrait of the Fat Lady swung open, Ginny could sense the malevolence, like a dark cloud, that was spreading from the Gryffindor Common Room. Stepping through the portrait hole, she saw Ron and Harry sitting in armchairs near the fire, their hands like claws on the armrests and fierce scowls on their faces. Hermione stood nearby, her expression tight, as though she were fighting to keep a scowl from her face as well.

"What's happened?" she asked, panic building suddenly in her chest. Surely nothing bad could have happened. It couldn't have. Please, let everything be alright, she thought.

Ron's head jerked around, and Ginny saw a torrent of emotions sweep across his face before his features settled into an expression of utter relief. "Ginny!" he cried, jumping from his chair and sweeping her into a hug. "We were so worried." Harry and Hermione followed close behind, taking their turns embracing her. Ginny was too shocked to do anything but stand still while they crowded around her. Would happened? Any moment now, she would be unable to control her panic, and it would break from her like a river bursting its dam.

"We went by Grimmauld Place, and you weren't there," Hermione said, and Ginny felt her panic subside. Nothing catastrophic had happened — they had only been worried because they hadn't seen her at Grimmauld Place. Although if they had seen her, and Malfoy besides, probably something catastrophic would have occurred. "And we looked all over Diagon Alley, too, but we must have missed you."

"Yes," Ginny agreed, gratefully accepting Hermione's explanation. She would have been hard-pressed to think of another excuse for her absence. The only other place she might have gone was the Burrow, but perhaps they would have checked there — and, if they hadn't, they would want to know how George was doing, and she couldn't have lied about that.

"What's that you're wearing?" Ron asked suddenly, and Ginny froze. She had completely forgotten she was wearing Malfoy's old clothes. And trust Ron to finally notice what she was wearing, now of all times. "Those are... blimey, Gin, those are McCormack Cords." Unable to stop herself, Ginny looked down at her trousers.

"Which cords?" Hermione asked, intrigued.

"McCormack. Designed by Catriona McCormack herself. I've always wanted a pair, but they cost an arm and a leg. Where'd you get those, Gin?"

Thinking frantically, Ginny said, "I found them. In one of the bedrooms. They looked really comfortable, so I just..." she shrugged, her imagination failing her.

"They're just quidditch cords, Ron," Hermione said, obviously disappointed that there was nothing truly exciting about Ginny's new trousers.

"Just..." Ron spluttered. "Hermione. McCormack makes the best quidditch gear in the world. Those trousers are supposed to be tougher than normal leg guards, and they've got these temperature charms on them that..."

"Alright, Ron," Ginny said, afraid that he might go on like this for some time.

He subsided, then said longingly, "I wish I'd found them while we were there."

"They wouldn't have fit you, anyway," Harry pointed out. He, too, was staring at Ginny's trousers, and it was making her feel a bit uncomfortable. Drat Malfoy, being a spoiled little rich brat — there wouldn't have been nearly this much fuss if he could wear normal quidditch cords like everyone else.

"I'm so glad you're back for Christmas," Hermione said, a bit more loudly than necessary, as though trying to make it clear that the conversation was to move away from quidditch and Ginny's trousers.

"So am I," Ginny responded, relieved to be rescued, once again, by Hermione. "Have I missed anything exciting the last few days?"