Ginny blinked at Draco across the parchment of ancient runes, which was still spread across the low coffee table in the villa.

"What do you mean by, 'How good are you at Occlumency?'" she asked slowly.

Draco raised his eyebrows. "Gods, if you don't even know what it is …"

"No, I know what it is. I just – why?"

Draco began to roll up the scroll gingerly, as though he was afraid of the thing itself and not just cautious of damaging it. "My father has studied Legilimency. He isn't an expert – not like Severus – but I don't think he'll be shy about prying."

He stood and walked away, toward the bedroom. Ginny found herself staring at the gleaming teak of the table. She felt lost in a way that gave new meaning to "feeling out of one's depth" – the water was not only impossibly deep, but she'd lost the strength to tread.

She felt something warm and wet on her hand and looked down to see that the cut Draco had made was still trickling blood. She stared at the red rivulets coasting down her arm and had no desire to stop them. They were strangely pretty against her pale skin.

A drop splashed onto the light fabric of the couch and she stood and ran to the bedroom.

"Draco, my –"

He was sitting on the bed, head in his hands, and she waited in the doorway until he looked up at her. His eyes were tired and hard, glinting like gunmetal.

"My arm is still bleeding," she said quietly.

He waved her over and reached into his pocket. She walked to the edge of the bed and held her forearm in front of his face.

"Did you try to take my wand?" he asked quietly, eying the wound.

"No, it's in the lounge. Exactly where you left it." It hurt just the tiniest bit that he had absolutely no trust in her, but she didn't blame him. She was a little surprised that she hadn't even thought to heal herself.

"I'd go get it, but – let me try this." He held a hand above her arm, but she snatched it away.

"I don't think so!" she snapped. "First tell me what you're trying."

Draco arched an eyebrow. "You could do wandless magic when you were holding my hand. I want to see if it works both ways."

"I did a first year levitation charm. You want to knit my skin together. It's a little different."

He stood up slowly, so close she had to step back in order to meet his eyes. She waited for him to answer, but he was silent.

"Just try the wandless magic with something else if you're so curious. I'm bleeding."

He blinked.

"Fine," she sighed. "But if you make it worse, I'll …." She licked her lips, trying to ignore the nervous feeling he provoked when he was silent like this. There really wasn't anything she could do to him, which was annoying, so she concentrated instead on being irritated with him.

He lifted an eyebrow and took her unharmed right hand with his left, and she shivered involuntarily at the contact. With his other hand, he traced a line left to right above the cut and murmured a soft spell. The blood vanished along with the injury. Draco lifted it to examine the skin.

"Not even a scar," he said smugly. "Don't I get a thank you?"

Ginny looked at it closely. "Do you think you deserve one? You're the one who sliced me open in the first place."

"Sliced you open? Gods, Gin. It was a tiny cut."

She sat down on the edge of the bed and felt that same lost, out-of-her-depth feeling again. Draco sat down beside her and once again put his head in his hands.

"Are you ready to go home?" he asked suddenly. "Because I think I am."

Home. What a funny notion.

"What about the Occlumency?" she asked. "And the wandless magic stuff and your father?"

Draco dropped backward to lie on the bed, covering his eyes with his arm. "We're not going back to Wiltshire. My father has purchased a flat for us in London."

"Oh." What on earth did that mean? Or have to do with Occlumency?

"Don't worry. My father would never buy property adjacent to Muggles. There's a park – Morgan Park – off the southeast end of Diagon Alley. It's quiet."

She hadn't been worried about Muggles or noise, but she remembered the area from a day she and Hermione had wandered around while the boys drooled over Quality Quidditch Supplies. Hermione had compared the homes around the park to some fancy place in London – Knightsea? Not that it mattered; it'd just be another elegant prison.

"Are you telling me that I'm not going to see your father?" she asked. Draco drew back his arm and looked at her.

"You'll see him."

Suddenly, weirdly unbidden, she had a memory of falling out of the fireplace onto the carpet at Malfoy Manor and seeing Draco's boots. She felt an odd sensation, almost like embarrassment – like she'd caught someone rifling through her lingerie drawer, except her thoughts were being exposed and not her under things. Shocked, she whipped around on the bed toward Draco.

"You're a Legilimens?" she gasped, desperately trying to push him out of her head.

He had the audacity to laugh. "Barely. You're particularly easy to read, which is going to be trouble if you don't learn a shade or two of Occlumency." Before she could find a suitable retort, he grasped her hand and murmured the spell.

Memories whipped around her head, sudden and violating, as though Draco was ransacking her closet instead of rifling through a drawer – she was a child, de-gnoming the garden, and then she was at Grimmauld Place, suddenly under the Sorting Hat, then that beach dream again, kissing him, next hunting for her wand in her sock drawer at Adela Shacklebolt's, Narcissa's threats before she walked down the aisle, then – gods – undressing that first night in this bedroom. She felt that same awful feeling now, except this was worse. It was one thing to be naked and another to be … exposed. She couldn't hide anything – not one secret, or memory, or feeling. The shame was overwhelming. Then – oh gods no – she was back in her bedroom at the manor, the night he'd done the spell … the night he'd … and suddenly all the shame and anger and fear of that evening and every day since flooded her body, and she nearly cried out.

Draco practically flung her hand back at her. He was still lying beside her the bed, but he was shaking and pale. He stared up at her for a long, silent minute, as though he wanted to speak but couldn't remember how.

"You're 'barely' a Legilimens?" she said in a shaky voice, standing up and backing away from him. "I don't know if I could call that 'barely.'"

"I had no id—" Draco cut himself off and swallowed nervously. His voice was oddly strained, and his skin ashen. "I think the spell affected more than wandless magic. It seems there's a great deal more to this ... bond."

Ginny's back hit the wall and she slid down to the floor. She felt nauseated and dizzy – had he seen the exact same things she had? Was all Legilimency so invasive and, well, violating? She shuddered. Harry hadn't described it like this, but then, she and Harry had never really talked about it.

Draco sat up on the edge of the bed and looked down at her for a long moment.

"I guess we really had better work on Occlumency. I'll get you a glass of water first, though," he said, almost to himself. His voice still had that odd, strained sound. "You're thirsty."

She swallowed as he left the room and realized that he was right. She drew her knees into her chest and inhaled carefully, wondering what else he might now know about her mind that she had yet to recognize.

He was back in a minute with a glass of ice water, and as she accepted the cup and felt his cold fingers brush hers, she was startled to realize that fetching this drink might be the first unselfish act he'd ever shown her. Of course, he could have an ulterior motive for being nice. And it was entirely possible that he'd laced it with something horrid. But on the other hand … was it possible that her husband was being kind?

Hermione tried the door, pleased with herself for the first time in months. The handle turned easily.

She really needed a better plan than picking the door like a Muggle. She had no idea where she was or how to escape - but she could only stare at Charlie's prone form for so long before she went mad. And yes, she had some true Gryffindor courage in her, but it had always been Ron and Harry who had plunged headfirst into unknowns. Without them, she had to do the plunging and the rationalizing, and just turning the doorknob took a lot of both.

The door revealed a corridor of polished concrete and glass. Sleek, modern architecture was uncommon among wizards' homes, but she wasn't surprised – Zabini was not normal. She noticed tree boughs waving against the sky and realized as that she was on the first storey. That would make it very difficult to get Charlie out, since she lacked the strength to lift him, much less carry him down stairs.

She carefully crept into the corridor, keeping her back pressed to the wall, then scooted to the left until she reached the corner. Moving slowly, she ducked down and peeked around from floor.

There was nothing but another stretch of white-grey corridor leading into a wall of glass, but she heard the clink of a glass and then voices.

"Is Draco back from his honeymoon yet?"

The woman had a high, clear voice. Blaise must have replied, because Hermione heard an elegant laugh – if it was possible to laugh elegantly – and then, "Of course I've seen Witch Weekly. No one will shut up about it."

"They do look happy." That was Blaise, and Hermione pressed herself against the wall so hard that the cold from the concrete seeped through her thin shirt.

"Ginevra does. That little bitch." The elegance was gone from the woman's voice, and Hermione stopped breathing. Ginny was on a honeymoon?

The woman continued, "But Draco? I don't think he's really happy. I know him, Blaise, and that is not what a happy Draco looks like."

"I haven't had the honor of making Draco as happy as you have, Daphne, beg though I might."

Hermione knew the name, but couldn't match it to a face. Daphne ... Green? That wasn't right. Not a known Death Eater, anyway.

"You're crude. I wasn't referring to – to that."

"It's a well-established fact that I am rarely polite, Daph. You're the one calling Mrs. Malfoy a 'little bitch.' Ugly words from such pretty lips."

"Back away from my lovely lips, Zabini. I'm immune to your so-called charms."

"But not to Draco's?"

"I'm not going to discuss …" the rest of her words were too quiet, and Hermione inched closer to the corner of the corridor.

"I happen to like holding onto sensitive information, darling, and if you know what's good for you, you'll do as I say."

There was a long moment of silence, and a quiet murmur that Hermione couldn't make out. Then she heard a glass shatter and the loud, unmistakable pop of Apparation. She pressed her back against the wall and counted to five, then crouched down to peek around the corner ... at Blaise's ankles.

"Hello, Mudblood," he said jovially. "I was hoping you'd do something frightfully stupid soon."

Hermione stood up and faced him.

"Ginny is on honeymoon with Draco?" she asked, hoping he would at least be surprised and give something away.

Blaise grinned like the Cheshire Cat. "Would you like to see the pictures?"

It was this or nothing. Hermione knocked into him with all her force, concentrating on sending her elbows into his stomach. He fell backward with an "oof!" and sprawled on the polished concrete floor, and Hermione took off running. She turned a corner and saw a staircase in front of a two-storey glass window. The ocean shone in the sunshine, which meant they were somewhere on the western coast. She practically flew down the stairs, but then –

"Hermione, if you don't find your way back here before I reach one, I'll kill him."

Blaise's voice was amplified with a sonorous charm, echoing on the concrete floors and glass walls, but eerily calm.


She reached the bottom of the stairs, practically jumped over a low couch and sent a decanter of wine tumbling to the floor, where the dark juice pooled among the broken shards like blood.


There was no carpet in the room and her bare feet slapped the floor and echoes fluttered across the hall.


She paused, biting her lip. She was going to get help. Apparate to the safe house, find Kingsley, come back, save Charlie.


He would kill him. He really would. Of all the things she'd learned about Blaise over the past weeks – months? – there was no doubt that he was a monster.


She turned.


She ran back down the hall, through the windowed room with the low, white couch and the puddle of heady-smelling wine.


The top of the stairs and then to the left – no! The right.


She ran full tilt, skirting the corner where he'd found her and throwing herself into the room.

"Two," Blaise said in his normal voice. "Now, don't try anything clever," he added, and Hermione sagged against the doorsill when she saw all the blood.

"No – please, no," she begged. Blaise ignored her, sliding his wand across Charlie's arm. Thick red blood oozed from his shoulder, and Hermione began to sob as the puddle on the floor grew darker and deeper and larger than the pool of wine she'd made downstairs.

"You're killing him," she cried. "Stop! Please! I'll stay here – I won't 'try anything clever' again."

Blaise merely lifed an eyebrow, but Hermione barely noticed. Charlie was an unnatural shade of gray, and the blood on the floor was becoming into a very large stain.

"Blaise! I will do anything! Do you hear me? Just please don't kill him!" Hermione sobbed. "He'll bleed out!"

Slowly, Blaise sheathed his wand.

"Anything, Mudblood?" he asked softly, and she considered the degree of awfulness that "anything" probably inspired in Blaise Zabini.

But Charlie was white in a pool of red, and so she nodded.

Draco leaned against the headboard, reviewing runes for the thousandth time in two weeks. He'd nearly memorized them at this point, and he was still fairly certain that he was fucked, Occlumency or no.

He glanced down at Ginny, who was sound asleep next to him in bed – though in a bed this size, 'next to him' was a relative term. The girl slept so close to the edge that there was nearly four feet of space between them.

He sighed. She'd never be an accomplished Occlumens. She couldn't tell a decent lie to save her life – quite literally. The best he'd been able to do was coach her through emptying her mind, though the result would be tenuous at best.

He could clear her mind for her, but he'd have to do it again every time he performed any sort of magic with her, and that would be messy. His Obliviate spell wasn't that good. Of course, there was the Imperius curse – she was easy to control magically, at least. He wondered if that spell was also strengthened by the Sang Primorus or Invenio Necto and ran a hand through his hair. The number of magic bonds between them was bordering on absurd. He could almost feel the connections filling the gap between them – winding, twisting cords of powerful magic.

She looked very young when she was asleep. Young and naïve and vulnerable. There was a weird lump in Draco's throat that had been there since that awful legilimency, and looking at her, noticing the way her body rose and fell with her small breaths, just made it bigger. It was an odd feeling and it unnerved him.

He swallowed and focused on the bigger problem: the Imperius curse might not be effective with Occlumency, especially if he was practicing the art at the same time. And he couldn't count on always being with Ginny when his father decided to call on them.

There was a third option. He'd encountered prisoners who had been traumatized so badly that there was nothing left for a Legilimens to read; prisoners who had gone mad from the torture. Perhaps sensory deprivation would do it? Surely that wasn't as cruel as anything Blaise might suggest. If anyone knew how to break a mind, it was Zabini.

He tried swallowing the weird lump in his throat again and glanced at Ginny. She had curled into a tiny ball under the colossal sheet, completely unaware of what a huge liability she was.

He couldn't destroy her – or let Blaise destroy her – and live with himself. He sighed again and let his head hit the headboard with a thud. He could barely stomach keeping her "obedient" anymore, which was also going to be a challenge once they were back in England.

No, for now, it needed to be Occlumency.

Under the tutelage of his aunt, Draco had been keeping his father out of his mind since he was a child. It was practically a way of life at this point; segmenting thoughts into caches of "father-approved" and "questionable." One box for allowable memories, and a vault for deeper emotions. Simple, tidy. By contrast, Ginny's mind was a rat's nest of secrets, dreams, and emotions so strong they exhausted him almost instantly. Maybe she could learn to use that to her advantage, he mused.

He couldn't pry so deeply, though. Not like that first time. They'd both needed nearly an hour to recover from that unfortunate episode, and he had been careful to maintain a physical distance. The strength of her memories was ferocious, not unlike his mother threatening to curse the girl seconds before she walked down the aisle. He'd had no idea she'd done that, and re-living Ginny's fear and – had it been grief? – the emotions made him nauseated.

And that memory of snogging him at the beach – Draco was certain that hadn't happened, yet her emotions had been so complicated and vibrant that he wondered if someone had planted it there. He wouldn't put it past his father to edit her memories, but he wasn't about to go back into her mind to find out. One peek into her memories of the night he'd consummated this so-caled marriage and he felt ready to die.

He smoothed the scroll on his lap and read it yet again. Now that he understood the Sang Primoris, the runes made better sense. The spell seemed to suggest that direct skin-to-skin contact was the catalyst – somehow amplifying the individual magic. Draco suspected it was a combined effort; they were essentially doubling their power, maybe even squaring it. He'd keep that from her and give her the easiest time with the Occlumency as possible, but he'd have to find a way to tell his father.

A year ago, he would have been delighted and sure that his father would be happy to have such a powerful son and ally. Now ... now he was so fucked.

Once again, international Apparition was unkind to Ginny. She sank down to the floor as soon as she was sure she was un-splinched, so her first impression of the London flat was that the floor was cold.

Her second was that it had marble tile in the foyer, and her third was that it was huge and practically smelled of money.

Draco strode off, leaving her alone on the floor, and she stood slowly and kicked off her heels. They were silly enough when she wasn't time-lagged and wobbly.

The foyer had shiny elevator doors and a large fireplace, obviously for Floo, a sweeping staircase to another storey, and a table in the center of the space which held a massive arrangement of white roses. It opened into a spacious sitting room with large windows overlooking the park. The floor changed to hard wood under Ginny's feet as she padded into the elegant room.

"My father hasn't seen fit to provide us with an elf, and I'm certain that if I tried to take you out we'd be mobbed by paparazzi. Besides, I'm not sure I trust you to be in public," he said dryly. "So I'm going to order in. Do you have a preference? There's a Chinese place just down the road, if you're not sick of Asian cuisine. I suppose takeout is one perk of living in a city."

"Malfoys eat Chinese takeout?" Ginny peeked out the window and saw it was actually a door onto a modestly sized terrace. They were fairly high up – maybe five storeys. A good-sized park spread out below, and she marveled at the secrecy spells that would have to be in place to keep Muggles from noticing an expanse.

"When Malfoys are in London and have no house elf and no scolding mother, they eat whatever the hell they want," Draco drawled. "What'll it be? Spicy or no?"

She turned to face him. He'd shucked his shoes as well, and unbuttoned his collar. He looked like a man at home, which was rather astonishing since they'd been in this 'home' for less than five minutes.

"I like Schezwan," Ginny said, naming the only Chinese dish she could remember having.

Draco nodded and walked toward the Floo in the foyer. Ginny fingered the thick silk drapery and walked the other direction, finding a large dining room adjoining the first sitting room and another, brighter sitting room. A door off this led into a library, paneled with dark red wood. A decanter glinted on a silver tray in front the window, already full of scotch. It seemed hard to believe that Draco's father had forgotten an elf and remembered the scotch.

Through the library she found a corridor and noticed that it connected to the first large sitting room.

"Merlin," she muttered. "Malfoys must love living in mazes." A door opposite led into a toilet, and even that utilitarian room seemed a bit too posh to be livable.

The corridor opened into a warm, glass-roofed conservatory, proving that they had the top floors of the building. The plants were manicured to such a point that Ginny wondered if they were false, but the room had a green smell that suggested otherwise. Neville would have loved it, she thought wistfully. A pair of cozy armchairs filled the space, and the view of London was pretty spectacular.

She headed back down the hall into the main room and realized she hadn't found a kitchen, so she turned toward the dining room and found another door which lead into the grandest kitchen she'd seen in her life. Unlike the classic, traditional design of the rest of the house, the kitchen was modern, with sleek black countertops and steel appliances. She found the refrigerator, and tugged it open to find it was virtually empty.

"But you remembered the scotch," she said aloud.

"I hardly need to tell you that my father has unusual priorities," Draco said from the doorway, a container of rice in hand. "Without an elf, I can't imagine this room will be much use," he said, lifting a carving knife from a block and eying it carefully.

Ginny closed the refrigerator. "I know how to cook."

Draco smiled – a bit patronizingly, Ginny noted indignantly – and returned the knife. "A hobby will keep you from going mad up here."

Ginny rolled her eyes and walked past him. A plastic bag with "Liondragon Chinese Cuisine" printed on looked out of place on the polished formal dining table. Ginny found the container of Schezwan and a little box of rice and snapped apart a pair of chopsticks. She tugged a heavy chair away from the table and slouched into it, eyeing the cheap white containers dubiously.

Draco wordlessly set a plate and fork next to her, then pulled out the chair catty-corner to her and dumped the rice he was holding onto his own plate.

"Malfoys might eat Chinese take-out, but not out of cardboard," he answered before she could ask. "And I don't care for chopsticks."

They ate in silence.

When she and Ron had been very small – nursery-school aged, maybe – they'd played house together in the garden. Dad would help them construct a tent and Ginny would bring out her dollies and Ron would bring his toy broom, and they'd pretend he was home from his job as Chudley Cannons coach and she'd just laid out dinner. Mum would give her biscuits and old, cracked china and they would sit under their makeshift roof and nibble on them as though they were grownups with concerns like winning at Quidditch and the babies getting sick.

That game had felt more real than this one.

When they'd finished eating, Draco vanished all the dishes with a flick of his wand.

"Have you found your room?" he asked, standing and carefully sliding his chair back to the table. "I assume you gave yourself a tour."

"I didn't see any bedrooms," she said, copying him.

"There's a guest room on this floor, but the private apartments are all upstairs," he said. "Follow me."

She cringed at the direct order but did as he said, because that would be a truly stupid battle to pick. He led her back to the foyer and up the staircase. A long, wide corridor led from the landing to a sunny room down the hall, which proved to be a private sitting area. The roof of the conservatory glinted just below.

"Your room, unless you'd prefer another," Draco said, pushing open a door midway down the hall. "There's an ensuite bath and your clothing should all be in the closet just there," he said, pointing.

It was a lovely room, with white furniture and gray bedding and powder blue drapes, just as elegant as the rest of the house.

"So ..." Ginny began, trying to phrase her question as carefully as she could. "We aren't going to ... er, share?"

Draco smirked. "Would you like to?"

"Er, no. This is – this is fine," she said, stumbling over her tongue as his smirk disappeared.

"That's what I'd guessed. My things are in the suite directly across the hall," he said crisply. "I don't plan to bother you if I don't need to." His eyes were back to that gunmetal look he'd had after that awful Occlumency incident.

"Then I won't bother you either," she said with a half-hearted smile.

Draco cleared his throat. "There is one thing I need to do, especially since there's no elf. My father has prepared a rather busy agenda for me, and you'll be somewhat unsupervised, so – your arm, please."

"Don't you have enough spells on me?" she asked, slowly taking a step back.

"Gods know I do," muttered Draco, closing the distance between them. "But I can't have you leaving the flat without my express permission."

She took another step backward. "What if I swear I won't? You have that finding-and-binding curse on me already, so you'll be able to find me and knock me out."

Draco arched his eyebrows. "Do you honestly think you've earned my trust? You tried to run away yesterday, Ginny, and you have yet to learn a single thing."

"I've learned to fear you putting spells on me," Ginny said, and the steel in her voice surprised her a little. "I've learned that you hurt me."

He held her gaze for a long, silent minute. His eyes were hard, and Ginny resolved to make hers just as hard. The room hummed and her heart thudded in her chest like a marching army.

Draco set his jaw, and then reached out and grabbed her wrist.

"Fine," he said cooly, twisting her arm and pushing her toward a low couch in front of the window. "If that's all that you wish to learn, I won't trouble myself to teach you anything else." He wrenched her forearm back and toward the couch as he sat, and she nearly fell into his lap. She scrambled sideways, away from him, but he had a good grip on her wrist.

If only she had a wand, she thought. She could practically see the Protego.

As suddenly as the thought entered her mind, he went flying onto the floor, wrenching her wrist out as he went. Ginny swore softly, clutching her arm to her chest.

A shield charm shimmered in front of her.

Draco stood slowly, shaking his limbs out. "You are in a world of trouble," he said in an icy voice.

Ginny just stared at him through the shield, silently putting together what had happened. She hadn't intended to cast that spell – she'd only done wandless magic for the first time yesterday, and that had been the levitation charm that every first year could do. There were trained adults who couldn't perform a good Protego, and this one was so strong that it still quivered in the air.

No wonder Draco wanted to keep this from his father.

He slowly exhaled, visibly calming his features, then erased the shield with a flick of his wrist and murmured "Incarcerous." Ginny's wrist snapped to her other one as they were tied together. She couldn't help but cry out – it was probably sprained.

"I am going to assume that you did not realize you could do that," Draco said gently, though his eyes still had that icy, deadly quality that made her bones chill. He sat beside her and she involuntarily shrank back. "But try that again and you'll earn an Unforgiveable. Or two," he added thoughtfully. "Is that sprained? Let me see."

He gently tapped his wand to her wrist and she felt it grow hot, then very cold. The pain subsided almost immediately.

"Is it safe to untie you?" he asked, still weirdly calm. "Or shall I conjure up a pair of gloves?"

Ginny remained silent, staring at her hands. The magic in her blood was roiling, suddenly more awake than it had been in months. She felt like she was on fire, yet also frozen in time.

Draco made an exasperated noise and unknotted the cord around her hands, avoiding her skin. But then he took her right arm in his hand, and Ginny felt a spark of electricity between his palm and her skin so strong she expected to see it – though he seemed not to notice.

Instead, he took his wand and held it where the invisible Malfoy crest was printed into her skin and murmured, "Necto domus."

As always with the invenio necto curse, the pain was searing. It traveled from the tip of his wand up her arm and into her chest, where it fought against the rhythm of her heartbeat for a few scary moments. She sobbed once and sagged against him as the initial shock turned to a throbbing ache.

"That's why I wanted you on the couch," Draco drawled, laying her back against the cushions. "It had double the power." He stood up, once again careful not to touch her. "Not that I should have cared, since all I do is hurt you," he said, and Ginny was confused by the slight bitterness that seeped into the cool drawl. "I'll be downstairs."

He shut the door behind him with a quiet click, and Ginny closed her eyes.

If she had cast a strong Protego charm without trying, what would she be able to conjure up if she meant to? She'd be able to incapacitate him – and if she did that, she could take his wand, which would probably mean even more power. Perhaps enough to remove the invenio necto, if she could find the right counter-spell.

She just needed a way to get close – a way to touch him – when he was completely off guard. She'd only have one shot.

Maybe separate bedrooms wasn't the best idea after all.

"I wonder if you are quite prepared to do what I ask, Mr. Zabini," Lucius said slowly, observing the way the young man's eyes never left the plush Oriental carpet.

"I am, sir. I've been working on all of them – especially the Mudblood. I think she'll give me what I want inside a fortnight."

Lucius nodded. "So you don't need the little Delacour girl?"

Blaise looked up and grimaced. "If I need her, I'll fetch her. Bill Weasley is easily motivated by his wife, and when she is stripped of control, she's so tractable that it's amusing – but I've always been easily entertained."

A knock at the door interrupted Lucius before he could comment on the fragility of the Delacour family. "Come," he ordered, smiling when his son entered. "Ah, Draco. How was Thailand?"

"Hot," Draco replied, flopping into a chair.

Blaise winked. "It looked hot."

"What are you doing here?" Draco asked. "Not that I mind, but –"

Lucius sat down behind his desk. "Mr. Zabini has been helping me."

Draco glanced sidelong at Blaise. "Helping you with the cause?"

"'The cause?' Gods," Blaise laughed. "You're so serious."

Lucius allowed himself the tiniest eye roll and looked up at the ceiling. "I'm very close to dismantling the rest of Shacklebolt's resistance. Once that's sorted, it'll be simple to weed out the members of the Wizengamot who might give us trouble. Of course, many of them are already deeply in my debt, thanks to the maneuvers I've made with Gringotts."

"And Blaise is your light-hearted financial advisor?" Draco drawled.

"Hardly. Blaise is going to murder Kingsley Shacklebolt." Lucius paused, enjoying both reactions: Draco's slight shock and Blaise's subtle discomfort. "Unless a certain spell has become effective after almost two weeks in the tropics?"

He watched the way Draco sank ever so slightly into the leather chair. Damn. He'd hoped that the power promised by Voldemort's spell would be an asset; develop Draco into the most powerful wizard of the age, but instead the boy seemed weaker than he had in years.

"Things have come to light," Draco began, "Things of a very complex nature. The spell has both Latin and Druidic roots, which means –"

"Draco," Lucius interrupted smoothly, "I don't care if it has roots on Mars. Will it do what we want it to do?"

To his credit, he straightened. "Yes, I believe it will."

Lucius nodded, unsure. "Both of you, go. Do what you need to do to get Shacklebolt's location from the Mudblood."

He watched as the two tall young men stood and silently walked out of the room, noting the way Blaise held the door for Draco and the way Draco seemed not to notice his so-called friend's deference. As the door clicked shut behind them, Lucius sipped from his ever-present scotch and wondered which boy would be the better puppet.

With a sigh, he picked up the latest issue of Witch Weekly and flipped until he reached the splashy, glittering feature titled "Inside the Golden Couple's Fabulous London Home." He needed to make a call on that lovely little daughter-in-law of his, too. That would certainly help him decide.

Either way, he was going to need an obedient Minister of Magic very, very soon.

A/N: First of all, this was beta-read by the lovely enchantedstarlight a few months ago but I kept on coming back to it and fiddling with it, so I've probably introduced all sorts of errors since. Anything you find is entirely my fault (please do tell me so I can fix). A big thanks to her, as always.

There are two partly-written chapters waiting in the wings and I haven't written ahead like that in years, so I'm feeling optimistic about updates. The only trouble is that I know I'm going to make you mad at me with some of the plot lines (it can't be helped that things get worse before they get better D:) so I might have to take time to get the nerve to post. Or I could just get really drunk some time. (Much of my courage is liquid.)

Finally, thank YOU so much for your messages and reviews. I've been tempted many times to give this story, but every time I completely despair and decide that writing is stupid and fanfic is juvenile, I get a lovely note and I remember that writing and fanfic are wonderful – and that I do this because I love it. You are the BEST and I love you dearly for sticking with me. This chapter and the next few are turning points in the story – please do drop me a line and tell me what you think! I look forward to what happens next. :)