"Perhaps, Minerva, but what can we do?"
"We tread quietly. All of us. Hogwarts will open as scheduled, but Kingsley, Remus, if you would continue your search. We must find the girl."
"Death Eaters are crawling all over," Kingsley muttered, glancing at Remus. "With all those eyes, it's going to be difficult. We're not the only ones looking."
"I understand. The search will be quite dangerous, but it must be done. I would not ask if the situation were not so dire. She may be what turns the tide."
"Or the straw that breaks all of our backs."
The terse silence that settled after Kingsley's statement made them all shift. McGonagall smoothed her robes as she stood and gestured to the kitchen fireplace.
"I should be on my way," she whispered. "The Ministry is sending an interim Headmaster and I cannot stress how important that this entire business remain quiet. With Potter returning for his final year, we must all be on our guard."
"Do you want one of us to come with you?"
McGonagall shook her head, taking a handful of powder. "I will watch over Potter. The other professors will as well. I need you to conduct the search. We must find her before the Death Eaters do."
"You'll never guess who Luna just saw!" Neville exclaimed as he, Ginny, and Luna piled into the compartment Harry, Ron, and Hermione were occupying. "Draco Malfoy."
"No way!" Ron made to rise but Hermione snatched him, glaring.
"Sit down, Ronald," she snapped before turning to Luna. "You saw him?"
"Getting into a compartment two cars down near the luggage car," Luna told them as she pulled out a Quibbler. "He was quite alone, save the two Ministry officials tailing him."
"Ministry's following him?" Harry muttered, a dark cloud passing over him. Hermione and Ron noticed.
"Well, I can't believe it." Ron shook his head. "Stupid bastard. Thought he caused enough damage."
"I heard the Order caught him during the summer," Ginny said, glancing between the Trio for any hint as to their reactions. "Heard he was with them."
Harry glanced up at Ron before shaking his head. Ginny noticed how tired he looked. His eyes, usually sparkling green with life, were now dark and storming with the events of last year. She could sense how exhausted he was, though, from the little she had heard from Ron, Harry had spent a lot of time sleeping.
She touched his arm. "Harry?"
"Hmm?" He looked up at them with a far away look in his eyes. "What?"
"Draco Malfoy, Harry." Hermione looked just as concerned as Ginny as she watched Harry. "He's on the train."
"Not surprised," Harry finally said, straightening up. "After seeing him-"
"He was with the Order?" Ginny gasped.
Harry shushed her and gestured everyone closer. "The three of us saw him at Order headquarters this summer. They had captured him and kept him there for almost a month. I only saw him once."
Neville let out a low whistle. "I can't believe they let him back, after what he did."
"That's the problem, though, isn't it?" Harry muttered, turning away from them to look out the window as the train began pulling away from the station. "What the hell did he do?"
Blaise Zabini moved like a shadow down the hall, stepping from car to car without being noticed by the students. His dark eyes took in everything, not missing that the compartments were lacking in students, which compartment Potter, Weasley, and Granger were occupying, or when Ginny Weasley swept by him in all her flushed, redheaded madness, on the heels of the bumbling fool Longbottom and the blissed out but strangely coherent Lovegood. No doubt Lovegood noticed him, as she noticed all but was rarely present, usually saving her serene knowledge for when it was vital. But the littlest Weasley had missed him completely.
The thought passed from his mind as he came to the car before the luggage car. Being a shadow had it's perks. He spotted two men in the penultimate compartment, both dressed in dark robes but with alert expressions. Ministry types, Blaise identified with a small smirk. The last compartment came and he flicked open the door.
Inside sat a sight he had seen several times over. A young man, tall, thin, and sullen, sat near the window. His posture, which would usually ring with the air of one who thought himself close to royalty, was slightly slouched, whether from exhaustion or from the reality that had set in over the summer. His platinum blonde hair no longer had it's slicked back sheen and instead hung about his face as if having never seen the active end of a comb or brush in ages.
"You look a god-awful mess," Blaise muttered, closing the door behind him. Cold gray eyes removed themselves from the window to appraise the swarthy newcomer. Several rude words flashed across the seated man's face. Blaise sat down across from him, regarding him curiously. "I would have thought you would be dead by now."
"Apparently I'm not worth killing."
"You're not worth much of anything, save two Ministry spies. That's just embarrassing, isn't it?"
Draco turned his gaze back to the passing landscape. Noting some bruises on the blonde's wrist, Blaise leaned forward.
"Where the hell have you been?"
For a while, silence was their conversation. Blaise was a patient sort of person and was in no hurry to get an answer. The train ride was a long one. His companion, however, was not so patient but neither was he in much a mood to disclose his summer vacation. The relationship between himself and Blaise was strained. Simply because they were both Slytherins did not make them friends, nor did it mean Blaise was blindly loyal to Malfoy or anyone for that matter. To everyone in Slytherin House, Zabini's existence was that of a shadow and his loyalty was as ambiguous as his comings and goings. If he wasn't busy being second in class to Hermione Granger, he was ghost and nobody questioned it. If he was seen, it was in Malfoy's company, but not as a lackey but simply to watch. Even Malfoy had wondered at times why Blaise had entered Malfoy's company. He was not an idiot like Crabbe or Goyle, neither had he ever shown interest in joining You-Know-Who.
Draco glanced at the young man across from him. "What do you want?"
"You haven't answered my question."
"Why are you here?"
"I find your peculiar situation curious. You're an embarrassment do your own, do you realize? Word is that you couldn't kill Dumbledore, which makes you less of completely worthless human being and more of a completely worthless Death Eater. I always imagined worthless Death Eaters were dead Death Eaters."
Lip curling, Draco leaned forward. "Just because I didn't, doesn't mean I can't."
"I doubt it," Blaise continued, tone indicating a lack of respect that irritated Draco to no end. "But that seems to be besides the point. The point is that now you're curiously alive. So, I repeat myself, where were you?"
Seeing that putting on a front was a complete waste of his time, Draco returned to his slouch. "You know where I was."
"I mean, after that."
He could not help his lip curl at the thought of how the last part of his summer had been spent. "That filthy werewolf Lupin and his incorrigible wench Tonks happened upon my presence in a pub. The next thing I knew, I was being unceremoniously siphoned off to some hellhole in what I can only assume was one of the Order's hideouts."
"Those cowards would never use torture."
"I would say something about pots and kettles, but it would be lost on you, wouldn't it?"
"Since when did you become so talkative?"
"When you became pitiable enough to talk to."
If it were not for the knowledge that Blaise came from much the same background as he, Draco would have pulled his wand. Blaise's posture was that of a relaxed man ready to kill at a split second. No doubt it would be a very interesting duel.
"They held you, then?"
Draco nodded, putting a wan smile on Blaise's otherwise disinterested face. "I can be assured that they weren't very happy with you."
"Why don't you go screw something?"
Blaise turned to the window, ending the conversation.
Arriving at Hogsmeade station in the evening, Harry knew he was not up to the long welcome and welcome back awaiting in the Great Hall. But the thought of slipping off to bed early was wiped from his mind at the sight of a familiar platinum blond stepping onto the platform. He wasn't the only one to notice. Most of the students had paused to watch as Malfoy moved towards the carriages. He seemed to know he was being watched, but purposefully kept his eyes focused ahead. The last thing he needed was to look Harry Potter in the eye and something awful happen.
Beside Malfoy strode Blaise, watching everything that occurred. They paused, however, upon the youngest Weasley. She, like everyone else, did not seem to notice his existence. Her bright eyes blazed with hatred at the sight of Malfoy, a sight that interested him but did not keep him from continuing on to the carriages.
"Hey, Malfoy! Wingardium Leviosa!"
All activity halted as everyone turned to watch Malfoy fly up into the air. As malicious chuckles broke out on the platform, Malfoy's enraged struggle started with a furious yell. Blaise could not help a roll of the eyes as he stepped out of the way of Malfoy reaching for his wand.
Malfoy's wand swooped out of his robes and straight into Montague's hand. Harry and Ron exchanged glances as Montague stepped up to Malfoy, smirking.
"Aww, look at the ickle Malfoy! Maybe we should nail you to a door like the rat you are."
"Go screw yourself," Malfoy snarled.
"What are you going to do, Malfoy? Everybody here knows you can't use a wand to save your life. Maybe you'll just turn yourself into a ferret, bounce your way out of this, huh?"
"You think anyone's going to do anything?" Hermione inquired softly. Ron shook his head, smiling as Montague began making Malfoy bounce around in midair.
"Let the ferret suffer. He deserves it!"
"You think it's okay to let them do that?"
"I think it would be a shame to get in the way."
Zabini, however, did not feel the same way and, in the midst of the enjoyment the platform seemed to be getting out of Malfoy's clear embarrassment, he stepped up to Montague.
"I think you're done."
Montague turned a disinterested gaze on Zabini. "Where did you crawl out from?"
Zabini rolled his eyes. "Congratulations. You've graduated from childishness to dick behavior in one swoop. I think, though, that we're all in agreement that as much of a complete prick Malfoy is, outdoing him only makes you look like a fool. So, I'll say it again. I think you're done."
"Since when did you defend the bastard?" someone yelled from the crowd, coupled with murmured agreements. Pulling out his wand, Zabini flicked it at Malfoy, causing an unceremonious crash to the floor which helped get him out of the air but did not quell the peels of laughter. Malfoy cast Zabini a gaze laden with one part gratefulness, nine parts contempt. Montague chuckled and dropped the wand at Malfoy's feet.
"Have a good school year, Malfoy," he growled. "Don't fall on your wand."
He glanced up at Blaise, whose dark eyes coolly met the eyes of the admittedly larger young man. Blaise inwardly rolled his eyes. This was going to be a long school year.
As Montague walked away, Blaise glanced over at where the Righteous Group of Potter was standing. They were all watching with some amusement in their eyes, especially little Weasley. He sighed inwardly. Very long school year.