Draco Malfoy leaned up against a cool stone wall, arms folded over his chest, and tried for the umpteenth time to picture his parents' faces if they found out that their son, the heir to one of the most powerful Pureblood estates in Europe, was in a girls' lavatory with the Boy-Who-Lived, a Weasley, and a Muggle-born. He still couldn't.
"Why is my presence required here?" asked Draco for at least the third time since he'd gotten there an hour before, and again, the Golden Trio gave each other uncomfortable looks. "Whatever it is, I would advise you to tell me post-haste." This startled a laugh from Weasley, and a reluctant, quizzical grin from Potter.
"Who says 'post-haste,' Malfoy?" sniggered Weasley, who hadn't been at all glad to see Draco in their private potions-making lavatory; even after the previous year's heroics, Weasley seemed to dislike him. Draco sneered at him in reply, but said nothing.
"We're going to need some additional ingredients for the potion soon," said Granger, pushing her bushy hair out of her face.
"Bicorn horn and boomslang skin," she said evenly, but the significant glance she sent Draco told him that she knew exactly where they were going to have to find them.
"It's not as if he'll just give them to us if we ask," pointed out Draco, "but you can't be thinking of stealing from Professor Snape." The looks on their faces told him that this was precisely what they had planned on doing. "Let me guess: you want me to help with that, too." Their expressions looked hopeful; Draco squeezed his eyes shut, let his head fall back against the stone, and groaned.
In the end, Draco could understand their logic. After being found in the corridor where Mrs Norris had been found petrified, the Gryffindor Golden Trio could hardly afford to be caught stealing from Snape's stores; Granger also pointed out that as she was the one who had the book checked out in her name, if she were caught stealing boomslang skin and bicorn horn, it would be fairly obvious what she intended to do with it-and that would be connected to Potter and Weasley as well. Above all of this came the fact that Draco's relationship with Professor Snape consisted of more than sneers and distracting, belittling commentary during class, and that was more than could be said for the other three. They all hoped that this meant that, if caught, Snape wouldn't try to have Draco expelled-of course, Draco's father could prevent that, but it would still be a messy business. Draco hoped this most fervently of all as he, cursing himself for ever listening to Cedric in the first place, agreed.
Draco wasted several days trying to think of some way to avoid having to steal from Professor Snape. He looked through several owl-order catalogues, only to find that he had to be over seventeen to send for ingredients as uncommon and potentially dangerous as boomslang skin and bicon horn; he considered owling his parents, claiming that it was for a school project-which, technically, could be construed as the truth; he even considered trying to back out of helping to make and, in turn, eventually takethe Polyjuice Potion altogether-the professors could handle it, couldn't they? The latter idea was discarded not only because the professors hadn't been able to handle the protection of the Philosopher's Stone the previous year, but also because Draco had given his word—though not explicitly—that he would assist the Golden Trio, and the promise of a Malfoy was to be upheld.
The first thing he would need, he decided, was a distraction, and one evening several weeks before the potion would need to be ready—before Pansy and Blaise left for the Christmas holiday—the perfect idea fell straight into Draco's lap. Sitting at the Hufflepuff table, half-listening to Cedric and several of the other Quidditch team members talk about a new strategy for out-manoeuvring the Slytherins' faster broomsticks, he happened to look through the open door of the Great Hall to see Peeves shoot by, followed only moments later by the hunched forms of the Weasley twins.
Oh, yes—that would do quite nicely.
"Excuse me," Draco murmured hastily, uncharacteristically not bothering to figure out whether he'd just interrupted someone, "but I'm... no longer hungry. Goodnight." It was abrupt, and it was a shoddy excuse, but as the twins headed out of sight, Draco didn't care. He managed to confine himself to a brisk walk until he was out of sight of the Great Hall, and then went sprinting after them.
"Weasleys!" he called, running after them, up one flight of stairs, round a bend, and then up another flight of stairs and-straight into a dead-end corridor with neither twin anywhere in sight. Draco let out a huff of breath and turned to go, only to let out an incredibly undignified yelp as he was dragged back by the collar of his robes into an alcove he hadn't before noticed.
The two Weasleys peered down at him, having him backed against the wall, towering over him, and then they looked at each other.
"Alright," said one of the twins slowly. "What—"
"—do you want—"
"—from us?" Draco blinked, trying to get around the incredibly disconcerting way they spoke as if they were one person. He tried to figure out where to look, which twin to address as he made his reply, and settled for alternating between each of them.
"I find myself in need of your... particular assistance," he said, and though the words were haughty, his tone was quiet and meek. The twins exchanged another weighty, significant look, and then returned their attention to him, both sets of eyebrows raised in identical expressions of interest.
"And what sort of assistance—"
"—would that be?"
"I need a distraction tomorrow, during the second hour of classes after breakfast," explained Draco. "It should be in the dungeons, and the bigger, and the louder, the better."
"Aren't you a Hufflepuff?"
"Hufflepuffs are supposed to be good, aren't they?"
"So why would you be planning something big—"
"—in the middle of class?"
"I'm a Hufflepuff, not a Ravenclaw or Gryffindor," Draco sniffed indignantly, deciding to take Professor Sprout's "union of the Houses" to mean that he could embody Slytherins in that moment by lying. "It's just that I have a very important exam in Potions tomorrow, and I'm not ready, but I care enough to not want my marks ruined." The twins' expressions-expression, really, since they apparently sported the same one-turned to one of suspicion.
"You want us to believe—"
"—that you want to distract Snape?"
"He's the scariest teacher in the school, mate."
"Even scarier than McGonagall."
"You'd have to be mental to want to do that."
"A complete nutter."
"And by tomorrow?"
"That's a bit soon, even for us."
"You'd have to have no marbles left to think we could do that."
"Well, maybe one or two, because we are just that good."
"So? Are you missing enough marbles to really want our help?"
"Ah," Draco paused, "yes?" The red-haired teens frowned at him, and then turned away, staring at each other, seemingly having a silent conversation consisting of various frowns, half-grins, and eyebrow gesticulations. Finally, they turned back to him, expression serious.
"Look, we happen to have the second period of classes free—"
"—and no student's ever been off their rocker enough to want to mess with Snape—"
"—so we figure that you're sufficiently daft to warrant our helping you—"
"—but you need to know that if we're caught, Snape'll hang us by our little toes—"
"—and then have us expelled."
"All three of us."
"Right," said Draco, failing to care about the twins' threats of torture-by-foot-hanging and expulsion; he was too caught up in the fact that they had agreed to help him. "Thank you, then."
"Anything for someone that daft," said one of the twins.
"Yeah, since the only one who's ever tried messing with Snape is Peeves."
"And now Peeves can't even go near certain parts of the dungeons."
"But that's beside the point."
"Just wish us luck."
"Er," said Draco, looking at their expectant faces. "Good luck."
The following day, Neville, Cedric, Susan, and even Justin picked up on his anxiety at breakfast. There were only two hours left until he would have to steal from a professor, and when he entered Transfigurations, his first class of the day, the Golden Trio all turned—without any subtlety at all—to give him meaningful looks, eyebrows raised, as if they were telling him to get on with it already. Draco gave them what he hoped was a confident and reassuring smile in return, and it seemed to appease them. Even so, he was grateful that McGonagall only lectured that day, because he knew his attempts would have been abysmal had he been asked to try a new spell.
Potions lessons took place in a large dungeon room with Professor Snape's desk in the front, though he rarely sat there during classes. More often, he paced up and down the rows of students brewing, stopping to criticise or, rarely, to praise. The second-year Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws were trying their hands at making Swelling Solution, which was neither particularly useful nor particularly dangerous, which Draco supposed was a good thing if all havoc was about to break loose.
It was cold in the dungeons, just as it always was, but Draco found that he was sweating as he and Justin worked. As his friend sent him worried glances over their cauldron, Draco snuck glimpses at the door just behind Snape's desk; he knew very well what it was, and had seen Snape come and go through that door many times before. That was the door to his private stores, and that was Draco's goal.
Exactly twenty-seven minutes after class began, a Ravenclaw named Terry Boot suddenly let out a loud yelp. He was at the back of the room, and immediately all heads twisted round to look; Snape began striding towards the boy, and by that time, everyone could see how Boot seemed to be inflating—he'd been splashed by the potion, then. Draco saw sparks out of the corner of his eye and turned to look—he was just in time to see a small firework land in Mandy Brocklehurst's potion, splashing her, as well.
Then at least ten more of the fireworks appeared, whizzing about the room in complex manoeuvres, sending down a shower of sparks as they fell, one by one, into cauldrons of Swelling Solution. Each firework would hit, splashing the students around them, making their lips and eyelids and knees swell to gross proportions, and then many would topple over, hitting anothers' cauldron, or bump into someone else, and the result was a spectacular chain reaction. Snape had whipped his wand out and was starting to hex down the remaining fireworks, and Draco took the opportunity to slip away in the direction opposite all of the students' turned heads.
Professor Snape was an obsessive and meticulous person, and this, thankfully, extended to his store cupboard. Inside the small room were rows and rows of jars and phials, all of them in perfect alphabetical order. Thinking quickly, Draco grabbed the bicorn horn, the boomslang skin, and, to throw Snape off their trail should he realise what the fireworks had really been for, several other, slightly more innocuous ingredients.
He managed to get out of the room and back to his seat before anyone realised he had gone, and it was a full ten minutes after before the chaos ended, all of the students splashed by Swelling Solution having been given Deflating Draught.
"If I find out," whispered Snape into the absolute silence of the dungeon classroom, sounding particularly dangerous and looking almost murderous, "that any one of you was involved in that prank, the least of your worries shall be expulsion." His eyes landed heavily on Draco, who managed to keep his expression meekly curious, if somewhat threatened—the stolen ingredients felt suddenly a million times heavier in his pocket, and he could feel a flush starting to creep onto his cheeks. Draco just barely avoided swallowing hard against the lump in his throat until Snape looked away.
The whole school was now abuzz with the incident in the dungeons, temporarily leaving the topic of the Heir of Slytherin alone. At lunch, Potter caught his eye, and Draco nodded stiffly; he hadn't even bothered to take a seat at his table, as the stolen ingredients were still in his pocket, and he wanted very badly to be rid of them. Potter grinned exuberantly and elbowed Granger and Weasley to either side of him. The three rose, and Draco turned without waiting for them, heading straight for Moaning Myrtle's bathroom (or so it was called, though he hadn't actually seen this ghost; Granger said that she was very timid).
However, Draco didn't make it very far from the Great Hall before he was unceremoniously snatched by his robes once more.
"Watch it!" he snapped, now rather unsurprised to see the twins staring down at him from behind a strange and slightly grotesque statue of a one-eyed witch—who was also a humpback, which was just rotten luck for the real witch it had been modelled on, presuming that she had been. The two Weasleys stared at him with matching quizzical expressions. "Er, very good work this morning. Thanks."
"We happen to know, Malfoy—"
"—that there wasn't any test in your class. So why—"
"—did you ask us to interrupt?" They stared at him, still quizzical, but also confused, and Draco gave a rather tight, nervous grin.
"I don't like lying," said Draco, which was, almost to his surprise, entirely true, "but I had to this time, because it was the right thing to do. What I'm doing is secret, you see, and it's not just my secret, so I can't share it with you."
The twins' expressions turned vaguely dark and serious, and Draco shrank back slightly.
"That's actually very Slytherin of you—"
"—and come to think of it, isn't your family very Slytherin?" They raised their eyebrows, obviously hinting that he was the Heir of Slytherin. Draco scowled at them and drew himself up to his full height—which, as he was twelve, was neither taller than the twins, nor very intimidating in its own right.
"I am a Hufflepuff," he said, managing to pull off an offended, haughty tone as he glared at them. "The Sorting Hat did not put me in Slytherin. I am not a Slytherin. I repeat to you, therefore, that I am a Hufflepuff!" The three boys stood still after this explosion, and then the twins shrugged in unison.
"We're a little impressed, actually."
"Not only did you have the gall to try to pull one over on Snape—"
"—you were smart enough to know that you should ask us for help."
"Not to mention that you're a lying Hufflepuff—"
"—and we approve of a few well-placed lies."
"When it's for the good of others, of course."
"Or the good of ourselves."
"Yes, good point, Fred."
"Of course, George."
"Er," said Draco, blinking at them, "thank you?"
By the time Draco made it to the girls' lavatory they were using as their headquarters, lunch was nearly through and the Gryffindors were very impatient.
"There you are! I was beginning to get worried," said Hermione as Draco promptly began handing over the ingredients he'd procured (he blanched every time he so much as thought the word stolen, and so avoided using it).
"Yeah, we thought you'd just gone off on your own and kept it for yourself," said Weasley, and Draco fixed a glare on the other boy, crossing his arms over his chest.
"I wouldn't have been late if I hadn't been accosted by your brothers."
"My brothers?" repeated the youngest Weasley boy dully. "Which ones?"
"The twins," said Draco.
"Fred and George," supplied Weasley automatically, even though Draco hadn't asked. "What'd they want from you?"
"They wanted to know why they'd sent several dozen fireworks into Professor Snape's class this morning," he answered with a shrug, and was met with three sets of raised eyebrows. "I told them that there was a very important test occurring today for which I was woefully unprepared, and they agreed to interrupt the proceedings."
"That was very clever," said Granger approvingly, glancing up at him from the instructions for the Polyjuice Potion, "getting suspicion away from you that way. Well done."
"Ah, thank you," answered Draco after a long moment, blinking at the unexpected praise. She nodded decisively and then turned back to the book. Draco cleared his throat. "If you'll excuse me, I need to be getting to Herbology now. Please leave me alone until the potion is nearly ready; I need some time away from you Gryffindors, if you don't mind." He turned on his heel and left before they could reply, but on the way out, Draco still heard Weasley muttering about drama queens. He sighed, because it was apparent that Gryffindors just couldn't appreciate good theatricality.
Draco refused to respond to the questioning, almost suspicious looks Neville and Cedric gave him at breakfast the following day, and eventually, the incident in Potions was forgotten in favour of the excited tittering running up and down the table about the new Duelling Club. Although Cedric seemed to be looking forward to it, and Neville was almost frantic to find some way of protecting himself (he kept insisting that he was very nearly a Squib, like Filch, rather than listening when everyone else reminded him that he was a Pureblood), Draco had no intention of attending. He wanted nothing more than to curl up in front of the fire in the Hufflepuff common room and read, though he suspected that he wouldn't be able, by the way Cedric was frowning at him.
"Don't you think it's a good idea, Draco?"
"No," he answered flatly as he rather viciously stabbed a piece of his eggs. "No, I think that teaching a large body of children how to cause limited harm to each other more effectively is a terrible idea when there are still obvious divisions within the school."
"You don't think the students are going to start hexing each other," Cedric replied, frowning. A sneer briefly crossed Draco's features at Cedric's seemingly boundless optimism.
"I'm not sure that I could be as pessimistic as you are sometimes," Cedric said. Neville remained silent, because he tended towards the worst-case scenario, just as Draco did—but where Draco was planning for the worst, Neville would simply worry about it.
"Realistic, Cedric." The look he got from his older friend clearly said that he was unimpressed.
"Just go to the Duelling Club meeting, will you?" Cedric asked after a long moment of silence. Draco frowned at him and noticed for the first time that the other Hufflepuff did appear a bit worried. "It's just that with the trouble you get into with the Gryffindors—no offence, Neville—"
"S'okay," Neville murmured, even though they all knew that, in the end, Neville had been the one to drag Draco to the third floor corridor the previous year.
"—I'd feel better if you knew what you were doing." Draco stared at Cedric, and finally sighed and looked away. Cedric grinned, knowing that he had won, and the tension suddenly faded. Conversation after that was much lighter, and Draco went off to class feeling lighter than he had since before he'd gotten involved in this year's Gryffindor heroics.
Besides, Cedric was right. It would probably be a good idea to learn what he could before he went charging into the fire with Harry sodding Potter—and this was a school-sponsored activity, monitored by teachers. What could possibly go wrong?
Author's Note: Bit of an almost-filler chapter, really. Chapter fifteen is the Duelling Club, and Ginny Weasley makes her first appearance. I've decided to update every Tuesday and every Friday, so look for the next update later this week!