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Lost in the Middle

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Length 00:39:25
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Narcissa stood beside her son in a side room at Gringotts, holding her breath and not fidgeting, while the goblin in front of them searched through myriad papers in their personal accounts. Lucius had jeopardised everything by getting himself captured in that horrid raid in the Department of Mysteries, and his imprisonment had turned over all the family assets to his heir, which is how they found themselves in the wizarding bank the day after Draco had returned for the summer hols. There should be no question of the inheritance, surely, but she was still nervous of the outcome from today’s meeting.

“Well, I see that the Ministry has cut Lord Malfoy’s access to his funds and has ordered here,” the goblin raised an official document, “that all control be given over to his heir, one Draco Lucius Malfoy.” The goblin stared hard at Draco. “Mr. Malfoy, we will need to draw blood for an identification check.”

She watched as Draco calmly extended his wand arm for the required evaluation and refrained from clutching her hands into fists. She kept as still as possible, breathing controlled and even. The goblin passed his wand over Draco’s inner wrist and a small cut opened out and blood floated through the air and into a cup filled with a clear purple liquid. As it mixed, the liquid turned black and opaque. The goblin closed the cut and turned his attention to the cup. He picked it up and poured it onto a special bright white paper, not ordinary parchment. The liquid soaked into the paper, leaving behind words and figures as it went.

“Hmmm,” the goblin said, squinting as it read over the text. “Yes, Draco Lucius Malfoy, born 5 June, 1980, Ruon, France. Father: Lucius Abraxas Malfoy. Mother: Jeanette Louise Baptiste. Heir to the Most Ancient and Noble House of Malfoy. Blood status: Half-Blood.”

“WHAT!?!” Draco’s eyes had gone huge and his mouth hung open in shock. “That can’t possibly be right!”

Narcissa had gasped as the mother’s name was mentioned and now she did clench her fists and close her eyes at the confirmation of her son’s status. This information could not get out; it would not bode well for any of them.

“Mother, tell him it’s not true!” Draco glanced at his mother then back at the goblin. “That’s utter rubbish and something has gone wrong. I demand a new test and a meeting with your supervisor.”

“Draco,” Narcissa spoke quietly. “There is nothing wrong with the test.” She opened her eyes and looked at the boy she loved as her own son.

He turned back to look at her, confusion written all over his face. “There has to be. I’ve never heard of such a woman before. It should be your name there,” he said, pointing a finger at the offending paper.

Narcissa shook her head with such sad, slow movements. “I’m afraid not, Draco. I will explain at home, not here. Let us finish the proceedings first. You need to take over Lucius’ accounts.”

Draco stared dumbfounded for several minutes, until the goblin finally got impatient and hurried him along to sign everything. The two walked out of Gringotts in silence, the tension heavy like impending rain.

------

“What do you mean he had an affair?”

“The child is mine!”

“This will ruin all of us should it ever get out into the public’s eye.”

“My whole life is a lie.”

“The Malfoy line must continue. You proved incapable of this task, so I found another.”

“We didn’t want to burden you with this. We thought it could be introduced to you after you were established in society, possibly engaged or even married.”

“Young Malfoy, I must test if your blood is stronger than Lucius’.”

“Why did he do this?”

“You have nothing to offer me, wife.”

“It doesn’t change who you are.”

“I will help protect you and the child, Narcissa.”

----

Draco’s thoughts swirled in his head, a chaotic whirlwind of deceit and negative emotions fostered by his own insecurities and cowardice. He couldn’t stop the constant replay of words his mother had spoken to him about his parentage, pensieve memories from the time of his conceivement, and his own trials experienced this summer at the hands of his fellow Death Eaters. If anyone looked into his mind right now, they would be shocked at how low the Malfoy heir had fallen in his own estimation. Luckily, he had learned Occlumency rather quickly under Mad Aunt Bella, and, therefore, he didn’t have to worry about others finding out his secret.

It didn’t stop the images from coming while his body moved like an unbound wraith, just floating from moment to moment. He sat motionless with his friends on the Hogwarts train back to school, only coming alive again for a brief instant to release his frustrations on Potter. He was a statue on the thestral-drawn carriage ride to the castle and only managed to make a few acknowledgements of his fellow Slytherins once they all arrived in the Great Hall. He had a disdainful look at everything around him, not once even clapping for the new Slytherin first-years.

His position within the House was compromised just from his father’s imprisonment, but it would be completely abysmal if anyone found out his changed blood status. His eyes scanned the whole room, sneering. Was he really just equal to all these people? The thought turned his stomach. Malfoys had always been Wizarding nobility, but now he was just a commoner. It made him feel dirty.

“Had a good summer, Draco?” Pansy asked from next to him. Her tone was smooth and even, not enthusiastic like it would have been between two friends who were sharing the joy and excitement of a holiday, but instead was delicately put, Pansy being quite aware of events from the spring and the move-in of the Dark Lord to his ancestral home.

There wasn’t much he could respond with, nor did he care to. He gave her a personal sneer and said, “Of course, I got to entertain all manner of … pets in my parlour. It was … fun having a menagerie at home.” He dismissed her and turned back to the Head Table, where Dumbledore was giving his usual “students are forbidden in the Forbidden Forest” speech.

Blaise snorted from across him. “Well, someone slid off on the wrong side of the broomstick today. Why did you linger back on the train anyway?”

Draco’s foul mood improved a little into a mischievous smirk. Without stating anything, he looked up and glanced over to the Gryffindor table, where quite a few sixth-years were looking tense and troubled. Most of his friends turned and looked in the same direction, checking out their rivals.

“Ah,” Blaise said, seeing the difference. “Potter’s missing. I saw him board the Express ….” He frowned, then looked back at Draco. “Is that you’re doing? Better watch that, Draco. You’d be in serious trouble if the Headmaster found out.”

“Good thing Potter’s going to be too embarrassed to tell him, right?” Draco said with a haughtiness he no longer felt. He hadn’t kicked Potter because of some stupid school rivalry. He’d kicked him for all the things Potter represented -- light, goodness, bravery, the reason for the Dark Lord’s return, for his father’s social faux pas, for an end to the Malfoy reign. He hated Potter.

While most of his Housemates turned back to their food, he, not feeling hungry, looked back at the Gryffindor table just in time to catch Hermione Granger’s gaze. Her accusatory brown eyes locked with his and time stopped. A world of emotions passed between them, most unfriendly, but a frisson of heat did run up his spine, leaving chills in its wake and causing his frown to deepen. How dare she look at him? How dare she sit there and occupy the same school as he? How dare she look so perfect, with her equally-as-tainted-as-his blood in her veins?

He looked away first, hating himself.

-----

“Pathetic that your da’s in prison, innit?”

“Fuck, Draco, lay up on the hexes, will you? Don’t want to lose us points, you know.”

“Mr. Malfoy, how is your mother fairing? You really should come to my office and discuss recent at-home developments.”

“Harry’s cheating in potions! I mean, I know he’s doing better without Malfoy’s constant sabotaging -- which is highly suspicious in and of itself, but maybe he’s matured enough to let bygones be bygones, and I wish Harry would, and stop this obsession with stalking Malfoy -- but his suddenly perfect potions is uncanny and he’s always reading that book….”

“OMG, did you see the paper? He’s a half-blood! It’s revolting.”

“Must suck to be some bastard child. And it says here his real mother died under mysterious circumstances.” *snort* “I don’t think there’s much mystery there.”

“You’ve got a lot of nerve, ferret, calling us blood traitors.”

“We’ve got a better status now, Draco. We don’t have to take orders from you no more.”

“Eww! Don’t touch me! Don’t even come near me, Draco. This courtship is off!”

“Ooh, look it’s the slimy little half-snake. Wonder which lower class creature will take pity on you now. At least you can still crawl in the dirt through the dungeons like you deserve.”

“You were so sure of your place in the world. Reality’s a bitch, eh, Malfoy?”

“Leave him alone. He can’t help what his parents did. It’s their arrogance that’s kept this a secret so long.”

“Distance yourself from this prattle, Mr. Malfoy. You have a task to complete, do you not? I do not wish to see Narcissa suffer from your laziness and distraction.”

“Oh, how the mighty have fallen!”

----

Draco packed up his things from DADA, wondering all the while at the concerned looks he had been getting from his godfather of late, ever since that dratted article leaking his blood status had been printed to be precise. Snape had given him increasingly irritated looks throughout this term, always trying to pry into Draco’s task and to question him on his competency, but now those looks included a pity that Draco sneered at. He didn’t need pity. He was still half a Malfoy at least, which was more than the rest of the populace could say. He refused to dwell on the fact that that meant much less now than it had a few months ago, stubbornly denying the family’s downfall, if only to keep his feet moving in a forward direction.

He was so focused on these thoughts that he never saw the tripping hex sent his way. It landed and sent him sprawling around the dungeon corner. Luckily, his Seeker’s reflexes helped him catch the edge and kept him from falling further. He put on his ugliest scowl and turned to confront his attacker, but the hallway was crowded with students who were watching him falter and then simply brushed by on their way to their next classes. Many wore mocking grins, happy with this display of cruelty towards a Malfoy, but there was not a single one that seemed happier or more smug about the attempt.

One Hufflepuff, coming from the opposite direction, called out on him, “Looking good there, Malfoy. It seems you’ve lost half your grace along with half your blood!” Zacharias Smith laughed at his own stupid joke as he walked towards the DADA classroom. Most of the students still lingering in the hallway snickered, too, and continued past him.

Draco straightened himself up with shattered dignity and returned the jibe. “At least I’m not a preening fool who’s only claim to brilliance is that his family owns a bake shop. Such a high position to strive for.”

Smith only flashed him a wicked grin. “It’s much higher than yours now, as I understand it,” he said and strove into his class.

The corridor cleared out after that, but Draco did notice Hermione Granger lingered behind, observing, though not commenting. His wounded pride caused him to lash out at her since Smith was no longer on the scene. “At least you’re still stuck in the mud, Granger, even lower than me.”

Granger puffed out her chest in true Gryffindor defiance. “Oh, no, Malfoy. Mud’s actually very useful for cleaning out the trash in one’s pores. I would have thought that someone who maintained such beautiful skin would have known that. Seems you’ve a lot to learn about life, doesn’t it?” She gave him a very pointed look, her expression conveying her displeasure at his continued verbal insults and her concern that he quickly understand the new world in which he found himself. She knew he wasn’t better than any of them and she reminded him of their now equal footing.

Draco bristled at her audacity, partly out of ingrained habit, but mostly out at the fact that she was right. The ground had shifted around him and he was no longer sure of his steps, could no longer claim superiority of birth. He didn’t know where his place was now, didn’t know how to fit in anymore. He expected the insults and taunts and lashed back with equal fervor, but this whole shunning business had left him unsettled in a way he’d never experienced before. It was frightening.

Granger’s attitude wasn’t helping either. Her scorn didn’t have that biting edge like it used to; instead it was filled with disappointment, like that reserved for a recalcitrant friend rather than an enemy. Her concern was even more disturbing for its unexpectedness. She should have had no reason to feel for him. He had no way to deal with this change in her behaviour toward him, so he took the one option that best protected himself.

He fled.

----

“I know he’s up to something.”

“His father is an evil Death Eater; we all know it, and it wouldn’t come as no surprise that he would have taught his son how to be one, too.”

“It can’t be coincidence that he’s sneaking around the castle. He’s got to be working on something and I just have to catch him at it.”

“Maybe he just needs some time alone. This whole half-blood business must put a strain on all his friendships.”

“Friendships? He never had any, ‘Mione; they were all just social ties and political scrambles.”

“The Malfoys don’t have friends, and now they’ve lost all status in Slytherin House. It must be awful for him.”

“It’s only what the git deserves.”

“What a laugh Draco’s become! Poor sod is just so lost without his pure-blood mummy.”

“No one in society is going to take him back. That would just be ridiculous. He’s tainted goods now. I know I wouldn’t touch him with a ten-meter wand.”

“Severus, we know how unpredictable a desperate boy can be. He would prove a danger to himself and others. Get the boy into your confidences; he’ll be grateful for the advice of a father figure.”

----

Draco snuck through corridors and up staircases, taking a meandering path through the castle in order to justify that he was everywhere and nowhere should he be interrogated later, and finally made his way to the stretch of wall that became the door into the Room of Hidden Things. He heaved a sigh of both relief and resignation. The Dark Lord had ordered him to murder the Headmaster, and he thought he’d hit upon an idea to fix a vanishing cabinet, whose twin sat in Borgin & Burkes, as a means to easily infiltrate the school. Draco felt no joy in working on this task, no wish to see these hallowed halls overrun with Death Eaters, no real desire to murder anyone, but he pushed forward, nonetheless, since he knew his mother’s life hung in the balance.

Or rather, his step-mother’s. The whole situation galled him and turned his stomach, but he really couldn’t fault Narcissa for it. It was mere chance that she was infertile, and the Malfoys had needed an heir. Still, Draco had conflicting feelings about his conception and birth -- glad that he was born, angry at his parents for the deception, and anxious about his future -- but even though all that, he knew Narcissa cared about him.

Draco looked around the hallway again, just to make sure no one was following him, then slipped through into the room as soon as the door had formed. The place was massive and filled to overflowing with discarded trinkets. Most were pretty harmless, a few were broken, but every once in a while one could find a useful magical artifact. The vanishing cabinet was one such item. Draco had learned of it after a prank played by the Weasley twins on Montague, and then he thought to use it to complete his task.

So here he was, fixing it. Draco had taken weeks to sift through the various layers of protective and active spells to find the root problem and today he would make the first correction. He placed his wand touching the very center of the bottom of the box and began to chant while pushing magic through his wand.

When he was done, he took a deep breath and let it out, trying to release tension as well as a nagging feeling of guilt. Images of destruction and students screaming and Granger lying dead at his feet flashed through his head before he could stop them. He shook his head to dispel the gloom and took another deep breath to steady himself. He placed an apple within the cabinet to test his efforts, shut the doors, and uttered the activation phrase.

Harmonia Nectere Passus.

He opened the door and the apple was gone. He shut the door and said the passphrase again.

Harmonia Nectere Passus.

This time when he opened the door, the apple was back, but half of it was missing.

Draco left the Room of Hidden Things with some encouragement but also a heavy dose of reality. This was not going to be an easy fix; the magic was complex and subtle. The slightest alteration would have disastrous results for any being passing between the cabinets.

So deep was he in his thoughts that he almost ran into Snape on his way back to the Slytherin Common room.

“Mr. Malfoy, I should hope you have a very good reason for being out and about alone in the castle. Your mother would be quite upset at hearing word of your misconduct.” Snape glowered at him with suspicion.

Draco’s chin went up in defiance. “I have every right to roam these corridors during the daytime, Sir.”

Snape took one step forward, deliberately attempting to take the high ground from him. “And I have every right to investigate the dealings of students, most especially those under my care. And I have been equally charged by Narcissa to look after you.”

Draco sneered. “It’s not like she’s my real mum though, right?”

Snape’s eyes sharpened. “However unfortunate that may be, she still cares deeply for you. This foolish meandering will get you no closer to solving your dilemma, but with some assistance--”

“I don’t need your help!” Draco ground his teeth in annoyance. He had to show the world he was good for something on his own merits, since he could no longer use his pure-blood lineage to sustain him. It irritated him that other half-bloods and mudbloods were getting more recognition than him. “I’ll do this on my own. Sir.” He turned and stomped down the corridor before Snape could berate him or take house points.

----

“Draco, you must prove worthy of being my follower. Kill the Headmaster for me.”

“There are bigger things than your pride at stake here. We could lose everything. One wrong move and the Dark Lord will finish us.”

“Yes, it’s tricky work fixing a magical artifact. The best ones are so delicate.”

“He’s rounding that corner again. Harry, have you tracked him on the map?”

“I’ve tried, but there are places where the map goes cold and then Malfoy’s suddenly somewhere else entirely. It’s frustrating.”

“Harry, you need to stop this. You’re obsessing. It’s not healthy.”

“What are you doing stinking up the common room, Draco? Go wallow in pity somewhere else.”

“I’ve told you before, sir, I can handle this. Leave me alone!”

----

Draco rushed from the Great Hall to the first floor girls’ lavatory with less finesse and decorum than usual. At dinner, he had received an owl from his (step) mother that was less than favorable and had him feeling agitated. The stares and the taunts and the cold shoulders he’d been receiving from his classmates were starting to get to him, too. He needed to get away, to find some peace and quiet. He had found this room when he’d hid in here last week to avoid Potter and his merry gang, thinking no one would look for him in a girl’s restroom, and it seemed he’d been right. He’d leant against a stall and slid down to the floor, letting himself just sit and think. It was the solitude he’d needed.

This time, however, he was too upset to be at peace, disturbed as he was by the contents of the letter, which had spoken of difficulties at home -- Death Eaters in residence, tortures taking place right there in the front parlour, and wizards coming and going at all times of the day and night. Narcissa wrote of how terrified she was of stepping outside her suite alone, though she put on a stoic face and went out to greet her ‘guests’ nonetheless. Draco paced up and down thinking about this. There was a subtle pressure in her tone for him to hurry up with his task. The Dark Lord would not be pleased with them should he fail to progress. He didn’t know how to reassure her that he was working on the problem. It was slow going and difficult, and he wasn’t sure if the Dark Lord would accept this news. Worry ate at his heart.

With that stress he failed to notice the lavatory door opening and a bushy-haired girl sticking her head in and looking around.

“Malfoy?” she said gently.

He squeaked and turned to her, immediately drawing his wand. His eyes were filled with fear and he was breathing became rapid. “Go away, you filthy Mudblood.”

Granger stepped into the room cautiously and let the door shut behind her, keeping her back to it and holding the handle in case she had need of a quick exit. There was no fear in her gaze even though she was held at wandpoint, and she did not draw her own wand in response. She simply stood there, countenance steady. “I’m not any more filthy than you are, Malfoy, and you’re only filthy because of your arrogance, not your blood type.”

“What would you know of arrogance? That’s probably the only thing that kept me alive this summer.” He sneered, trying to cover over his own inadequacies.

Hermione looked down. “I know,” she said and somehow Draco believed her. “That must have been horrible to know that your dad was imprisoned.”

He stared at her gobsmacked. He never would have thought she’d be sympathetic to his plight, especially since she’d fought against his father in that debacle at the Ministry. He hadn’t found out what the mission had been about, but he did know Potter and his cronies had become injured in some way, until Dumbledore’s Order had shown up to assist. He wasn’t sure what Granger had been through, specifically, but for her to offer compassion to him after that … well, he didn’t understand. “It’s not like you could possibly care.”

He expected her to bristle and fight or become affronted and leave, but she did neither of those things. Instead, she lifted up sad eyes to his and whispered, “Morgana, help me, but I do.” He was sure his mouth was hanging open and he could feel his wand arm slowly lower as she continued to explain. “You’re not the same as you were last year -- not that snide, spoilt prat of a boy anymore. Your face is gaunt and your eyes are guarded and your posture is wary. You’re being shunned by all of your housemates because of your changed status, and you mope about when you think no one’s watching.” She put her hands on her hips in that bossy way of hers. “Have I got that all straight?”

He stood there before her, not sure how to respond, although an ugly sneer started raising one corner of his mouth. He wanted to lash out at the truth, because the truth hurt, and the truth hurt even more coming from her. “Sounds like Potter isn’t the only one with a stalker’s complex. Too bad you won’t make a career out of it with that frizzy mop on your head that gives you away every time.”

“Ah, but I have gotten away with it, since you hadn’t noticed me staring. Besides, you’re just lashing out to protect yourself. Harry does that, too.”

“Don’t compare me to Potter!” His fists were balled in outrage, knuckles turning white from grasping his wand so tightly.

“And why not? You both act like immature, obsessed idiots.” She looked down and away and her expression became sad again. “Two immature, obsessed boys with too much of the weight of the world on your shoulders.”

Draco was positive he was catching faeries by now as his mouth lay open. There was a strange emotion coming from her that both stunned and angered him once he’d identified it. “I don’t need your pity.”

She smiled a little, a bit self-deprecatingly. “No, I suppose not. Neither does Harry.” She then looked more directly at him, her features sharpening, her mood turning serious. “But you could use my help.”

His sneer deepened. “I don’t --”

“Hear me out,” she said, putting her hands up in a stop motion, palms open and outward to him. “You need someone to be there for you, even if it’s just to talk. Everyone else has abandoned you, haven’t they?”

Her comments hit right on the mark and Draco’s features began to sour. His eyes looked tighter around the edges, his chin began to tremble, and his fists were white and shaking with the effort to stay collected.

“If you don’t confess to someone, it’s going to spiral you into depression.”

“And why should you care?” he shouted at her, his sanity hanging by a thread.

She shrugged. “Honestly, I don’t know. I just do.” Gently, like one would do with a feral animal, she walked forward, arms outstretched low, non threateningly. She kept her eyes steady on his the whole distance between them, grounding him so he wouldn’t break before she got there.

She stopped an arm’s length in front of him, one hand rising slowly to his face. Her fingers ghosted over his jaw line, noting the tickly sensation of his light facial hair as her palm made firmer contact. Her touch made him shiver, and the lightness of the pressure undid him and he broke, sagging, leaning into her, his legs giving out. He wrapped his arms around her and clung in desperation. He didn’t know why, but the comfort from his academic nemesis meant more than any touch he’d ever received from his friends or family. He didn’t understand it and it frightened him, but he needed it.

She didn’t ask for specifics or say anything at all, just let him be, let him hold her. It was a long time while his breathing was rapid and sharp and his arms remained tightly around her. His trembling finally subsided and only then did he pull away.

“You really should talk about it, you know,” she said.

He looked into her earnest eyes and saw no scorn or teasing or reprimand, only concern for him.

“My father did me no favours by having me out-of-wedlock. He thought he was doing the best for the Malfoy name, engendering an heir, even one of questionable heritage, since Mother cannot bear children.” His eyes darted to the side. “He also thought he was doing the best by signing on with ….” His eyes grew pained and skidded about searching for the appropriate word to use.

“Voldemort?” she whispered.

He flinched but nodded his head in agreement. “Yeah.”

“What’s got you down now? School shouldn’t be so bad, right?”

At that his eyes screwed up tight and his breathing hitched. Her eyes went wide with alarm.

“Draco, what is it?”

He swallowed, his throat tight with emotion. “I’ve … there’s a task I have to do. I don’t want to do it, but --”

“Then don’t do it,” she said, almost matter-of-factly, as if the answer was obvious.

“It’s not that simple, Granger. He’s got my mum!” He turned away from her. “He’s got us all.”

They stood in awkward silence, neither wanting to talk about the horrors surrounding them. He was lost again in his thoughts of the Dark Lord’s summons and the fear he could read in his mother’s letter.

After a long time, he finally said, “I have to go,” and walked away.

----

“You have to accomplish this task, whatever it is, Darling. We do not wish to further enrage the Dark Lord.”

“I can assist you in this, Mr. Malfoy, before it becomes a full-blown travesty. Narcissa insists that it not come to that.”

“Malfoy’s a right prat, knocking you over on his way to wherever, gloomy as shite.”

“Is there something I can do for you, Mr. Malfoy? Lemon drop, perhaps?”

“I know Voldemort has a strong hold over you, but there are other ways to defy him.”

“I’m almost certain that he’s going into the Room of Requirement. I’ve caught him running around the seventh floor quite a bit.”

“Draco, you’re an absolutely pathetic, little slimy git. Why don’t you give yourself over as a bezoar and go save some hapless Muggle from dying?”

“What would you know about it? You and your Gryffindor righteousness! How is that supposed to save my family?”

“Just let me take some of the pain away. If you won’t let me help you, at least let me be near you.”

“The Dark Lord’s servants come nearer each day. I feel their eyes burning on me, waiting for a slip of my tongue to grant them access. How did it come to this? No peace in my own home.”

“Drop the bird, Ferret. It’s not done anything to you.”

“You are looking ever paler, Mr. Malfoy. Any day now you will look like one of the ghosts that flit through this castle. At your current rate of descent, you may well join their ranks before Christmas arrives. Perhaps now you will accept my advice?”

“You have to stop this destructive force! It’s going to do nothing but eat you alive.”

----

Draco opened the door to the vanishing cabinet and stared once more at a mangled bird inside. His efforts were getting nowhere. He’d altered spell after spell to fix the damn thing, but the results ended up the same every time. It had become increasingly frustrating that the birds came back dead while Montague had survived, but that might have more to do with his ability to apparate out of the limbo space than Draco’s solutions to fixing the magic. He was sure now that the problem lay with the return journey back to this cabinet.

Upset with his own lack of progress, he ran down the flights of stairs headed toward the Slytherin dungeons. He was coming down the first-floor landing when he noticed a white flag just peaking around the door to the girls’ lavatory. He drew his wand and stalked toward the door. Peering inside, he saw only Granger, who was tapping her foot in annoyance.

“Careful, Granger, one might mistake you for a school administrator.”

She yelped a little in startlement, yet turned to offer him a greeting. “Well, then, one might be right.” She smiled at him as he came inside and then spelled the door closed and locked.

“Bit paranoid, are we?”

“Yes, well, others have a way of knowing what you’re up to and barging in on you unexpectedly, especially if they are trying to be helpful best friends. Simple precaution, right?”

“Right,” he said, defeated. He didn’t need the reminder of Potter and the coming battles. It made him feel so helpless and insignificant, like nothing he did or accomplished would matter in the great scheme of things. He slouched next to one of the sinks.

His mood instantly affected hers, worry creasing the lines of her forehead. She came over to him and put a hand on his arm. “What’s wrong?”

He shook his head and pushed her away. “It’s nothing.”

She placed her hands on her hips. “It’s not nothing if it has you this upset. I’ve told you before you need to talk about these things. Don’t let them consume you.” She waited for him to say something back.

His eyes closed and he sighed. He opened them again and looked everywhere but her. “I know that, but I can’t. I just can’t. It’s too complicated.”

“Then at least tell me what you’re feeling.” She placed her hands on his chest and looked up at him with pleading eyes, attempting to empathize with the burden of his sins.

He looked into those caring brown eyes of hers and felt lost. “I’m damned, Hermione. Truly damned.” He swallowed, trying to wet his tight throat. “If I complete my task, people will die here at Hogwarts.” He closed his eyes in despair as he heard her gasp. “And if I don’t, then my family dies. What would you have me do?”

Hermione looked near tears herself. “It’s so awful. This whole war is so terrible. Is there something else you can do, sabotage whatever it is you’re working on, but only in a way that makes it seem like an accident rather than your mistake?”

Draco shook his head. “Failure isn’t an option, no matter the reason.”

“And you still won’t tell me what it is?”

“No, it’s better if you don’t know.”

She looked thoughtful a moment, then she said, “What about Professor Snape? I think he’s been right in the middle of all this, too, and he’s had loads of experience playing both sides. He’s your Head of House. Surely you can --”

“It’s a matter of pride, Hermione. I have to do this myself to reclaim whatever status I can.”

“With whom? Those pure-blooded bigots you used to hang about with? You’re a half-blood now. Those shouldn’t be your ideals anymore.”

“Don’t tell me what to believe. You and all those Potter lovers think you’re in the right, but you couldn’t be further from the truth. I was conceived to be the Malfoy heir, and I will live up to it.”

His body blazed with indignant fury and it caused Hermione to step back.

“You really are going to go through with this.”

“Yes, it has to be me and me alone.” He looked upon her with much longing and regret.

She looked back at him with the same. She finally nodded her acceptance. “Then so be it.” She stood frozen for a second and then threw her arms around him, hugging him fiercely. “I’ll still be here to talk, if you need me,” she muttered from his shoulder.

He returned the embrace, still not understanding his feelings for her. But he couldn’t hurt her by allowing her to stay, by allowing her to become involved in all the dark machinations that surrounded him. So he pushed her away. “Leave me. It’s for the best.”

She didn’t look like she wanted to, but she respected his wishes. With a heavy heart, he watched her go.