Chapter 28 : Wheels In Motion
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Once again Draco was in his Death Eater garb, prostrate before the Dark Lord. The scenery here never changed; the fire was always blazing but gave little warmth to the sitting room, the furnishings gave hits of past glory and elegance that had faded into a sinister rot, and Snape stood beside the high-backed chair where their purported master sat. The only thing here that had changed since his last visit, before the trip to Azkaban, was Draco himself. He knew that his Occlumency skills were good enough that he could leave out things without it being noticed, but he could only hope that they were also adequate enough to keep him alive should he have to tell the Dark Lord an outright lie.
"Potter and Weasley are back," Draco started, forcing himself to take breaths, to not appear so nervous. It would not hurt for him to appear a little nervous, though...one of the things he and Potter had worked out for him to report could count as enough cause for that. He continued, "I still don't know where they were, or what they were doing, but their demeanor suggests that they were at least partially successful."
"Is that all?" the Dark Lord asked in a voice cold enough to freeze fire.
"No...there's more.... Potter asked me to give him Occlumency lessons my lord," he said. "He did not say why he wanted them, or why he wanted me to teach him."
For the next few seconds the only thing Draco heard was the crackling of the flames. As he was still keeping his head bowed to the floor, allowing him only a view of what once may have been a fine oriental rug, he could not see if the Dark Lord was surprised, angered, or satisfied.
Finally, Snape was the one that spoke. "At least he does not suspect you, young Malfoy. Even he is not so foolish to allow a suspected enemy a potential view into his mind, even if there was a possible benefit of him catching a glimpse into his enemy's mind. I could hazard a guess that you might be a more...convenient...teacher than any of the more mature Order members, especially if they have other pursuits at the moment."
"What I would like to know," the Dark Lord said, "is how Potter found out that you have some skill in Occlumency."
"He said that he overheard a conversation I had with Professor Snape during Slughorn's Christmas party," Draco said.
Draco heard a shifting of material, as if someone had shrugged. "I was curious," Snape said, "to see exactly how far the boy had gotten, as he had seemed to be doing precious little at the time."
"That would not be an uncommon evaluation, Severus, but it was also not your place. Perhaps if I allow Malfoy to take this opportunity, we will find out more than that Potter hates the Muggles that raised him," the Dark Lord said.
"As you say my lord," Snape allowed. "Then let us hope that Potter is still as dismal with his concentration as he was before."
Draco could not stop a short, bitter laugh. "That is what worries me, my lord. Potter is just not the same anymore. He use to be so easy to distract, so...emotional. He is much more focused now. I noticed it first when I came asking for the Order's protection, but it's been more distinct since his recent return. He doesn't laugh, his temper never explodes anymore...you'd think he was shouldering the weight of the world. I even overheard him telling Weasley that Weasley's personal feelings did not matter at all if they conflicted with something to do with the war, and that he should find something useful to do instead of moping over whatever they were talking about. At school I've heard him loose his temper with his friends before, but I didn't know that Potter had it in him to be this utilitarian."
"Perhaps Potter has finally grown a brain-stem," Snape remarked. "I may even be so bold as to suggest that he may be developing a sense of self-preservation."
"Or else self-destruction if it pushes away everyone useful to him," the Dark Lord remarked. "Dumbledore maintained the Order of the Phoenix by valuing the people he brought into it first, and their abilities second. While I personally find that notion preposterous, it did work for him. I wonder how what is left of the Order will take to Potter's new management style if he manages to get old enough to be put into a position of real power. You did say that it would be reasonable to assume that Dumbledore left Potter the power of veto even if he does not manage the Order's day-to-day affairs?"
"Yes my lord," Draco said, still not daring to take his eyes from the carpet.
"Then Potter would still know enough about the workings of the Order that this is still worth any risk, especially considering that you haven't been getting much information any other way. Tell Potter that he may have his lessons," the Dark Lord said. "To be on the safe side, Severus, you will teach Malfoy to improve his skills after every meeting. I want you to evaluate him tonight, and I want him at least one step ahead of Potter at all times."
As he followed Snape to his laboratory to start the evaluation, Draco allowed himself a small smile behind his mask. Things had gone perfectly. When Potter had cooked up this scheme, he had said that it was a way to increase his potential worth to the Da...to Voldemort so he would not be killed anytime soon for coming up with nothing, a way to provide an excuse for himself if there was very little information he could give, and if necessary it would be a plausible way for him to give out misinformation that could supposedly be vital secrets that Potter dare not breathe to anyone. It would not hurt for Draco to be able to brush up on his own Occlumency skills as he would now be telling Voldemort more lies than those of omission, and they could form a direct contact with Snape so information could pass two ways instead of just one if necessary. What he could not figure out, though, was why Potter's real goal in learning Occlumency and Legilimency was that it was the necessary stepping stone to learning the much darker and more controlling magic of Possession.
That was the reason Potter did not want a teacher from among the Order members...he had needed someone that was willing to dabble in dark magic and then keep quiet about it...he had needed someone like Draco Malfoy. While Draco did appreciate the irony in this, he did not know much about Possession. However, there were a few chapters on it in the books cousin Black had hidden under his bed, so it was theoretically possible. Hermione had asked him to help Potter with whatever he needed, no matter what it happened to be, so he was willing to try.
They got to their destination, the clean and organized but dark potions laboratory where he guessed Snape spent most of his time, and Snape shut the door. They stood facing each other, and Snape announced, "Let's begin."
But there was something Draco wanted to know. Clearing his mind of all else, he thought, 'You could have warned them about me, but you decided to live a little dangerously and give me a chance to get my act together. Why?'
Snape blinked slowly, and soon the reply formed in Draco's mind. 'A Seer told me once that I would never be everything I wanted to be, that my chance for it was over. I could still, however, help a certain young man to become what I was could have been if I chose to do so, and you matched the description she gave me.'
'So you helped me,' Draco thought back, amazed, wondering if Snape loved or hated the fact that he had succeeded in that particular mission. The man before him was a walking irony, Draco realized. Both savior and murderer, both hero and villain--a soul stained with blood for a noble cause. There was no peace for this man, and Draco wondered what he would do when the peace after the war was thrust upon him.
'I'll cross that bridge if I come to it,' Draco heard inside his head. He blinked, startled that Snape had caught all of that, but then he hadn't been concentrating either.
'And you will be almost as much of an irony as I am,' the voice continued. 'Another man proved or will prove to be more worthy of our respective ladies than we were. But that's enough chatter for now; it's time to begin the evaluation.'
Draco gaped for a moment before coming to himself again. Someone else would be better for Hermione? But she loved him, or that's what he thought anyway. Didn't that make him the best for her? And who, by Merlin's beard, had Snape loved?
He barely had a moment to clear his mind before the mental attacks started coming, but he was still able to leave the Riddle Manor with a moderate sense of accomplishment. Also, for the first time, he was able to leave with the notes tucked safely in his pockets instead of anonymously placed somewhere on his clothes.
It was a moment of relaxation that Ron found all too rare. He was playing chess with Hermione in the sitting room, and because Harry and Malfoy were busy with their Occlumency studies and Trelawney was in the kitchen with Mrs. Malfoy trying to warn her of impending disaster--a death in the family apparently--they were alone.
In spite of the fact that he should be enjoying the game, Ron was somewhat listless. They weren't too far into the game before Hermione asked, "Ron, are you ill? You really aren't concentrating."
Ron looked down at the board, realizing that one of her pawns was beating up one of his knights that he had not intended to sacrifice. She was also two moves away from taking his queen. "Oh," he said, blocking her way to his queen with his remaining knight. "I was just thinking," he answered.
"About what?" Hermione asked, frowning at the board.
"About how the three of us never spend time together anymore," he admitted. The last two months had been somewhat lonely, and considering the large family he had come from, it felt quite odd to be left out...odd and depressing. "Either Harry is having his Occlumency lessons, or you're with Malfoy instead...."
"You feel that we are ignoring you in favor of Draco?" Hermione asked. "I'm sorry you feel that way Ron, we don't mean it. Harry just has to work on his skills, for the war you know...."
"No, I didn't realize that there was a war going on," Ron bit.
Hermione gave him a look he guessed she meant to be patient, but it came out as patronizing instead. "...And I enjoy some time with Draco as well, but you know that we are all bound to find someone special sooner or later. Things just change Ron."
"I bet he's a good conversationalist," he said, really meaning that he thought that conversation was the last thing on Malfoy's mind, but Hermione took his comment at face value.
"He really is. His grades in school really aren't that far from mine, and it's really nice to be able to talk with someone about the finer points of magic that's not a teacher. It's not that I think that you or Harry were ever dumb, you guys were usually just more interested in Quidditch or whatever to pay as much attention to your schoolwork as you should have. It's just nice to talk to someone that's on my level in most subjects. We do have philosophical discussions from time to time as well. It was just last week he was saying...."
Ron tuned the words out, disturbed by the meaning behind them. She had decided that Malfoy was her intellectual equal, or close enough to it at least. Whatever Hermione found his good points to be, Ron guessed that she had never had 'intellectually stimulating' on the list. Harry might qualify on that count, in the area of Defense Against the Dark Arts anyway, but Ron thought that his academic pursuits were probably limited to what he could accomplish on the chess board. Seeing as it was unlikely they would have to play their way across another room anytime soon, that use appeared limited.
"...So S.P.E.W. might be doomed as it is," he heard Hermione say, and he sat up straight in his chair.
"What was that again?" Ron asked weakly, somewhat alarmed. If Malfoy could talk her out of S.P.E.W., he could probably talk her into anything.
Hermione sighed, irritated, he guessed, at having to repeat herself. "He thinks that I may be going at it wrong. The people that own house-elves are usually from old, affluent wizarding families and would not be affected by an association such as S.P.E.W., but they are affected by fashion. Draco suggested that if I want to promote the welfare of house-elves, I should therefore start by making it fashionable to treat house-eleves well. It's not a bad idea really, especially since a happy house-elf always looks tidy while the unhappy ones look unkempt, so people won't only treat the house-elves well while someone is watching...."
And then it dawned on him; Malfoy might be trying to introduce plans for the future, after the war. Hermione was in no position to set the tone for what was fashionable and what was not as it was, but as Mrs. Malfoy that might be different. Hermione had her causes, and if Draco offered to put the Malfoy fortune at her disposal, she might be able to get some things done.
It did not take too much effort to imagine it. As soon as the war was over, people picking up the pieces of shattered lives would be looking for anything good that had come out of the struggle. Ron guessed that a wealthy, Pureblood, supposedly dead, double-agent that helped the great Harry Potter kill off Voldemort would probably make the front page, never mind the top of the society column, for marrying the bright, vivacious, muggleborn friend of Harry Potter. That kind of attention would be easy to build on, especially if they got help from someone like Slughorn, and one or both of them could use that as a launching platform for a political career. Hermione was smart enough for it, and Malfoy was a good enough liar that politics might suite them perfectly.
And so Hermione could make an impression in the world she lived in, and Ron knew her well enough that that was what she desired. He knew that Hermione was not the sort of person to merely pity the plight of others, he knew that she was the sort of person to pity and then do something about it. He also suspected that house-elves were only the beginning, and if she could, she would be trying to improve conditions for others, such as werewolves and half-breeds, as well. Malfoy could offer Hermione the chance to make a difference, and what could he use as a counter-offer? Ron did have to admit that Malfoy could give Hermione more opportunities than he could himself. There were many circles where a Mrs. Weasley would be ignored, but a Mrs. Malfoy would be allowed a voice even if they initially disagreed with everything she said.
This would all be so much easier if he knew that Malfoy loved her for certain, if he knew that Hermione was not just being used as an expedient way for Malfoy to keep his hide in one piece for now and to regain good standing in the wizarding world later when the war was over. He trusted Malfoy just about as far as he could throw him--unaided by magic--and would continue to do so until Malfoy proved to him beyond a shadow of a doubt that he deserved more.
Before long, Ron heard the sound of footfalls on the steps. Malfoy walked into the room, stood behind Hermione, and put his hand on her shoulder. "I'm done for the evening if you would like to come to the greenhouse with me," Malfoy said, smiling down at Hermione.
Ron's stomach sank a little at the way Hermione smiled back at Malfoy, but what she said was, "In a little while Draco, after I finish this game with Ron."
Malfoy nodded, and glanced in his direction briefly before turning around to leave the room.
"Thank you," Ron said, and Hermione flashed him a quick smile before returning her attention back to their game.
At least he still had her as a friend.
Neville Longbottom sighed contentedly, brushing some of cakes of dirt off of his dragon-hide gloves. It was good to be back in his garden again.
He had had a bad case of the dragon-pox since last January and is was only now, in the spring, that he had been well enough to get out of the house. The disease was not life-threatening to someone of his age, but it had the habit of going on for months and causing some minor disruption of your life for that period of time.
He was still on medical leave from his job at the Botanical Emporium at Diagon Alley, but he had always considered that job of secondary importance. He had been set to join the Order of the Phoenix early in January, and would have if he had not woken up that very morning covered in bright purple spots.
You-Know-Who and his Death Eaters had to be stopped, and if there was any way he could help...well, he had to. All evil needed to win was for the good men and women to do nothing, and he was not going to do nothing. He was set to join up next week, and he swore that nothing less than being kidnapped by Death Eaters would keep him away from Grimmauld Place this time.
'Besides,' he thought, pulling another weed out of the dirt, 'there are a few questions I would like an Order member to answer...such as what in Merlin's name was Malfoy doing washing dishes in the kitchen of Grimmauld Place when he's suppose to be dead?'
He had worked out a number of scenarios in his head during his illness, each as unlikely as the next, but the one thing he did not doubt was that it had been Draco Malfoy that he had seen. Neville had closed the kitchen door without being seen, quite aware that until he was inducted into the Order, he might not want to know.
Neville heard footfalls, much to heavy to belong to an animal, and instinctively ducked behind a bush. It might only be one of his great-aunts with a pie, but these days it never hurt to be careful.
"Where arreee you," said a woman's sing-song voice, and his blood went cold. He remembered that voice from the Department of Mysteries, and from his nightmares. "Does witty bitty baby want to play hide-and-seek?"
Knowing that there was nothing else useful that the boy knew--it had taken both the Imperious curse and Veritaserum to get him to tell them anything--Lucius stupefied him for now, and went into the library to think. Bella followed him, frowning, deep in thought, absently regrowing her hair where it had been burned off during the short but furious fight. Lucius guessed that he was lucky that Bella had some experience with burn treatment. He had had to change clothes before questioning the prisoner, one just did not look very intimidating wearing charcoal.
They had taken the prisoner to one of the Malfoy-owned vacation cottages, a three-story manor in the country, rather than headquarters. Lucius considered this business private, and it would not interfere with the project Bella ran here.
"So, the Order did not kill my son but is holding him prisoner," Lucius said more to himself than anyone else, but Bella answered him.
"Possibly," she said, frowning into space.
"What do you mean 'possibly?'" Lucius asked angrily. "What other explanation could there be?"
"Lucius, what could they hope to gain by holding him prisoner?" Bella asked. "It would make sense if they had captured him, drained him of all the information they could, but why bother to keep him alive after that?"
"He could be used as a hostage," Lucius said, but as soon as he had given that answer, he knew that it didn't make that much sense.
"A hostage," Bella mused. "A hostage that had failed the Dark Lord, so he wouldn't give a rusty cauldron whether he lived or died. They might manage some leverage over you, but considering that you are no longer…er…involved at the highest levels, that might not be useful enough to be worth the risk."
"And just what are you suggesting?" Lucius asked quietly, threateningly. Surely she was not suggesting that his son had abandoned everything that he had ever taught him.
"Well, it's just that…it does seem rather suspicious…I mean…" Bella braced herself, as if expecting him to attack her for what she was about to say. "It is not impossible that Draco actually joined the Order. We really need more information before we do anything about this…."
"Are you MAD woman! My son did not…" Lucius trailed off, trying to calm himself. Bellatrix was not a negligible witch, and if he lost his temper, she would have to defend herself. Knowing her, she wouldn't be gentle with it….
"It is much more likely," he said once he had calmed down enough that sane thought had returned, "that he was captured by the Order, and that they are keeping him alive hoping that he will come over to their side. Dumbledore was entirely too merciful, and there is nothing to suggest that his successors would not be as well. I do not think that he ran off to join the Order. Why return to the Dark Lord after a failure if he had decided that serving him would result in death?"
"Well, there is that…" Bella said, trailing off.
Lucius nodded as if that settled it, and left the room. Draco was not a traitor, and he wasn't sure if he would believe that he was even if his son said so himself. His son lived, he didn't know what had happened to his wife…but there was a chance that she also lived. But he had to start with what he knew. How could he get his son back safely?
Potter had something that he wanted, but what could he offer Potter in return...without angering the Dark Lord. In his previous position at the Dark Lord's right hand, he would have threatened a mass Muggle killing if his son was not returned, but in his current state that would be considered 'rising above himself.' The only other obvious answer was trading hostages. He doubted that Potter would trade his son for Longbottom, so it would have to be someone closer to him such as Weasley or Granger.
Nodding to himself, Lucius began to plot. He wanted his son back; he wanted to have not only a mission in life, but also his life. His son, after all, was all there really was to carry on the family name when he was gone. The Malfoy name, pride, and Pureblood heritage was invested totally in his son's capable hands. Lucius wanted that legacy to continue.
And Lucius knew that he would get what he wanted. He was, after all, a Malfoy.