"What is this rubbish?" Draco asked as he picked through the newest books in the Zabini library. "'Offensively Defensive'? Is this a joke?"
On the other side of the table, a tired-looking Theodore Nott turned an identical book over in his hands. "This is the Defence Against the Dark Arts textbook, isn't it?"
Zabini nodded. "While you're under my roof, you will be studying just like if you were at school. I expect both of you to sit your N.E.W.T.s once your names are cleared."
Draco growled. "I refuse to read anything whose title is a pun."
The dark-skinned man patted the left side of his chest, where a slight indentation suggested a key rested beneath the fabric. "Then you'll have no issue with me financing a small project with your funds. Mr. Weasley."
Nott frowned as Draco and Zabini glared at each other. "What am I missing?"
"That's none of your business," Draco snapped. "What do you care if I sit for the blasted N.E.W.T.s, Zabini?"
"No one is going to take a Slytherin seriously if he doesn't have at least four N.E.W.T.s to his name, and you will be getting five as I need you to be taken very seriously."
"No one cares about the bleeding N.E.W.T.s unless you're planning to—" Draco gagged, "—work for a living. Malfoys have no such inclinations, nor do we need them."
"Malfoys are only as good as their money, and that's even failing you right now. Perhaps if your father had made some honest connections in his life, there would be people of good moral character who could clear your family name. Instead, you're on the run because the Ministry is exorcising itself of anyone who might have been bought off."
"Are you getting to your point?"
"You will achieve N.E.W.T.s in Defence Against the Dark Arts and Potions, as well as at least three other subjects of your choice. And I'm not talking 'Acceptable'. You will achieve 'Outstanding' in all five."
"Or else what? You'll turn me out? Hand me over to the Aurors?"
"Or else the executor of Fred Weasley's Gringotts vault may suggest moving the gold to an undisclosed location."
Draco drew his wand. "If you dare—"
"You're the one who asked for my help. I am helping you. It's not my fault that the only motivation that seems to work with you Malfoys is threatening your livelihood." Zabini opened his arms wide, leaving his core exposed. "Stun me and take the key. Run away. Waste your intellect. Prove to me that you're as worthless as you're acting."
Draco hissed. "Stu—"
His wand flew out of his hand and traced a graceful arc. Nott held a wand in one hand and caught Draco's with the other. "Listen to him," Nott said with exhaustion. "Blaise is right. When this is over—"
"This might never be over!" Draco tugged at his platinum hair with angry fists. "This might be the rest of my life. I will be a fugitive forever and you both know that, so stop pretending like it's going to make a difference if I—ugh!" He kicked a chair, which hurt his foot more than the solid oak.
With a silent wave of Zabini's wand, the out-of-control young man seized, lost balance, and fell flat on his face. Zabini kicked Draco over and locked eyes. "You are my guest. You will not cause harm to my home. You will take my assistance when I offer it and you will count yourself lucky. Goyle and Bulstrode have both reached out to me and I have denied them.
"You will study the textbooks I have kindly provided for your edification. You will be fully prepared to return to society as a contributing member. You are not unintelligent, and thus you should know not to cross me. You are in my debt and I always collect." Zabini waved his wand over Draco's robes, which turned a deep blue. "Consider yourself Sorted into Ravenclaw." He released the Body-Bind.
Draco gasped as movement returned to his muscles. "How dare you," he spat.
Zabini sighed. "You have two choices, Malfoy. You can be broke and rotting in Azkaban, or you can be rich and studying like the good little Ravenclaw you are."
The blond rolled his shoulders back before regaining his feet. His right foot throbbed as he shifted his weight. "I will get you back for this, Zabini."
"No you won't. I am smarter and better connected than you can hope to be. It's why you came to me in the first place. Now show a little humility." Zabini gestured at Nott, who tossed the stolen wand across the table. Their host ran the wand through his fingers as he held it back from Draco. "Swear to me that you're going to behave, little Malfoy, and I'll give this back."
Draco choked and thrust his chin forward. With an icy stare, he nodded. "Fine. I swear."
"You swear what?"
The man clenched his fists into his robes. "I swear to study for the bloody N.E.W.T.s."
Zabini sighed again, and adopted a tone suited for addressing a petulant child. "And how are you going to treat my home?"
"I swear to respect your home."
"Do you swear to abide by my rules?"
"Fine, yes, I swear to abide by your blasted rules."
"Excellent." Zabini extended the wand to Draco. "You'll note that your oath is binding. Should you try to break it, the magic in this house will break you first."
"What are you talking about?" Draco asked as he retrieved the wand.
Nott pointed to a distant corner of the library. Draco couldn't see past the shelves, but he could tell the area was mostly bare. "There's a book over there. Oaths made to members of the Zabini family are automatically recorded and enforced."
"For the love of Merlin," Draco groaned. "That's Dark magic, Zabini. I thought you were supposed to be neutral."
"'Neutral' is just a fancy word for 'balanced'. I can hardly have balance if I only use Ministry-approved magic."
"You're a testament to the house of Slytherin, you know that?"
Zabini gave his guest a grim smile. "And you'd best become a dutiful Ravenclaw by the time I board the train."
"Yes, Master," Draco said sarcastically.
His host pinned him with a withering glare. "It's a wonder You-Know-Who never struck you dead. You're a right prat, Malfoy."
Zabini left his guests alone in the library to pour over their new materials. Despite his protests, Draco was actually grateful to have something to focus on, even if it wasn't something of his own choosing.
"Defence Against the Dark Arts. Never thought I'd have to take that class again," Nott mused. He flipped through the thin book. "First half is a bunch of theory, but second half looks like it's basically curses and counter-curses. That can't be too bad."
"It will be when I practice them on you," Draco said. He pushed aside Standard Book of Spells, Grade 7 to pick up the Potions text. His old Potions book, with its careful notes from Slughorn's classes, had been left at the Manor. He grieved its loss for a moment as he flipped through the crisp pages of the new book. He would have to work through most of the familiar potions and notate what he could remember.
"Here's a question," Nott said, interrupting Draco's train of thought. "If we're supposed to be learning this stuff—who's teaching us?"
"I think we're being left to our own devices."
"That seems a bit pointless. How are we supposed to know if we're wrong?"
"Generally, then, the spells wouldn't work," Draco sneered.
Nott waved off his unpleasantness. "Fine, but then how do we learn to do it correctly?"
"You practice until you figure it out, unless you have Doxy droppings for brains. If that's the case, I'm afraid there's no hope."
Draco's golden-eyed classmate snickered. "You think you'd be nicer to someone who taught you how to launder your pants." Nott cracked a sideways grin. "Gratitude doesn't cost anything."
Draco cocked an eyebrow with a mischievous expression and felt the wand settle into his hand. A moment later, Nott's robes were an alarming shade of yellow. "Consider yourself Sorted into Hufflepuff," Draco said, echoing Zabini's earlier words.
"Oi!" came Zabini's voice. "Did you explode the sun in my library?" The young man guarded his eyes as he walked back through the door.
"Meet our newest Hufflepuff," Draco said. Nott gave a model spin, his robes flaring so that he looked like a deformed daffodil.
"As long as you don't recruit any Gryffindors. Now—"
"That's who we need!" Nott said. "Granger could teach—"
"Finish that sentence and I will disembowel you," Draco snapped.
Nott said something Draco couldn't quite comprehend, but an instant later Draco's skin began freezing and thawing in rapid succession. It was one of the most disturbing sensations he'd ever felt.
"What did you just do?" he demanded as he started rubbing his arms.
"Nevermind, I think I can teach myself. We don't need Granger." Nott waved Offensively Defensive. "It's one of the curses in here."
"Well, find the counter-curse before I lose my mind!" Less than sixty seconds of the cycling chill and heat felt like some of the worst psychological torture Draco had endured in the last year.
Zabini held up a hand to stay Nott. "Find the counter-curse yourself. You have the book."
"I hate you both," Draco said as he reached a shaking hand for his copy. When he nearly dropped the book, he took a deep breath and drew from his Occlumency training to close off his mind from his body. Eventually the pulsing temperatures felt distant and he was able to hold the book steady long enough to search out the counter-curse. "Stabilis temperatus," he muttered with a complex gesture of his wand, and the cycling stopped.
"Excellent." Zabini motioned to the door. "Dinner is set if you gentlemen are inclined to join me."
Nott bounced into the hall, but Zabini caught Draco before he could follow. "Let me see your wand."
"Sorry to disappoint, but I've never been in to blokes," Draco retorted, but he gripped his stolen wand tightly.
The traitorous instrument again released itself from Draco's grasp. The youngest Malfoy cursed at being disarmed twice in an hour.
"This isn't your wand," Zabini said after a moment's examination. "What happened to yours?"
Draco was not about to admit he had lost it to Potter of all people. "It was a casualty of the war," he said instead.
Zabini accepted that answer and handed the wand back. "That's Fred Weasley's wand, isn't it? That's why you wanted the vault at Gringotts under his name." Draco nodded, disturbed by the astute observations of his former classmate. "Be careful with it. A blood-traitor's wand is bound to turn on you sooner or later."
"Thank you for your helpful words of warning as always, Zabini," Draco said, unable to bite back the sarcasm.
Zabini knocked him in the back of the head as they left the library. "Someday you'll learn to mind your betters, boy. Even if I have to train you myself."