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Wayward Son by La Klap

Format: Novel
Chapters: 11
Word Count: 76,402
Status: WIP

Rating: 15+
Warnings: Strong Language, Strong Violence, Scenes of a Sexual Nature, Sensitive Topic/Issue/Theme

Genres: Romance, Angst, Young Adult
Characters: OC
Pairings: OC/OC, Draco/Pansy, Harry/Ginny, Ron/Hermione

First Published: 10/20/2006
Last Chapter: 04/10/2008
Last Updated: 04/10/2008

Summary:
(Credit for the banner goes to the wonderful Alora.)
HPFF Recommended Story March 2007





Unwanted, unexpected and nearly unborn, but he's ignorant of it all. Join Draco Malfoy's son in an emotional rollercoaster ride through Hogwarts, starting in his fifth year, until he confronts his father. Does his father consider him a son? Or not a person at all? (not compatible with the DH epilogue)


Chapter 10: Chapter Eight: Ball Bickering

Author's Notes: After several bouts of laziness, here is a brand new chapter. :) Again, a little on the long side, but I suppose it is to make up for the long, long wait. A bit of a filler, too, but I've planned more exciting things to happen in the next one. ;)

~*~

Chapter Eight – Ball Bickering

~*~

On the day of my date with Anna Copperfield, I woke up a lot earlier than necessary. With my brain still high on sleep hormones, I shuffled out of bed, planning to take things easy this morning. I was nervous as hell anyway – no need to rush.

After I had taken a shower and dressed into some warm robes, I left the pitch dark dormitory and my sleeping roommates behind and ascended the spiral staircase to the common room. The steps were slippery with ice and I had to be very careful as to not fall down and break something. Like my neck. That would have been right unfortunate.

The common room was deserted, and only the burning coals in the fireplace shed some light on the room. Shivering, I lit my wand and started searching for my scarf, which I had left draped over some chair the night before. I found it crammed behind one of the couch's cushions. I looked for my initials on the fabric to make sure it was really mine. A.D.M. it said, just at the end. The D was a bit messed up because I had pulled at the threads too much. I wrapped the scarf around my neck and pointed the beam of light from my wand at the clock.

Half six. Brilliant. There were thirty more minutes left until breakfast started, and I had no clue what to do next except – well – study, but I wasn't really in the mood for that. Especially not when the time was half-bloody-six.

I took a deep breath, and when I blew it out I sent a cloud of mist into the air. My fingers and toes were slowly freezing, so I sat down on the couch and tucked my feet under me in a very girly pose. It wasn't like there was anybody to see me, anyway.

My hand absently went up to the pendant hanging from my neck, my cold fingers curling around it tightly. I never took it off anymore. Sometimes I wondered why, really – it wasn't like I had any emotional attachment to it. I had found it on the ground, for Salazar's sake! It could have been anyone's before. Considering my luck lately, it had probably been James Potter's. Or worse – Longbottom's. Though he never really seemed like the necklace type…

I had not spoken to Louisa since our little encounter in the corridors. The 'I don't want anything to do with you anymore' had most likely included talking, but my thick-headed self had blissfully ignored that and had tried to initiate conversation in Charms, to no avail. My face still turned a fiery red whenever I remembered that encounter. Louisa's Conjunctivitis Curse had not amused Professor Flitwick and it had gotten her into a week’s detention, but it had sure as hell hurt.

I rubbed my eyes carefully. If I never felt that kind of sting again it would be too soon. It had taken Madame Meddletin a few hours to get my sight back again.

In the following minutes, I must have nodded off, because the next thing I registered was someone clapping me on the shoulder.

"Hey. Mate, wake up."

After blinking rapidly to fend off the sleep, I looked up into Derek's face, which appeared slightly blurred. "What?"

"It's nearly eight," he said, handing me my gloves. "Do you still want to eat or are you not hungry?"

I shook my head wearily, feeling a slight twinge in my stomach. "No, that's fine... I'm a bit nervous," I confessed, stretching my numb legs. They tingled slightly as the blood flow resumed. "What am I supposed to do with her?" I sighed.

Derek walked around the couch and dropped onto it in the seat next to me. "What a confession. You don’t know what to do? She’s a girl, mate, not a homework assignment." He grinned at me and sagged a bit more into the cushions. "Just take her out. Do whatever she likes, whatever she wants. Talk a bit. Don't think too much, Alan – I know you think too much. Stop it for now. That's all."

I scoffed at the thinking comment. How was I supposed to know what I was doing if I wasn't thinking? I sighed again, stood up, stretched, and glanced at my watch. "We should get going. D'you reckon I'll have to take anything with me?"

Derek shrugged. "Just money, I think. Got anything on you?"

I rummaged around in my pockets, feeling the round edge of a Galleon. A soft tingle was heard, announcing I was carrying enough. "Yeah."

We walked to the common room entrance, forming a little queue as a few other Slytherins tried to get in.

Fifteen minutes later we were standing in the Entrance Hall, patiently waiting for the doors to be opened and not-so-patiently waiting for our dates to arrive. I wondered if Daisy had gone to collect Anna from Ravenclaw Tower, or if they would both come separately. My gaze kept shifting between the descending corridor to the Hufflepuff dorms and the marble staircase that led to above. My stomach ached or lurched slightly ever so often, but my nerves were probably nothing compared to what Anna was feeling.

"Nervous, Alan?" Derek asked as I anxiously hopped from one foot to another. He grinned. "I hope for her sake she's wearing heels."

"Shut up," I muttered, pulling onto my scarf. The caretaker was already letting students out and they still hadn't shown up. Maybe Anna had backed out.

However, at that moment, Derek suddenly put up his hand and waved at somebody at the top of the marble staircase. I looked up, and saw Daisy descending with a short girl trailing in her wake. While Daisy was smiling as she came over to us, Anna was looking downwards, like she'd rather have the ground swallow her than go on a date with me.

"Hi, Derek!" Daisy stood on tiptoe and quickly kissed her boyfriend, then turned to me. "Alan, this is Anna. Anna, Alan."

I contemplated sticking out my hand for her to shake, but thought it too formal for such an occasion. So my hands stayed in my pockets. "Hi."

"Hello," she whispered, looking up but not quite meeting my eyes. She was shuffling her feet, her hands firmly placed behind her back. I wondered whether she really wanted to go to Hogsmeade with me or if it was just peer pressure on Daisy's part.

Speaking of her, she pulled Derek by the sleeve to the door. "Come on, Derek, I promised to meet everybody in the Three Broomsticks and we're already late... Good luck, Anna! You too, Alan!" she called over her shoulder as an afterthought. Derek smiled wryly at me, cocking an eyebrow, and allowed himself to be pulled away.

I looked at Anna, who was stoically standing next to me with a rather strained posture. I cleared my throat. "Err, we – we don't have to go, you know. You can say."

She promptly turned a fiery red, all the way from her neck to the roots of her black hair. "N-no, that's okay – I do want to," she muttered, and quickly walked to the front doors. I followed her, and just in time, too, because we were one of the last couples left in the Hall.

It was snowing outside. Thick flakes of snow graciously swooped to the ground, leaving us walking on a white, crunching path. There was barely any wind, so I could even take off my scarf and enjoy the weather. Anna didn't seem terribly bothered either, and was smiling serenely to herself as she held up her hand, apparently trying to catch some of the snowflakes.

"I love snow," she confessed after a while, lifting the somewhat awkward silence between us.

"Why?" I asked, glad to keep a small conversation, even if it were just a few loose comments.

She blushed again, though not as furiously as she had in the Entrance Hall. "I – it – I think it makes my hair look pretty." Her cheeks coloured more, though that could've just been the cold. I tilted my head a bit, observing the small, crystal-like specs on her long black hair as I raised an eyebrow. It did look pretty.

I nodded. "I agree."

Seemingly encouraged by this, she continued. "And it is so – so – I don't know! I love looking at it." She smiled up at the sky, and she looked unnervingly young for a moment. I stared at the ground again, attempting to recognise Derek's footprints somewhere in the hundreds of tracks.

I heard Anna sighing deeply. I blinked. "What is it?"

"I –" She shook her head as I looked at her. "I'm sorry," she mumbled darkly, wrapping her blue scarf tighter around her face as if to hide the fact that she was blushing yet again.

"For what?" I asked, gobsmacked.

She shook her head again. "No, it's nothing... I'm sorry."

I let it rest, thinking it had to do with her being shy. It must be very tiring, I thought as I stared ahead, to always be afraid to speak your mind.

Snowflakes stuck to my eyelashes along the way, and my face was nearly numb with cold when we finally arrived at the village, despite the lack of wind. I stopped in my tracks and looked at Anna, wrapping my scarf around my neck again. "So, what should we do? Do you have any preference?"

She bit her lower lip, looking back and forth between the buildings on the street. "I don't know," she said after a while, frowning a bit. "You – you can say."

No, you, I thought impatiently. This was getting slightly annoying. "Shall we go to Honeydukes', then?"

At last, she nodded. "All right."

We made our way to the sweet store, and I buried my hands deep in my pockets in search of some money. When we arrived, we first had to wait for an enormous gaggle of students to leave. Louisa and Longbottom were among them, though neither one noticed me and Anna standing there. I looked away, trying to ignore the stabbing feeling in my stomach, and followed Anna into Honeydukes'.

The mixed scent of sweets promptly assaulted my ability to smell, and quite soon after that I was firmly stuck in-between two other customers. Even though a group of students had just left, it was still very crowded and I had to push my way through the store. Anna slipped past everybody, small as she was, having no trouble to navigate. We met up in a back corner, slightly out of breath.

I loosened my scarf a little, as it was awfully hot inside compared to the outdoors. The cold drafts of air that went through the store when the door opened didn't reach quite as far into the shop. I glanced over at the entrance, where most people were trying to purchase their sweets.

"Whew," Anna sighed, pushing a stray curl behind her glowing red ear. There was a small puddle of water at her feet, caused by the melting snow dripping off her cloak. Her face was glowing, like her ears, and a fine dust of freckles stood out, spread over her cheekbones and tiny nose. She coughed a little. "Busy, isn't it?"

"Yes," I said, brushing some snow from my own cloak. I was dripping, too. "But it is warm, and that's what matters to me."

She smiled shyly and quickly started busying herself with the shelves' content. "What are you going to buy?"

"A –" I paused. Would it be terribly unorthodox to tell her I would be buying my mother a Valentine's present? I fumbled with the money in my pocket. Yes, perhaps it would be. "I'm buying a – a valentine's present," I told her anyway, eyeing a lovely box of nougat a few feet over. Mother adored nougat. It had been the only sweet in the house for years, probably the reason I didn't like it. I approached it and pulled it from its place.

"For – who are you buying it for?" Anna asked quietly, and when I looked at her she looked slightly crestfallen. I shook my head and headed towards the cash register, bracing myself for the crowd again with Anna shuffling in my wake. You're a prat, I told myself. A total, utter prat. Why she fancies such a prat like you, I'll never know. I felt guilty as I made my way to the register and handed over the box of nougat. When I had paid, put the box in my pocket and walked out again, I realised Anna hadn't bought anything.

"Er – didn't you want anything?" I asked awkwardly. I can't believe I'm asking this now, after we left the shop. I so fail at this whole dating thing.

"No," she said. She pulled her scarf tighter and looked at her feet.

I anxiously looked at her. "Want to go to the Three Broomsticks?"

She shrugged. "Sure."

Anna grew even more subdued as we walked down the street, and barely responded to my comments. I bit my lip after a few failed attempts to get her attention, turning my gaze downward as well. Great. Now what.

When we entered the Three Broomsticks, Anna shuffled towards a table in the back, leaving me to collect the drinks. I sighed and lifted two fingers at the red-haired boy standing behind the bar. He pulled a few bottles from the shelf behind him and put them in front of me.

"Four Sickles."

After I had paid and collected the Butterbeers, I turned around and searched the place for Anna. I assumed so many people were inside because of the snow, but it made a difficult search. She was sitting quietly in the back, huddled in her chair with her cloak clenched tightly in her hands. I walked over and handed her one of the bottles.

"There you go." I sat down next to her. "Is something wrong?"

She absently played with her bottle of Butterbeer, not drinking anything from it. After a moment, she asked: "Who – I mean, you don't have to tell me, but – I – you know –" she broke off and sighed, tucking a loose curl behind her ear again. "What I wanted to ask was – erm – who – who did you – I mean, for who was the – the Valentine present?" Her face turned scarlet and she quickly took a swig of her drink, promptly choking on it.

I awkwardly leaned over and lightly thumped her on the back. When she caught her breath again, she looked terribly embarrassed, but still eyed me with open curiosity and a twinkle of hope.

I drummed on the table with my fingers, and then took the box of nougat out of my pocket, throwing it on the table. "It's for my mother."

Anna blinked, slightly tilting her head. "Really?"

"Really," I answered. The murmur of conversation peacefully drifted through the pub, filling our briefly silenced talk.

"Oh." She twirled a piece of hair around her fingers. "You... you give your mother Valentine's presents?" Her eyebrows were furrowed in confusion.

"I –" I paused and put the present back in my pocket again. "My mother and I, we – well –"

Anna shook her head. "You don't have to explain if you don't want to. It's okay."

"No – I'll – I'll explain," I said, my grip on the bottle of Butterbeer tightening. "I hurt your feelings, didn't I? I'm sorry."

"I thought you bought it for a – for a girl." Anna blushed again. "I mean –"

"I know," I interrupted her. "I know what you mean. My mother –" I broke off again, running a hand through my hair. I couldn't explain it. I couldn't. What kind of son am I, not being able to explain what my mother means to me? It should be so damn obvious.

Anna suddenly reached over and tapped on the table to get my attention, her faint blush spreading further over her face. "May I ask questions about it?"

I nodded.

"Hmm." She thoughtfully looked at the ceiling. "Is your father still alive?"

The door of the pub opened, bringing a flock of students and some snow inside. A chilly breeze cut through the warmth. I shivered and rubbed my hands together to keep myself comfortable. "Yes," I answered her when the door closed again.

"Is he happily married to your mum?"

I frowned, scratching at some hardened tallow that somebody had spilled on the table. "I – don't really know. I think so."

Anna shuffled in her chair, nervously fiddling with a bracelet she was wearing. "I hope I'm not being too intrusive, but... do they fight often?"

I shook my head and shrugged. "Not that I know of. They argue a lot, but they don't really fight." I sat up straight. "They used to argue a lot about me, when I was a kid." I mentally smacked myself; I barely knew her, and here I was spilling precious information about my family to her! Like she wanted to be burdened with that – like she cared.

She looked quite interested, however. "Oh? Why?"

"I – err –" I took a small sip of my Butterbeer. "Well, I wasn't – you know, planned." Something tightened in my chest. Like I mentioned way earlier, my mother had never told me about the events of my birth. However, I wasn’t stupid; my father had never kept the fact that he’d wanted just one child a secret and I was awfully close in age to my older brother. That definitely was not intended. Nevertheless, it still felt like I was lying to Anna about it.

Anna put her elbow on the table and put her chin in her hand, not noticing my hesitation. "You were an oops."

I smiled wryly. "Yeah. And – I think my father couldn't raise two children, you know – he probably just wasn't capable of it. So, he took my brother, and my mother took me, so we were raised somewhat apart." I didn't actually know if that was the case, either, but I couldn't really think of a different motive for my rather eccentric childhood. Why had Father only wanted one child, anyway? Whenever Aiden and I had been together with my father, he'd become snappish and annoyed and generally took it out on me, the younger one. I didn't quite remember everything though, and long ago simply came to the conclusion that my father wasn't meant to raise children. Maybe even Aiden had been too much for him.

Anna raised her eyebrows, looking a bit sceptical. However, she refrained on commenting on my explanation. Instead, she said: "I was raised by my mum, too."

I had just been about to take another sip of Butterbeer, but at her comment I slowly lowered the bottle to the table. Meeting her eyes, I raised my eyebrows too. "Really."

She nodded. "My – my dad died when I was three years old."

I looked down, staring at her hand still on top of the table. She quickly pulled it back when she noticed, taking hold of her Butterbeer instead. I blinked, looking at her face again. "I'm sorry. What – what happened?"

She shrugged, hugging herself, her gaze zoning out like she wasn’t really seeing me at all. "He was killed by my maternal uncle. Dad was a Muggle, you know... and my mum is a pureblood. My uncle was furious and managed to kill him when his first Azkaban sentence was over." She smiled cynically. "After the murder he was put right back, though."

It had been there for a while, but then I could definitely feel the heavy tension in the air, circling us and closing off the outside world. I quickly finished my drink, not really knowing what to say.

After a while, Anna sighed. "I'm sorry for bringing it up. It isn't really first date conversation fodder, right?"

"No," I said, and we both stood up. "But… I'm glad you told me."

She smiled as she put on her cloak again and offered to bring our bottles to the counter. I nodded, and started walking to the door. She joined me pretty soon after.

We hadn't really discussed going back to the castle, but our footsteps simply seemed to lead us that way. More snow had fallen while we had been inside, and the road back to the castle was covered with fresh snow, which crunched as we walked on it. Somehow, Anna's hand found its way in mine, and so we continued holding hands. It didn't feel terribly romantic, though – more like I was taking a little sister for a walk. I didn't really mind it, actually.

"Did you have a nice time?" I asked her.

"Yes," she said. "It wasn't really how I had envisioned it, but I liked it." She smiled and looked up at me. "You're a nice person to talk to, you know."

My mouth twisted into a sarcastic smile. "I can think of a lot words to describe myself with, but somehow, 'nice' isn't one of them."

"Well, maybe you should consider it," she said, skipping a little in her step, "or put more effort into being unpleasant."

I laughed.

About ten minutes later I said goodbye to Anna in the Entrance Hall, and, feeling a bit bold, bent down and kissed her cheek. Her face flushed red again, but she smiled wider than ever before dashing up the marble staircase.

"Poor girl," someone behind me said in a familiar, sneering voice, and I knew that if I turned I would see Longbottom with Louisa there. I was incredibly proud of my self-control as I simply ignored them and walked down to the dungeons.

Derek was already in the dormitory when I arrived, sprawled on the covers of his four-poster. He sat up when I reached my own bed.

"So?" he said, pushing his curtains a bit more aside. "How'd it go?"

"It was all right, I guess," I muttered, flopping down on my bed. "She was pretty shy at first, but she started talking a bit more after a while."

Derek looked at me expectantly. "And? Did you kiss?" I smirked and pointed at my cheek. Derek grumbled. "Lame."

"Well, what did you expect? That I'd go all out on the first date?" I cocked an eyebrow at him.

"Hmm, maybe... Daisy and I at least kissed on the first date. On the mouth. You're terrible, Alan." He grinned and winked when he saw my disappointment. "Nah, just kidding. How was she? Did you plan a next date or whatever?"

No," I said, shaking my head. "I – she's cute and all, but she feels more like a – I know this sounds corny, okay?" I added, feeling a faint blush creeping up to my face.

He laughed. "Alan, I'm used to you saying corny things. Spit it out."

I huffed, slightly offended. "Well, she just feels more like a little sister to me. I don't know... dating her would seem pretty awkward to me."

Derek snickered. "What, you're not into incest? Come on man, it’s tradition. Are you a pureblood or not?"

I threw a pillow at his head.

~*~

February and March flew by in a whirl. Despite Derek's warnings that studying months before the exams could seriously damage my health, I had started looking through five years of notes, trying to remember as much as I could. I had the feeling I would need the extra time, especially for Charms.

I had spoken to Anna on various occasions, partly because of Daisy's persistent attitude, and partly because I found her, for some reason, intriguing. She was still quite subdued, but always seemed to like my company. I didn't have any personal conversations with her anymore, but there was something reassuring about her presence that made me forget Louisa for a while. Derek insisted Anna was 'the perfect girl for me' (always knew he was a walking, talking, cutting-edge cliché) and was constantly pressing I must ask her out before Easter break. Even Daisy would tell me each time I passed her in the corridor that 'she's much more talkative lately' and that I was 'loosing her up a little'.

My feelings for Anna, however, were still a complete mystery to myself, and I was not at all eager to examine them. Did I really like her, or was it some kind of ancient 'protective-brother-like' feeling that had woken up? However much others kept complaining, I'd sort it out when I was at home for Easter. I was just busy packing my trunk in the dormitory together with Isaac, when Derek, who was reading a comic book on his bed, brought up a topic I didn't really want to talk about.

"What about the Easter Ball at your house, Al? That's once every three years, right? So it should be time for the next."

I merely grumbled, tucking my robes into my cauldron. Isaac shot up.

"That ball for only purebloods, you mean? That ball? Oh, Merlin, I completely forgot!"

I pulled the covers from my bed to see if there was a stray piece of parchment underneath. "Lucky you."

"Oh, c'mon Alan, it'll be all right." Derek said absently, turning a page of his comic. "Who's coming? The Malfoys, obviously, and my family, Isaac's...” He continued listing names of pureblood families, wondering out loud whether some would come or not. "What about the Hawke family?"

"The one with the bloke named Mike?" Isaac snickered.

"That's enough," I interrupted. "I don't know who will show up. I don't think I want to know, really." I retrieved a few socks from under my bed and put them on top of the robes. "Most have been in school with my parents or are family. You know, us being such an inbred bunch and all. Maybe my parents will invite some other people than usual, as last time a lot of people cancelled. What a surprise."

Isaac rummaged through his stuff, having apparently dropped right out of the conversation after his question. "I could swear I – Alan, have you seen my boxers? The purple ones. And don't laugh." He glared at Derek, who had snorted as soon the words left Isaac's mouth.

"You wear purple boxers?"

I did my best to keep a straight face. "I think I've seen them somewhere... probably in the bathroom." Isaac quickly went to snatch them from one of the showers. When he came back, he proudly held them up.

"See? Much more colourful than your grey ones, Nott. I've seen them."

"What, you check me out when I'm undressing?"

I buried my face in my nightclothes to smother my laughing fit, while Isaac retorted, "Not on you, Nott, in your trunk. Don't flatter yourself."

"What the hell were you doing in my trunk?"

"Well, you don't really bother to tidy up. It's in plain view."

"I've got nothing to hide in it." I heard Derek's footsteps walking across the room to Isaac's bed. "Whereas you –"

The lid of a trunk was shut with a click. "Don't poke in my stuff."

"Sorry, Mr Privacy."

I went up to the common room to get my Potions textbook, and when I got back, the other boys were both packing their respective trunks, a heavy silence hanging between them. I shook my head ruefully. Why was such an offence taken over some underwear? Though Isaac was known for his rather short temper...

I dropped the textbook unceremoniously next to my cauldron, together with the other schoolbooks. The rest of the afternoon was spent searching for lost possessions, crawling through our dormitory on hands and feet.

Around five o’clock, Richard entered the dormitory. He glanced at our full – and in Derek's case, messy – trunks. "I see you've packed."

"Contrary to you," Isaac said, pointing out the insanely obvious as usual.

Richard abruptly left the room again.

Isaac blinked at Derek and I. "What did I do?"

"Beats me," Derek said. Even I was at loss. Isaac hadn't said anything remotely offensive, for a change. It didn't seem to bother him too long, though, as he simply resumed packing.

The next morning we put our trunks in the middle of the dormitory, from where someone would collect them and bring them to the train for us. We walked outside and to the front gate with a few more Slytherins, where Derek, Isaac and I got in an empty carriage that would pull us to the station. Practically the whole student body was leaving for Easter, except for the seventh years, who would have their NEWTs in June. The only reason I didn't stay was because of that stupid ball I was pretty much forced to attend. If I didn't come, my father would Floo to school and drag me with him. Well, maybe my mother would, too. I missed her, really.

In the Hogwarts Express we shared a carriage with Sally, Caitlin, and Gwendolyn, who to my utter disgust would also attend the ball. We played some chess and Exploding Snap with them to pass the time.

The last fifteen minutes, everyone except Sally and I was participating in a last round of Exploding Snap. She sat across from me and softly nudged my knee with hers. I had just been looking outside, thinking of nothing in particular, so she surprised me a little.

"Hey," she said. "You don't look very happy."

I shrugged. "I'm not."

"Why?"

I took a deep breath. "I don't really want to go to the ball. I wish I could just stay at school."

She laughed. "You're kidding."

"Not really."

"How was your date?" she suddenly asked, her expression sobering.

I closed my eyes, leaning back in my seat. "Not this again..."

"I just want to know," she mumbled, sounding hurt. "I think I have the right to know."

"Why?" I asked tightly. "Because you're my ex-girlfriend?"

When she didn't answer, I opened my eyes and saw her staring out the window. She quickly wiped at her eyes and sniffled very quietly.

I sighed, feeling a heavy weight settling in my chest. "I'm sorry, Sally."

"That's all right," she whispered. And that was all we said.

We arrived at Platform nine and three-quarters soon after. I hauled my trunk from the compartment and made my way out of the train, searching for my mother. She was always the one to take us from the platform to the Manor and from the Manor to the platform.

"There she is," someone beside me said, and I looked sideways to see my brother's face. It was unnerving to me to notice that we were exactly the same height, used to looking up at him. I'd probably outgrow him.

Anyway, Aiden pointed at the end of the platform, where a thin, greying woman was trying to catch our attention by waving. I grinned and tugged my trunk with me to where she was standing. Mother. I broke into a run, my trunk squeaking in protest.

I dropped it as soon as I could and pulled my mother into a bone-crushing hug. She laughed in my ear and I nearly lifted her off the ground. She was so light it almost concerned me, but my happiness barely let me feel anything else.

When I finally let her go and put her back on the ground, she was glowing with delight and reached up to grip my shoulders. "Goodness, you're tall! You’ve grown again – when are you going to stop it?" She laughed once more. "You're dwarfing me! Oh, I can still remember when you were only so small..." She held her hands maybe a foot apart, and smiled.

I scrunched up my nose. No way was I ever that tiny. "Sure I was, Mother."

"You don't believe me, do you?" She didn't give me time to answer and hugged me again. "I missed you, Alucard."

I immediately felt guilty for wanting to stay at school. "I missed you too."

Aiden had finally made his way over and sighed rather dramatically. "Oh hi Mother, I'm so glad to see you again." He held out his arms.

Mother released me and turned to my brother, smiling brightly. "Aiden! Finally!" She proceeded to hug him, too, and we glared at each other over her head.

Ponce, I mouthed.

Mummy boy, he mimed back. I stuck my tongue out.

Mother didn't notice it, however. She let Aiden go and told us she arranged a Ministry car to pick us up. Aiden and I both grabbed our trunks and followed her through the wall that separated Platform nine and three-quarters from the Muggle world. Then she led us to a parking lot full of Ministry cars. We hardly spoke as our mother talked to the driver in hushed tones, but as soon as we were settled in the car Aiden commented: "You're getting rather grey, Mother."

I elbowed him in the ribs as my mother anxiously checked her hair in a little mirror. "Really?" she asked, wrapping a strand of hair around her finger.

"Well, maybe a little," I said smoothly, "but it suits you, Mother."

"Suck up," Aiden muttered under his breath, his heel kicking me in the shin. I gritted my teeth, determined not to wince.

"Thank you, Alucard," Mother said, turning around and smiling at me. "How was school?"

"Oh, just fine, really,” I said, holding up my chin as Aiden kept hitting my leg with his foot. “I started studying for my OWLs."

She gasped. "Oh, you're so ambitious! Of course, you're in Slytherin, but Aiden didn't start until they were a week away."

"I didn't fail a thing, though," Aiden said sourly. "Except for History of Magic, but nobody cares about that."

"You need it if you want to be a Curse Breaker," I answered smugly.

"And do I want to be that? No. So shut up."

"Aiden!" my mother warned. "Don't talk like that to your brother." Suddenly she did a double take and looked at me rather intensely. "Alucard..."

"Yes?" I asked innocently.

"Are you letting your hair grow? I don't think that's such a good idea, with the Ball coming up..."

Letting hair grow? Maybe that is her definition of ‘not feeling bothered by skipping a visit to the hairdresser’s every sodding Hogsmeade weekend. I shrugged, feeling my hair tickling in my neck. "I like it this way. Can't I keep it?"

"After the Ball, sweetheart, you can do whatever you like. But appearances are very important now. We're having the Hawke family over for dinner sometime this week, and you need to look at your very best." She sternly met my eyes. "And that means without the long hair."

Long hair, pfft. Ear-length isn’t long, Mother. I scowled and looked outside. "Fine. I'll cut it."

"Oh no, that's all right. I'll have a house elf do it. Hmmm... Maybe I'll let her do a bowl haircut on you both..."

Aiden and I both shot up in our seats. "What? No!"

Mother just laughed.

~*~

The first time I saw my father after we arrived was at the dining table, at the end of the afternoon. I took my seat on Aiden's right, who was sitting on my father's right, who was sitting at the head of the table. My mother took place opposite of Aiden. Everyone kept silent until a few house-elves shuffled in and served us our dinner. My parents barely took the time to eat, and immediately delved into a discussion about the upcoming ball.

"We are not inviting Potter, Pansy! I don't want that scum in my mansion."

"Draco, they're pure enough to be invited. We don't have a lot of choice – our kind is dying. We need more people or the ballroom will be empty! We can't have that. Do you have any more suggestions?"

My father growled. "It's bad enough we had to beg the Nolans into coming. Next thing we know you'll be asking Weasley and that filthy Mudblood. I said no. And Potter isn't a pureblood; his mother was a Mudblood like Granger. How many families do we have right now?"

My mother sighed, taking a spoonful of her dish before replying. "Fifteen, right now. I still have to coax the Hawkes into showing up – they aren't very enthusiastic. Their youngest daughter is nine and they don't want her getting bored or lost in our mansion. From what I heard, she is immensely spoiled too, so we need to entertain her while they're here."

"Not that too," my father muttered, wiping his mouth with a napkin and then flinging it at a passing house elf. "Did you ask them for dinner? We'll need to do something to keep their mind off their daughter. We can't have them keeping away just because of her."

The occupants of our dinner table lapsed into silence. I absently poked my steak with my fork, shoving it around. This bickering about the Easter Ball had been going on enough to my liking. I couldn't care less about who was invited and especially not about the Hawkes. If my memory served me correctly, their oldest daughter Francesca had been Head Girl once and had given me detention for being out of bed after curfew. Which year had that been again? Third year, probably.

"Father, when are the Hawkes visiting?" Aiden asked, placing his cutlery horizontally over his plate, which was immediately removed by a house elf and replaced by a brand new dish.

As Aiden took a bite from his food, my father replied. "Tomorrow evening. I want you two," he pointed at me and my brother with his knife, "in your best robes. Look your best. The Hawkes are very important people in the Ministry – if we have them, we have connections. If we have them, even more people will want to be invited to our Easter Ball." He fixed me with a pointed look until I looked away. I knew he'd say it would be my fault if the Hawkes refused to come. There would have been too much wrinkles in my robes, or I had said too little, or too much, I would have shown bad manners or I had said the wrong things... the list of excuses went on and on.

I finished my own meal and my plate was snatched from right under my nose.

"Understood, Alucard?" my father demanded.

"Yes, Father," I said quickly, facing my new plate of food.

"Look at me when you answer me."

I looked up, meeting my father's eyes. He slightly raised his eyebrows. "Yes, Father," I repeated nervously.

He nodded and resumed eating. I tried not to let my hands tremble too much as I picked up my cutlery. I was definitely not looking forward to the next evening.

The following day, however, we had to purchase our new dress robes and I had to have my hair cut. Therefore, a trip to Diagon Alley was in order. I was glad Mother had ditched the idea of having a house elf cut my hair – I doubted the creatures had any experience doing that.

As we arrived in the Leaky Cauldron by Floo, my darling family left me coughing in the fireplace, as I had been the last to get out. I glared at my father's retreating back, trying to wipe my face clean as I walked over to them, the pub's inhabitants pausing their conversations to watch me. I just managed to slip through the wall to Diagon Alley before it closed again, leaving the musky, dull atmosphere of the Leaky Cauldron behind.

"Oh, Alucard, for goodness' sake," my mother muttered as she saw me. “Look at you! Come here!" She tapped the top of my head with her wand, muttering a cleaning spell.

"Thanks, Mother," I said, rearranging my hair and looking around. Diagon Alley was reasonably busy for the time of the year, though not as busy as in summer. Most people hurried past us, barely a glance to spare. As I took a deep breath, I could smell the scent freshly baked bread wafting from the bakery's doorway to our left. However, it mingled with the eye-watering reek of dragon-dung from the right, where the Apothecary was. It carried all the way through Diagon Alley as we walked through the street. The sun shone brightly onto the shopping people, and I found myself narrowing my eyes as the rays of sunlight reflected off the display windows.

"We aren't going to Madam Malkin's, are we?" Aiden suddenly whined as we approached the robe shop. "Why not go to Twillfitt and Tatting's?"

"Their owner is on holiday," my father replied, scowling as if it were scandalous that they had any business getting away when we needed to purchase robes.

A small bell tinkled as we entered and the younger Madam Malkin approached us. "Dress robes," my father said curtly before she could even greet us. "Show me your assortment of colours."

Moments later my parents were arguing about the colours Aiden and I would be wearing. They'd quickly agreed on their own – my mother in dark pink and my father in dove grey. Apparently deciding on my brother and me was a lot harder; all the colours of the rainbow were spread out in front of them. We patiently stood in front of the large mirror, assistants waiting for instructions.

Finally it was concluded that Aiden would be wearing dark green and I would be wearing simply black. I was almost thankful that my father had ignored my mother's insistence on me wearing dark blue to match my eyes – I already had two sets of robes in that colour, not to mention that it was awfully boring.

When the assistant was just busy putting pins in the drapes of black cloth that were all over me, the bell tinkled again. Voices drifted from the front of the shop to the back, and I was surprised when I recognised Professor Granger's. Wasn't she supposed to be at the castle? I curiously looked into the mirror, trying to catch sight of her, but the assistant snapped at me to stay put.

"Andrew, that's nonsense! Don't you believe a word he says, Ron." Laughter.

Slowly the group appeared in the mirror. I saw Professor Granger, Professor Potter, and a tall, red-haired man, which my mind quickly identified as Ron Weasley, Harry Potter's best friend. Behind them were Andrew Weasley, James Potter, another tall redhead, and, to my surprise, Ryan Rosario and Michael Longbottom, with another grown man trailing behind them. I didn't recognise him.

As the crowd became aware of my family's presence, they silenced. I saw the unknown man whispering something to Longbottom, who frowned and muttered something back.

"Father, if you're wondering what the stench is, turn around – a Mudblood just walked in," Aiden snarled. A blush of embarrassment crept onto my face and I didn't dare meet anyone's eyes through the mirror, casting my gaze at the ground. How could he talk like that in front of professors?!

"Aiden!" my mother admonished, and I knew she was looking at Professor Granger as she talked, appearing to be thinking along the same lines as I. "She's your professor."

"Oh, not that one," Aiden said disinterested, making me wonder how the hell he behaved in Transfiguration, "the other one. In the back." He leaned to the side a little. "Oh! Hello, Rosario. I wasn't aware they let filthy Muggles like you in here."

"You're exactly the little stink your father is," Ron Weasley snapped, coldly glaring at my father. My eyes widened and I bit my lip in surprise. I'd never heard anybody talk to my father like that. I met Aiden's eyes in the mirror. He scowled.

"Hello, Weasley," my father said in a would-be-pleasant tone. "Are these all yours?" he added with a touch of sarcasm.

Aiden's scowl disappeared and he laughed heartily. I saw my mother biting her lip nervously, like me, glancing from Ron Weasley to Father. With glowing ears, the former said, "I wouldn't expect any civility from you, Malfoy. Teaching your sons how to be a ruddy pain in the arse as well?"

"Ron, don't," Professor Granger whispered in his ear, holding him at the back of his robes.

"Listen to your wife, Weasley," Father said, narrowing his eyes, "or you'll never move from that rundown shack you live in. If you want, I'll buy it from you for about a Galleon. I have a litter of Nifflers who'd surely like a nice home."

"Is he talking about the Burrow?" James Potter asked in a loud whisper. "He's as dense as you said, Dad."

My father moved his gaze to him, raising his eyebrows. My stomach clenched. I followed the unknown man and Longbottom – who had started to wander around the shop and away from the argument – with my gaze. I desperately tried to block out the conversation playing behind me. To no avail.

"Ah, Mister Potter," Father murmured. "How do you like it, living in your father's shadow? Is must be rather..." He paused. "Discouraging."

Harry Potter's eyes narrowed.

"That's enough, Draco," my mother suddenly said, a sharp edge to her voice.

"Oh, let him, Mother," Aiden complained. "He's just teaching Potter a lesson in maturity."

His smug smile spurred me to comment. "Yes, because we all know how mature you are," I said derisively.

The only sound that penetrated the following silence was that of the assistant's pins, which she continued deftly sticking into my forming robes. I looked down at the assistant, willing my blush to leave my face – which, of course, didn't happen. "I'd like my sleeves to be a bit wider, if that's okay," I told her, deliberately keeping my eyes away from the mirror.

"I'll get right to that," she answered, briefly smiling up at me.

"I don't think that is quite necessary," said my father, his tone low with the hint of a threat. "I do not wish to hear you talking to your brother like that, Alucard."

It felt like everyone held their collective breaths as I said, "Yes, Father," and turned to Aiden with an icy glare.

"They take after you, don't they?" the unknown man commented smarmily, having suddenly appeared at the side with Michael Longbottom. "Only you never had any siblings to torture. But I guess I should be thankful there aren't any more of you... Not counting your poor next of kin." He glanced at Aiden and me, his voice only slightly laced with sympathy.

My father's cheeks tinged a light pink. "Oh, do shut up, Longbottom," he hissed. "At least I wasn't a bumbling fool at school who didn't know the difference between a Stinging Hex and a Hair-Growing Charm."

Longbottom. Of course! He wrote our sodding Herbology text, was planning to come teach in a few years – hopefully next one so we can get rid of Vapor – his picture was even inside the book, how could I not have recognised him? I mentally smacked myself. That would explain why Michael Longbottom was here, too. Ryan Rosario was probably staying with them over the holidays.

"I changed," Longbottom senior replied to my father. "I'm afraid I can't say the same for you."

"Can we do what we came here for?" Andrew Weasley said impatiently. "I need my new robes."

"Yes, dear," Professor Granger agreed, turning her back to my parents. My father looked simply furious; my mother had her lips pressed tightly together, either in anger or in annoyance.

The entire group made their way to the other side of the store, where the young Madam Malkin was anxiously wringing her hands. She had apparently been too afraid to interfere. Harry Potter shared a bitter, contemptuous look with my father before his son pulled him away by the arm. Ron Weasley noticed me looking and pulled a face. I quickly blinked and tried to look uninterested.

Luckily, our robes were nearly finished by then and we had to wait just a few more minutes for them to get sewn. I couldn't wait to get back to the Manor – Father's temper was positively foul now. Mother seemed to notice this, and reassuringly rubbed his back, a concerned look on her face.

When we finally stepped outside, the smell of dung shooting up my nostrils yet again, I heard her whisper to him, "Why don't you go home now with our purchases? I'll take the boys to the hairdresser's – we'll be fine. Go." She put the bag with robes in my father's arms and squeezed his hand. For a split second, a weary smile appeared on his lips, and I got the uncomfortable feeling I was watching something extremely private. But then he turned, and with a small pop, he was gone.

At the end of the afternoon, Aiden and I did not only have clean, cut hair, but had also been treated on some Florean Fortescue's ice cream. Also, Aiden had bought a new broom kit, and I had been allowed to purchase a new book from Flourish and Blotts.

"On Riddles and Runes," Aiden read out loud, seeing the title. "That sounds so boring."

I held the book defensively against my chest. "At least you won't nick it, then."

My mother sighed and pulled her thin, silver pocket watch from her robes. "Well, let us head back to the Manor. The guests will be arriving in about two hours and you two still need to tidy yourselves up."

"Yes, Mother," we said in chorus.

We took the Floo back, which mussed up our neatly-done hair, and Aiden and I were ushered upstairs to wash ourselves. A house-elf squeaked as Aiden unceremoniously dropped his cloak on top of it. I paused, my own cloak still in my hands, but when Aiden simply went up the stairs I quickly handed it to the house-elf, which made a deep bow.

"Master is very kind!" it exclaimed. My mother gave out an irritated sigh and I hastily followed Aiden.

When I emerged from the shower, my wet hair sticking to my forehead, someone had already laid out my robes for me. Dark blue. Figures. I absently put them on, just as my father called upstairs in a rather thunderous voice, "Alucard! Get here, now! The Hawkes will arrive very soon and I want you here!"

In my hurry to put my arms through my sleeves I bent a couple of fingers the wrong way, but I managed. My hair was still wet as I ran down the staircase to the hall, and upon seeing it my mother impatiently pulled me aside.

"You were showering too long again, weren't you?" she reprimanded sternly, tapping me harshly on the head with her wand to dry it. "For goodness' sake, Alucard, please try to be a little more responsible in the future. You know your father is in a bad mood."

"I'm sorry," I mumbled, glancing over at Father, who was quietly talking to Aiden at the other side of the hall. When he noticed my mother and I come in, however, he promptly turned and stalked towards us, his expression slightly stressed out. It had never really occurred to me under how much pressure my father was to look good for his guests, but at that moment his face definitely showed it.

"They'll be here any minute," he snapped at me. "Go stand next to Aiden."

Aiden was standing at the door to the living room, looking bored out of his mind. "I can't believe we have to attend this," he muttered as I took place on his left. "Like it matters if we're here or not."

"I know," I said, smoothing the front of my robes. "It's utterly ridiculous."

We stayed silent until five minutes later the Hawke family finally arrived. I watched as house-elves took their cloaks, how my father greeted Mr and Mrs Hawke with warmth I rarely heard, and my mother introduced herself to the three daughters. Especially the youngest looked as bored as Aiden did.

The group came over, and my father pointed at each of us as he said our names. Mrs Hawke clapped her hands in delight. "Are you twins?"

I exchanged looks with Aiden, who seemed to be wondering if he should feel amused or insulted. I had to keep myself from laughing at his expression as my mother responded, "Oh, no. Aiden's older, but only by fourteen months."

"Well, could have fooled me," Mrs Hawke remarked, her gaze switching back and forth between us. She put out her hand. "Amaryllis Hawke. It's a pleasure to meet you." I immediately took a liking to her, and promised myself to behave very well that evening as I shook her hand. I hoped she'd come to the ball – not in the least because my immediate future was at stake, of course.

Mr Hawke was a lot gruffer than his wife, and it was obvious that he hadn't felt like coming over for dinner. My mother led them into the living quarters, where tea would be served, leaving my brother, my father, me, and the three girls. The oldest merely said, "Francesca," in a very snooty manner before heading after her parents. I indeed recognised her as a former Head Girl, from when I was in third year. Did she still remember giving me detention or not?

The second daughter, Alessandra, treated Aiden with old familiarity, smiling at him and touching his arm. She was pretty, I noted, and folded the memory of Aiden blushing into the archives of my brain. That should prove useful for later, as blackmail material.

The youngest daughter, who allegedly was preventing the entire family from showing up at the Easter Ball, simply stalked into the living room after her older sister, haughtily holding her little nose in the air. I sighed. This was going to be fun.

~*~

After an awkward hour of sitting still and holding my tongue while my parents promoted themselves, we were at last sitting at the dining table. Our regular seats were scrambled so the grown-ups could sit together. Father was at the head of the table, with mother as always on his left, and Mr Hawke was on his right. Mrs Hawke took place next to Mother. Aiden had to sit on my chair, next to Mr Hawke. Francesca took place next to her mother, Alessandra took place next to Aiden, the youngest girl wanted to sit next to her, and so, I had to sit next to Francesca.

She barely acknowledged me throughout the meal, taking more interest in the conversation our mothers were having. I had to spend my time looking at either Aiden and Alessandra flirting with each other, or watching the sulking nine-year-old opposite of me. I wondered if she really was that spoiled if her parents barely paid attention to her. Then again, she often tried to catch her sister's attention by shoving her or pulling her arm. Alessandra barely seemed to notice this, though, as she was busy with charming my brother.

Even Francesca got annoyed with them after a while, finally snapping, "Could you two please stop giggling? We are trying to have a conversation over here."

Mrs Hawke immediately invaded. "Do you two already know each other from school?"

"Yes, we share Potions, Transfiguration and Defence against the Dark Arts," Alessandra said, smiling brightly and patting my brother on the arm.

"Which House are you in?" my mother asked. "I assume Ravenclaw, like your sister?"

Alessandra nodded. "Yes, we all take after our mum." She grinned.

The different conversations mingled a little afterwards as a new dish arrived. I was just twirling some spaghetti around my fork, bored out of my mind, when I heard my name at the other end of the table.

"Isn't Alucard taking his OWLs this year?" Mrs Hawke asked.

"Yes, he is," my mother answered proudly. "He's working very hard already."

Mrs Hawke bent slightly over the table to face me. "Alucard? What subjects are you taking, aside from the compulsory?"

I felt my face heat up as even Mr Hawke turned his attention on me, the other conversations dwindling to silence. "I - um - Arithmancy and Ancient Runes," I mumbled. Go away, go away... I'm not that interesting... This attention could turn out very unfavourable for me if I said something wrong, and I knew it.

"Oh, I took that too, when I was in Hogwarts," Mr Hawke said in his low, rumbling voice. "Are you enjoying the subjects? They're certainly not for simple minds."

"Y-yes, sir, I like them a lot," I answered, my hands turning sweaty in my lap.

The nine-year-old seemed to have enough of it all by then, and I never thought I'd be so grateful to hear such a whiny voice. "I'm bored!" she complained, bouncing in her chair in a very unsatisfied way. "I want to go home! We aren't coming back, right? I don't want to! I'll be bored!" I would have been amused at the fact that my father’s glare was capable of making grown wizards cower but left a nine-year-old unaffected, if I wasn’t terrified that it was all going to be my fault.

"Leonora, sweetheart –" her mother began, but she was cut off by a scream from her little darling, who began to throw a tamper tantrum that a three-year-old would be ashamed of.

"I DON'T WANT TO! I WANT TO LEAVE! I DON'T WANT TO SIT ANYMORE! LET ME GO!" In her irrationalised anger she started banging her fists on the table, baring her teeth and crying very, very loudly.

"Alucard," my father called over to me in an attempt to drown the screams, "please take her away for now. I hope you have no objections," he added, turning to Mr Hawke, who merely shrugged. I scowled. Great. I had to be the one to skip the meal and take care of a misbehaving child? Perhaps the Hawkes don't want to come to our ball because their daughter is so prone to throwing tantrums, I thought sourly.

I sighed dramatically, stood up and walked around the table and took the little monster's hand. To my surprise, she didn't object, but kept howling like somebody had murdered her pet as I directed her out of the dining room and into the living room. She didn't go quiet when we crossed it to the library, but at least nobody would hear it anymore. Well, except me, but I didn't count.

I dragged her to the music room, where a Silencing Charm was sealed on, and settled her on the big, comforting couch against the wall. I walked over to the piano in the middle of the room and immediately started playing, though nothing very concrete, trying to ignore the girl. Shut up, I thought desperately as she went on and on and on, shut the hell up... Merlin, I’m never having children. Never. Ever.

Slowly, the screams calmed down to quiet hiccups as I kept playing. I settled in to a dawdling, calm melody, humming along with it and basking in the sudden silence, but after a short while, quite unexpectedly, the little girl was standing at my shoulder.

"What is it?" I asked, gritting my teeth, bracing myself for more howls and demands.

"Can I learn that?" She pointed at my hands that were still drifting over the keys.

"Learn what?" I stopped playing and turned around. She looked like a mess. Her robes were wrinkled, her nose was running, and her pretty bun-like hair-do had been ruined by her tantrum and was sagging in her neck.

She sniffled. "I want to play the piano, too."

"All right," I immediately gave in, moving over to make place for her to sit. "What was your name again?"

"Leonora," she answered, taking place next to me.

"That's a beautiful name," I complimented.

"Yours is ugly," she said.

Brat! "I know." I took her hands and placed them on the keys. "To play a melody, first hit that key, and then this one. Then this one again. Then..."

She did what I told her to, patiently starting over when she failed. I stood up as she practically dominated the chair, trailing my fingers over the black wood. It amazed me that such an irritating child could turn into a total sweetheart when she played the piano. I fondly petted the top of my instrument. It was indeed a grand thing. My ears were very grateful as well, as the occasional wrong note was not nearly as destructive as her previous incessant whining.

"D'you play the piano much?" Leonora suddenly inquired as she stopped hitting the keys.

I wiped a bit of dust off the piano. "Yes, when I'm home. Usually in the summer when school's out."

"Are you good at it?" she asked curiously. "Will you play for me? I'm tired." As if to emphasise this, she yawned hugely, fluttering her eyelashes.

"Well, you'll have to make room for me," I said, amused, leaning against my piano. And no, you can't sit on my lap.

Luckily she simply walked over to the couch and laid down again, stretching out until the tips of her toes reached the other end. Her hair mussed up even more and she pushed her head down into the pillows with a soft hmmm. After she had settled, she held still. "Well?" Her voice sounded slightly muffled. "Play something."

Rolling my eyes as I approached my seat, I wondered how she'd be when she'd grow up. A right pain in the arse, probably. I feel bad for her future boyfriends. Sighing, I sat down behind my piano and randomly searched for a play in the little book on display. After finding one that wasn't too easy to be boring and too hard to need concentration, I started to play, my fingers wandering over the keys as I thought ahead, of the ball.

So many people are actually showing up. No idea how many precisely, but Mother sure persuaded a lot of them. I grinned inwardly. My mother could be really insistent, and I almost pitied the people she'd most likely bullied into coming over.

"You're really good," Leonora commented through my musings as she sat up straight. "D'you think I could get as good as you are? I think we have a piano at home!" She clapped her hands enthusiastically, appearing less and less sullen than she had been.

"If you keep practising, I'm sure you will improve," I told her, hitting the last keys. "Care to play a little more until your parents come to collect you?" I inclined my head towards the instrument, raising my eyebrows.

She nodded with a smile, bouncing over to the chair and practically shoving me off. For a nine-year-old, she sure was strong, but I supposed that with two much older sisters she’d have to be. With a small grin, I let her sit, standing up to move behind her. "Do you remember the notes from last time?"

"Duh," she muttered, triumphantly starting to play. "I want to play at the ball, too," she announced after a while, promptly hitting several wrong notes. "I can, can't I? Please?" She stopped playing and clasped her hands together as she turned around, looking up at me with a desperate gaze. "Alessandra can play the harp with me!"

After my first thought – The harp? Is she bloody kidding me? – I couldn't stop myself from grinning. If she wanted to go to the ball, then I'd be pretty safe, too. There you go, Father. I persuaded her to come back. Knowing I was looking slightly smug, I nodded. "Of course you can play. If your parents think it's okay, of course."

As if on command, the door went open, and the Hawkes plus my family came in. However, when I scanned the group a bit closer, I saw that Aiden and Alessandra were missing. Probably snogging somewhere in a corner, I thought, snorting inwardly. Everything seemed much funnier, now that I was sure the Hawke family would show up at the ball. At least my father would be happy.

"Leonora, sweetie, we're going home," Mrs Hawke said, nervously wringing her hands. "Are you going to say goodbye?"

"Mum, listen," Leonora said instead of answering, placing her hands on the piano again. She started the little piece I'd taught her, making me feel intensely proud. She missed a few keys, but overall, she did very nice – I was seriously impressed she’d even remembered all of it, even if it was a very short melody.

When she finished, her mother started clapping, followed by Mr Hawke and soon my parents, too. Only Francesca kept her rigid stance. Leonora beamed up at me, clapping for herself. "He taught me," she told her mother, poking me in the side. I tried my best not to wince. Since when were kid fingers so sharp? "Can we come back? I want to play at the ball, Mum! I can, right? We're going back? Or I won't leave."

"Well..." Mrs Hawke glanced at her husband, who sighed, shrugged, and nodded. The poor sod had probably been doing a happy dance inside at the prospect of not having to show up, and I had ruined it all for him. Turning to her daughter, his wife winked. "Because you insist." She smiled at my mother, who looked like she was about to explode with joy. Even my father was smiling. A little. That slight lip spasm had to mean something.

~*~

Later that evening, when I was already dressed in my pyjamas, I left my bedroom and quietly crossed the corridor. The white stone tiles were cold under my bare feet. Should've put on socks, I thought, but didn't turn back to get them. It was deadly silent up there, but at least it meant that Father and Mother were still downstairs. They were always talking or arguing before bedtime.

I closed my hand around the handle of Aiden's door and pushed it open. I could see the flicker of a candle before Aiden yelled, "Oi! Who's that?" and the light died.

Quickly stepping inside and closing the door behind me, I wondered if I hadn't been very welcome. However, Aiden breathed an audible sigh of relief when I appeared, rekindling the candle with a brief wave of his wand.

"Learn to knock, Alucard! You nearly gave me a heart-attack. Thought you were Father."

"So what?" I asked, keeping my voice low to not attract any attention from our parents in case they came upstairs. "It's only half past eleven."

"Not the point," Aiden muttered, stowing something away under his many pillows. It always surprised me how he managed to sleep in such a huge pile. Didn't it suffocate him? Shrugging, I edged closer, motioning at the blankets.

"Can I?" I asked, biting my lip. It had to be at least three years since I'd crawled into my brother's bed. I'd never asked for permission before.

However, I needn't have worried, because he grinned and yanked the layers of bedclothes away from the side, so I could get in. "Sure, little brother," he said patronisingly, but I simply grinned back and settled myself against the soft pillows, sinking into them so far I couldn't even see Aiden's face anymore.

We just laid there for a while, saying nothing, staring at the shadows the candle created on the walls. Aiden's room was painted a sober grey, but with so little light the darkness seemed to swallow us. I scratched at the green plait that covered the bedclothes. Since the confrontation about the pendant, things had been tense between my brother and me, but the air around us was strangely calm and peaceful that moment. My hand pressed against my breastbone, and I realised I wasn't wearing the necklace. I must've taken it off before dinner, for the first time in ages.

"What brings you here?" Aiden suddenly asked, and it felt as if he turned over in his bed. Could've been something else, though - Aiden's bed was huge and fluffy and bouncy and practically any movement felt like somebody was twisting and turning around like he was caught in his deepest nightmares.

"Oh, nothing much," I said with a sigh, briefly closing my aching eyes. I'd been up for too long, even though it was hardly late at night. With a slight wince, I rolled onto my side so I was facing Aiden, pushing my nose into one of the fluffy pillows. Irritated, I lowered the bump that obscured my view with my fist. I could see the speck of light that the candle emitted reflecting in Aiden's eyes.

The eyebrows above those eyes arched into a sarcastic scowl. "Sure, brother. You haven't been in here in ages. Come on, I'm too tired to get annoyed with you." As if to pronounce this, his mouth spread out into a huge yawn. I pulled a face as the hot air blew over my face.

"Manners, Aiden - never hurt anyone."

His lips curled into a lazy grin, and he hobbled over beneath the blankets until he was facing the ceiling again. The next few minutes were spent in a comfortable silence, and I almost drifted off to sleep despite the pressure of the pillows. When I heard slow, relaxed breaths coming from my brother's direction, I was almost certain that he'd fallen asleep and wondered if I should go back to my own room... then again, the bed was too damn tempting.

"Dinner… wasn't that bad, actually," came suddenly my brother's drawl, jerking me away from the pull of drowsiness. When his words registered – which did take a while – I rolled my eyes exasperatedly.

"I'm sure you liked it... you didn't have to babysit." I lifted myself up so I could see Aiden's face again. He was still smiling, eyes closed. With a loud poof I let myself fall back into the pillows, a smirk starting to fight its way onto my face. "Is she a good kisser?"

That seemed to startle him awake. The blankets moved slightly as he jerked up and turned to me. "What?"

"Alessandra, you moron," I muttered, watching him through half-closed eyes as I hugged a random pillow. Honestly, if he thought I wouldn't have noticed, he was even dimmer than I thought.

However, after I had uttered the name, he smiled the sappiest smile I had ever seen appear on his lips. Throwing himself backwards, forcing the pillows to sigh a pitiful breeze into my face, he mumbled, "Oh, her. Yeah. Damn, Alucard, she is."

All right, I don't need too much confirmation. Wrinkling my nose, I turned again so I was looking up as well. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see that the candle was slowly melting down to a stump. "So," I sighed, flattening my hair. Aiden's bedclothes had made it static. "Did you arrange anything with her?"

Aiden scoffed audibly, and in the movement he made his cold feet touched my legs. With a short yelp, I pulled them away from him, to which Aiden promptly elbowed me in the ribs. Gasping slightly, I shuffled more to the edge of the bed, away from my brother's sharp limbs, mumbling, "Bloody sod, can't keep your feet off me..."

"Don't whine or I'll just kick you out," he replied lazily, throwing a pillow my way. It hit me on the back of the head. "No, I didn't arrange anything, stupid. I'll see her at the ball, won't I?" I couldn't see him or anything, but I knew he was grinning, and quickly hitched up my shoulders as I tensed. A split second later, another pillow hit me. "Thanks to you, Allie boy," he added, and I heard the bed creak as he reached over to punch me lightly on the shoulder.

I didn't retort to the pillow throwing, or even to the stupid nickname he gave me. When was the last time somebody had actually thanked me for something I did – even if it was my prat of a brother? I couldn't remember, and that realisation left me lying still on the bed, figuring that I might just have done something right for once.

~*~

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