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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 1: Prologue
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Disclaimer: Everything you recognise belongs to the wonderful J.K. Rowling. I thank her for being allowed to play with her characters and create my own little world with them.

Author’s Notes: This will be a Next Generation story, so there will be a lot of OCs – the canon character’s kids. If you like your story OC-less, this isn’t a fanfiction for you. The prologue will be present tense and third person, but from the first chapter on it will be past tense and first person. The focus in this fic will not be on the pairings of the canon characters appearing in it, but in case you prefer to know, they are: Draco/Pansy, Harry/Ginny, Ron/Hermione. I will leave the rest to your imagination. The rating will most likely go up around the fifteenth-twentieth chapter. I hope you enjoy the story. 

Chapter betaed by CornishPixies - thank you!

~*~

Prologue

Carry on my wayward son
There'll be peace when you are done
Lay your weary head to rest
don’t you cry no more

Kansas – Carry on wayward son


~*~

The pain is unbearable. The white, clean colour of the ceiling starts to fade, hiding behind purple and black patches. She’s suffering, falling into an endless black hole and she screams as she wills it all to end. She hears yelling and the faint calling of her name, but she is in her own world where she is struggling to keep breathing. Dread fills her as she suffocates, her excessive screaming causing her throat to feel as if it is ripping. Her eyes are pressed shut, for she can no longer bear to face the world around her, even if she wasn't aware of it in the first place. She chokes as tears begin running down her face. Woman her age had told her the second one was usually easier. Apparently, usual was the ultimate key word. Her first had slipped out almost like it was eager to leave. This one seems to refuse to face the real world, wanting to remain safe inside of her.

But it will not do. It needs to get out for her sake as well as its own, but it's almost like the child she is desperately trying to deliver knows what is waiting for it. The harder she pushes, the harder it resists. She arches her back and cries for the heavens. Why, child, do you have to hurt her so? She will embrace you and love you with all her heart, for her husband has taken her first without further ado. He shall be raised as an heir; treated like a prince, spoiled for all his worth, and no woman shall stick her nose into those affairs. Women are merely dolls to be displayed.

With the anger that she summons with these thoughts she uses the last of her strength to push while screeching with despair. Slowly, as if it were almost hesitating, she feels it slipping out. And finally, with her assistance, it manages to be born. She hears a faint slap followed by the thin and fragile weeping of a newborn. The sound is so different from her first who had roared to the world when at last he was dismissed from her womb.

She sinks down in her cushions, wanting nothing but sleep. She can still hear the beat of her own heart, and for that she is thankful. She is utterly exhausted from her efforts and would not be surprised if she fainted right then. But instead her baby is suddenly thrust against her chest. It is nearly twice as small as its older sibling had been, and she still hears the sound of hiccups coming from it. She opens her eyes.

"You have a son. Congratulations."

In her arms is the most beautiful thing she has ever seen. He is small, very small, a bit pink and covered in blood-rich fluid, but the satisfaction she feels when she looks down at him is immense. She accepts the blanket a Healer hands her and wraps it around her boy. She opens her robe and softly starts nursing him, feeling endeared by his sucking sounds. A few thin, pale blond strands of hair already inhabit his head, but she can still see veins running through. His eyes, which widen as he drinks, are a deeper blue than his brother's had been. They will not turn grey, like his father's and his sibling's. They are her eyes: a deep, dark, midnight blue.

"You are very lucky; he almost didn't make it."

She looks up at one of the Healers who had assisted her giving birth. "What happened?"

"It was like he was refusing to be born. We had to use a charm to give you a hand so he could breath."

Her vision becomes clouded with tears. As they silently start to roll down her cheeks her child finishes drinking and softly burps. A good appetite, sweet one. I hope you will not suffer from my failure to deliver you faster, she thinks as her tears drip onto him, giving him clean spots between the bloodstains. He merely looks at her with those big blue eyes, and she does not want to look away. She smiles at him though her lips are still trembling. He doesn't smile back but he closes his eyes, which is a good enough gesture for her.

"Your husband and son wish to come in."

She does not take her eyes off her baby, who is unwanted by her husband. He will be sure to find something wrong with her dear son. But she continues cradling the baby, for holding him will help her withstand her husband's wrath. She has already decided that she will always love this little human that lies in her care, and would take care of it even if he wouldn’t. And their heir... well, he is broken beyond repair at the bright age of one year old. All her husband's morals have been drilled into him; all of his future has been settled. But this one still has hope. The Healers quietly leave the ward, giving the family some privacy.

And now they come in. Her husband walks stiff like a board, his pale blond hair sweeping into those evenly pale grey eyes that she once found so attractive and mysterious. Upon entering the room he does not look at her but fixes his eyes on a point next to her head. Looking much too dignified and sullen for his age, her first son toddles in one pace behind his father as he was told to do.

"Daddy, doing here? Wanna play."

"Father," her husband snaps, correcting the boy. The boy lapses into silence, his discontented expression settling with a frown. 

"Father," he repeats, scowling. "Dun wanna be here."

She takes a trembling breath. Her husband never trusted her to raise his heir, and she fears for what will come of her sweet boy. Surely no fourteen-month-old would look that... angry?

Her husband steps forwards, a look of badly disguised disgust etched in his face. "Is that it?"

"It," she says through her clattering teeth, a tear threatening to fall again, “is your son."

His face is set. "I don't care if it's my son. He doesn't belong to me. He is horrible. He's too small."

She chokes, tears running again. "He's just a baby!" she cries out desperately. "Of c-course he is small!" The little one must have felt her distress, for he begins to wail, his broken sobs echoing through the ward. Her husband looks like he just stepped into something filthy.

"You see? Can't even handle two voices at the same time... not that I don't feel the urge to cry whenever I hear your voice," he hisses at her. He sneers maliciously, and she can’t help but see how much he looks like his deceased father– when he was still alive, of course.

Anger overrules her despair. "You – you – you’re such an insufferable git!" Her fury increases when he merely raises his eyebrow, with the accompanying scathing remark.

"Ooh... Touché."

Meanwhile her oldest is standing silently behind his father, absently looking around the ward with wide eyes and seemingly not bothered by the shouting of his parents. He has heard this kind of conversation many times before. She abandons her argument and her voice changes to a soothing and motherly tone.

"Aiden, do you want to see your brother?"

He looks surprised to be addressed, trying to keep his face disinterested, but evidently he seems curious. He glances at his father, who shoots him a glare, but steps towards her anyway. She feels a warm glow of pride in her chest. Well done, my dear. He peeks through the blanket at his sibling.

"Tiny," he says.

"He's a baby, dear, all babies are small – though I do admit you were bigger." His expression turns to something proud, rather like the feeling she had in her chest mere seconds ago. He still has a long way to go.

Her husband grunts. "Go outside, Aiden. I need to speak with your mother."

Her son hastily moves away as her husband comes forward. As soon as the boy slams the door shut, his father starts talking.

"I told you to have him aborted. I told you as soon as I discovered you were pregnant. You didn't listen."

She cradles her newborn tightly. "He is a part of me. I can't do that."

His look is grim and dissatisfied. "Well, better say goodbye then. He is going to be put down."

"What?" Her eyes sting. Her baby, killed?

"You heard me." That cruel, twisted smile was on his face again. "I have no need of another heir. I need to concentrate on Aiden. He is my project –“

"He – is – your – son.” She says through gritted teeth, laying emphasis on every word.

"That trash you hold there is nothing but a fill up in my home. I refuse to pay for him." He says it with an indifferent tone, his eyes impassive. But she will not give up.

"Fine. I will raise him. I will use the Parkinson fortune I have inherited. I don't need you. He doesn't need you." She does not look down at her son, but she does run her hand up and down his stomach, to keep him calm.

His stare is cold as ice. "What about my estate? What about my space?"

"He doesn't need a lot of room. And when he gets too big, he'll be at Hogwarts anyway."

"He better not be a Squib then." Was that an acceptance?

"Don't insult my bloodline. Or yours."

They hold each other’s gazes for the longest time, until the boy lets out a rather impressive burp for someone his size. She smiles, and she could have sworn she saw the tiniest hint of amusement on her husband's face for a split second. An important issue suddenly rises to her thoughts.

"What will we name him?"

Her husband raises his eyebrow yet again. "I'll leave that for you to decided, but please not something horrible. Remember, he is your son. I have no responsibility." With those words, he departs from the room, his black robes sweeping behind him. One of the Healers comes back after he slams the door shut.

"Well? What will his name be?"

She lets her mind wander as she thinks. She decides that his second name will be his father's simply because it seems the right thing to do despite his father’s attitude. But she honestly doesn’t have a clue about a first name. She turns to the Healer.

"Do you know a good name for him?"

The young woman smiles at her. "When I have children, I'm going to name them after story characters." She leaves her to ponder again. Would she name her son after a story character? The only story she had liked in her youth was Dracula's, an evil wizard that was an Animagus. He could turn into a bat and flew around to young women's houses to suck their blood. But to name the boy Dracula? The idea was laughable, for she thought he was the most innocent thing she had ever seen. She asks the Healer for advice a second time, and again the woman smiles.

"Just turn the name around. It's Alucard. He was Dracula's son." Dracula's son… Well, she hasn't heard of that one, but she does qualify her husband as a bit dark. She looks at her son again. Perhaps the name would suit him.

"Alucard it is then."

The Healer nods before putting the name down, and then leaves the mother alone with her son again. 

Being careful so that he is still able to breath, she wraps her arms around him and pulls him against her chest. She cries again, but this time with relief.

"I will always love you," she whispers, listening to the baby's breathing right next to her ear. "I will always take care of you, my precious Alucard Draco Malfoy."

She can only hope that will be enough.

~*~

Author’s Notes: If you came this far – thanks for reading the Prologue of this story of mine. I hope you will stay tuned for the later chapters. As I said in the beginning, it will be first person, from Alucard’s point of view. :)



Chapter 2: Chapter One: How's Life?
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Disclaimer: Everything you recognise belongs to the wonderful J.K. Rowling. I thank her for being allowed to play with her characters and create my own little world with them. The name ‘Alucard’ was inspired by the Castlevania game series, but the character is in no way connected to them.

Author's Notes: Thank you for betaing, CornishPixie!

~*~

Chapter One – How's Life?

Beautiful day,
Sky falls, you feel like
It’s a beautiful day
Don’t let it get away
U2 – Beautiful Day


~*~

It was dark outside. Along the journey, there had been drizzle, rain, heavy rain, slanting rain, and again heavy rain. Though the lights on the Hogwarts Express flickered a bit, they withstood the horrible weather that was crashing down. About thirty minutes were left until the arrival at the Hogsmeade railway station. Students were walking through the train, some already dressed in robes while others were still in Muggle clothing. The compartment door muted their chatter, but they could still be seen walking back and forth or laughing at something their friend said. Some were even looking anxious, peeking into every carriage – probably looking for somebody.

I caught my reflection in the window. Having changed as soon as I got on the train, I was already in my robes. Really, how Muggles could stand walking around everyday wearing those itchy trousers I would never understand. Robes were so much more comfortable in comparison, especially the thin material ones I wore during the summer holidays.

My face was pale. I couldn't do anything about it, apart from times where I turned as red as a lobster of embarrassment. I seemed to be the only one in the family that had that curse. My father and brother only turned a faint pink. My mother was never embarrassed – well, either that or she never showed it.

My hair was blond, also a rather pale colour, but it had a silvery shimmer to it which set me apart from the other males in my family. It was something my mother had too, despite her impossibly dark hair that had somehow avoided the laws of genetics. I liked all of the traits my mother had passed down to me. It was tradition, almost law, that every male in my family tree had grey eyes. Mine were a dark blue. But I was always seen as an exception.

Maybe I should introduce myself first, before you get too caught up in my physical aspects. I'm Alucard Malfoy. Yes, just like the vampire. I don’t know what my mother was thinking when she named me, but I’ve had it my whole life and it’s a bit too late to protest now. My friends call me Alan, however, because I don't like my real name. Not just Alucard, it's Malfoy too. Everyone says I should be proud to be a Malfoy, but really, who cares? It's just a name. And I'm not the heir anyway. I'm the second son. I'm the younger brother.

My older brother's name is Aiden. He's about a year older than me and we don't get along very well. It wasn't always like that, though. I think it started around the time he came back from his first year at Hogwarts. He suddenly started acting very important and never really had time for me, with the exception of telling horrible stories about the teachers. Now that I think of it, I wasn't allowed to play with Aiden anymore after that summer. That was my father's doing. You see; my father has raised Aiden while my mother has raised me. I don't know the details: whenever I ask Mother, tears jump into her eyes and she says that she doesn't want to talk about it. Although she does say that she will tell me someday, after which she will whisper the phrase ‘I love you’. Yeah, I know: weird stuff.

Anyway, Aiden got lessons in Quidditch and the Dark Arts. I got lessons in dancing and Latin. He was taught to be tough. I was taught to be a proper gentleman. Though, according to Mother we were both 'lovely' when we were younger and very much alike in appearance. Well, that hasn't changed. We are both blond, as thin as a stick (though Mother prefers the term ‘slender’), and have sharp features. Though admittedly mine are a bit softer than Aiden's. We have a few personality traits in common as well: sarcastic, ambitious, cunning. Needless to say, we are both in Slytherin House. The only difference might be our outlook on life and the people in it. Like he has been taught, Aiden hates Muggles and Muggleborns. He despises everything non-magic. I don't really care all that much. Then again, I might be a bit biased.

Last year, I fell for a Muggleborn girl. And I don't mean the little-flutters-in-your-stomach stuff. I fell hard. I fell harder than I would ever have thought possible. The fact she was Muggleborn would be enough to drive my mother mad. Though she insisted I always must keep my mind open, she loves the tight purebloods relations and really wanted me to marry a pure-blooded witch 'when I'm ready'. She actually had already found me one. You'll hear about her soon enough: she was my best and only childhood friend.

Anyway, my crush: not only is she a Muggleborn, she's a Gryffindor. I mean, a Gryffindor. Gryffindors and Slytherins aren't supposed to be friends, let alone be a couple and kiss in the castle corridors.

Did I tell you her name yet? It's Louisa Rosario. She's one year my junior, and the perfect example of why opposites attract. I am pale and blond, where she is tanned and black-haired. Her eyes are the darkest brown you could imagine, though it doesn't even come close to black. I would love to talk to her sometime, if I wasn't petrified of the idea that I might stutter and turn scarlet. Damn genes.

And so, we get around to where I'm sitting in the compartment.

I tried to look past my reflection, to the space beyond the window. I cupped my hands against the glass and pressed my head to them, cutting off the light source. Too bad: the window was covered with fog and rain. My breath was forming condensation on it. I pulled back, immediately facing myself again. My new prefect badge flashed on my chest, which reminded me of the fact that I should patrol the train every so often. I mustered the strength to stand up and shuffled to the door. I went through and shut it behind me. I wasn't sure why I had stayed isolated from my friends on the train after the prefect meeting. Maybe it was because I wanted to think. Maybe it was because I wanted to avoid Sally. Oh, I was going to tell you about her, wasn't I? Don't worry, she'll appear soon enough...

I patrolled the entirety of the train corridors twice, not encountering anything except a little quarrel between three second years. Most students were changing into their school robes. I absently rubbed my prefect badge. I had received it this summer along with the usual Hogwarts letter. My father hadn't been impressed: Aiden had been a prefect as well. And more importantly he had gotten his OWL results. He got eight, and was therefore being pampered like a little prince. Though my mother could barely maintain her excitement over Aiden's success, she had pulled me close and whispered: 'Well done, my Alucard," and given me a soft kiss on my cheek.

Well, at least I was going to my true home now. No more pretending I cared about pure blood. No more silent dinners, only interjected by the clatter of cutlery and the occasional argument between my parents. Instead, I would talk about nonsense like Quidditch, homework and unfair teachers. I would eat at my House table with my housemates, secretly observing the Gryffindor table and a certain inhabitant of that House.

I was fifteen now, turning sixteen in November. I was starting my fifth year, the year Aiden had just left. He had tormented me with casual remarks about how hard fifth year was and how he was lucky to have survived it with so many passing grades. Though I had met every single one of his torments with a glare, I had squirmed inwardly.

"We will be reaching Hogwarts in five minutes time. Please leave your luggage on the train; it will be taken to the school separately."

My heart made a little jump. Finally.

Doors opened and people begun streaming into the corridor. Their talking filled my ears, and though it made me feel even more at home I didn't fancy leading a group of nervous first years. Not only did I look like a mother goose (they really were small), but also their high-pitched voices were bound to give me a headache sooner or later. I slipped through the crowd of people that was steadily increasing in number and managed to get to the doors.

The train started slowing down gradually. I felt the brakes resisting the train's speed, and when it came to a halt I had to steady myself with the help of the wall. With a hiss, the doors opened.

I stepped outside, the cold engulfing me. I breathed in the scent of rain, damp grass, mud, and the Hogwarts Express' smoke. The rain clashed onto me, getting me soaked within seconds. I enjoyed the sensation of raindrops running down my face for a while. I had always loved the sensations of rain: its scent, its feeling, and its sound. Even now I could hear as it clattered on the many horseless carriages waiting for us.

"No time to sniff the air, Al – oh, Merlin."

Derek Nott, my best friend who always seemed to get a laugh out of me, had just stepped into an enormous puddle. It swallowed his whole ankle, and when he pulled it out water seeped from the hems of his robes and dripped from his dragon skin boots.

"These are supposed to be waterproof!" he said annoyed, grabbing hold of my shoulder and taking one of them off. "I've been ripped off!" He showed me the offending boot. The sole had partly fallen off at the back, an easy place for water to get in. I shook my head, not bothering to suppress my smirk.

"You should've checked that before you bought them, Derek."

"Well, the dragon skin is real! It's just lousy quality!" He put it on again and walked towards a carriage, being careful not to step into anything wet or muddy. I followed him, taking care to splash into every puddle I saw with my black leather boots. My feet stayed warm. Triumphantly I stepped into the carriage, ignoring Derek's irritated expression.

"I'm not your butler, you know," he said while climbing in on his own, quickly slamming the small entrance door in a group of third year Slytherins’ faces and sitting down. I slouched in my seat, still holding my smirk in place.

"Then don't keep opening the door for me."

He grunted in return. I heard the loud calling of Professor Hagrid, directing the first years toward him to cross the lake. Like he could read my mind, Derek muttered: "Wouldn't it be lovely to cross the lake in this weather? Hell, they'll be drier if they just swim instead." He drew his wand and pointed it at his chocolate brown hair, patting it flat while muttering some kind of spell. It seemed like it didn't really work because he put his wand back in his pocket, his hair now a bit frizzier than before, but still wet none the less.

"Er... was your hair supposed to be getting worse?" I asked, raising my eyebrow.

Derek covered it with his hands. "No! Just, I hate wet hair. It makes your head so bloody cold. But my father put a lock on my wand, so I can't use it until this evening. He doesn't really trust me anymore since last year."

I remembered all too well. When I was staying at Derek's the summer after third year he had tried to give his little sister, who had been about five at the time, a set of whiskers to pay her back (she had used accidental magic to give Derek elephant ears because he had ruined her doll house, or something like that). It went kind of wrong, because she didn’t only get whiskers; she got a long, bald mouse-tail as well. Crying hysterically, she had run to her father and jumped into his lap. He had become furious and after hearing Derek's reasoning, had given him an elephant trunk to match the ears. Though I had been terrified then, the memory of Derek resembling an elephant brought a smile to my face each time I thought about it.

"If you are grinning about what I think you are grinning about, Alan Malfoy, I will curse you into oblivion," Derek said, not really concealing his own amusement.

“Good luck with that,” I retorted, pointedly looking at Derek’s locked wand.

The carriage started moving and there we went, bouncing along with the many pits and bumps along the road. We passed the school entrance gates, entering into the school boundaries. I could see the castle and its many towers in the distance, and felt my heart hop along with every jump the vehicle made.

~*~

Ah, the sorting. Like every year, a group of ickle little firsties lined up to find out in which House they belonged. And like every year, only a chosen few didn't look terrified. These were the ones who had either been informed by their family, or were future Gryffindors. Whatever task they would have to do, they'd do it.

I glanced over at the Gryffindor table. After a quick search, my eyes found Louisa. Ignoring the usual churn in my stomach, I noticed that she was looking very interested at the first years. Maybe a little too interested, because I really didn't see what was so enjoyable about seeing the first years sorted. My House already had three new students and I had put my hands together maybe twice for all three of them. It wasn't like I didn't care about the first years, but after seeing the ceremony for the second time it had gotten boring, never mind the fourth time – ignoring my own Sorting. But about halfway through I finally knew what had snatched Louisa's attention – or who.
"Rosario, Alexander!"

Okay, her brother was getting sorted. One of the tallest boys stepped out of line and cautiously walked to the hat. Well, go on, I thought. It's not going to bite you.

He put it on. The silence didn't last for long.

"Ravenclaw!"

I saw Louisa's beaming face through the celebrating Ravenclaws. I slightly recalled a sister of hers being sorted into Ravenclaw last year. How many siblings did she have, anyway? She already had an older brother who was in Aiden’s year, and to say he and Aiden didn’t like each other would be an understatement.

Well, those moron friends of his might’ve influenced him. Ryan Rosario, James Potter, Michael Longbottom, and Andrew Weasley probably were the most arrogant clique in the entire school.

Anyway, as you probably understand, I'd never be able to date Louisa without him throwing an absolute fit over it. I mean, no! Imagine that! His sister going out with Aiden Malfoy's brother! How outrageous! I could hear him saying those things already.

After the last student was sorted and seated at their House table, Headmistress McGonagall got up.

"Welcome, first years!" Her stern tone was clipped, but she had an air of authority that simply couldn't be ignored. "Welcome to Hogwarts' school of Witchcraft and Wizardry. I am Professor McGonagall, your Headmistress.

"At Hogwarts, we will teach you how to use magic whether your family has that power or not." She paused. The silence was deafening. "There have been lots of troubles in the past about the issue concerning the taking in of Muggleborn students to teach them how to use magic. We always have, and always will. I do not tolerate superior behaviour towards Muggleborns. If I find out anyone in this school has been treating his or her fellow students unfairly, they will be having a word with me very soon after.

"Now, if that is clear to everyone: Have a nice dinner." Her hand swept through the air, and abruptly the House tables were filled with food. I took some lasagna and blew on it to cool it off.

I remembered my own sorting very well. I had also been dead nervous at the time. Sure, I had known what there was to come, but if I had gotten into any other House than Slytherin, I wasn't sure whether I'd still be alive by now or not.

Hmmm, what do we have here... A Malfoy. Hello boy. ... Yes, I remember your father. Only took me a split second to Sort him. Had Slytherin written all over his brain, that one. Your brother wasn't any different. You, however, seem worlds apart from them.

... You are a Slytherin as well, you say? Well, let me see... You certainly have the ambition, oh yes... a powerful desire to prove yourself to the world. But I'm afraid Slytherin would be the wrong House for you. What about Hufflepuff?

... Duffers? Dear me, no. Hufflepuffs are hard workers and loyal people like you.

... Still unsure? Well, if you don't like Hufflepuff, you'd still do well in Ravenclaw. I almost put your mother in Ravenclaw, yes I did... But I decided against it in the end... she wasn’t the brightest of the bunch. But you are. You have an intelligent mind, young one.

... Don't be scared lad; you're not a Gryffindor at all. Defiant you might be – you lack the reckless courage.

... Just a hat, am I? That's quite the Slytherin attitude you showed there. I might want to revise my statement. I'm afraid you won't fit in with the Hufflepuffs.

... Yes, your family has been in Slytherin for ages. I know, as I sorted every one of them. Hmmm. Maybe I have to watch out for your safety as well... Well, you will get what you desire, young one, even if it is for your own sake; you'll do well enough in SLYTHERIN!


I knew the Hat's words by heart. Sometimes I mulled them over in restless nights, trying to think about how my life would've been if the Hat had sorted me into Ravenclaw or Hufflepuff. And though I had been glad at the time the Hat had said I'd never be a good Gryffindor, I sometimes wished I had convinced it to put me there. Infatuation can do strange things to people, let me tell you that.

After some time the desserts appeared. Derek knocked over my pumpkin juice when he dove for the pancakes with hot chocolate sauce. The tablecloth got soaked and pumpkin juice drops began dripping over the side. Several people (mostly girls) squeaked and nearly jumped onto their neighbour’s lap. Derek, unperturbed, took a bite from his meal, the chocolate dripping from his fingers. I made a noise of disgust as he licked the brown substance off, my own pale hands ever so clean as I was eating normal vanilla ice cream with a spoon instead of my hands.

"Hey Alan."

A girl filled the space between Derek and I – a girl with tangled, dirty blond hair reaching her shoulder blades. Her frame was thin and bony and her eyes were a pale green, her blond eyelashes giving her a mystified look. She had a pointy chin and rather small ears which prevented her from tucking her hair behind them, so it was usually left hanging there.

"Oi, Sally."

Now this was Sally Goyle. I had waited with telling you about her since I knew she'd come along anyway. I had spent pretty much my whole childhood with her.

After Sally's birth, which happened about four months after mine, our mothers had constantly arranged meetings with each other around teatime. By the time I was four months old I still hadn’t grown a lot and could barely sit up, while Sally was a rather large baby. I wasn't much bigger than she was.

Anyway, our mothers quickly began fantasizing about how lovely it would be if we ended up married. Arranged marriages were not uncommon, especially in pureblood families, but my mother didn't want to force me into anything. But that didn't keep her from dreaming with Sally's mother. Sally was the splitting image of her (thank Merlin, because her father was a total troll). The meetings between our mothers started to repeat and soon we saw each other every day from dawn till dusk. Sally and I learned to crawl together, we stole each other's toys, we did our first steps together, and we pushed each other to the ground all the time.

When we were four, our parents began switching baby care. I'd be at my house one day and at the Goyle's the other day. In that period, which lasted for a good two years, I rarely saw my own family. When we were at Malfoy Manor we were on the grounds all the time in summer, and in the winter we were inside, in our children's room. At the Goyle's home a very strict old woman who would threaten to call Sally’s parents when we misbehaved privately tutored us, but she never dared. Sally was their little princess and I was her knight in shining armour, to put it the Gryffindor way. Out of school, we were spoiled to the maximum degree.

In the summer when we were seven, we learned to swim in the lake behind Malfoy Manor. When we finally mastered it, we swam every day until we got tired and slept in the sun (well, I was in the shadows. My skin has never agreed with sunlight). In winter I learned to play the piano. Sally learned to play the violin. By now, we said we were going to marry each other all the time. Later, I found out my mother had already made the wedding invitations.

Two years later we were nine and our basic education was done. We finished shedding our baby teeth at exactly the same time. I had grown a bit and was tall for my age. I had several inches on Sally at the time. The next year Aiden left for Hogwarts, which got both Sally and I very excited for our own arrival at the castle. We tried reading 'Hogwarts, A History'  together but never finished it.

The summer we were eleven we both got our Hogwarts letters. Our mothers were utterly delighted and took us both to Diagon Alley for our school stuff. On September first, they brought us to Platform nine and three quarters to set us on the train. When we left my mother started crying and I would have jumped off the train immediately if not for Sally, who had held my hand and told me it would turn out all right.

Contrary to my fifth year trip, it had been beautiful late summer weather; a warm breeze stroking my face and the sun reflecting off my hair, making it flash that silver colour everybody was so fond of. In the boats I was paired with Sally, Derek, and a girl that later had been sorted into Ravenclaw. I liked Derek at first glance. He was short, outgoing, and cheeky – I was tall, quiet and shy. We were different, but we got along right off the bat all the same.

Well, Sally and I both got into Slytherin, as did Derek. It quickly came to be that Derek was my new best friend; we shared a dorm, I walked to breakfast with him, sat next to him in several classes, and we generally just shared more interests and similarities than Sally and I. Of course, Sally got new friends too – but it seemed she always wanted to be with me rather than the girls. At first I didn't mind. We had been friends all our lives.

We became teenagers, of course. Our hormones started raging and sure enough Sally and I became more physical. When talking, she often touched my arm or played with my fingers. When I teased her she would slap my shoulder in a playful way, instead of the eye-roll or retort I normally received. When doing homework she never asked for my stuff again; she would reach for it herself, 'accidentally' stroking my skin in the process. And if I ever handed something over our hands would briefly touch. She never gave me full-grinned smiles anymore; instead they were secure, self-conscious, and flirtatious.

Looking back on it, my behaviour must've changed too. There was that strange feeling I got when I saw her. The indescribable desire when I was in her presence. The jolt in my stomach I felt whenever we made contact. Where at first I would've said there was something on her nose, later I would softly wipe it off on my own accord. Every playful slap I received was a victory. Every time I knew she was there I was always smiling, feeling strange but happy.

In one of the last weeks of third year, we shared our first kiss. It was outside on the grounds, when most people were inside studying for exams but we took a walk around the castle. I had never, ever been nervous in Sally's presence, not even when I actually realized I liked her more than a friend. But this time when we were alone, very alone, I was nervous. Her hand had found its way into mine. I don’t remember how the kiss really began, or who had initiated it.

The kiss had been nervous, like I had been, and hesitant. We had both known that with that kiss, we would throw our purely platonic friendship out of the window.

It hadn’t been a deep kiss. My lips had been touching hers, but the pressure had been light and unsure. We could’ve still backed out of it. It could’ve counted as a friendship-like kiss, though we both would have known it could not have been.

It was Sally who had made it real. I could still feel her hands sliding up to my neck, folding them around it. I had awkwardly put my hands on her waistline, being terribly insecure. Again, it had been Sally who had leaned against the castle wall and pulled me with her. It had turned into a rather sloppy snogfest, for neither of us had ever kissed before. It belonged to my most cherished and most hated memories. You'll discover why later.

I had a lot of fun that summer. I spent two weeks at Derek's, but the remainder of it was devoted to Sally. This wasn't actually any different than the previous years, when I had spent a lot of time with her as well. But the things we did together went from best-friends stuff to more intimate stuff.

We somehow had avoided kissing in places we had spent most of our childhood – like we could've gone back if we no longer had a crush on each other. Places like the children's room, the library, the small classroom, the music room, our favourite tree at the lakeside, the tearooms and the large field behind the Goyle estate were forbidden. Well, when we somehow ended up there, we immediately went back to being 'just friends'. No touching, flirting, kissing, or even feel the desire to do all that. Those places were the places that had made us what we were. We would not ruin them with teen romance.

It was too good to last. We went back to school for our fourth year, which we were both again looking forward to. For the first month especially it had been interesting and exciting to sneak off and find new places to let our hormones flow. Since we were in fourth year we were, of course, allowed to go to Hogsmeade, and naturally we went on a date the first weekend.

But then it all went downwards. Sally started talking about me to her friends when I was in their presence pretending I wasn't there, something she had never done before. When I wanted to make out she said I was being a horny bastard and didn't understand her. When she wanted to make out but I wasn't in the mood, she said I was a hypocrite and didn't understand her either. If I wanted to talk, she always had unfinished business. If she wanted to talk and I had unfinished business, she said I didn't care about her. I learned a lot about woman in that period. I was generally an object to do what they told me to do. I wasn't allowed to have my own opinion.

Then, when I thought I had everything under control a bit and things started clearing up again, came the fatal slap in my face.

Yeah, you probably saw that one coming. I developed a crush on Louisa Rosario. I read in some magazine I stole from my mother that when men don't get along with their girlfriends anymore they start liking the other extreme. That proved to be quite true in my situation. Louisa was everything Sally wasn't. Brave, exotic, Muggleborn, and I didn't know a single thing about he, except the fact she was so incredibly fit I was unable to keep my head from turning whenever she walked by. I started having dreams about her. I started to pretend it was she when I was kissing Sally. I started to destroy my relationship.

But I didn't want to break up with Sally. I had tried to do so many times, but it seemed like Sally had a hunch, for we rarely talked anymore and the moments we were together decreased. I knew Sally still had a crush on me. I didn't want to break her heart, because along with that our friendship would be shattered. As long as she still had feelings for me we would never be able to go back and pretend it never happened.

In March, Sally confessed she was in love with me. It was probably the worst timing possible, but I broke up with her, there and then.

I had been right. Our friendship was not only destroyed, but hatred replaced it. She hated me because I lead her on, and I hated her because she couldn’t seem to accept it and kept arguing to try and change my mind. It bothered the hell out of me and I began acting rather rude with her. I received a few Howlers from her mother, screaming that I should be ashamed of myself to hurt her daughter and that I was never allowed into her house again.

And now, our conversations were very limited, for they often turned into shouting matches. Either the tone was polite and civil, or rude and snappy – usually the latter.

I missed the Sally that had been my friend. She missed me as her boyfriend. It looked like we could turn back time if we wanted, but we just didn't agree on what period.

Whew. Long chain of events, isn't it? Back to where I'm sitting at my House table when Sally comes butting in.

"We have to talk to the first years when we get them to the common room. Shall I do the talking? You can lead them and show them the way."

This was one of the polite and civil conversations. This of course pertaining to our duties that we’d be looking over this year, reminding me that I forgot to tell you that we’d been made Prefects together.. I could hear Fate laughing at me.

"Eh, sure. I'll bring them to the common room."

"You think you can stay back when they've gone to bed? I want to talk to you."

I opened my mouth, wanting to say something vulgar, when Derek interrupted with a sigh.

"Knock it off, Sally. Leave him alone."

Abruptly, she stood up. "Fine," she hissed. "I won't bother him again, then. But I would advise you not to poke around in other people's affairs, Nott." She turned on her heel and stalked off. Derek rolled his eyes towards me.

I grinned. "Thanks mate. I don't really want to –“

"Of course you don't want to be bothered right now. She's maddening, even for me and she never talks to me!" Derek shook his head and took a bowl of honey-flavoured ice cream.

I had never actually told Derek why I had broken up with Sally. He had just assumed I didn't like her anymore. Derek and Sally had never gotten along very well, and I suspected it was because Sally thought Derek had taken her place in my life when we started at Hogwarts. Anyway, I was a bit afraid of telling Derek the main reason was because I fell for a Muggleborn. Aiden had told me a few very lame Mudblood jokes the year he got back from Hogwarts (How many Mudbloods fit into a shoebox? Depends how good your Reductor curse is) and I wasn't sure whether Derek would despise me for it or laugh his arse off.

The desserts vanished and McGonagall ordered us to go to our common rooms. I saw Sally slipping out of the Great Hall. I knew she was descending the stairs to the dungeons right now, where our common room was located. I avoided the crowd and quickly called out for the new pupils before they would get totally lost and go the wrong way.

"First years! First years, follow me! Excuse me, I'm a prefect! First years!"

A small group of students came towards me, all trying very hard not to be the leader. A quick count told me there were seven. That was all right then. They looked so scared; they reminded me of my own first year. I smiled at them and took them out of the Great Hall, walking down to the depths of the dungeons and pointing out several useful passages in the corridor that might be helpful to them if they were late. The first years relaxed a bit when we were away from the crowd and started whispering with each other, pointing at the paintings on the walls and the statues we passed. They were so caught up in their environment that when I stopped in front of a large, solid, gray wall that was the entrance of our common room the first student promptly walked into me. He turned bright red and scrambled up, hiding behind his classmates. I coughed, determined not to laugh.

"This is the entrance to our common room. It is a space you can use to relax, make homework, hang with your friends, or just use as a passage between meals, lessons, and your dormitory." A few girls started giggling. "However, you will need a password to access it. Without it, you cannot get in until someone else comes along. If you forget, you will be shut out. So remember it." I turned to the wall. "Butterfingers."

The wall seemed to shiver a little before the door to the common room emerged from the stone and creaked open. Sally was already waiting for us, her nose in the air. I led the first years to her and stepped to the side while looking around the chamber and feeling immense satisfaction. A smile fought its way onto my face. I was home again. It was a large, rectangular stone room, with a fireplace in the middle, several dusty couches and chairs surrounding it. In the back a few tables were shoved against the wall for people who wanted peace while studying. On the left, I could see the narrow staircases that led to the dormitories. Flocks of students already filled the room, chattering away as they descended to below.

Sally clicked her tongue to get the first years' attention which had, like mine, been focused on the room. Their heads swirled towards her.

"Welcome to Slytherin, the House of the ambitious, the cunning, and the sly! My name is Sally Goyle, and I'm the female prefect for Slytherin House. You have already met the male one," she nodded in my direction, "his name is Alucard Malfoy." I nodded back, no longer feeling the need to smile.

"When you are having trouble, you are welcome to come to us. If there is something very important you wish to talk about or if you have some private affairs you wish to discuss and we are not available you can go see my cousin Matthew Teagan, the Head Boy. Professor Malyras, the Potion’s Master and our Head of House is also available if you need him. His office is located in the dungeons as well.”

"If you have an insane amount of detentions, we are always here to help you. We will try to have it lessened." I saw two boys grinning mischievously at each other and I softly added:

"That doesn't mean you must go looking for trouble, 'cause we will know and your detention will be doubled." Their smiles vanished. Sally threw me an annoyed look that clearly said, "Do you need to frighten them like that?” I smiled ever so slightly and stayed quiet. I knew it drove her mad.

Her eyes glared daggers before she clapped her hands. The firsties, who had been looking at our exchange, quickly returned their attention to her again. Sally waved to the stairs leading even deeper into the dungeons. "Down here are your dormitories. That’s left for the girls, right for the boys."

They hurried to them and vanished into the darkness. Sally turned towards me, her mouth already forming words I didn't really hear. I faked a yawn.

"I'm tired. I'm going to bed."

"You've faked yawning since you were three, Alan."

"Would you rather I'd say I don't give a damn about what you have to tell me right now?"

She looked hurt. "Alan –“

I turned and walked down to my dorm. As good or bad as it might be, a new year had begun.

~*~

Author's Notes: Reviews much appreciated. :)

Chapter 3: Chapter Two: Everything's Okay
  [Printer Friendly Version of This Chapter]

Disclaimer: Everything you recognise belongs to the wonderful J.K. Rowling. I thank her for being allowed to play with her characters and create my own little world with them. The name ‘Alucard’ was inspired by the Castlevania game series, but the character is in no way connected to them.

~*~

Chapter Two – Everything's Okay


For a moment your eyes open and you know
all the things I ever wanted you to know
I don't know you, and I don't want to
till the moment your eyes open and you know

Keane – Your Eyes Open


~*~

I put the last textbook in my bag – Potions. It wasn't the best subject to have first thing in the morning, partly because of the grouchy professor. Professor Malyras had long black hair that made his skin a sickly shade of grey. He never looked directly at anyone, but then again, he always tried being as distant as possible. He rarely said more than three words in class. It was just our luck that he was our Head of House.

I stood up, stretched and started to make my bed. The velvet curtains of my four-poster were a rich, deep green. On the bed lay silk, silver blankets and a pillow that was the same colour as the curtains. Around the room were three more beds that looked exactly like mine – if not slightly messier or tidier. They belonged to Derek, Isaac Crabbe, and Richard Fammet, my roommates. Isaac was a broad-shouldered boy with a prominent jaw and a sharp attitude. Richard was the wittiest of our lot – he knew the best jokes and his humour was even dryer than my grandmother's biscuits. Derek, as you know by now, was my best friend, a stocky boy with brown hair, blue eyes, and a strong desire to be a Quidditch player someday, either at school or professionally.

I closed my curtains just as Derek emerged from the shower. I glanced at the clock. At the beginning of each year, Derek always had trouble waking up, and this year was not an exception. I didn't mention the fact that he was only wearing boxers and a towel around his hair; it was already an improvement from first year, when he had come out starkers until Isaac had asked him rather rudely to 'keep his business to himself'.

The clock told me breakfast would be over in ten minutes and classes would begin. I hitched my bag onto my shoulder; I wouldn't have the time to pick it up later. Derek was unperturbed; he was still busy looking for a nice set of robes in his chaotic trunk. Isaac and Richard had already left, and I didn't feel like secretly eating scrambled eggs in Potions because my friend had a hard time dressing himself.

"Derek, I'm going. See you later, whatever lesson we have. Don’t forget your timetable.”

Derek looked over to me, looking like he wanted to argue, but merely shrugged and turned around. "Right. Bring some bacon for me, okay? It's not like anyone notices. And yeah, I’ll get my timetable; otherwise I won’t know our lesson."

I nodded. "Got it." I went through the door, up to the common room. It was deserted. Of course, everybody was at breakfast.

I ran up to the main floor, where the Great Hall was. I could hear people talking and laughing amid the general bustle of activity. As I traveled up, the cold, stone walls were replaced by a lighter, brown brick as early sunlight streaming through the windows. A beam caught my prefect badge and it reflected the light to the ceiling, causing a little spot of white to appear.

Arriving in the Great Hall, I felt my spirits lift at the sound and sight of all the students eating. Some people were already leaving, but the majority was still occupying the House tables, appeasing their appetite. I joined the Slytherins, and after a long look at Louisa, who was chatting with friends and had already finished her meal, I took a slice of bread and put on a thick layer of butter. I enjoyed the buzz of talking that filled my ears as my breakfast stuck to my palate. I swallowed it down with some milk, not bothering to follow any of the conversations going around. I reached for a napkin and put in some bacon for Derek.

The ring of the bell rumbled through the Hall, its deep tone making the floor vibrate under my feet. Along with everyone else, I stood up, and all traces of food disappeared from the golden plates. I looked at the marble staircase, where masses of students were fighting to get upstairs. I spotted the dark-haired girl I was looking for, in the midst of the crowd. I felt a stab of jealousy when I saw a sixth year being pushed into her, wishing it was me. But then the other stream of people heading for the dungeons caught up with me and I was pulled with them.

"Oi, Alan!"

Isaac started walking next to me, looking cheerful. He pulled a piece of parchment from his pocket and gave it to me. I glanced on it. It was my personal timetable. Isaac peered over my shoulder as we walked alongside to below. "Potions, huh? Not my best subject... do you think I’ll manage not to fail it this year?"

I privately thought Isaac was very lucky to have passed fourth year at all. Sure, he was my room- and Housemate, but admittedly, he wasn't too bright. I just shrugged and quickened my pace. It was still a tad too early to have a conversation with Isaac.

Professor Malyras was already present, looking like someone had died, as always. He muttered to himself as he scribbled the instructions on the blackboard, large bags hanging under his eyes. I hastily moved to my usual spot in the back of the classroom, saving a spot for Derek. I took the bacon out of my bag and put it on Derek's stool, hoping he would notice it, as I reached for my textbook.

Several Ravenclaws entered. Jamie Goldstein, a rather bright and nice bloke, took place in front of me.

He grinned. "Malfoy! How was your holiday?"

I smiled back. "Oh, it was all right. Yours?"

Goldstein propped his feet on his desk and started telling a story about visiting a Muggle zoo. I leaned against the wall, listening only half-heartily while keeping an eye on Professor Malyras, who was still writing instructions. The dungeon filled up and Marius Briggs, a lanky boy with short black curls, took place next to Goldstein. Soon, he was immersed in his friend's story. Professor Malyras finally put down his piece of chalk and just when he sat down, Derek burst into the classroom, his face flushed and his hair slightly dishevelled. Professor Malyras immediately jumped up again, glaring in Derek's general direction.

Derek ran his hand through his hair, looking nervous. "Er – sorry I'm late..."

The professor shoved his hands in his pockets and jerked his head towards me. "Sit." Derek quickly made his way over to his cauldron, almost sitting on his breakfast. I snatched it right from under his bottom before slipping it into his hand. Malyras looked accusingly at me, but did not seem to want to waste his precious words on me. He sat down, sweeping his dark eyes over the classroom to check if every place was occupied before barking, "Work."

At once, everybody left their seats and silently went to the back of the dungeon, where our supplies were stored. I collected some beetles, shredded snakeskin, and Billywig needles from my own materials and took powdered unicorn horn from the students' storage. I walked back, opened my book to look for the potion, and started making a Slumber Solution.

As soon as Derek took his place next to me and lit a fire under his cauldron, I muttered, "What took you so long?"

"Oh," His flush turned a darker shade of red. "Nothing, I just had too little time."

I rolled my eyes. "Yeah, right. You were nearly done when I left; what could've possibly taken you –“ I glanced at the clock above the teacher's desk, " – thirty minutes to get in class?"

Derek widened his eyes, nodding ever so slightly in Goldstein and Briggs's direction. Their conversation had died, and it was quite obvious they were trying to hear ours. I lapsed into silence until they both went to work. By that time, Derek was making a good show of being very busy with his solution, measuring the exact amount of unicorn horn with uncharacteristically precision. I waited until I had to leave my potion bubble for five minutes before trying to pull an answer from Derek again. He should’ve known this behaviour was only making me more and more curious.

"Derek, come on. They're not listening," I mumbled under my breath.

"Fine, fine." He dumped the unicorn horn in his cauldron. The content turned a violent shade of yellow. "I met Daisy on my way."

I smirked as Derek’s face flushed a little more. Daisy Macmillan was a second – no, third year Hufflepuff with vanilla blonde hair. She had been Derek's girlfriend for a few months, which was a nice effort of Derek's since I had never seen him together with a girl for so long yet. He was quite taken with blondes and had picked up one after another last year, but apparently Daisy was different. I had never actually talked to her before, so I didn’t really know what she was like.

"So, you two occupied some broom cupboard before class?"

Derek groaned. "Alan..." But his red colour vanished as he grinned and pointed at his hair. "How did you think my hair got this way?"

My potion stopped bubbling, and I put in three beetles. It became off-white, how it should be. Derek flattened his hair and put in his beetles as well.

"Derek, that’s too earl –" The black critters touched the liquid and abruptly the potion started spitting out large insects. One of them landed on Goldstein's head. He squealed and swatted at it, causing it to fall into his own potion. It turned into a thick, brown solution smelling of... well, toilets with bad hygiene. Two Ravenclaw girls in front of Goldstein pulled their robes in front of their faces and began to wail.

"Eeeeew, Jamie crapped his pants!"

"Gross!"

I laughed out loud. Great, Potions somehow always turned into chaos. Professor Malyras didn't even look up when the other Ravenclaw girls joined their Housemates, either shrieking or laughing hysterically. This was going to be a long day.

~*~

"Books out, please."

Next was Defence against the Dark Arts, which was taught by Professor Harry Potter. Yes, the Harry Potter. I had no idea why he was teaching when he could have been making money with his autobiography, but whatever – it wasn’t exactly my business, was it?

The first time Professor Potter taught me, I was rather surprised, since he was the teacher Aiden had moaned the most about. While most children would have heard the story about Harry Potter and the Dark Lord in a way that made Potter the hero, my father told it in a way you'd think Potter blundered his way into defeating the Darkest wizard of the century. No wonder I was pretty skeptical of him in my first Defence lesson.

But he actually turned out to be rather good. Though in the beginning, he was very distant towards us Slytherins. Of course he was a Gryffindor, so that might've been the case. I tried to ask my father once, why he didn't like me. He answered I'd better not be liked by scum like Potter. Yeah, sure.

I took out my book (General Hexes and Curses - A Student's Guide to Dueling) and placed it on my desk. I was in front of the classroom now, facing the teacher's desk. I sat next to Derek as well in this class. His back was turned, talking with Richard and Isaac, until Professor Potter tapped his knuckles on the blackboard to calm us down.

I opened my book on the right page. Starting Out, it said. So we were starting with dueling this year? Nice. I sat up straight and looked at Professor Potter, who was ready to begin.

"Right... Is everyone ready? You too, Crabbe? Okay, we're going to study dueling this year, since you learned a lot of curses and defensive spells last year. You know how to defend yourselves against basic magic creatures. Now it is time to learn how to defend you against other wizards. Yes?" He looked at Bridget Baddock, one of my fellow Slytherins. Her hand was raised.

"Well, Professor, you said 'basic' for a reason, right? Are we going to learn to protect against more dangerous creatures later?"

Our Professor smiled. "Yes, yes, you can choose to do that in seventh year. Now, dueling –" Bridget's hand was in the air again. "Yes?"

"Eh, what can we chose when we're in seventh year?"

"You will see when you get there. If you really want to know, you can get a leaflet at my desk at the end of the lesson," Potter replied mildly. "Clear?" Bridget nodded and opened her book.

Professor Potter cleared his throat. "Er, you might want to take notes."

We spent the rest of the period writing down the general rules of dueling on our parchment. As I scribbled down the homework Potter had put on the blackboard, Derek was sitting backwards again, talking about his holiday.

"Crabbe! Nott!"

Derek whirled around again. Professor Potter glared silently in his general direction like our Potions Master had done before. "You'll have an OWL in dueling at the end of the year. I'd like you to pay attention and do your homework." My friend rolled his eyes, but bent down and started to study his book.

At the end of the lesson, we cleared out, Bridget staying behind for her leaflet while the rest of us set oft to Transfiguration. Derek walked next to me, still peeved about his lecture.

"Really, when he looks like that, I'd swear I did something wrong!"

"You were talking," I pointed out.

"Yeah, still... He wasn't even explaining something! Sometimes I think he hates me. Well, not only me. He acts all polite, but when we're not looking... remember when he shot us ugly looks all the time in first year? Especially at you, Alan, like you murdered his family or something."

I shrugged. "Maybe some annoying first years had been tailing him again." Professor Potter was usually followed by a small group of first years in the first weeks of term, signing Quidditch magazines or schoolbooks with a forced smile.

We entered the Transfiguration classroom. Derek greeted Professor Granger enthusiastically as we sat down in front of her. It’s not like we had a favourite teacher or anything, but Granger had a good sense of humour. As long as you made your homework, preferably two rolls of parchment longer than necessary, you were a good student and allowed to make jokes, though she'd tell you off anyway.

We had Transfiguration together with the Gryffindors. The classroom was split, Gryffindors left, Slytherins right. But Derek and I were in the middle and I was on the Gryffindor side, and admittedly, they were okay, but that was maybe because Professor Granger did not permit House rivalry in her classes.

She impatiently clicked with her tongue. "Attention, please! That means you too, Abercrombie! Today we're going to start with Vanishing. This is a rather complex spell that is bound to come up in your practical exam end of the year, and it gets trickier as the size of your object or animal increases. We will start practicing on mice, as they are relatively simple animals. Malfoy?" I had stuck my hand in the air.

"But Professor, surely there are easier animals to practice on? Why don't we start with, I don’t know, fish? Or objects? They don't move as much." A murmur of agreement went through the classroom.

Professor Granger smiled encouraging at me. "A very good question! Does anyone know the answer? Abercrombie?"

The boy who had been talking at the beginning of class, Kevin Abercrombie, met her gaze with a rather puzzled look. "Eh... sorry, Professor. I don’t know."

She sighed, looking around the room. "Does anyone else have an idea?" When nobody answered, she started giving a lecture. "Look, I want you to start off with something interesting! I mean, everyone can Vanish an insect, it's too easy. If it's hard to Vanish your mouse, you'll want to have it happen, and you'll motivate yourself!" she exclaimed as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.

"Ooooh," Derek drawled out. "I totally get it. I mean, if I can't get my mouse to Vanish, I'll enjoy it instead of losing hope, I'm sure." The Slytherin side of the classroom sniggered. Professor Granger merely turned around, grabbed a box that made squeaking sounds and slammed it in front of Derek.

"You'll see, Nott. Now, if you will give everyone a mouse?"

Twenty minutes later, I was muttering the spell under my breath, my wand pointing at my mouse, while Derek was poking his, shouting the incantation.

"Evanesco! Vanish, you bloody –“

"Watch it, Nott!" Granger shrieked, her bushy hair crackling.

"Or what?" Derek said, waggling his eyebrows at her. "You'll put me in detention? Shut me in your office? I'll be delighted, fair maiden."

"Stop hitting on her, Derek." I grinned as a paw of my mouse suddenly turned a bit transparent. "She isn't blonde anyway. What would Daisy say?"

"Oh, you have a girlfriend, Nott?" Professor Granger asked, unperturbed by Derek's remarks.

Derek nodded and gave his mouse another shove with the tip of his wand. "Yeah, Daisy Macmillan, you know, from Hufflepuff. Since June already." He puffed his chest out, looking quite proud. "Evanesco!" His mouse squeaked as his wand connected with its abdomen.

Granger smiled. We were allowed to joke around as long as we did what we had to do. She pointed out a few mistakes in my wand movement and pronouncement of the spell, "It's Evanesco, not Evanesco."

At the end of the lesson, I hadn’t quite managed to vanish my mouse. I was able to see through one of my mouse’s paws, but other than that, it was just another rodent. I dumped it into the box Richard was carrying around, which by now contained a large heap of mice all squiggling and wriggling between each other. Derek dropped it into the box by the tail, ignoring its squeaks. We put down our homework assignment (Research the history of the Vanishing spell and write a two-hundred word essay in your own words), packed up and left for lunch. I could’ve sworn I heard Granger mutter: “Perhaps the snails would’ve been better after all…” as we exited the classroom.

"I hate OWLs," Derek said as we dropped into our seats. I pulled a bowl full of fruit towards me and chose an orange from the pile.

"How do you know? This is the first day of the school year; we're not going to find out how terrible they are for a while." I sliced my orange in two and began eating a half with a fork. Derek grunted as he reached for a few slices of bread.

"Man, I'm hungry, you have no idea... And you just wait, all the teachers are going to remind us about the OWLs like they're next week."

He was right. At the beginning of each lesson, our teachers started off with a lecture about exams. After we were dismissed from Arithmancy, our last class of the day, I was slightly freaked out. As Derek and I ran down to the common room, taking two steps a time on the stairs, I recited my homework in my head. Learn rules about dueling for Defence, write an essay for Transfiguration, solve a mathematical problem for Arithmancy, and look up the properties of the Draught of the Living Death for Potions. Not to mention, the next day I would have Ancient Runes, Herbology and – my stomach lurched – Charms, by far my worst subject. Though Flitwick seemed to like pretty much everyone, he was never quite the little happy man he normally was towards me. Probably because I really, royally sucked at his subject.

"Butterfingers," I said when we arrived at the common room entrance. The door reappeared in the wall and we walked in. Derek shooed some second years away by the homework tables in the back so we could sit. I ungraciously flopped down and groaned, "What a day."

"Yeah," Derek sighed. "Better get started. Let's start off with Arithmancy; I didn't understand a word of what Professor Vector said..."

Though we did leave for dinner somewhere in-between our essays, it was nearing nine o'clock when Caitlin Logan, another classmate of ours, hitched herself onto the table we were studying at and snatched my last piece of homework, Transfiguration, from right under my nose.

"Hey!" I cried out indignantly. My quill had scratched through the essay from her movement; it was going to take several tedious minutes to suck the excessive ink out. "What do you think you're doing?"

"Looking out for your best interests," she replied, idly turning the piece of parchment over to read what I had written so far. I took it back from her, being gentle so it wouldn't rip.

"Do your own homework. And what do you mean my own interests? If you mean the time, it's bloody nine, and you're not my mother –“

She waved her hand impatiently, clearly indicating that I should shut up. "Like I care if you are half asleep tomorrow in Charms. No, I'm talking about the next Hogsmeade weekend."

"I would have thought you'd be the last person to ask Alan out," Derek said, rubbing some ink on his parchment. I wordlessly shoved the Magical Ink Remover in his direction as I kept looking at Caitlin.

"Is it already announced? It usually takes a month or two before there's a notice."

She made that hand movement again, rolling her eyes in the process. "Don't be stupid, of course there's no notice up. As you said, that takes awhile. And I do not want to ask him out," she shot at Derek, who smirked at his parchment in reply, using the Ink Remover to erase a large spot of ink. "I was wondering if he'd want to go with Sally, you know, to patch things up."

It was my turn to let my eyes turn to the ceiling. "Caitlin. Look. I do not fancy her anymore. I do not want to 'patch things up', either. Did she ask you to ask me, by the way?" I started sucking the large stripe of ink out of my Transfiguration essay with my wand. The Ink Remover was just used to correct things of small quantities.

"That's – that's none of your business." I looked up to see her look rather embarrassed. Good. Sally and her tight clique of friends, in other words, the girls in her dormitory, had buggered me enough about this particular subject and I was getting rather touchy about it. They didn't seem to even consider the possibility I didn't like her anymore, not even in a friend-like way because of the way they were acting. And Sally and I had never been... normal friends to begin with.

Despite her Irish name, Caitlin was a dark girl with short black hair that didn't just fall down; it swung to the outside at the tips. It made her demeanour very playful, helped along by the fact that she was always smiling at everyone. Well, Derek and I were exceptions, but we could live with that. As she was well liked, even in the other Houses, she tended to be unbelievably cocky with any person that didn't grovel at her feet.

I knew Sally hadn't asked Caitlin to talk to me – she wasn't like that. It was more like Caitlin to act on such an impulsive decision; it was in her personality. That didn't mean I liked her. In fact, she was the most annoying friend of Sally's, in my opinion, of course.

There were three more girls in our class: Bridget Baddock, Theresa Greystone and Gwendolyn Court. Just our luck we guys had to be outnumbered by the girls, and just my luck that I didn't really like any of them. Bridget was okay, but she was good in everything (not terrific, just that she never failed) and pulled her nose up at you if you didn't get something. As my only bad subject was Charms, she was generally nice to me. She had long blonde hair that was usually tied in a ponytail to the back, and she was really tall. I could look her right in the eye if we were both standing up, and I was one of the tallest people in our year.

Theresa... well, she was... she faded back in the background a lot. You always have one of those people you just don't really notice, because they never try to be seen. They are the voice of reason to the others of their group, holding them back before they do something stupid. Yeah, that was she. It wasn't like she was shy, (on the contrary, if she loosened up a bit, she could get really acid) but she wasn't exactly approachable either. She was always frowning, her short, wavy, dark red hair falling into her face until she pulled it back with a clip. I had the impression she was deep in thought when she looked like that, which was just about any time of the day.

Gwendolyn. Just the name gives you the creeps, doesn't it? She had always refused to let anyone abbreviate her name, to something sensible like Gwen or Wendy. Wouldn't it be much easier to say 'hey Gwen' instead of 'hey Gwendolyn'? Whatever. She was the most stuck up snob I had ever met. Not much to say about her – I preferred to stay as far away as possible if I could help it. With that chestnut brown hair she always shook back in such an awful way – you know what I mean? That arrogant toss. Ugh.

I gathered my belongings and stuffed them into my bag. Caitlin had left quickly after my accusation, allowing me to finish my homework. I let Derek copy my conclusion and together we set off for our beds. Upon entering our dormitory, I saw Richard drawing something in his sketchbook and Isaac listening to the wireless, sprawled on his four-poster. The news was on.

"Bloody hell, you people already done?" Derek asked them, voicing my thoughts.

Richard absently nodded, his shoulder-length auburn hair hiding his face from view; Isaac responded by doing something between a nod and a shrug. He probably only did half of his work. I dumped my bag next to my trunk and let myself fall backwards onto the mattress of my bed, making it groan in protest. The muscles in my right arm and hand ached from writing so much; I needed a good long shower and a nice long nap.

"Throw me a towel, will you?" I called over to Derek, whose four-poster was closest to the wardrobe with towels and spare sheets. He obliged, but muttered a complaint we had all heard every year, every day so far.

"I don't understand why we can't move that closet over to the bathroom entrance. It would be much easier."

"Because that's where my bed is," I yawned.

Our dormitory was a small rectangular room. When you walked in, Isaac's bed was with the head against the wall on the right. On the left was the door to the bathroom, with my bed next to it and the head against the wall, leaving no room for a four feet wide closet. On my other side was Richard, whose bed was in the corner. In the other corner was Derek's bed, and the closet was in between his and Isaac's. I liked being close to the bathroom – not much chance of hitting anything with your small toe, something Derek had a lot more problems with.

I deftly caught the towel he threw to me and disappeared to the showers. Everything was made out of silver and emerald in here, or at least charmed to look so. I took one of the two showering cabins and undressed. The water of the shower was charmed to be the exact temperature you wanted it to be, which was a luxury – except when the charm begun to wear off. I smiled inwardly as I remembered the day when that happened – Richard had come out, shrieking we had played some kind of prank on him. The water had gone all cold, it had seemed, because we had dared each other to take one shower with the charm off. It had been surprisingly refreshing, though I hoped it would never catch me off guard and force me to come out squeaking like some girl.

When I was finished, I put on my pyjamas and took aim at the laundry basket, trying to throw my towel in it. It ended up hanging half out, but I didn’t care enough about tidiness to put it in all the way. I went straight for my bed and jumped right in it.

"Okay chaps!" I said. "I'm the prefect here, and the lights will go out in about five minutes!"

"You're kidding, right?" Isaac smirked. "Like we'd ever listen to you now you've got that stupid badge."

"The only stupid thing in this room is you, Isaac," Richard grinned. "Get your arse in bed and put the radio out, or I'll do it for you." He chucked his drawing in his trunk and gave me a quick thumbs-up as Isaac gaped, but started getting ready. I tried to take a glance of the drawing, but Richard had already closed his trunk, shaking his finger at me. I waggled my eyebrows.

"Hiding something, are we, Fammet?"

"Too right, I am," he said back. "Now go to sleep, little prefect."

I pulled my blankets shut. "Right then. G'night."

~*~


Chapter 4: Chapter Three: Slithering
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Disclaimer: Everything you recognise belongs to the wonderful J.K. Rowling. I thank her for being allowed to play with her characters and create my own little world with them. The name ‘Alucard’ was inspired by the Castlevania game series.

~*~

Chapter Three – Slithering

Help me to guard my tongue and learn to say the right thing at the right time for the right reason in the right way. Help me, too, to know when to keep my mouth shut. – Anonymous


~*~

There were those days when I sincerely wished I had been born a Squib. Today was one of them.

It was a beautiful sunny September day. Rays of sunlight and the sound of young students’ laughter drifted through the windows along with the wonderful scent of a nice Indian summer. You know, that mixture of grass, flowers, and just... the smell that made you want to dump down your books and run outside screaming like a maniac. Alas, that was not an option.

I aimlessly picked books from the shelf. A scent dulled by the air of old, dusty texts filled my nose. The library was the last place I wanted to be today, but I had so much homework it would be idiotic to disregard it and enjoy the afternoon. If I were a Squib, I would not have been at Hogwarts and thus, would not have had to do this disgusting load of homework.

Then again, I wouldn't have been able to do magic either, and that really would've sucked.

Nearly buckling under the weight of my much-needed books, I found my way back to my homework table, accidentally bumping into some Ravenclaw on the way. To my utter astonishment, there was someone sitting at the other end, who had not been there when I'd left to gather my information.

Louisa was writing an essay, occasionally alternating her gaze between the parchment and the enormous book next to her, which she seemed to be quoting from. She was doing it rather enthusiastically, as though she were writing a particularly good and promising paragraph. She smiled and nodded a little to herself, her hair gleaming from the sun that shone through a nearby window. I temporarily blocked all infatuated feelings from invading my mind. Whatever I was planning, I was not going to act like a lovesick fool. Slytherins weren’t lovesick. They weren't. Not me, anyway.

I unceremoniously dropped my stack of books onto the table, making Louisa jump in surprise. She looked up, and as soon as our gazes locked, she glared, her dark brown eyes hostile.

"What do you think you're doing? I'm sitting here."

"I was here first, Rosario," I said, taking my seat again with a flourish that wasn't exactly needed. "So if you don't like my company, I suggest you bugger off."

The words spilled from my mouth as if a stranger were saying them, making me give myself a mental beating. I wanted her to stay, not tell her to go somewhere else. But saying so would make my intentions or, ahem, feelings, blatantly obvious. Thus, I bit my tongue and started flipping through in the first book, Revolutionary Charms. What was my assignment again? What was, in your opinion, the most important Charm invented in the sixteenth century? It was something I would have expected in History of Magic, not Charms. Professor Flitwick must have run out of ideas. I wrote down the title of my essay and underlined it. I was bored with it already.

"Arrogant prick," I heard Louisa mutter under her breath. She had not moved at my remark. I chose to ignore her before I said anything more stupid, leafing through the textbook. The Fertilizing Charm was nice, but that one had been created in the seventeenth century, not the sixteenth...

After a while, I realized my attention was slipping away. Could you blame me, with such a pretty lady right in my view? Her long black hair was tied back into a ponytail like the one Bridget sported often, but a few strands escaped the elastic and danced around her face. In the time period when I was watching, they fell into her eyes at least three times, and she would impatiently tuck them back behind her ear. Suddenly her head shot up.

"Don't stare," she said, a bit unnerved. I raised my eyebrows, trying to prevent the blood from rushing to my face. Anybody who has ever blushed knows there's no way to do that.

"I wasn't."

"Yes, you were."

"No, I wasn't."

"Yes, you were."

"No, I wasn't."

"Yes, you were."

"Okay, I was."

"No you –" She hissed, her dark eyebrows knotting into a frown. "All right, you caught me."

The corners of my mouth turned up a little, though I wasn’t particularly cheerful. Why was she so... snappy with me? I couldn't remember anything I'd done to hurt her feelings, for I had, to be fair, never talked with her before. Unless she thought I was like –

"You don't have to be so smug," Louisa cut into my thoughts.

"I am not smug." Really, what gave her that idea? "Why are you behaving like I've done something to you? I'm just trying to have a civil conversation, but you keep biting my nose off."

"Because – I – you – you're a Malfoy," she said, as if that explained everything. She wrote down another sentence on her parchment. "And you're a Slytherin. You don't like Muggleborns like me."

Ah, my life would have been much easier if I didn't. "Yes, I'm a Slytherin, but frankly we've never said more than two words to each other before. What do you know about me?" I said, turning a page in my book. Those puny Gryffindors, thinking those nasty little Slytherins were all alike. Stupid bunch of... of... quite attractive girls...

Oh, Louisa, you drive me absolutely insane, do you know that?

"Well, your brother is a huge prat, and I've had quite a few run-ins with him so don't you dare suggest I don't know who he is." She was keeping her voice low, but her expression was angry. "And in general, family members are alike. Apple? Tree? Ring a bell? I have every reason to believe you are just out to mock and insult me. So there."

I sucked on my bottom lip, taking care not to throw vicious insults or stumbling apologies at her. She can't help it, I told myself. She's probably never had Slytherins being nice to her before, it's all new to her, and Aiden is a bit of a bully towards Ryan Rosario's siblings...

"Do you hate my brother?" she asked suddenly, as if she had been prying into my thoughts. “I mean, I know your brother does, so, I don’t know, maybe you –“

"You can't feel hate if you don't know love," I replied. Only when she stayed silent, fixing me with a disbelieving stare, did I realized I had said it out loud.

I felt my cheeks flame. Oh, damn... Don't think that was an innuendo, please don't... And don't get the impression I'm a whiny boy who had a lousy childhood and always got neglected, because that's not true... When she kept staring, I blushed even harder. I couldn't believe I'd said something so corny.

"You just made that up, right?" She sounded rather dubious, like I was making a fool of her.

"You can't think up the truth, now can you?"

Alucard Malfoy, from now on, you are not allowed to speak a word. Why don't you just ask her to marry you right away? Travel into the sunset, together forever?

"Louisa?" A young boy with dark brown hair almost reaching his shoulders and framed glasses on the bridge of his nose approached our table, saving Louisa and me the trouble of continuing the conversation. I recognised him as Alex Rosario, Louisa’s brother, who'd been sorted into Ravenclaw a week before. He hesitated slightly when he saw me, but then straightened his head and quickly walked over to his sister. "Louisa, I have to find this book for Potions, but I can't find it, it's so big in here... and there was a tall blond boy where I thought it was and he sent me away."

"Don't listen to tall blond boys, Alex," Louisa told him, flipping to the back of her book, probably to look something up in the register. "Especially if they're in Slytherin. Just tell him to go away himself."

"You're sitting with a tall blond boy who is in Slytherin," the boy said, eyeing me warily. I waggled my eyebrows at him and he diverted his gaze, turning red. Louisa sighed, and I could’ve sworn I saw an eye roll. Good-looking you may be, you’ve got to work on that attitude of yours, Miss I’m-so-much-better-than-you Rosario.

"Look, Alex, I'm busy. If you don't have the guts to get it yourself..."

The boy glanced at me again. "Y-you're a prefect," he stuttered, pointing at the badge on my chest. "You're supposed to help me, my House prefects said so!" He crossed his arms, smirking like he had just made some amazing statement.

I stared at the boy. Yes, I was a prefect, and yes, that meant I had to help the younger students find their way. And if I did... would I earn a place in Louisa's good book? If so, that would be well worth it. And it wasn’t a huge effort or anything. The way Louisa looked, it wasn't like she expected me to do it.

I shoved my essay in Revolutionary Charms so I would be able to find the page later and stood up. "What book are you looking for?"

The boy scuttled over and handed me a piece of parchment. Before looking at it, I met Louisa's eyes. Her slightly open mouth and raised eyebrows gave me immense satisfaction, since she had obviously not expected it. The book her brother was looking for was probably in the basic Potions section. I glanced down at the note. Of course it was. Before I took off, I turned to Alex and inclined my head at the chair I had just left.

"Keep my seat for me."

~*~

The next evening, I had to patrol the corridors, as it was part of my prefect duties. I had been looking for a new opportunity to talk with Louisa, just to show her I was not a pureblood-obsessed... pureblood. I had the feeling tonight would provide me with one. First of all, Sally had gone to the hospital wing a few hours before because she wasn't feeling well, and therefore I had to stroll through the castle all alone. How sad. And secondly... well, I knew I was going to run into her. I just knew.

I heard a rustled of robes around the corner, somewhere by the Defence classrooms. My curiosity awakened, I went looking, of course. And there, my presentiment was awarded. And I'm not a Divination student either. I must be a natural. Or a genius, I'm fine with either.

Louisa was standing in front of an old classroom door, a pained expression on her face as she tried to peek through a crack in it. In spite of my hunch she would be there, I still was rather surprised. She was a fourth year, and her curfew was nearing. She should have been in her common room by now.

I sneaked towards her, taking care not to make a sound. She hadn't noticed me yet as her attention was completely at whatever was happening inside the classroom. Only as I took the last step to stand right behind her, did she whirl around and muffle a gasp with her hand.

"Christ! Sheesh, I – you – Don't do that!" she breathed, her brown eyes wide. Confusion scattered through my brain. Christ? What kind of word was that?

"What in the name of Merlin is a 'christ'?" I asked her. Unlike her, I wasn't keeping my voice down. I didn't see any reason too, but she huffed and pressed a finger against her lips. I couldn't help but marvel at their redness.

"Sssh! Don't you understand the concept of spying? It does not involve yelling at the top of your lungs." She took a glance through the crack in the door again. "What are you doing here anyway, Malfoy?"

"I could ask you the same question. Why are you playing spy when you should –" I paused, shook back my left sleeve and held my wrist in front of my face so I could see my watch, " – have been in your common room a few minutes ago?"

She jumped. "What? I – I haven't – oh, no – Is it already that late?" She was still whispering. "You –" Her eyes shot at my prefect’s badge. "You're not going to give me detention, right? Please?"

I felt my face grow warm and I knew I was getting red very fast. Again. Those eyes... Should I do what any prefect should do, and take her to the caretaker? Or should I listen to my heart (or in other words, look out for my best interests), and let her get away with it? I tried to stall my decision.

"What are you looking at, anyway?"

She looked back again. "Oh, my brother. He – he –" She was blushing too. "Oh, hell. He's snogging in there."

"Thought you'd get to learn something, hm?" Again, words just fell out of my mouth like I had no control over them. I felt myself go incredibly crimson. I was talking about snogging with the girl I had a crush on. Why did I say the most stupid things when she was around? "Sorry, shouldn't have said that. I mean, I – you know –"

She grinned and shook her head. "Oh, forget it. It's probably the Slytherin part of your brain speaking."

"My whole brain is Slytherin, thank you. There's no part decorated in Gryffindor style." I conveniently ignored the little voice inside my head that persisted I belonged in Hufflepuff.

"You sure?" she giggled. "Nothing red or gold in there?"

"Oh, haha..."

"Anyway," Louisa said when we were done laughing, albeit quietly, "not only is my brother snogging in there, my Defence book is inside as well. That's why I'm still here; I was waiting for him to get out. I mean, I don't want to embarrass him and all that..." She nervously looked inside again. I bent slightly forward so I could get a view too. Indeed, Ryan Rosario and some girl I knew was in Hufflepuff were entangled in a far corner, almost like they were joined at the hip – or rather, at the lips.

I laughed softly, not wanting to make more noise than necessary. "Fascinating," I muttered into Louisa's ear, inhaling her scent. I had always had a sensitive nose, and often I judged people on their smell, weird as it may sound. Derek smelled familiar of something like coconuts, something I was quite fond of. Louisa smelled like... something I couldn't really describe – a flower of some kind? I couldn’t quite place it. Maybe it was just perfume.

"Who's trying to learn something now, huh?" she said. My eyes hadn’t left her brother, who was sucking onto his girlfriend’s mouth so hard it was like he was trying to imitate a Dementor.

“Well, they don’t seem to need as much oxygen as normal people.”

I watched as a smile played on her lips and my stomach did a somersault. "Look, there's my book."

It was pretty obvious; it was the only book around, plain in sight on the teacher's desk.

"So, get it," I told her, not seeing the problem.

"The door creaks, I can't get in."

"Come on, Rosario, don't make me get it for you, I suck at Charms." I was still watching through the crack in the door with her and I suddenly got the impression I was taking a lot of liberties. We weren't touching anywhere, but I was definitely very close to her, our faces just an inch apart. If she would turn her face my way, our noses would surely bump. I quickly straightened up.

"How can you suck at Charms? It's the easiest subject by far. And I don't see the connection between Charms and my out-of-reach book."

I raised an eyebrow at her. "Silencing Charm, maybe?"

"I haven't learned that yet in class. It’s so boring, I never get the feeling we learn something new –"

"If you're really good at Charms, maybe Professor Flitwick will let you skip a class. What's-her-name did that too, er, Carmen Pauls. She's in Slytherin, one year above me, but she's doing her Charms and Herbology NEWTs this year."

"All right, I'll ask. But can you get it back for me, my book, I mean?"

I drew my wand, hoping the charm would go right. We were actually planning to learn the charm this year in class, but if there was one charm I could do, it was this one, as I had practiced it often enough at home to prevent the whole household from listening to my piano plays.

Crouching near the door's hinges, I jabbed my wand between them, hissing the incantation through my teeth. "Silencio." I stood up again and opened the door without further ado, ignoring Louisa's hand on my elbow.

The door didn't make a sound.

I grinned at Louisa. She looked stunned, and stunning, but that was beside the point. Though she seemed to be getting over it already, she muttered, "Are you going to summon it? You learn that in fourth year, right? We haven't done it yet."

"Well..." I shrugged. "Okay." We had begun revising them anyway this week. Lifting my wand and picturing the book flying towards me, I muttered: "Accio Defence book." I held out my hand and it nearly soared right past me to slam into the opposite wall, but I managed to grab it just in time. I quietly shut the door again. Rosario and girlfriend hadn't heard a thing. Mission accomplished.

"Thanks," Louisa said, reaching for the book. But I had other plans.

My heart racing, I held the book up high above my head with my hands, smiling teasingly down at her. Being provocative wasn't really what I did on a daily basis, but I just wanted to have a bit of fun with her before we both would go our own ways.

"Oh, you..." She jumped up to the book, but she was too short, and it apparently bothered her to no end. "You boy! Give that here!"

I was unable to keep my face from breaking into a full smile and I inclined my head at the classroom before running a few paces to the left, followed by turning around a corner. Louisa shadowed my every move, huffing and pouting and jumping and – smiling? The temptation to just grab her and swirl her around was fairly pushy.

As soon as we were a few corridors away from Ryan Rosario, we were both breathless with suppressed laughter and dodging around corners. She leaned against the wall, pointed at the book I was still holding and then at her chest. She was obviously too tired to speak. I obliged to her indications and gave her the book back. Our hands briefly touched. Her skin was soft and feminine.

We held each other’s gazes for a while, both waiting for the other to speak until she broke off the eye contact. "I – I need to get back to the common room. Thanks for – you know, not giving me detention and – and putting me into trouble. I – you're not that bad," she admitted. I nodded. I’ll take that as a compliment.

"I'll see you around," I said.

"Yeah. Bye."

"Bye." I turned and left for the dungeons while I heard her footsteps ascend some stairs. Wow. I hadn't even stuttered or gaped all that much whilst talking to her. I had been cool, calm, collected. Slytherin. Wicked. Maybe, just maybe, Louisa would fully tolerate me one day.

I very much hoped so.

~*~

In first year, Herbology had been one of my favourite subjects. However, since the cheerful Professor Sprout had left at the beginning of third year, I dreaded the whole thing. She had been replaced by Professor Vapor, a woman with dark, hawk-like eyes that scanned the room while looking for misbehaviour. She was tall and thin, with her grey hair twisted into a tight knot, that, to be fair, looked ridiculous on top of her head. From what I knew, half the school was terrified of her. Noise, intentional or not, wasn't allowed in her class; one cough and you could spend your time elsewhere, and you got detentions faster than you could say 'but'. You couldn't say “but” anyway, because talking was forbidden. The practical aspect of Herbology was bearable – at least we were able to move and do something. No, the theory lessons (which we had never had with Sprout) were the real killers. Vapor's classes were spent in dead silence.

It was that lack of sound that got on my nerves so much, and probably the reason why I was never able to meet the requirements of such quiet behaviour. Last time, there had been a constant urge to cough in the back of my throat. Today my legs were restless; they wanted to move around all the time.

Professor Vapor was standing in front of the classroom with a large stack of essays in her hands, her expression menacing as always. She slammed them down in front of Amanda Holly, a Hufflepuff we shared the class with. Amanda got up with shaky legs and started handing them out, her eyes flitting back and forth between the rolls of parchment and the professor. But Vapor turned around and walked towards the blackboard, her heels clicking on the stone floor of the classroom. The noise sounded intimidating in the room, which was devoid of any other sound other than Amanda's footsteps and the rustling of parchment.

With a wave of her wand, Professor Vapor made several drawings of plants appear on the blackboard. After that, she slipped into her seat, surveying the room with her chin high and her arms crossed over her chest. Maybe she was just bitter because she was never gifted with a nice front. I imagined my Herbology professor with two huge boobs resting on her desk and hurriedly dismissed the mental image again. I should be thankful she is not.

Amanda gave me my essay about the influences of dragon dung on Mandrakes back. A wave of relief washed over me as I discovered I had gotten an 'E'. In front of the classroom, I saw Derek scowling at his essay, apparently not so happy with his mark. Another stupid fact about Vapor – she had mapped the positions of the students in class herself. Every Slytherin was placed next to a Hufflepuff – preferably of the opposite sex so they didn't cause mayhem. Like anyone would dare under her nose.

The Hufflepuff next to me was Hilary Oak, a girl who normally giggled endlessly but seemed to lose her nerve every time in Herbology. Her fear of Professor Vapor was earnest – she had received detention once for scratching too hard with her quill, and she had gone into absolute hysterics, crying, whimpering and hyperventilating so bad that I had taken her too the hospital wing, but not before Vapor had removed fifty points from Hufflepuff. Oh, how I hated that woman.

We quietly copied the drawings on the blackboard. The sound of quills quickly writing everything down pressed against my ears as I was again overwhelmed by the insane impulse to move my legs. I tried taking a different sitting position, but the shuffling attracted Professor Vapor's attention.

"Ten points from Slytherin for making such a racket, Malfoy." I knew better than arguing. If she didn't show up in the Great Hall every meal, I would've suspected the cursed banshee was allergic to noise. Too bad, but otherwise she should've flinched at the echo of the bell and she didn't.

As we left the classroom, I took the chance to use my vocal cords again.

"Derek –“

"C'mon," he cut across me, "according to Bridget there's a Hogsmeade notice up in the common room." He pulled my arm and dragged me down the stairs to the right of the marble staircase. Whoa, what was so important about a Hogsmeade notice? I jerked my arm from his tight grip and fell into step next to him, deciding to be blunt.

"Derek?" I tried once more, as we paced along the gloomy corridors.

"Hm?"

"What did you get for your essay?"

He grunted something intelligible, shrugging.

"Excuse me, I didn't catch that."

"I got a 'D'," he grumbled sulkily, kicking a small pebble that happened to have fallen into the dungeons down the stairs. "Happy?" I chose to hold my tongue, something I had done the past hour anyhow. The clatter of the stone reverberated from the walls.

We entered the dark common room and headed for the notice board. Looking over the heads of some over-excited third years, I confirmed that there was indeed a Hogsmeade weekend next week, the week before Halloween. My sweet tooth immediately started to demand consideration.

"Good." Derek lightly punched my shoulder, banishing the wonderful vision of Honeydukes' store from my head. "I'll be able to buy you a birthday present. I have a shrewd idea of what I'll get you already." A small, fair third year girl turned around and bumped into him, squeaking in surprise. After she had scurried off, blushing furiously, Derek continued, "I'll have to pre-order it first, though. You just wait."

I grinned. "I hope it'll be worth it, then." Last year, Derek and my other roommates had given me a huge bag of biscuits – huge meaning about the size of a cauldron. We had eaten it the same evening, too, making Isaac swear he would never take a single biscuit ever again. He had broken that oath the following day at lunch. "Is it food?" I inquired.

"Nah." Derek shook his head. "No, it'll be something more valuable. Not saying anything more."

"Since when is food not valuable?"

Laughing, we set off to our dormitory. It was completely deserted, for once. Derek made a show of jumping on his bed, imitating a monkey; or I assumed so, because he was hopping up and down while scratching his armpits.

I regarded him from upon my own four-poster. He was my best friend... I really wanted to tell someone about Louisa. It was hard to keep something like that to myself. But I was too unsure of Derek's reaction to share my crush with him. Would he shrug it off? Would he be disgusted? Or would he accept, or even like it?

I was aware of the fact that since the end of the War, prejudice towards Muggleborns had reduced a lot, but the most fanatical and oldest pureblood families, including my own, still clung onto their own opinion. Muggles were scum. Muggleborns were out to contaminate our bloodlines. Purebloods, or any self-respecting wizard or witch, who associated and became friends with them were traitors.

Traitors.

It was that single thing that kept me from confiding in Derek. Purity of blood and its importance was one subject we had always swiftly avoided, even though we had been friends for over four years now. The only thing that might be an indication that Derek didn't care about blood either was the fact that our roommate Richard Fammet was a halfblood himself, with a Muggleborn mother. Derek and Richard were on perfectly friendly terms.

"Earth to Alan?"

My head jerked up; Derek was trying to get my attention. He eyed me curiously, having dropped the monkey act. He was still standing on his bed, though. The mattress springs groaned under his weight as he moved his legs.

"What were you thinking of, Al?"

"Nothing." I was instantly aware of the fact I had said it a bit too fast.

"Come on, Alan, tell me. Friends don't have secrets for each other." Argh, pulling the friends card on me. Bloody bastard.

I glanced at the door, making sure nobody was heading our way. I turned to Derek, meeting his eye. "Blood."

He nodded. "I should've known." He stepped from his bed and walked over, sitting down on mine next to me. "You don't think it's really important, do you? Pureblood or not."

Startled, I looked at him. How could he have known? Had I been that obvious? I certainly had never held speeches about it. "How'd you know? When?"

"Since..." Derek paused and lifted his gaze to the ceiling, holding his chin in his hands. "I think since you ditched Sally. I mean, I don't think a real stuck up pureblood would've done that, leaving someone who was practically already his wife, someone who was completely void of Muggle blood."

I thought about that a bit, mimicking Derek by resting my head on my right hand, my elbow drilling into my thigh. Yes, it made quite a lot of sense. If I had really cared about blood, I would have dismissed Louisa as a lost case because she wasn't a pureblooded witch. If I had really cared about blood, I would have been satisfied with Sally, pureblood to her toes. Even though she hadn't practically been my wife. Yuck.

"Yeah, you're right," I said, playing with the hem of my robes with my other hand. "Do – do you care?" I didn't dare look at Derek as I asked, but nevertheless my eyes darted over to him.

He stayed silent for a while before he answered; he was now staring straight ahead. "I – no, not really, I guess. I mean – I won't judge anybody on his or her blood, but, you know, it would be such a shame to end a line that has consisted of purebloods for centuries. It would be such a pity – do you understand? Just like letting last names die because there are no sons to take it over to their families."

I mulled this over. No, I couldn't say I understood, but I could imagine Derek feeling sorry about ending the tradition. I understood Derek, but not his reasoning. But that was maybe because we were both different, and I sure didn't want to understand it. I slowly let out my breath and put my hands in my lap.

Derek exhaled noisily and cracked his knuckles. "So, why are you thinking about blood? Knowing you, there must be some kind of reason."

I shifted uncomfortably as Louisa's face jumped up in my mind's eye, the image as vivid as it would've been, had she been standing right in front of me. My pulse quickened a bit. Would Derek know who she was if I told him her name?

"It's a girl, isn't it?" Derek said, sounding smug.

Really, Derek, sometimes I think you can read my mind. I gave him a lopsided grin. "Yeah. Yeah, it's a girl."

"About time." Derek returned my grin with one of his own and lay back onto my bed. "I was waiting for you to confess you had a replacement for Sally already. That's why you broke up with her, correct?"

All right, now I was really baffled. "You know me too well, Derek," I said, shaking my head.

"And for some reason, I don't think she's in Slytherin either, because Muggleborns are pretty rare in our House, after all."

"How'd you know she was a Muggleborn?"

"Alan, you heavily implied she was." His grin was positively superior now. "So, what House? Ravenclaw?"

"No," I muttered, letting my hair fall into my eyes. My cheeks were going red again. "Gryffindor."

Derek yelped and nearly fell off my bed. Despite the knots of anxiety that were forming in my stomach at an alarming rate, I burst out in laughter. He could be such a poser, exaggerating all over the place. When he recovered a bit and sat up straight again, his blue eyes were wide and astonished.

"A Gryffindor? Holy crap Al, sorry, but that's asking for problems. A Muggleborn Gryffindor? What did they feed you?"

I smiled. "Nothing. Or maybe a long-lasting Love Potion?" Derek snorted humourlessly and fell down onto the covers of my bed for the second time.

"Well, what's her name?"

"Louisa. Louisa Rosario."

Derek moaned and clapped his hands in front of his face. "That wouldn't happen to be the Gryffindor Seeker, right?"

"I'm afraid so," I responded, nervously clasping my hands together. Louisa was the Seeker of the Gryffindor Quidditch House team, and that match, Gryffindor versus Slytherin last year, had been the first time I had really noticed her, now nearly a year ago.

It had been her first season on the House team, so of course everyone had been paying extra attention. Ryan Rosario was Beater on there, and James Potter, a friend of his, was Chaser and the Captain. Most people had assumed the Rosarios were just there because they had connections with that Potter arse. Because Aiden was the Slytherin Seeker, I had been paying quite some notice to her, actually, to be able to warn Aiden if she saw something. But about halfway, I had become captivated with her gracious flying skills and had missed the fact that the Golden Snitch had soared right over her head.

"Her brother isn't exactly a friend of your brother, is he?" Derek asked, as if he knew where my thoughts were heading.

"Not exactly, no." To put it lightly.

"Let me sum this up," Derek said, holding up his hand. "She's Muggleborn. She's a Gryffindor. She's a rival on the Quidditch team. Her brother and yours absolutely detest each other. Not really the perfect girl altogether, right?"

"I know." Well, he wasn't being a complete idiot about it. It could've gone worse. Louisa's face swam in front of me again and I felt a strange kind of ache in my chest that was vaguely familiar.

... I missed her.

Derek hit me on the back and Louisa's image vanished. "Oh well, as long as you're happy, I guess." He stood up and yawned. "Come on, it's dinner time, that's why nobody's around..."

That evening, as I crept under the blankets, my mind was still on Louisa, having just seen her in the Great Hall. She had given me the barest of smiles, and I had given her the slightest of nods in return trying to appear disinterested, while in reality my heart would've been flying right out of my body had it not been for my ribcage. Damn, I really liked her. Why should I care about my bloodline? If I ever had children with Louisa, they'd be halfbloods, and I'd be proud of them.

Wait, you're thinking about kids already? With her? You don’t even know her! Get a grip on yourself and go to sleep, you never thought that. I turned over, heaved a sigh, and dozed off.

Little did I know that when I would wake the next morning, I would have dreamt of a pale young boy; his hair had been shining silver like mine as he walked in the dazzling sunlight. And he had been laughing freely, his soul shining through his face, looking at me over his shoulder with Louisa's beautiful dark brown eyes.

I didn't remember the dream until much, much later.

~*~

Chapter 5: Chapter Four: Not Over
  [Printer Friendly Version of This Chapter]

Disclaimer: Everything you recognise belongs to the wonderful J.K. Rowling. I thank her for being allowed to play with her characters and create my own little world with them. The name ‘Alucard’ was inspired by the Castlevania game series.

Author's Notes: As of 01/25/07, this story has had some upgrades in regards to themes. I've decided that all the 'Mild' ratings I had given should be 'Strong'. I'm very sorry if this inconviniences anybody, but it had to be done because otherwise I'd have to upgrade the rating, too. :( Thanks to Lurkey and Anony_Mouse, who reviewed Chapter 3. You're much appreciated. :)

~*~

Chapter Four – Not Over

To this generation
We cannot forget
The ones that we have loved
The ones we left behind
Don't be afraid to reach out
This world is changing fast
For those who take a stand
Heaven knows

We grieve in our life
Don't let us pay the price
So much grief in our life
It will fade over time

Anouk - Heaven Knows


~*~

"As you can see, we have gotten a new student in our midst today!" Professor Flitwick squeaked as he stood on top of his usual pile of books, beaming at somebody on the front row. Derek and I stopped arguing about whether or not the Cannons had been cheating in their last Quidditch match against the Harpies and curiously leaned forward like everyone else, trying to catch a glimpse of the newcomer. Even Gwendolyn quit brushing her hair and peered at the student in front of Flitwick with interest.

"What the heck?" Derek muttered. "That's... her! Rosario! That chick you have a cru –“

I elbowed Derek in the ribs to shut him up. Hadn't he ever heard of being subtle? Never mind the fact that I certainly didn't need him, or anyone, to introduce me to this girl. It was most definitely Louisa, with her long black hair in a loose ponytail and a Gryffindor scarf around her waist. She didn't really seem to notice all the Slytherins staring at her, and if it was bothering her, she wasn't letting it show.

Flitwick was practically bouncing on his feet with nerves, though. "Her name is Louisa Rosario, a Gryffindor fourth year, and she is such an excellent Charms student that I have allowed her to participate in fifth year classes. I hope you will all treat her with respect!" He smiled as he looked around the class, though it faltered a bit when we all merely looked back. However, when he made an attempt at starting the lesson, Gwendolyn put her hand up.

"If you don't mind me asking, sir, but why can't she be put with the Gryffindors in fifth year?" She shook her hair back, coolly glancing at Louisa, who did seem to be a bit unnerved by the amount of hostility Gwendolyn managed to put in the question. To my dismay, I heard several of my classmates mutter in agreement. It didn't help this class was solely with Slytherins and no other House to back Louisa up. I fumbled with my quill, waiting.

Our professor seemed oblivious to the slowly increasing tension in the air. "Ah, I beg your pardon Miss Court, but I am afraid Miss Rosario wasn't able to attend all of her classes with the fifth years of her own House. The timetables, you know. She will only be with us on Tuesdays. But I assure you, she really is fabulous!" He sent Louisa a fond beam yet again.

Gwendolyn huffed. "But Professor, you seem to overlook the fact some of us mind the company of Mudbl – I mean, Gryffindors. They can be very... distracting." Louisa bit her lip, bowing her head, and I took that as my cue to cut in.

"Oh, yes, very," I drawled out, my every word dripping with sarcasm. If nobody wants to defend her honour, then I will, I thought. "I see you missed a wisp of hair over there, Gwen. I am absolutely convinced that is because of the presence of one extra person. You might want to focus a little more while combing, as it seems to take up your brain’s complete concentration."

My roommates didn't disappoint me this time as their hoots of laughter rang through the classroom, followed by the girls' angry hisses. Derek managed to choke back his snorts long enough to call out, "I doubt she can try harder; she doesn’t have a brain, for starters." I managed to keep a straight face and evenly met Gwendolyn's glare, automatically raising my eyebrow.

"Stop, stop!" Flitwick cried as Richard nearly collapsed on his desk, shaking with mirth. His auburn hair could've used Gwendolyn's brushing charm. Our Charms professor coughed in an attempt to calm us down, as the girls, Caitlin in particular, were furiously throwing insults. They were such over-reactive hags. "Mr Malfoy, you will receive detention in my office this Friday, and no excuses!"

"What?" I jumped from my seat. "You can get punished for telling the truth now?" I got the impression Richard was dying – his face was red and he was holding his head in his hands, still trembling with suppressed snickers. Isaac thumped him on the back, perhaps a bit harder than was necessary.

"I said, Malfoy, no excuses! There will be no insults in my class! Sit down! Now, page –“

Derek interrupted him this time. "Court called Rosario a Mudblood. Well, she got the word half out. Doesn't that sound as an insult to you, Professor?"

The silence hung in the room for a while, until Professor Flitwick finally sighed, defeated. "All right – Miss Court, you will join Malfoy in detention Friday, eight o'clock, in my office. You will both be sorting papers."

I slid back into my seat, satisfied. However, this time Gwendolyn abandoned her chair and furiously opened her mouth. But to my amusement, nothing came out. She opened and closed her mouth several times without result. She had, quite effectively, been Silenced.

"Ugh, Alan, you're such a loser," Caitlin shot my way as Professor Flitwick impatiently removed the Silencing Charm with a wave of his wand.

"I did not –“ I started indignantly, since I really hadn't cast anything. But to my embarrassment, my voice had cracked rather obviously mid-sentence, skipping a few octaves on 'not'. Caitlin smirked.

"Aw, ickle Alan's growing up."

"You can mock my adolescence all you want as soon as you grow a pair, Caitlin," I retorted, my eyes on her flat chest, making it perfectly clear what kind of pair I exactly meant. Before I could gauge any kind of reaction, Flitwick lost his temper.

"Now, this is quite enough! I kindly ask you all to keep your grudges to your common rooms and own free time, and turn your attention to Charms, the subject of this period! We are done revising Summoning – all of you did well. Turn to page fifty-nine, please, and read the next chapter." He angrily slammed his hands on the desk in front of him, his pile of books trembling. A stunned silence followed. Flitwick hardly ever lost his temper.

He straightened up, and the stack of books he was standing on wobbled again. "Well?" he demanded.

There was an obedient rustling of pages and parchment before the room went entirely quiet, and slowly my rational train of thought caught up with me. Merlin, what had I done? I had just defended Louisa in front of all my classmates and a professor. Oh hell. Oh hell, oh hell, oh hell. What if she hadn't thought my joke was funny? Now I looked back on it, it had been rather immature. I could just see her rolling her eyes already. I dared to take a look at her, and abruptly my heart skipped a beat.

She had already been looking at me, a curious expression on her face. My hands started sweating. Oh Merlin, she's looking at me. She's actually looking at me. What the hell am I supposed to do?

But as soon as that thought entered my head, Flitwick started talking again, snapping Louisa's attention away from me. Derek prodded me in the side.

"Ow!" I hissed, jerking my eyes from the back of Louisa's head. "What?"

"That, my friend, is where you make a move," he replied under his breath. "What were you doing, staring at her like that?"

I fumbled with the corner of my parchment. Derek was right. What had I been doing?

I couldn't concentrate on the lesson. Whenever I tried, my eyes flew over to Louisa, watching her whirl a string of hair around her index finger. I wondered about what made her so attractive to me. Was it really just how she looked? Or was it because she was the forbidden fruit, Muggleborn and in Gryffindor? Or was there no rational explanation? I was so lost in thought that I got quite startled when Professor Flitwick addressed me. I realised he had been explaining something to the class.

"What is the answer to that, Mr Malfoy?"

I felt my face go flaming red as I tried to find words, but failed miserably. "I – I don't know, sir." I saw the Slytherin girls looking self-satisfied. They seemed to be enjoying my humiliation.

Professor Flitwick sighed. "Five points from Slytherin for not paying attention, Mr Malfoy. Next time it will be more."

"Yes, sir. I'm sorry," I muttered, not daring to look at the dark-haired girl sitting up front.

Flitwick turned to her. "Do you know the answer, Miss Rosario?"

She knew it. When she had given the answer, she turned her head slightly and, catching me off-guard, smiled at me. Having not seen that coming, I blushed and quickly cut off eye contact. Before I could feel too awkward about it, the bell rang through the castle and I hurriedly packed my stuff. I heard Flitwick call over the noise not to forget my detention.

I was about to head for lunch when someone tugged me aside. My stomach rumbled loudly. I was going to smack anyone who was standing between the food and me if I could help it. I glanced at whoever was holding the sleeve of my robes.

Never mind the smacking part. It was Louisa. Of course it was.

"Can – can I talk to you? You know, for a moment?"

"Go ahead, I'll be right back," I muttered to Derek, feeling a bit queasy. My friend wasn't exactly helping by ten folding the weird sensation in my stomach when he wiggled his eyebrows simultaneously. The mischievous spark in his eyes spoke volumes.

Louisa led me through the corridor and into the courtyard, still holding my robes. I was secretly hoping she wouldn't let go, but she did as soon as we were outside. A few birds chirped innocently at us, but other than them, there was nobody else – everybody was at lunch. It made my imagination work overtime as I thought about how she was going to confess she felt rather attracted to me as well...

"Why did you defend me in class?"

She tore me right from the middle of a nice vivid daydream where I was pinning her to the castle walls. I shrugged myself out of it, studying my knuckles. I had scratched myself somewhere; the graze was bright red on my pale skin. I shoved my hands into my pockets as I searched for an answer. I couldn't tell her I stood up for her because I liked her, could I now?

"I – it – I just don't really like Court," I mumbled. It was at least a half-truth. I looked up just in time to see a strange emotion flicker across her face. Disappointment? You are really getting your hopes up, Malfoy.

She sighed, apparently wanting to leave again. I frowned slightly. She'd dragged me all the way to the courtyard for that? "Okay. Well, I'll be getting lunch. See you around." As she turned, her robes whirling around her, it was like Derek whispered something right into my ear.

That, my friend, is where you make a move.

To my own surprise, I swiftly walked up to her, taking my hands out of my pockets. "I'll go with you." I wasn't sure if that was what Derek called a 'move', but I was flabbergasted enough that I had the nerve to walk next to her.

There was a cynical look upon her face when we started walking. "Won't your Housemates think you are – eh – mad, for walking around with a Mudblood?” She spat out the last word as if it left a nasty aftertaste in her mouth – which might've been the case.

I shrugged again. "Maybe, but they'll think it is okay if I tell them it's because I think you are really good-looking."

I did not just say that. No, no, no. Yes.

Our speed of pacing slowed down a bit as she replied, looking bemused. "Do you think I am? I mean, honestly?"

I raised my eyebrows at her question. It would be slightly awkward now if I said I didn't. "Of course I do." As if anyone in the right mind could think she was not.

She smiled half-heartily. "Well, thank you, then. You're quite handsome yourself." My stomach did a wild flip-flop as a blush crept on her face. "I mean – good Lord, I can't believe I admitted that. You're a Slytherin!"

My thoughts, however, were somewhere else now. She thinks I'm handsome. Merlin, this is my lucky day... well, I got detention too, so maybe not. But it's certainly not too shabby. Then perhaps I could ask her to... no! I quickly shook my head. "So by your logic, all Slytherins should be incredibly ugly."

"No!" she exclaimed, grinning. The dark blush hadn't entirely faded from her face yet. "But you are all so arrogant already; we can't go complimenting you all over the place. The Hall wouldn't be large enough for all those big egos flying around." She made the not-very-mature gesture of sticking her tongue out, wrinkling her nose in the process. I responded by pulling her long ponytail, which was pretty much an equally juvenile act. Her brown eyes twinkled.

We held our step on the threshold of the Great Hall. Some of the early eaters were already spilling out. I was about to walk over to the Slytherin table and appease my hunger (I could almost hear the growling) when Louisa quickly grabbed my hand. I became very aware of the fact that my hand was cold, while hers was a nice warm temperature. At the contact, I felt like a wave of heat washed over me, forming sweat drops on my forehead. Salazar, was this normal?

"I – eh –“ Louisa looked like she was hesitating a bit, but then a grin lit her face and she got on tiptoe, her mouth right next to my ear. I could feel her breathing lightly in my neck, making me suppress a shiver. "I was the one that Silenced Court," she mumbled, and got down on her feet again. Still smiling, she set off to the Gryffindor table as I watched her go.

She got that Charm pretty fast, all right.

~*~

"Come on, Alan, don't cop out. Ask her if she wants to go to Hogsmeade with you or something."

"Are you mad? It's way too soon for that."

"No, it's perfect. Tomorrow's a Hogsmeade outing, and you and she are acquaintances. I bet she'd say yes. I mean, for Salazar's sake, she told you she thought you were handsome! If that's not flirting, I don't know what is."

"I said she was pretty first."

"I swear, probably half the girls in Hogwarts would jump at the chance of a date with you. Trust me, I know a few who would."

"Keep on dreaming, Derek."

"Honestly Alan, you give yourself too little credit."

Derek threw a crumpled bit of parchment in the common room fire. He had been trying to pursue me in taking Louisa for the weekend to Hogsmeade ever since that Charms lesson. It was becoming very annoying. Though I had to admit it was a very good opportunity, I didn't want to scare her off so quickly. We were not friends and we were not enemies. I just thought it was much too early for us to start dating. I certainly didn't want to drill this potential relationship into the ground already because I couldn't wait.

On top of that, I had that stupid detention with Gwendolyn in about five minutes. At least I'd be able to escape Derek for a while. I chucked my Defence textbook in my bag and stretched. My spine cracked softly in several places.

"Nice one," Derek said as I stood up, shaking my arms a bit. "Have fun with Gwendolyn, if you know what I mean."

"Ugh, she's a nightmare. And you shouldn't think about 'having fun' with her; she's not blonde and you have a girlfriend."

"Yes, father," Derek answered, his tone bored. "I'd still do her in a heartbeat."

"Hear, hear!" Isaac said, having just gotten through the common room entrance and dropping into the chair I had just left. I hastily took to my heels and made my way to Flitwick's office.

To my annoyance, not Flitwick but Professor Potter was waiting there for me. He was impatiently tapping his foot as I whirled around the last corner. "You're late, Malfoy. How unlike you."

"Where's Fl – I mean, Professor Flitwick?" I asked, ignoring his latter remark. I was never late. In fact, I had the impression I was exactly on time. I would've looked on my watch, had I been wearing it, but it was on my nightstand in my dormitory right now. Professor Potter regarded me through his round spectacles, searching my face, before he responded.

"Professor Flitwick had other matters to attend. You will be having detention with me instead. Miss Court has already started, if she has bothered to follow my orders. Now, go along." He nudged my shoulder in the direction of his office before taking off and I grudgingly walked after him. After a few corridors, Potter spoke again.

"It's not something I see often, a prefect in detention. I always thought they were to obey the rules."

That stung – there was no accusatory undertone in his voice, but there was a certain degree of malice in it, flaring something up inside my chest. "I take it you never were a prefect, then," I spat back to defend myself. It was almost like Potter enjoyed getting a rise out of me. He didn't act like he had heard my anger.

"No, I wasn't a prefect. You are right."

Before I could get too worked up over it, we arrived at his office. Potter pushed me inside and stalked towards his desk. A tall stack of papers lay on top of it. He picked them up and pointed to the desk in front of his. "Sit down."

A quick scan of the room told me that Gwendolyn was sitting in the far corner of it, leafing through an equally large pile of files. She looked up for a split second, but paid me no further attention. I sat down where Potter told me to as he slammed the papers on the small table.

"File these on date. The caretaker has been looking for somebody to do it for a while." He took his own seat and started to mark essays. The one on top was by Aiden, I saw, and was titled, 'My humble opinion on the Dark Arts'. Like Malfoys ever had humble opinions.

My detention wasn't that bad, even though I was stunned that the caretaker had neglected these files for so long. I didn't count myself a neat freak, but all my homework was filed by myself at the Manor: first year, second year; Defence, Arithmancy; pass or not. That way I could look something up if I needed it and didn't have access to the Hogwarts library. True, the Manor had its own collection of books, but it wasn't as immense as the one in the castle. And to be frank, the knowledge the Manor contained was rather... limited.

I put a file dating from 1991-1992 aside when a name caught my eye – my father's. I leaned over it a bit so the professor wouldn't see what I was doing. On the faded parchment, I read:

Names: Hermione Granger; Neville Longbottom; Draco Malfoy; Harry Potter

Crime: Out of bed after curfew

Sentence: Detention in the Forbidden Forest (not otherwise specified) with Rubeus Hagrid; hundred-and-fifty points from Gryffindor; twenty points from Slytherin

Signed: Argus Filch, caretaker; Minerva McGonagall, Deputy Headmistress


Detention in the Forest? I had never heard anything of the sort – from my father, that is. It had been with Professors Granger and Potter – as well as a Neville fellow who could very well be Michael Longbottom’s father.

I glanced at the date again. Doing some fast math in my head, I discovered this had been in their first year. Four first years had gotten detention in the Forest – I wondered what they had been doing in there. Not otherwise specified sounded pretty ominous to me.

In the hours that followed, I encountered a lot more detentions concerning my professors and my father. One Ronald Weasley – whose name I recalled from first year, when we had learned about the War; wasn’t he Potter’s best friend? – kept popping up as well on various occasions. Quite a few seemed to have taken place in the dungeons. The thought amused me. Had a nice time pickling rats' brains, Potter?

According to the clock above the blackboard, it was one o'clock in the morning when Professor Potter told us we could stop. If I had to believe my results, the most detentions had occurred in the school year 1995-1996. The pile was about two times bigger than the other ones. The one that held the detentions in my year of birth – 2010 (school year 2010-2011) – was the smallest.

Just as we were dismissed and Gwendolyn swept out of the office without saying goodbye, a black-and-white photograph on the teacher's desk got my attention. I picked it up and examined it.

It contained a family in a large field; that much was obvious. A young man with messy hair, glasses, and a lightning-bolt scar on his forehead (Professor Potter, I realised) was sitting cross-legged on the grass, laughing and waving at me. On his lap was a toddler with the same hair but without the scar and without glasses. He was smiling into the camera as well. So that had to be... James Potter, the professor's son and that idiot in sixth year.

Sitting next to Harry Potter was a woman who had to be his wife, also with her legs crossed. She too was holding a child, but that was a girl and she appeared older than James. She looked about eight. Her hair was done in two braids and she was wearing glasses, but rectangular ones.

Standing up behind the married couple were two other girls, both already in Hogwarts since they were proudly wearing their robes, which were both adorned with a Gryffindor patch. The left girl, who was a bit smaller than the right one, so probably younger, had the same unruly hair as her father, only hers was quite a bit longer than his. The other girl had nice sleek hair falling to her shoulders. She was sporting round glasses, like her father.

"What are you doing, Malfoy?"

I jumped and nearly dropped the frame, but managed to compose in time. "Eh, nothing, sir. Just – just looking at this picture." I waved a bit with it for emphasis. The dark-haired man walked over to me and smiled when his eyes met the photo.

"Ah, yes, my family.”

“Sir? If I may ask – why don’t you have a more recent one? I mean – your son is in sixth year now, but in this picture he can’t be older than five.”

“Ah, a lot of people ask me that," my professor said, pointing at his son. "James is four in there, actually… I have it here because they are all still so young and innocent, don’t you think so? Even Emily, my oldest, isn't completely in puberty yet in here." He pointed at the taller girl.

"Emily?" It was quite a sensible name – something I had expected of Professor Potter, considering his – apparently – only son was named James.

"Yes, that’s right. She's about to start fourth year in this picture." My professor grinned broadly when his daughter waved vigorously at him. The difference with his normal, slightly sulking demeanour was rather stunning. His whole face seemed to light up as he talked about his family. "She's twenty-six now, and getting married this Christmas."

"Congratulations, sir." Hey, I could be a lot of things, but rude wasn't on top of the list.

"Thank you. And this is Sarah, my second daughter." His finger shifted from the taller girl to the one with the mass of hair. "I had to beat the boys away from her when she was at school – she's like her mother." He chuckled.

"She looks more like you, if I may say so." Sarah tossed her hair over her shoulder and put her hands on her hips. Or maybe not.

Potter smiled. "Yes, she has my hair, see? And she also has my eyes, though you can’t see it in the picture. But she's definitely more like Ginny – my wife – in behaviour. Very strong willed. She's two years younger than Emily, and reserve Seeker for the Cannons." The edge of pride in his voice was more pronounced than ever.

I nodded. "And what is her name?" I tapped my finger on the face of the little girl in the woman's lap. The corners of her mouth curled upwards while the imaginative wind whipped around her, harrying her two braids. She looked like she was the most innocent of all.

"That’s my last daughter, Phoenix. She graduated from Hogwarts two years ago with top marks."

I raised my eyebrows. "Phoenix?" Emily, Sarah, James and…Phoenix. Something doesn’t fit.

My professor's eyebrows creased a bit. "Do you think that's an odd name?"

Shrugging, I replied, "Well, if I do, it’s not like I have much room to talk, do I?" With such a stupid name like Alucard, nobody does.

Professor Potter's expression softened. "Ah well. I owe my live to phoenixes. They are beautiful creatures, in my opinion. And Phoenix here is the only Potter with red hair, so Ginny and I thought it would be an appropriate name. But you should be heading for your dormitory, Malfoy. It's getting late – or rather early."

I sighed and put the photograph back on the teacher's desk. The occupants were still waving. I said goodnight to my Defence teacher and went back to my common room. My eyes were itching and I was longing for some sleep.

~*~

I ended up not going to Hogsmeade with Louisa, despite Derek's constant persuasions. I simply wasn't ready, and Aiden would probably snitch on me to Father if he saw me – alone, without others– in the company of a Mudblood. The way my brother nearly worshipped our father was sickening, really.

But since Derek would be going with his girlfriend, Daisy, I was bound to go with somebody else if it couldn't be the person I wanted to go with. Well, the option of going on my own was also free, but on the walk to Hogsmeade, Richard joined me and we entered the Three Broomsticks together. I switched a few Sickles for two Butterbeers and got a table with my roommate. We sipped our bottles in silence for a while until Richard spoke up.

"There's a little art store somewhere up the road where I go on my Hogsmeade trips. Care to tag along?"

"Sure." It wasn't like that was going to take the whole day. "I want to go to Honeydukes first, though. If you want, we can go by the Musical Charm afterwards. There's a book on piano plays I've been looking for and I think they have it."

Richard twirled his bottle in his hand. "Couldn't find it in the library at school?"

I was about to reply when a loud group of sixth years strolled in, all with Slytherin scarves around their necks, which they pulled off as soon as they were inside. A flicker of platinum blond in the candlelight of the pub alerted me of the fact that this was Aiden with his gang. A number of girls were with them as well, making me suspect this was the whole Slytherin sixth year.

Brilliant. The group of five boys and three girls was heading our way, still calling rather than talking and the girls giggling excitedly. Richard shifted uncomfortably next to me, and I didn't blame him. Any half blood (or Muggleborn, for that matter) would have been nervous in a group of older Slytherins, whether they were one of them or not.

Aiden dropped into the seat on my other side, not even glancing at Richard. "Hey, look, it's my little brother! How are you, Alucard? These seats aren't taken, are they?" He made a wide gesture with his arm.

"Does it matter?" I replied grumpily, tapping the polished floor with my heel.

"Good point," Aiden said, motioning his friends to sit down as well. They had apparently been waiting for his permission to do so. "So where's Derek?" he asked, raising his voice over the scraping of chairs as he raised his bottle to his lips.

"If he's lucky, not in Madam Puddifoot's," I said, amusing myself for a split second with the mental image of Derek covered in pink confetti (never mind the fact it wasn’t Valentine’s Day). Too bad that in reality, Daisy Macmillan was a sensible girl, and shared my opinion on the teashop – revolting.

I got on my feet, eager to get out of my brother's company. If he wanted to speak with me, fine, but then it had to be without his clique staring at us with open mouths. Richard got up as well, taking his Butterbeer from the wooden table. I clapped Aiden on his shoulder.

"It was nice seeing you, but we weren't planning on sitting in a pub all day. I'll see you later."

My brother pushed his hair out of his grey eyes and took a swig from his Butterbeer before answering. "Bye, Alucard. Wait, on a side note – have you written to Father yet?"

"I was thinking of doing so this evening," I lied. Merlin, like I don't have better things to do than write letters to my loving father. It wasn't like he expected them from me, anyway. I had a hunch he read the letters I sent to my mother to get the general overview of my life at school.

Richard and I left the pub and after a quick stop at the sweetshop (where I bought enough sweets to last until the next Hogsmeade weekend) we headed right, into a little side street. Richard led me to a small, dusty shop, which I had never noticed before. The shop sign read 'Chap's Paintbrush'. A small bell clanged as we stepped inside.

It was really dusty. I coughed several times before looking around.

The shop looked pretty old. The boarded floor was a dull, blackish brown, and large wood splinters stuck up in some places. A little table in front of us was covered in books about art and sketchbooks in all sizes. To the right were easels, a variety of paintbrushes and pencils, and paint in all colours you could imagine. To the left was the cash desk. The man behind it was probably just as old as the shop itself – he looked like his brains had outgrown his skull.

Richard walked over to the old wrinkled man and whispered to him in hushed tones. The shopkeeper nodded and turned around, moving boxes as he searched for something. I wandered to the table and shifted through the sketchbooks. I found a very small one. It looked more like a notebook, actually – it fitted right in the palm of my hand.

"You buying that, laddie?"

I looked up. The shopkeeper had addressed me, and he was pointing at the thing in my hand. Richard was already standing in the doorway. I opened my mouth, intending to say I was just looking, but then shrugged and decided to buy it. I'm no artist, but maybe Richard can teach me to draw. I gave the man his two Sickles and left.

"What did you buy, Richard?" I asked at we walked in the watery sunlight.

"Oh, a special quill so I can do better ink drawings. Quills aren't great to draw with, but I would've liked to do it. And last weekend Chap told me he could get an Easy-Ink-Quill for me, and tada." He showed me the pitch-black quill for a moment before pocketing it. "So, the Musical Charm?"

I nodded and we turned into High Street again, where most of the student body was walking around, laughing and shouting and holding Butterbeers. Richard and I ditched our long-empty bottles in a dustbin along the way before entering the music-centred store.

In contrast to the Paintbrush, like the Three Broomsticks and the Hog's Head were contrasted, the Charm was warm and welcoming, with a light brown carpet and ivory walls. Golden chandeliers hung from the ceiling and rich dark red chairs were seated through the store. It must be said, their design was very nice – though as a proud Slytherin, I thought they could've cut down on the Gryffindor colours. But most important of all were, of course, the instruments. They had every single one, from the cello to the little wooden flute. Fleets of music drifted through the room towards us as we walked to the literature section.

Richard suddenly halted. "Alan, you don't mind if I –“ He waved his hand at the wind instruments. "You know, I'm going to have my mouth-organ checked. Good luck with the book." He hurried off in the opposite direction.

I blinked. What the... Why'd he run away so suddenly? Confused, I turned towards the bookshelves, and my question was answered. Oh, goody.

Ivan Crabbe, Isaac's brother, was sitting in one of the plush red chairs, reading (he could read?) a large, shiny book without a title. He was a seventh year and the Quidditch Captain of Slytherin House for the second year in a row. He had tried to talk me into Quidditch tryouts, but I had declined, though not for the reasons I had given (too busy with my studies, had to give it more thought, and so on). Nobody but Derek knew, but I was scared of heights. That was definitely not a lie; I got horribly shaky and nervous when we had our Astronomy lessons. So I couldn't fly – at all. Well, I'd had lessons in first year, but that had been terrifying, so never mind the actual Quidditch matches.

Ivan was mostly known for beating up non-purebloods, so that was probably the reason why Richard had fled. He hadn't noticed me, though. His trollish face was contorted in concentration, as if every word he read cost a huge amount of effort. I quickly disappeared between the bookcases and out of his line of sight. All right, piano section. I scanned the shelves, walking slowly. They were alphabetically ordered, so I was going for the 'P'. Piano, piano... ah, there it was!

Had I been a modest person, I would have said I was a 'reasonable' piano player. However, I was not modest, so therefore I often stated I was extremely skilled at playing the piano. I swore I was going to marry that thing someday.

I reached out for the top shelf, where the plays were standing. They had a lot of Muggle ones over here, even more than wizarding concerts, but I wouldn't dare play them in case my parents found out. Now they didn't listen to music, so they wouldn't know magical music from its Muggle counterpart to save their lives, but a few of their 'friends' did, so I should better be careful.

As I heard a few girls giggle at the end of the row, I carefully took out a rather old looking booklet, visibly a hand-me-down, and let out breath I didn't know I'd been holding when it came down unscathed. I opened it and looked at the index. Nothing interesting in there... I ran a hand through my hair, felt it slip back into place and put the book back again.

The girls that had previously been giggling were now having a hushed argument. One of them said 'No!' rather hotly, and then dropped her voice again. At least they weren't shouting. I was about to pull another book from its place when someone spoke my name. Surname, that is.

"Hello, Malfoy."

I looked down and immediately felt my face break into a stupid grin. Damn, damn, damn! Don't sneak up on me like that!

Louisa was standing about two feet away from me, smiling as if she knew she had just given me a total fright. Trailing behind her were two girls, who were probably her friends by the looks of it. One had two short brown pigtails and was eyeing me suspiciously; the other one was a blonde with her hair tied to the back and was hiding her mouth behind her hands, giggling. They clearly were the girls I had heard before.

"Hi. How are you?" I asked Louisa, holding her gaze. Thank Merlin my voice didn't crack again.

"I – I'm okay," she said, not looking away. "Oh, and these are my friends, Cassie Creevey and Laura Mitchels." She gestured to the two girls, who moved forward a bit, though the brunette rather grudgingly.

Deciding to stay civil, I smiled at them. "Nice to meet you." They both looked somewhat taken aback and exchanged glances. Louisa looked pretty embarrassed. Actually, she was just pretty... Wisps of black hair had escaped her ponytail again and she hadn't pushed them back, so they danced around her face. It was cute, really.

One of her friends coughed and started speaking, but I didn't bother looking up to see which one. "Are you here alone?"

Louisa quickly turned my way and I didn't look away fast enough. Our eyes locked again. Hers were looking like they were daring me to drop my gaze, so I didn't.

I folded my arms. "No, I'm here with a friend of mine, Richard Fammet. Do you know him?"

"Yes, he's the one with the red hair, right?" The girl speaking sounded quite breathless as I nodded. "But aren't you better friends with Derek Nott? Where is he?"

I smiled as the image of Derek in a pink teashop caught my mind's eye for the second time. "I hope for his sake not in Madam Puddifoot's," I said again, and a huge sense of content filled me when Louisa laughed. One, I had her amused. Two, it surely meant she wasn't very fond of teashops either, and that could only be good.

I heard footsteps behind me, followed by Richard's voice. "Did you find what you were looking for, Alan?"

Damn, the book. Well, I'll find it some other weekend. My eyes were unwilling to leave Louisa's. I tried to savour the moment a bit longer. "Not entirely. But the visit wasn't quite... wasted." Okay, then I had to drag my eyes from her face because I was turning red. I just knew it. I briefly inclined my head to Louisa before walking out with Richard. I hadn't even said goodbye to her friends. Oops.

The sun was shining a bit brighter now, though it wasn't exactly warm. I wrapped my green-and-grey coloured scarf around my throat. I felt like doing a jig on the spot. Well maybe not, but I was still in a very good mood after yet another encounter with a certain Gryffindor. Until I spotted a knowing smirk on Richard's face, that was.

"What?" I asked, not completely sure why I was feeling offended.

His smirk broadened. "You are so getting into trouble with her."

"What do you mean?"

He sighed and rolled his eyes, and his grin slightly faltered. "Just saying nobody in your family is going to like that."

"Like what?" Did I have to drag it out of him?

He stood still, grabbed me by my cloak, and shoved me against the wall of the Three Broomsticks. My hand grazed against the rough stone. Ouch. "Are you dense, Alan? They aren't going to like you running off with a Muggleborn, that's what."

I nervously swallowed, feeling my Adam's apple bob up and down. "Was it that obvious?"

"Clear as daylight," Richard said as he released my collar, which he had been gripping tightly. "You're lucky that Ivan bloke left early on; he could've blabbed to your brother. I mean, I don't care what blood your girlfriend is, heck I'm half blood, but you should be careful. Both my sets of grandparents got killed in the War because my dad was a Muggleborn."

"We're no longer at war, Richard," I scoffed, straightening my cloak. Apparently, I shouldn't have said that, since I was immediately slammed into the brick wall again.

"We may not be in a goddamn war anymore, but your family still holds Voldemort's point of view, even though he's dead!" Richard breathed in my face. "How do you know your dad wasn't a Death Eater? I know your grandfather was! If your dad was on Voldemort's side in the war, he'd want revenge! And if you are off dating a Muggleborn, you are giving him and all the others a reason to lash everything out on you!" His grip on my robes relaxed. "Don't you see, Alan? By losing the war, they failed. And you of all people should know that Slytherins do not like to fail."

"What do you mean by that?" I snapped, throwing him off me. "And I don't know if my father was a Death Eater, but if he was, so be it. I won't be somebody who cares. The War is over, and its aftermath has passed. Let it go, Richard, you aren't the only one with losses." I gingerly touched my neck where my robes had left a slight rash. "Merlin, you’re overreacting."

Richard let out a frustrated growl, putting his hands in his hair. "Alan, Voldemort died, but his ideas didn't die with him!" He sighed, lowering his voice. "Look, Alan, I don’t want you into trouble, all right? I’m looking out for you. You can’t just go out with her and act as if there’s nothing wrong with it –“

“There is nothing wrong with it!”

“I know! But taking your family background into account, they will think it is! Why don't you understand? The War was hard on everyone."

I pushed past him, stalking off to the castle. There was no arguing with him – how dare he tell me I didn't understand. Of course the War had been hard, but that was a problem of the last generation, and nothing we, the current one, should care or worry about. We had learned about it in Defence against the Dark Arts, first year, and that had been quite enough in my opinion. And I did not see the link between the War and Louisa. None. None. Like I was proud that my grandfather had been one of the main Death Eaters. He should have rot away in Azkaban, but he died quick and without pain, from what I heard. Pity.

Richard caught up with me. "For Christ's sake, Alan, don't just run away when you're in an argument."

"I'm not running away, I'm giving up. And outside the Three Broomsticks is not a good place to have an argument like that."

“The aftermath is not over yet. My grandparents –"

“Maybe it isn’t to you. But it is to me. I won’t let a sodding war ruin my life when it’s been over for a few decades.”

We reached the castle in a stony silence, neither of us wanting to drop our point. Stupid war, I thought, as we descended to the dungeons. Even when it's over, people still fight over it. I wish it never happened.

~*~

Author's Notes: Thanks for reading!

Chapter 6: Chapter Five: The Pendant
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Disclaimer: Everything you recognise belongs to the wonderful J.K. Rowling. I thank her for being allowed to play with her characters and create my own little world with them. The name ‘Alucard’ was inspired by the Castlevania game series, but the character is in no way connected to them.

Author's Notes: Thanks so much for the reviews, everyone! It's really appreciated over here. Writing this chapter made me want to throw my computer out of the window, so be prepared. ;)

~*~

Chapter Five

Those who are at war with others are seldom at peace with themselves.


~*~

Groaning inwardly, I scribbled through another sentence of my Transfiguration essay. Wrong, wrong, wrong – Vanishing animals and Conjuring them back could kill them, if you didn't possess enough determination. Right. I wrote down the correct facts above the part I had just crossed out. Next to me, Derek was Vanishing somebody's toad under his breath, sometimes following the incantation with a colourful vocabulary.

“I should give you detention for that,” I muttered, dotting the 'i's in my last sentence. "You're not allowed to use spells on living creatures outside of lessons."

"Oh, shut your gob, little prefect," Derek retorted, his face flushed with annoyance – though it could also be from the heat of the common room fire. "What else am I supposed to practice on? You all can already Vanish kittens, I'm still stuck on bloody mice. Stupid heads."

“You don't concentrate enough,” I shot back, leaning back in my chair. “Look, you have to –“

Before I could finish speaking, there was an outcry of victory from the dormitories. Several people, including myself, turned their heads, eager to have some distraction from their homework.

Three boys – I recognised them as first years – ran up the stairs leading to the dormitories, laughing and yelling at a fourth boy behind them. One of them was clutching a fat, shiny black rat. The animal was squeaking and thrashing, trying to break free with all his might, his long bald tail flipping up and down.

"Not Jack!" the fourth boy cried out as he ascended the stairs with his short legs. "Please, leave him alone, he hasn't done anything!"

The three others ignored him and ran towards the back of the common room, where the study tables were. The entire House fell silent as they kept calling out to their roommate, clearly taunting him.

"Come on, mates," the one who was squashing the rat said, "we're going to murder this stupid thing for being stupid and stinking."

"Smashing idea," one of the others, a short and chubby boy, agreed, "let's sacrifice it to Salazar Slytherin!"

I slowly got out of my seat. Slytherin had always been about power plays – the ones who didn't play along either followed or got rejected. If you got the choice to follow, that was. In general, the murkier your blood, the less importance you held. This boy – the one who looked on the verge of tears – was probably Muggleborn. I briefly touched my prefect badge, reminding myself of my duties. I had to cut in... these boys looked like they were actually determined to kill the rat.

Students that had previously been scattered across the room were now approaching, some looking merely curious, others had a hungry gleam in their eyes. My gaze crossed my brother's; his expression was one of amusement. I searched for Sally – I had rather not take this on my own. But she was standing in the corner of the chamber, with the rest of the girls, pointing and grinning at the first years. Her badge was not on her robes.

I sighed, rolled up my essay, thrust it in my pocket and strode over, taking no notice of Derek’s calls of ‘Alan!’ I could feel every person's gaze follow me. Yes, look at me. Nobody's going to dare and stop a Malfoy, even if he's not the heir. Pure blood, it mattered that moment.

I stopped in front of the little clique, staring down at them. They really were small.

The rat that had previously been struggling for its life was now flat on the table, quivering over its whole body. The boy who had been holding it had his wand out, but he was nervously looking at me, apprehensiveness written all over his face. This was the first year that had bumped into me on the first day back, I realised. Idiot.

I took care to hold my face expressionless. "What's your name?"

"Dan Pritchard," he mumbled, looking at his feet. His two friends were gazing up at me, though. The chubby one opened his mouth as to say something, but the other boy quickly stood on his foot and shared a look with him.

"Pritchard," I repeated, "what were you planning to do with that rat, again?"

Dan visibly swallowed, making me bite back a grin. Being a pureblood Slytherin – not to mention a prefect – was so enjoyable, at intervals. "I – we were going to kill it. Just for fun, you know." He glanced over at his friends for support, but they had all backed down. I saw the rat scuttling forward from the corner of my eye and I quickly slammed my hand on its long bald tail, preventing its escape. Pritchard jumped.

"Is that so," I stated, picking the rat up from the table by its tail. "And what has this rat done to deserve that?"

The rat squealed and thrashed again, trying to bite me. A lot of the people that were standing around us, looking on, sniggered. I eyed it warily and held it at an arm's length before turning to the first year again. He looked down at his feet, his hands held behind his back.

"The – it hasn't done anything," he said. "I – I mean, Clambert –“

"I haven't done anything to you either!"

I turned around, staring at the boy who seemed to be the owner of the rat. His face was streaked with tears, but it was also contorted in anger as he pointed at his classmate. I raised my eyebrows.

"Yes? Clambert, I assume?"

"They… they..." The boy had trouble forming words in his fury; his face was dark red and his hands were clenched into fists. "They just want to kill him because... because I'm not a pureblood wizard!" He stamped his feet, tears spilling on his robes, before he turned around and ran out of the common room.

There was a pregnant silence, and then students started laughing and spreading again. The show was over. Pritchard was about to walk away, but I managed to grab his shoulder, slipping the rat into my pocket with my other hand.

"Don't let this happen again, or it'll be detention, understood?"

He nodded, jerked his arm from my grip and joined his friends. I sighed. He'd probably think it was a nice adventure later that evening. Feeling the rat wriggle in my pocket, I threw Sally a filthy look as a thank you and followed Clambert into the dungeons.

It wasn't that hard to find him – I heard sniffles coming through the corridor and after trying a few doors, I discovered him present in an unused Potions classroom, sitting at a desk with his face buried into his arms. I let the door of the room slam behind me to make my presence known. He didn't even flinch, though the sobbing stopped rather abruptly.

I walked over and went to put my hand on his shoulder, but stopped myself before I could actually touch him. Right – now what? I hadn't thought so far to think I should console this first year. Why the hell did I follow him? This 'act now, think later' attitude was a little too Gryffindor-ish for my tastes.

"What do you want." The first year sounded tired and like he had a bad cold.

I didn't allow myself to hesitate and went to sit right next to him, placing my hand on his shoulder anyway. "Just checking on you."

"You don't have to. Go away."

This was going to be hard – and I didn't even know what 'this' was. I put my elbow on the desk in front of me and leaned on it with my head, facing him – what was his name again – Clambert. I nudged him a little with my other hand, trying to coax a reaction out of him.

"You remember my speech at the beginning of the year, right? If you have problems, authority is always there."

The boy snorted, but quickly moved his hand to his face. Ugh. I conveniently looked the other way as he wiped his nose on his sleeve. What an old dungeon this was. Probably used last about twenty years ago. It was a bit dusty and the open storage board revealed nothing except a dead mouse, which had probably kicked the bucket a few years earlier.

"I don't care about authority," Clambert suddenly said, catching my attention again. "They just don't do anything. I told the other prefect and she didn't care."

"Sally?"

"Yeah, her. She said I had to leave her alone and mind my own business, and that if I couldn't handle my problems myself, I didn't belong in Slytherin." He forcefully rubbed his eyes, his mouth setting in an angry line.

"Nonsense," I automatically replied. "The Sorting Hat is always right. He puts you where you belong." I tried to ignore the self-doubt rising in my gut, telling me that the Hat had told me I'd fit in better with the Hufflepuffs or Ravenclaws. Not that they were bad people, or dull people, per se... Just that I didn't want to belong in those Houses. No, I didn't. Didn't, didn't, didn't.

"But," Clambert said, shaking his head, "the Hat also said I looked like a Hufflepuff. Because I like working hard. But then... then it said I work hard because I have a goal, and it asked me if I'd do anything to achieve it. And I said yes, I would, and it put me right in Slytherin." He sobbed again. "I wish I hadn't."

Ha, another part-Hufflepuff. Speaking of the Dementor. I absently rubbed my chin, trying to think of a good reply. There was no way I would tell him I could have been a Hufflepuff too – that was private. What else could I tell him? Slytherins weren't all nasty; they just minded their own business?

"Do you shave already?"

I blinked at the unexpected question and the abrupt change of topic. "What?"

"You know, your beard and everything? How old are you?" Clambert asked with unabashed curiosity written across his suddenly much too eager face.

I raised my eyebrows. "Trying to change the subject, are we?"

"Or you are," he said, smirking and leaning backward in his chair. "If you started Hogwarts at eleven, you have to be at least fifteen, right? Oh, great," he laughed, all traces of tears gone, "my older brother is fourteen and he's been shaving for a long time!"

"I never said I didn't," I retorted, feeling my face with both hands now. Now that it was mentioned... it was kind of fluffy around the side of my jaw. How did I fail to see that each morning?

I heard Clambert snicker. "Too bad you don't have dark hair, hm? Blond blokes with facial hair look stupid."

"Why, thank you," I said mildly. "Why don't you act like this around your classmates, ridiculing people left and right? You'll be liked much better than if you keep moping around about some rat – oh, by the way." I took the rat, which I had entirely forgotten, out of my pocket. It had been fast asleep and didn't seem to like its removal at all.

"Jack!" Clambert exclaimed, grinning as I handed him the rat. "You're alive!"

"Of course he is. Did you think I would have left him there?"

"Er..." He blushed faintly. "Well, yes."

Hmpf. So much for making a good impression. I stood up and dusted my robes off. Clambert got up as well, Jack the rat peacefully on his shoulder.

"Are you going to the Quidditch match tomorrow?" he asked me, looking interested. "I've never seen one before – I'm Muggleborn, you see. Are they fun?"

"Yes, I'm going," I said, the image of a certain Gryffindor briefly coming up in my imagination. "And yes, they are lots of fun to watch, actually. It can get quite rough sometimes, especially between Gryffindor and Slytherin."

"Can I come with you? To the match?" Clambert asked eagerly, biting on his lip. "I don't want to go alone."

Surprised, I raised my eyebrows again. "Why don't you go with your classmates? You'll never get accepted by them if you keep avoiding them."

He frowned. "They'll just say I have to go away. Maybe I don't want to be accepted by them. I probably never will be, anyway."

I shrugged and held the door open for him. "That's life. Sometimes you have to adapt to survive. If you don't try, you lose by default."

Smiling a little, Clambert walked over and followed me out of the dungeon. I shut the door – it jammed a bit – and planned to go back to the common room, expecting Clambert to follow me again. He stayed, however, his shoulders hunched a bit and his hands in his pockets.

"I – we – shall –" He took a deep breath. "I won't go to the common room just yet. I'm going to walk around a bit. Don't worry, I won't get lost." He quickly turned on his heel and went in the opposite direction. Fine, I thought. Let him mind his own business. I turned as well. I needed to finish the Transfiguration essay.

"Oh, Malfoy?"

I stopped. "Yes?"

"Don't try to act and talk like an old wise man. It doesn't suit you."

I looked just in time to see him grin and hurry into the dungeons. When did I do that, again? I don't think I'm an old wise man. Faintly amused by the thought of myself as old and wrinkled, I walked off. Brat.

~*~

"I can't believe it took you a first year to notice that, Alan."

"It was barely visible. You can't blame me."

"You've said that about ten times now. Now stop drooling over your reflection, you vain person, we're going to be late for the match."

I glanced at the mirror one last time, moving my hand over my cheeks. "All right, all right. Let me put my shoes on and we can go."

"Good," Derek's voice sounded peeved. "You've been in there long enough. Like she will notice you in the stands when she is up there in the air looking for the Snitch. Hah. No way."

I got out of the bathroom and dropped to my knees, looking for my shoes under my bed, while Derek droned on. "Honestly, Alan. I'm over the shock, and now I don't know why you like her. I mean, she's not even pretty."

"Because Salazar forbid me from having different tastes," I muttered, retrieving one shoe from the depths of my bed. "Do you know where the other one is, Derek?"

It narrowly missed my head as he threw it at me, and it hit the wall behind me with a loud thump. I looked up, annoyed.

"What is wrong with you?"

"Oh, nothing, just the fact that we're being late. Hurry up."

Fifteen minutes later we were running up to the Entrance Hall, passing a few stragglers and people who apparently rather studied instead of watching a Quidditch match. Mental. Sitting inside was an activity you could do at all times – Quidditch, on the other hand...

As we walked outside, my foot hit something black laying on the ground. Derek huffed impatiently as I bent down to pick it up. It was some kind of necklace with a black star-shaped pendant hanging from it. The stone was chipped and dull, as if it had been worn for a long time. Apparently the lace it was attached to had worn down so much it had broken.

"Alan, this is not the time –“

I stuffed the object in my pocket and headed towards the Quidditch field, Derek right behind me. We got into the stands (I took care not to look down before I sat as my stomach was rather queasy that day) and Derek began to tell me about his plans to try out for the Slytherin Quidditch team next year.

"When that seventh year Beater leaves, I think. Do you think I'll be a good Beater, Alan? Don't answer – I know I will be. I'll work out over the summer too – buff tends to work well if you want to get that spot."

Just as I nodded, the Slytherin changing room doors flew open and the players marched onto the field. I saw Ivan Crabbe and my brother talking to each other as they approached the middle of the field, the other players trailing behind them. There was only one girl on the team – the first one in decades, too – Angela Vow. She was quite possibly the best Chaser in the school, apart from perhaps James Potter. She was in the back of the line, looking at the ground. The rest of the team was herded together, and even as I sat there, up in the stands, I could hear their sniggering.

From the other side of the pitch, the Gryffindors came out of their rooms in their scarlet red Quidditch robes. My eyes automatically fell on the only black-haired girl of the team. Louisa was walking behind her brother, her broom held over her shoulder as she talked with one of her teammates who I didn't know the name of. James Potter swaggered forward to shake Madam Hooch's hand – that woman was way too old to sit on a broom – and told his team to line up. Ryan Rosario was slamming his Beater bat on his palm while he took his space next to Potter. Merlin, they were such arrogant pigs.

The Slytherins lined up as well and I saw Ivan Crabbe shake Potter's hand. They then mounted their broomsticks, and as soon as the whistle – well, whistled – they were off.

"Yes!" Derek yelled, jumping right out of his seat. "Get the Quaffle, get the Quaffle –“

The rest of his chanting was drowned out by the voice of Andrew Weasley, who was commentating.

"And the first Quidditch match of the season has started – this is bound to be a good season for everyone – well, I wouldn't know about other Houses, but Gryffindor certainly has gotten new talent – say hello to their new Keeper, Justin Javensen!"

There was a roar of noise from the other side of the Quidditch field and I dutifully booed along with the Slytherin crowd. Javensen had just stopped the Quaffle thrown by one of our Chasers and threw it to James Potter, who immediately flew off with it.

"...And a brilliant pass by James Potter – he gets it passed back – dives – throws the Quaffle – SCORES! Ten-zero to Gryffindor, the noble House!"

"He's bloody biased!" Derek yelled above the loud cheers from the Gryffindors. "Noble House, my arse!" This exclamation was met by approving statements left and right until Slytherin was in possession of the Quaffle again. Derek sat down, grinning widely. I glanced at Louisa, who was circling above the game like an eagle eyeing its prey. As I was looking, Aiden flew up behind her. I could see his mouth moving, but what exactly he was saying I didn't know. Louisa, however, turned around and made a rude hand gesture. Smirking, I returned my attention to the game again.

Slytherin scored three times in quick succession, leaving the wave of red and gold in the stands screaming with disparagement. Andrew Weasley's commentating got so out of hand Professor Granger, who was sitting next to him, jerked the megaphone from his hands, leaving him yelling: "Múm! You can't do that!"

"I'm your mother, I can do whatever I want. Keep your commentating unbiased."

"Yeah, you tell him, Professor!" I heard Isaac call somewhere behind me. Like you wouldn't be biased, Isaac, I thought distasteful.

Weasley managed to get his megaphone back and resumed his reporting of the match. "All right, Potter plays to McDonald, who gets a nice throw at the left hoop – nope, Montez has it, he passes to Davies – ah, Potter intercepts and is flying towards Montez at top speed – look out James, a Bludger! Ack, bad luck, mate."

James Potter dropped a few feet before he managed to pull up again – Isaac Crabbe, who had sent the Bludger at him, punched into the air, tossing his bat up as well. A Slytherin Chaser had snatched the Quaffle when it had fallen from Potter's grip, and after pulling a feint on Javensen, put it right behind him.

Weasley cursed loudly into the megaphone, turning away from Professor Granger. Before she had the chance to reprimand him, however, two different coloured figures suddenly dived, taking all the attention. I jumped up quickly, excitement flowing through my veins.

Aiden and Louisa were hurtling downward in such a steep angle with the ground I was afraid they'd both be smashed. I looked down, searching for that glint of gold that was the Snitch. I nervously leaned towards Derek, who was stomping with his feet on the ground while pounding his fists in the air. "Do you see the Snitch?"

Derek's antics stopped, and he looked as surprised as I did, his gaze frantically taking in the field. "What – no, I don't. Where –“

Just then, Aiden broke off the dive, hurtling upwards again. With wide eyes I watched Louisa pull up just in time to avoid contact with the ground. Now she was a bit closer, she looked thoroughly shaken. Aiden, on the other hand, was looking rather smug, waving off the cheers from the Slytherin stands.

"A Wronski Feint," Andrew Weasley said dully. "Yes, yes, it was almost successful. Try harder next time, Malfoy."

There was some appreciative laughing throughout the stands as Aiden threw Weasley a filthy look. The game went on again, a few scores on both sides, and I was getting bored. I took out the necklace again. The pendant had been of fine quality – that much was obvious – it had probably worn with age. The star – which consisted of connected lines – was encircled with another line. Now I could look better, there were some very dark green blots between the black. Interesting. I turned it around, to see if there were any initials carved into it. But no – it was completely smooth. I checked the lace. It was black as well, though faded. It had snapped where the pendant had hung all that time, as there was a small knot in the middle. Without thinking clearly, I repaired it and put it on. Finder keeps, right?

Again, both Seekers suddenly shot through the air, leaving the stand up and screaming. I hastily put the pendant under my robes and stood up, cheering on – though for whom, I didn't know. Derek was hollering at Aiden, beating my back multiple times in his enthusiasm.

Aiden was in the lead, soaring after the little golden ball with his hand outstretched. He almost had it... it was almost over... only a few more inches…

WHAM.

A Bludger had hit Aiden full in the head and the red and gold supporters screamed with excitement, while all the Slytherins groaned. Aiden had fallen off his broom; he was probably unconscious. The side of his head looked particularly nasty, even from that distance. Andrew Weasley was beside himself.

"Ryan Rosario, one of Gryffindor's Beaters, forced a Bludger against the big fat head of Slytherin's Seeker! Revenge is sweet indeed! And now Louisa Rosario is heading for the Snitch – she has no competition!"

I watched how Louisa desperately stretched out her arm, her hand reaching for the Snitch. After several heart-stopping seconds, she snatched it out of the air and held it high above her head. Gryffindor had been the victor this match.

Regarding Aiden still lying motionless on the ground, I climbed out of the stands together with the other Slytherin supporters and approached my brother, who was just being heaved onto a stretcher by Professor Malyras. He nodded at me and jerked his head in the castle's direction before setting off. The rest of the Quidditch team was shuffling back to the changing rooms. None of them seemed to go with the Potions Master, so I did.

"Professor?"

He grunted, what I took as a sign to go on.

"Do you think he's seriously injured?" I was careful to keep the concern out of my voice.

Professor Malyras merely shrugged. "Not a Healer." Sheesh, that man really didn't have a way with words.

We entered the hospital wing and Madam Meddletin, the nurse, immediately came bustling over to lay my brother on a bed. She shooed us out and pulled curtains around the bed. Malyras shrugged again and left, muttering to himself about some potion. I sat down on a bed close to the one where the nurse was working on my brother, clasping my hands in my lap.

It took long. I watched the hands on the clock opposite of me move. Fifteen minutes... thirty... an hour...

Finally, Madam Meddletin emerged. When she saw me sitting, she smiled reassuringly.

"He'll be fine. It's a cracked skull – in several places as well. I'll need to be with him for one more hour and then feed him a few potions. Don't worry; it'll be all right. You can go down to your common room."

"No," I said. "I'm staying here." There was nobody from the Slytherin team here, and I didn't want my brother waking up with nobody there. Madam Meddletin raised no objections, but she did shake her head a little.

I kept sitting, and dusk began to fall. I hadn't noticed the length of the match, but it had to be at least three hours. Not to mention it was November; it was bound to get dark early. I pulled my scarf from my neck, absently wrapping it around my wrist and poking holes through the wool.

I suddenly heard the door of the infirmary open and footsteps walking towards me. I was too tired to look up; my back was aching from where Derek had been hitting me and my shoulders were sore of the tension. I wanted Aiden to get up and walk to the common room with me. Or at least have somebody of the team here, to see if anybody except me cared about him.

"I'm sorry; where is Madam Meddletin?"

My stomach lurched and I slowly lifted my neck, which was totally stiff from sitting in one position for so long. The sight of a tanned girl dressed in scarlet Quidditch robes met me. My mouth formed a small 'o'. For once, I wasn't really in the mood to see her.

"Oh. Hi."

"Are you..." she started, shuffling her feet. "Are you also... hurt?"

"No."

An awkward silence settled between us.

After what could have been a minute, but felt like an hour, Louisa approached me and nudged my knee with her foot. "Move over."

Startled, I asked: "What?"

"Move over, I said." She sat next to me as soon as I gave her space, making the bed creak softly. My mind was still occupied with the bed next to us, where Madam Meddletin was working on Aiden, and for that I was rather glad - otherwise I would have been racking with nerves at the mere idea of sitting on the same bed as Louisa Rosario. Now I only felt a warm sort of glow in my chest. Louisa took a deep breath. "Are you here for your brother?"

"Yeah."

Another pause.

"Where's the rest of the team? Surely they dropped by?"

"No."

She nudged my knee again. "Come on, talk. Don't look so grouchy."

"You'd look grouchy too if your brother was lying in there with a cracked skull," I replied dully, working my index finger through my scarf and pointing at the curtains with my other hand.

She raised her eyebrows. "He's got a cracked skull? Well," she sighed, "I shouldn't be so surprised. That Bludger was rather hard, don't you think? Anyway, I assume that's where Madam Meddletin is. I think I twisted my wrist when trying to get out of that steep dive and it didn't hurt that much, just a little bit, but I ought to have it checked out just in case." She said that all very fast and breathless, glancing at me from the corners of her eyes. I shrugged, and suddenly feeling very fatigued fell backwards onto the bed, groaning softly.

"I think I'm dead."

I heard her giggle. "You can still talk."

"Oh, haha. Very funny. By the way, good game." It tumbled out, but I didn't feel sorry at all. Especially not when she was smiling at me like that...

"Thank you," she said quietly. After pausing for a few seconds, she added: "I'm sorry for your brother."

I snickered. "No you're not. Stop lying."

Her cheeks turned a dark red, which made her look even prettier. "I thought it would make you feel better. I mean, nobody of the team is here; I would have thought they would care about their Seeker being injured and everything. It must be hard on you."

I sat up and held her gaze for a while, scrambling my thoughts together before speaking them. When I did, I chose my words very carefully. "I am touched by the fact that you want to make me feel better."

Despite my carefulness, the words sounded far more intimate than I had intended, and we both quickly looked away. Luckily Madam Meddletin just came back and drew the curtains away, revealing Aiden with so many bandages around his head it looked like he was wearing a turban. He seemed to be sleeping very deeply. I threw the nurse a questionable look. She smiled again.

"I gave him a Dreamless Sleeping Potion. The Bludger addled his head a bit, but he should be able to talk to you tomorrow morning. I'm sorry you waited here for nothing, Alucard, but I'll be sure to tell him you were here the whole afternoon as soon as he wakes up."

I nodded and stood up. I'd go to the dormitory – I wasn't particularly hungry anyway, so why go to dinner? As I walked towards the door, I heard Louisa talk to the nurse. Fine. Don't say goodbye, then. Like I care, really.

It was stupid that something so simple as that could hurt me so bad.

~*~

The next morning, November eighteenth, was my birthday. Considering my brother was laying unconscious in the hospital wing, I didn't immediately jump out of bed to open my presents. I kept the blankets tucked around me, my face pressed into my pillow. Would Aiden be awake already? Probably not, if his injury really was as bad as the nurse had said. Had she told Aiden I had been there the whole afternoon, watching out for him? Surely he hadn't slept through the night without waking up. Though, to be fair, I couldn't remember the last time I'd had a Sleeping Potion – Dreamless or otherwise – so I wouldn't know their effects that clearly anymore.

It felt close to moronic to think about my brother with so much concern. Didn't he annoy me, licking Father's boots all the time? Wasn't I a little jealous – if I was completely honest with myself – that he often got Father's utmost attention? There were so many things I couldn't stand about him, from prancing around with his umpteenth new racing broom to pestering me about my OWLs. I should be glad he was down and out for a while.

Then again, he was my brother – my annoying brother, yes, but still my brother. It was only natural to worry about him, right? Anyway, it was just a cracked skull – Madam Meddletin probably mended it in no time, and when Aiden would wake up this morning, he'd be up and about faster than one could say 'Bludger'.

With that soothing thought still in mind I yawned, sat up and pushed my curtains aside.

"Happy Birthday, Alan!"

A pillow hit my head hard, throwing me back on the mattress again. Taken completely by surprise, I looked up. My roommates were already out of bed, dressed and well, all three looking at me with wide grins plastered on their faces. Derek was holding a large, square package, wrapped in eye-blinding neon green paper. I groaned and rubbed my eyes, last traces of sleep definitely gone.

"Well come on, Alan, we aren't going to hang around all day," Richard said, falling down on his own bed with a soft flop. "Open your presents."

I obliged, picking up the smallest one that was laying on top. A little card told me it was from Isaac. I looked up warily, holding the package up. "This isn't another mouse, right?" I wouldn't forget Isaac's last present anytime soon.

He grinned. "Don't be a wimp, Alan. Open it."

I did, carelessly ripping the paper off. Something brown and sticky jumped out immediately, landing on my pillow. Before it could get my bedclothes too filthy I caught it in my hand and, recognising what it was, bit its head off.

"One single Chocolate Frog," I said, my mouth full. "Very generous."

"I'll make sure to put in more next time," Isaac sniggered, sitting down next to Richard. "I'm sure you'll enjoy catching them."

After I had devoured the frog and cleaned my pillow with a wave of my wand, I unpacked several more artefacts. Most were from my mother – the book on piano plays I had looked for in Hogsmeade, a new pair of gloves for the upcoming winter and a fresh pair of black socks. Sally had sent me a small book called Prefects Who Gained Power and Aiden got me a sack of Bertie Bott's Every-Flavour Beans with the note 'This is a new edition – Exotic Tastes. Make sure to give me a few, but not the gross ones; I think those are neon pink', which made me grin appreciatively.

Even my father had gotten me something, though the hint it concealed was enormous. It was a large book with the title Purebloods: Here and Now, There and Then, which held the names of all the pureblooded wizards and witches that had lived in England. According to the index, I could search for gender, age, school results, last name – practically everything, by just tapping my wand on the cover and saying what I was searching for. Derek was rather fast with tugging the book from my grip and telling it to look for 'single, blonde witches, age varying between thirteen and seventeen'. We all had a good laugh when several of our classmates turned up as results, including Sally.

As I put away the last presents, Derek approached, holding the neon green package.

"Here, it's from all of us. Be careful, it's pretty brittle."

I put the present on my lap and after taking off the paper I opened the box. Its contents clinked softly, like there was a good amount of glass inside. I curiously looked in, and a fabulous sight met my eyes.

It wasn't glass. It was crystal. Actually, it was a crystal potion set. The bottles varied in size, but each had a silver snake wrapped around it, set with little emerald eyes. It was quite beautiful. I silently took the smallest one out. The emerald eyes glinted in the light of the dormitory, making it look rather unsettling alive.

Richard suddenly started singing birthday songs at the top of his lungs, quickly followed by Derek and Isaac. The latter insisted on singing a slightly twisted version, however.

"Oh – please – Isaac, you know I despise those lyrics," I grumbled as I carefully put the box with vials away and searched for my most expensive robes in my trunk. It was allowed to show off on your birthday, right? And even if it wasn't, I didn't care. Perhaps Louisa would notice me if I looked fancy.

As the day went on, my classmates didn't appear to stop singing anytime soon. Even in class I wasn't safe. It was probably my face, hot with embarrassment, which kept Professors from docking points – though some of them seemed closer to laughter than giving detention. In Charms class, Professor Flitwick even chanted along.

"A very happy birthday, Mr Malfoy!"

"I'd enjoy it more if everyone would stop singing," I said moodily. "It's driving me barking mad." Not to mention my effing brother is in the hospital wing and I haven't even had a chance to see him yet, I silently added as an implication.

"Now, now, no need to get shirty," Isaac said, grinning.

"Yeah, you're just a little ray of sunshine today, aren't you, Alan?" Richard said, leaning over to ruffle my hair. I quickly ducked to avoid his hand, nearly hitting my nose on the desk. Derek took the opportunity to put a pink paper hat on my black wizard one – I took it off and set fire to it with my wand. Its ashes piled onto my desk.

Let's say I was glad when the bell rang.

Louisa and I were the last to get out. I had actually completely forgotten about her as soon as I had reached the dormitory last evening, and I hadn't really paid attention to her this lesson either. I was still thinking of Aiden, planning to visit the hospital wing, when Louisa and I both walked through the doorway at the same time and jammed.

"Watch out where you're going!" she snapped, angrily looking up at me. "Not everybody's going to move aside for you."

"What, you don't have a pair of eyes yourself?" I lashed out, desperately trying to ignore the fact that her body was pressed much too closely against mine. I could suddenly feel the curve of her hip, which was normally hidden by the heavy school robes. Her shoulder was squashed somewhere a little above my elbow, and my knee was at her thigh. She didn't seem to notice this, however, as she was merely glaring at me and looking not at all embarrassed.

"Yes, I do have eyes, but as you see – or maybe you don't – I was just walking to the door and you shoved me, and that's how we got here! Now if you will get off me, I want to go to lunch."

"I would, but I'm not on top of you," I snarled, attempting to wriggle out of the highly uncomfortable situation. I frantically tried to think with my brain – which had somehow turned to blubber, it seemed – and get out, despite somewhat enjoying nagging at her. After moving sideways and shifting my arm away, I managed to break free. Louisa smoothed her robes, settled me with one final glare and stalked off, presumably to the Great Hall. I walked over to Derek, who had been patiently waiting at the end of the corridor.

As I fell into step beside him, he inquired: "Trouble in paraside?"

"Nothing," I muttered. I didn't feel hungry at all. First Louisa didn't say goodbye in the hospital wing – which I still felt incredibly petty over; who got bothered by something like that? – and now we had actually had an argument with Derek and Flitwick within earshot. She didn't even wish me a happy birthday, something I hadn't actually cared about until now.

Next to me, Derek mumbled something about Louisa that sounded irritatingly insulting. I was quite sure that he'd muttered it just loud enough for me to hear.

"I'm going to see Aiden," I said, not waiting for an answer and nearly bolting to the other end of the corridor. A little voice in the back of my head told me prefects weren't supposed to run through the castle because they ought to set an example, but I shut it up as I stormed through the castle until I had reached the hospital wing. I glanced behind me before wrenching the door open – it appeared that Derek hadn't followed me. Whatever.

As I stomped into the wing, Madam Meddletin hastily got out of her office, looking distressed.

"Alucard, this is a clinic! Don't disturb the patients!"

"How is my brother," I demanded. "Bring me to him, now."

"Watch your tone, boy, you're not at home," she said, looking annoyed. "There's no need to become so rude. Your brother is doing fine – he's in the eighth bed to the right. And keep your voice down."

"Thanks," I muttered, already feeling ashamed for my outburst. I walked along the row of beds, counting under my breath until I reached the eighth one.

To my utter relief Aiden was sitting up, reading a book while absently dog-earing a corner. His head was still covered with bandages, only a few wisps of platinum blond hair sticking out. He looked up as I approached and raised his eyebrows in surprise.

"Alucard? What brings you here?"

"You," I said, sitting down on the chair next to his bed. "You had a Quidditch accident, remember? Busted your head quite severely, if I'm not mistaken." Now that I was face-to-face with Aiden again, I didn't know why I had worried so much. He looked healthy enough, and he was doing schoolwork. Here I had been, thinking he would be in here at least a week. I leaned on my knees with my lower arms, towards Aiden. "How are you?"

"I'm fine, I'm fine," he answered, the corners of his mouth tugging up. "I can leave tomorrow, if I don't get headaches today."

"Good," I said, nodding. After waiting for a few seconds, I bluntly added: "I was worried."

"Madam Meddletin told me you were here the whole afternoon yesterday," he stated, closing his book and putting it on the table next to him. I shifted in my seat.

"Yeah, I was. Nobody else followed you."

Aiden slowly leaned back into his pillows. "I see."

I was seriously becoming annoyed with the awkward pauses that seemed to occur in my conversations lately. I coughed a bit to cover up my uneasiness. "So – er – I, you know – I just came to see you, that's all."

My brother inclined his head towards me. "As you should. How is your birthday so far?"

Glad he's back to his normal, superior behaving self, I thought, almost fondly. I started telling him about the presents I had gotten and the parade my classmates had held all day long. Just as I was describing my potion vial set in vivid detail, he suddenly interrupted me.

"What in the name of Merlin are you wearing?"

I blinked. "Robes. What else?"

Aiden shook his head. "No, no, I mean that around your neck."

My hand automatically went up to the star-shaped pendant and grabbed it tightly. Its outer circle cut into my palm. "It's a necklace," I said, bracing myself for the next question.

"I can see that," Aiden replied, scowling. "Where'd you get it? Is it a birthday present of some sort? Not to mention you shouldn't be wearing necklaces at all, that's something for girls."

I anxiously searched my brain for a nice answer. I couldn't tell him where I found it – it would set off a thirty-minute speech. Malfoys don't pick stuff up from the ground, Alucard… Malfoys don't keep things they find; they use it for bribery… Malfoys shouldn't be late for Quidditch matches… The list went on and on.

"Well?" Aiden prodded, narrowing his eyes.

"I – it – somebody – it was an anonymous gift," I said quickly.

Aiden's eyes went wide. The fact that they had been narrow a split second before made the effect so comical I had to fight back laughter, struggling to keep my face rigid and straight. "Oh?" Aiden said.

"Yes, it was one of my presents, but with no card. I really have no idea who sent it." My lying instinct played up again, hopefully saving me from the speech that was on the tip of Aiden's tongue. "I rather liked it, actually, so I decided to wear it."

"What if it was a Mudblood?" Aiden retorted, pulling a disgusted face. "I don't want you wearing something that might've adorned the neck of a Mudblood first. You do realise that thing is second hand, right? It looks pretty old, too." His arguments raged on, like he was desperate for me to take it off. "I've never seen anybody in Slytherin wear such a thing, so it has to be somebody from another House. Take it off."

"Fine," I muttered, pulling the necklace back over my head and stuffing it into my pocket. My breastbone, where the pendant had been pressed against, felt strangely empty now that it was removed. "Happy now?"

Aiden held out his hand. "Give it to me."

I clenched the pendant in my pocket in my fist. "No."

"Alucard…"

"It's mine. I'm sixteen, Aiden, you can't always keep ordering me around and telling me what to do."

He fell back against his pillows again. "If that's your final word, you can leave." When I kept sitting there, paralysed with surprise, he bellowed: "Leave, I said! I thought you cared about our name, but I was apparently mistaken. You are stubborn and won't listen to me. Well, if that's what you want, fine by me, but don't keep rubbing it in my face."

I'll keep waiting for you here another time, when your health is in danger, I thought angrily, standing up and stalking out of the hospital wing. Why I had bothered to come visit him in the first place, I didn't know anymore, but I certainly wouldn't do it anytime again soon. I jerked the necklace out of my pocket and roughly shoved it over my head. A few pale, silver blond hairs fell out and onto my sleeve.

Screw you, Aiden. I'm keeping it.

~*~

Author's Notes: Thanks for reading!

Chapter 7: Interlude
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Author's Notes: I'm switching internet providers, so that's why this update has taken ages. Sorry to everyone who was waiting! About the amount of reviews... well, what can I say? I can't name you all here, but I have to thank you for your support. It really, really helped me out. :) This chapter is an interlude, but the next 'real' chapter is already done and will follow soon. Hope you like this, though!

~*~

Interlude

~*~

It was quiet inside the Manor.

Too quiet.

Pansy hesitated on the threshold of the living room, unsure of what to do. She could have sworn she’d left Alucard in his crib with Draco to watch over him. However, neither was in sight.

With a nervous, queasy feeling in her stomach, Pansy stepped through the double oak doors, into the living quarters. “Draco?” she called anxiously. Had it been a mistake to leave him with their youngest son? She felt like hitting herself. Of course it had been a mistake.

She took a few more steps, the sound of her heels hitting the floor echoing through the chamber. “Aiden?” she tentatively asked the empty room, wondering if perhaps her three-year-old was around. “Where are you, sweetheart?”

No answer.

A slow, panicky feeling rose in her chest. She was used to knowing where her children were, and not knowing frightened her more than she wanted to admit. Taking care to keep breathing normally, she tried to think of where the men of her family could possibly be hiding from her. Perhaps Draco had taken them to their rooms, and had locked himself up in his study as always?

Before she could return to the hall to ascend the stairs, however, a small, barely heard sound reached her ears. Quickly turning her head to the library door, Pansy tensed, all kinds of horrific scenarios flying through her mind. Kidnappers. Murderers. Burglars. All out to get her children.

She grabbed a hold of her wand, the wood cool in her sweaty hands. Heart beating erratically in her chest, she approached the library and opened the heavy door.

To her surprise, it was also empty and not full of blood-thirsty axe murderers. Looking around wildly for the sound she’d heard, her grip on her wand tightened. They could have her, if they wouldn’t harm her children. Anything but that.

Something touched her leg and she squealed in astonishment, whirling around to face her soon-to-be murderer… or not.

She sighed, laughing with relief. “Oh, there you are, darling,” she whispered, lowering herself to Alucard’s level to hug him. “Don’t you dare scare your poor mother like that again, will you?” As she lifted him into the air, he started whining, pressing his little hands to his face.

Pansy chuckled, holding him close against her. “Tired, are you? Tell me, where’s your dear father hiding?” Her eyes flashed. Sodding Draco. You were supposed to watch over him, you idiot. She glanced around the library, as if expecting her husband to jump at her from behind a bookshelf. “Draco?” she called sharply, stalking out of the library with her two-year-old in her arms.

He hadn’t entered the living room since she left it. With an irritated sigh, she continued her search, hurrying through the formal and informal dining rooms, the kitchens, the library again, and the music room. Slightly out of breath, she came to a halt in front of the piano, gritting her teeth. Draco was not on the ground floor, and she was tired. Her arms were becoming heavy, so she lowered Alucard onto the floor. His whines had become too loud for her to stand.

As if relieved with his freedom, Alucard crawled towards the door leading to the library at top-speed. Pansy felt a slight stabbing feeling through her heart, and she quickly caught up with him and pulled him back. “We’re humans. We walk,” she told him seriously, forcing him to look up at her. He simply looked back with those big blue eyes, his gaze blank.

Pansy sighed and held his head against her chest. He was two years old, for Merlin’s sake – why wouldn’t he walk? She knew he could, the sly little thing, he just never did. It was as if he thought crawling was a much easier way of getting around than walking. It annoyed Pansy, as Mrs Goyle’s five month younger daughter practically did cartwheels, but more than anything, she was also worried. Alucard’s rather slow development – he hadn’t uttered a single understandable sentence yet – was doing nothing to convince Draco about his worth, either.

She frowned as she remembered her last conversation with Mrs Goyle.

He’s still not walking everyday,” Pansy had said as they’d sat outside, watching their children play in the grass. Alucard had been holding himself up on a very low tree branch, and little Sally had tried to push him over.

Really?” Mrs Goyle had asked absently, staring at the toddlers. “I admit he’s a slow learner – Sally told me she wanted a sweet yesterday. I was shocked! Alucard doesn’t say much either, does he?

No,” she’d answered with a scowl, not liking to be reminded of her son’s shortcomings. “But I’ll suppose he’ll start walking soon… perhaps he needs more peer pressure from Sally. Draco keeps Aiden away from him a lot for fear of regression.”

That’s an understandable fear,” Mrs Goyle had said impassively, her tone uncaring. “You don’t think I’ve really been all that busy, do you?

Pansy had stared at the other woman for a long time as Mrs Goyle sipped her tea, smiling primly at her daughter. After a few moments, she’d asked, voice hoarse with anger, “You mean you – you’re afraid that Alucard will regress Sally? That’s why we’ve been seeing less of you? Alucard needs Sally, Lana, you know that!

I don’t see why,” she had told Pansy, her gaze still firmly on little Sally. “He’ll get better on his own, dear – and if he doesn’t, well, you’ll just have to let it go. I do not want my daughter mingling with underdeveloped children. I suppose Draco doesn’t, either. Perhaps he had a feeling about Alucard.

Pansy still seethed with anger as she thought back on it, remembering Lana’s cold voice as she talked about Alucard when he was playing right there. The nerve astounded her, truly.

She noticed Alucard wriggling from her grip and going for the door again. Sighing, she leaned on her knees with her hands, watching as her son reached the door and pulled himself up. He grasped at the door handle and toddled around the corner, grinning cheekily at her before dropping to all-fours again to race into the library.

Pansy cursed under her breath. It was like he was doing it on purpose, to get her attention. Aggravated, she got to her feet and stalked after her son, hoping she’d find Aiden and Draco soon. She was by no means going to search the entire Manor – her legs were tired already – but they’d better be down sooner or later.

Sweeping Alucard from the ground as she passed him, she kept walking, a protesting chorus of “Mumumumumu!” ringing in her ears.

“Oh, use your words,” she said irritably, trying to stop the tears from flowing. A guilty feeling washed over her as she wished that for once, Alucard wouldn’t be her entire responsibility. I’m the worst mother ever, she thought miserably, settling on one of the couches in the living room. Draco was right – I can’t do this. She hated to admit it, hated it, but Alucard certainly wasn’t turning out to some kind of wonder child she’d hoped for. Biting her lip, she pulled her son again her chest.

“I’m so sorry, sweetie,” she mumbled into his fine blond hair, “I wish I could do more for you. I’m not angry at you.”

She doubted he understood.

~*~

After sitting there for about two hours, she saw Draco Apparate into the living room. He ignored her questions about his previous whereabouts all through dinner, only sharing with her that Aiden had been watched over by a house-elf, and had promptly disappeared to the upper levels of the Manor after dessert.

Pansy gritted her teeth in exasperation, slowly moving Alucard’s crib with her foot while trying to read an article on Arithmancy. She was going to confront Draco as soon as her – their, Pansy stubbornly told herself – son was asleep, whether he liked it or not. With a slight, smug grin on her face, she continued rocking the crib in front of her, briefly glancing at the young boy in it before returning to her article again. However, she failed to concentrate on it.

With a sigh, she stowed it away and slowly stood up, watching Alucard’s face with a sharp look. He’d always been the worst sleeper, crying whenever she left his side – she’d had less than twenty hours of sleep the first two weeks after his birth. That had been necessary. It was terrifying to think of what Draco could’ve done to him if Alucard had kept him awake. She hadn’t taken any chances.

Luckily, though, he stayed blissfully silent as Pansy removed her foot, and she sighed in relief. Just leaving the room now. She tiptoed to the door, placing a Silencing Charm on it as she opened it. Then, she thought she heard a mumble, and she cringed inwardly, standing paralyzed with one foot out, but he didn’t say anything else. Bit by bit, she shuffled out of the room, and closed the door behind her.

Taking a deep breath, she set off towards the master bedroom, where Draco would undoubtedly be. Without any of the carefulness she’d had in Alucard’s room, she swung open the door when she reached it. Indeed, she found her husband sprawled on the bed, twirling one of her necklaces in his hand.

“Put down my jewellery,” she snapped, softly closing the door despite her annoyance.

“Good evening to you too, Pansy,” Draco said with a dramatic sigh, reaching over to put the thin, silver chain on her bedside table. “Nothing like a proper greeting.”

“Hypocrite,” Pansy hissed, dropping herself down onto the bed as well. “I suppose you forgot our greeting – or lack thereof – at dinner?”

“Sorry about that,” Draco said lazily, not sounding sorry at all, “I had other things on my mind.”

“Well, so do I right now,” Pansy huffed snobbishly. She knew she sounded like an ungrateful housewife, but she felt like an ungrateful housewife, too. After her short visit at the Ministry, she’d been babysitting for two hours, feeling the walls close up around her. In a house as big as Malfoy Manor, that was saying something.

Draco merely rolled his eyes, not even bothering with a retort. Instead, he swiftly changed the subject. “I assume you want to see the lunar eclipse next week?” he asked, rolling over so he was facing her. “I’ll have to get the telescope from upstairs in the weekend.”

Though his air was rather dismissive and indifferent, like he didn’t care all that much, Pansy allowed herself to smile at him, though only for a split second. Under all that ice, he was offering to do her a favour, and she was definitely going to accept it.

“Yes,” she said, reaching over to briefly caress his cheek. “I’d like to see it.” She hadn’t forgotten about his refusal to tell her where he’d been, but that could wait until later. Like when he was less guarded and… relaxed.

Draco seemed to think she had forgotten, if that self-righteous smirk was anything to judge from. However, he didn’t give her a chance to comment on it, for he leaned over to kiss her, apparently thinking that her attention could be swayed that easily. Well, Pansy thought, allowing him to trail his tongue over her lips with tantalizing precision, maybe a little. He was quite a nice kisser, after all.

When a few breathless moments had gone, Pansy pushed him away a little. “I have to take a shower,” she said, knowing her eyes were glittering with amusement as he scowled. “Be right back.” Without looking back at him, she slipped from the bed and pulled a towel from the closet, walking straight into the bathroom. She heard a low growl coming from his direction, and stifling a surfacing giggle, she escaped through the door on the other side of the room.

Holding back what he wanted was one of her favourites to do on her ‘things that annoy Draco’ list, especially because it had such wide potential – she could hold back socks, kisses, words, anything. Doing a small dance in the middle of the bathroom as she undid her robes, she wondered how Draco could be a total pain in the arse one moment and a curious, intoxicating lover the next. She could call her husband a lot of things, but predictable wasn’t one of them.

Annoying, on the other hand… Pansy gritted her teeth as she kicked off her socks and stepped under the jets of water. She didn’t understand why he’d just left their children alone, after he had promised to take care of them. It wasn’t like she frequently asked him to do so – heck, she hardly ever did – yet this one time was too much? Why did he go away at that moment? Where did he go?

Turning the water temperature up, Pansy felt her temper rise. She was always caring for the boys, always – she just had to go to the Ministry today once. Draco had made it clear since Alucard’s birth that he did not want to babysit, and desperate for her baby’s wellbeing, she had agreed. She hated to admit it, truly hated it, because it made her feel like the worst mother in existence, but sometimes, she just wanted somebody to take Aiden and Alucard off her hands so she had some time alone.

A blinding rush of guilt lurched through her stomach, and suddenly the heat of the water reached scorching level. Gasping, she jumped away from the shower, her skin tingling. Don’t think about that, she told herself with closed eyes. Stop thinking about that. Taking a few deep breaths, she tried to redirect her thoughts, finally landing on Draco and how he would be feeling right now. Hopefully, highly frustrated.

Smiling somewhat weakly to herself, Pansy turned the shower off and grabbed her towel. While drying herself, she wondered what she’d do upon entering the master bedroom again. Did she actually need a plan? It would be a bit more daring to go in without thinking clearly… she didn’t feel like doing so, anyway. She wrapped the towel around her waist, stomach fluttering slightly. Who knew in what kind of state she would meet Draco? Again trying to hold down a laugh, she pushed the door open and tiptoed into the room. The fluffy carpet stuck to her still-wet feet as she crossed over to her closet, without looking around.

When she had reached her goal, she nonchalantly dropped the towel to the ground and started rummaging through her things. A nightgown, she needed to search for a nightgown. Feeling Draco’s presence behind her, her movements became more frantic, the butterflies in her stomach multiplying with each quiet step he took. She grasped a pool of white fabric, yearning for his touch on her skin. He was closing in on her now.

Once she felt that they were barely an inch apart, she trembled slightly, clutching the piece of clothing in her hands. His palms caressed her bare shoulders, and his arms slowly slipped around her body to grasp the nightgown she’d chosen. His breath was hot on her neck as he lowered his mouth to her ear, biting softly. He tossed the gown aside, almost carelessly, pressing his torso more firmly against her back.

“That won’t be necessary,” he breathed.

~*~

“Can I put it on now?” was the first thing she asked afterwards.

“Put what on?” was his drowsy reply.

Pansy sighed, trailing her fingers over his back. “The nightgown.”

Draco growled softly, untangling his fingers from her hair to smooth it down. “No,” he said, a possessive gleam in his eyes, pronounced by the only candle in the room that was sitting on Draco’s nightstand.

She had a split second to examine it before his lips practically crushed down on hers, briefly eliminating every thought in her mind. However, she managed to push him away with a little determination and wriggle out from under him.

“Too bad I was just asking as a formality,” she told him with a grin, her gaze searching the floor for the white nightgown. Merlin knew which dark corner Draco had flung it to… She found it on the chair next to the bed, and turned the silk fabric over in her hands. Bought a few months ago. Never worn. With a sigh, she let it fall over her body, twirling around so it swished at her feet.

“You look better when you’re naked,” Draco commented bluntly, his head resting on his arms. He was hardly looking at her.

“I feel better when I’m dressed,” Pansy countered haughtily, running a hand trough her still-damp hair. It was also tangled: Draco’s doing. She grasped her wand from her own nightstand and tapped it on her head. With a small smile, she stared into the mirror on the wall. Better.

“You being so insecure and all,” Draco drawled, rolling over and stretching out over the length of the bed. “Well? Are you still getting in, or do I have to sleep alone tonight?” His ego seemed untouched by her previous comment, and Pansy rolled her eyes.

“Oh, darling, it almost sounds like you care.”

“I don’t,” he answered smarmily. “I was just feeling generous towards you. After all, you seemed to be waiting for it.” The raise of his eyebrows could just be seen in the semi-darkness. “Am I right, love?”

Scoffing, Pansy turned her back on the mirror and rolled into the bed again. “Here I am.” She took hold of his chin, forcing him to look at her. “We need to talk about something. Dear.”

Draco scowled and half-heartily tried to break her grip on his jaw. “About what?” he finally asked, closing his eyes with a dramatic sigh. “I’m tired.”

“Sure,” she muttered, narrowing her eyes. “Draco. You know what I’m talking about. Don’t be an idiot.”

His hand grasped hers, the one holding his face toward hers, and wrenched it away with some force. Reluctantly, Pansy held her arms to her chest. Her temper rose again when he then turned his back on her without as much as a grumble. She angrily pulled the blankets way from him, so his still-naked body was exposed to the air. With a surprised gasp, he turned around again, an indignant expression on his face.

“Give that back!” He roughly pulled them over himself, away from her, and Pansy responded with another vigorous tug. Draco furiously opened his mouth. “You hogger! Stop it, I want to sleep!”

“Not an option,” Pansy said, her arms trembling. Draco was much stronger. “And keep your voice down. You’re… waking… the… children!” With a twinge in her shoulder, she let go, pursing her lips in anger. “Draco, we need to talk!”

“Wrong. We don’t.”

He turned over so she was facing his back again, his frame rigid. With a sigh, Pansy shuffled closer, then tugged the bedclothes over herself and pushed Draco to the side so she was virtually in the middle of the bed. Draco grumbled, holding on to his part.

“You’re cutting it really fine, Pansy.”

“So are you,” she whispered, rolling over so they were facing away from each other. “Draco, where were you today? I was babysitting all afternoon, worried sick – I have the right to know.” She knew she was giving him an excuse to fire off about the children – she didn’t care. Any trace of the intimacy they’d shared mere minutes ago was gone, anyway.

“I thought you liked babysitting,” he lashed out indeed, his voice sounding tight. “That was the reason we kept Alucard, wasn’t it? You wanted to take care of him. Don’t start crying to me when it isn’t working out like you hoped it would.”

“Don’t,” she said, blinking a few times. “Don’t go there, Draco. Or you’ll wish you hadn’t.” She took a deep breath, knowing that her sadness and impatience could be heard in it. “Stop changing the subject! Where were you? Why did you leave the boys alone? You promised to take care of them, just that once! What was more important than them? What?” Her voice level was rising fast, and that was weak, weak, weak, but she couldn’t help it. She had to know.

“Pansy, look…” Draco’s voice trailed off with a sigh. “I – I left a house-elf with them, okay? They weren’t entirely alone. I just… forgot… to mention they had to keep track of Alucard too.” He tensed, and for good reason, because Pansy felt like hitting him. However, he was just opening up, and she didn’t interrupt it. When she kept silent, he continued. “I – I swear, I can’t tell you where I was! It – it – it would endanger our family.”

“Yes, because you care so much about our family,” Pansy couldn’t help snarling at him, clenching her hands to fists as she remembered her frantic search for Alucard that afternoon. “You forgot your own son, for Merlin’s sake! You’re never around, you hardly know how old your children are, what they’re doing, what I’m doing, you always have some mysterious appointments to go to, and you never ask if it’s a good time to go away… Yes, Draco, you are such a family man.” She caught her breath after her small rant, seeing red.

Draco hadn’t tried to interrupt her, and his grip on the blankets had relaxed. “I still can’t say,” he whispered, shifting away from her.

“Of course you can’t,” Pansy snapped, jumping at the bait. “You were off on a rendezvous with some old Death Eater, I bet.” She hoped that accusing him of something like that would get him to admit it was something else entirely, but his silence told her that her guess was quite accurate. A feeling of dread crept into her abdomen, which clenched in anxiety. “Draco?”

He kept silent, making Pansy’s eyes widen in fear. How could he be so stupid? What was he thinking, meeting up with ex-Death Eaters? Promising to never practise the Dark Arts again and cutting contact with a few choice old friends had kept him out of Azkaban, for goodness’ sake! Why did he risk throwing everything away? Why?

“You fool,” she hissed. “Thought nobody would notice a little Death Eater lunch, did you? Why’d you do it? Needed some thrill? The family life gets boring after some time, I suppose.” Her voice was dripping with icy sarcasm.

“No, Pansy,” Draco said quickly, and the blankets loosened even further as he moved to the edge of the bed. “Look – I – I can explain –”

Enraged, Pansy placed her foot against his arse, and with one good kick, Draco tumbled off the bed. He yelped as he hit the floor with a satisfyingly loud thud.

“Ow!” he exclaimed crossly. “What was that for, you madwoman, I’m just trying to – what’s so funny?”

Pansy hurriedly wiped at her eyes, holding her stomach as she howled with laughter. She’d been unable to contain the tension anymore, and when kicking Draco hadn’t lifted it, she’d just started laughing her heart out. She wasn’t happy, by any means, certainly not. Still, she couldn’t deny that hearing that thud had been really hilarious. After a few gasps, she mumbled, “Nothing. Nothing’s funny.”

Draco crawled into bed again, his movements uncertain, as if he was afraid she’d kick him again. “I suppose that’s why you’re crying with mirth?”

“Yes,” she whispered hoarsely, then held out her hand to him. “I’m cold,” she added.

“Your own fault,” he said gruffly, but neatly draped the blankets over her. They had fallen off the bed with him. Surprisingly, he huddled up next to her, and she comfortably leaned into his warmth, her amusement dying down and making place for fatigue. She could no longer bring up the energy to be angry with him. That was so annoying about Draco – she could never stay cross with him for long.

She felt, more then heard, him grumble. “How many times do I have to tell you that I’m not a bloody heater?”

“Always once more,” she murmured. The conversation was far from over. She would interrogate him about the whole thing later. That moment, though, she wanted sleep, not knowledge. She closed her eyes with a small breath. Draco had been right – their family was at stake. He had to cancel other appointments with this mystery Death Eater. Had to.

“You know,” Draco muttered before sleep claimed them both, “that nightgown does look pretty nice on you…”

~*~

Author's Notes: Hopefully the next chapter will be up in about two weeks. :)

Chapter 8: Chapter Six: Misguided Souls
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Author's Notes: Why, isn't this a quick update for my standards? ;) Thanks again to everybody who reviewed - I'm so glad everybody loves this story. Hope everyone enjoys this chapter. :)

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Chapter Six – Misguided Souls

Sarcasm: it's anger with a smile


~*~

The rest of November dully droned by in constant rain clashing against the windows of the classrooms. The castle hallways were often a mess: students who had just gotten back from lessons outside or Quidditch practice brought in puddles of mud, leaving a trail of dirty water as they quickly retreated to their respective common rooms. Aiden got out of the hospital wing – healed skull and all, including smoke steaming from his ears as an effect of Pepper Up Potion – and made it very clear he was cross with me for ignoring his 'advice' as he called it. I made a point of it to wear the pendant all day just to spite him, even though he didn't know I was wearing it as I kept it hidden under my robes. It was the thought that counted, I kept telling myself.

There was more homework than ever; it kept every single fifth year Slytherin up and about in the common room until past midnight. It often got increasingly colder as time passed, being under the lake and in the dungeons, so as the clock ticked forward, we all retrieved blankets from our dormitories and made ourselves comfortable with a Warming Charm (I had set my blanket on fire on the first attempt, upholding my reputation as the worst Charms student in fifth year).

As it was, this December evening, we were all still up by the time the last seventh years decided to go to bed around half past one. We had all just gotten back from Astronomy and were frozen stiff. I tried to get the blood flowing in my numb fingers again by rubbing them on the chair I was sitting in. I could barely hold a quill and had to do another essay for Potions, which I had put off until tonight.

Derek sat next to me, apparently not making much progress on his own assignment. His eyes kept falling shut and he kept jerking up his head as if doing his utmost best to stay awake. Watching him made me stifle a yawn, so I turned a page of my textbook and attempted to look up some useful information for my essay.

"S'mebody have tha' book 'bout the goblin stuff in the twelfth cent'ry?" Isaac's gruff voice grumbled incoherently. I made a noncommittal sound in the back of my throat and, like Derek, tried to keep my eyes open long enough to read what I had managed to write.

In front of the fire, the girls of our year were stretched out on their stomachs, talking in low voices. Apparently, Sally and Caitlin were having an argument of some sort, as their voices were more intense than the others’. Noticing how the other girls were merely pretending to do homework and were actually listening into the conversation (Gwendolyn hadn’t even opened her book), I leaned back in my chair. Two can play that game, I thought, closing my eyes and straining my ears.

"I don't want to do that," Sally whispered fiercely.

"Sure you don't," Caitlin muttered back. "He escaped you last time, but next Hogsmeade weekend you and he will be together again, whether he likes it or not."

"When two people are together, they should like each other," Theresa hissed under her breath, joining the squabble. "Caitlin, this is nonsense, you're hurting them both this way. Leave it alone, they should sort it out together."

"Could you please not talk about me like I'm not here?"

"Sorry, Sally. But I mean it, Caitlin – can't you see Alan doesn't care?"

My stomach jolted uncomfortably at the mention of my name. Merlin, what are they setting up this time? Not another date, surely? I shifted a little, turning my head a bit more.

"Yeah, right," Caitlin whispered. "He doesn’t care right now. They were friends – they've been forever – and just because he's being an arse, they've fallen apart. I'm sure he still likes her; he just doesn't want to admit to himself he's wrong."

"You're doing it again! I can hear you, you know!" Sally snapped. Then, lowering her voice, "Of course I want him back, but I don't need you all sticking your nose in my business. I'm sure I can do it myself. Easy. Like you said, I've known him forever, and he is just like any other boy. He'll come around in no time if you'd just let me."

"Alan, your essay slipped onto the ground."

Richard's voice pulled me out of my concentration, and the girls' conversation was abruptly cut off. I made a show of waking up from a light sleep and putting my assignment back on my lap with half-closed eyes. I fixed my eyes on the parchment until everybody was busy again, and then pricked up my ears for the second time, hearing my heartbeat inside my head. However, the only thing that was uttered was Bridget's request for a book of some sort. Or maybe there was another conversation, but in that case I hadn't heard it. I had apparently fallen asleep because when I opened my eyes the room was dark and, as far as I could see, empty.

I was about to force myself out of my chair when a hand suddenly grabbed my shoulder and threw me back into the chair again. The next thing I knew, the tip of a wand was shining in my face, and my vision was momentarily blocked by little dots dancing in front of my eyes. My mind still in a sleepy state, I swatted at the wand and it clattered to the ground, leaving me facing a maliciously smirking girl as soon as the colourful specks had left my view.

"Gwendolyn?" I muttered, taking my quill and essay from the floor and putting them in my bag as Gwendolyn picked her wand up again. "What the hell was that for? Did you want to scare the crap out of me or something?"

"Language, Malfoy," she said, twirling her wand idly between her fingers. "What would your mother say if she'd hear such things coming from your mouth?"

"What do you want?" I asked, sinking back into my chair. "Because I'm tired, and I want to go to bed."

"Don't you get smart with me, Malfoy," Gwendolyn snapped, suddenly jabbing at me with her wand. "I want to know why you were listening in on us. Don't think I didn't see – it was pretty obvious, and I definitely wasn't impressed with your performance of 'waking up'."

"If you don't want to get overheard, go to your dormitory," I retorted, taking her wand hand and lowering it so the light didn't blind me anymore. "Now get out of the way." I tried standing up and pushing past her, but she blocked my path, folding her arms. The beam of light emitting from her wand hit the stone floor.

"Take Sally back again."

"No."

"Alan, I mean it. She's really miserable."

"It's either her or me. You all have to stop pushing us together."

She glared at me. "Oh, take your chance already, now that you still have it. Who else wants to have you anyway? The Mudblood that corrupts our Charms class?"

"Don't be stupid," I said, perhaps a bit louder than normal. She doesn't know, she doesn't know, please, please...

After settling me with a glare for an uncomfortably long time, Gwendolyn sighed and uncrossed her arms, putting her hands on her hips. "I sure hope not." Then she looked away, muttering just loud enough to herself for me to hear: "I heard she's got a boyfriend anyway, that good-for-nothing Longbottom, just right for her. She's not getting her filthy hands on a Slytherin. Right?" She suddenly looked my way again, her face contorted as if she could barely conceal a grin. My stomach clenched tightly, a wave of nausea crashing through my body.

Louisa? Longbottom? Together? No. No no no no no. It's not true. Don't let it be true. Please, let Gwendolyn have made it up. Please.

"Right," was the only thing I said in Gwendolyn's face before storming down to my dormitory and throwing myself onto my bed, shutting the curtains. I heard Gwendolyn take the girls’ staircase somewhere in the distance, her footsteps echoing in the silence of the dungeon. My heart was thumping pathetically hard.

It wasn't true. It couldn't be true. Louisa had never talked about Longbottom, and I had never seen her talk to him, though they could have in their common room and I would have never known. It wasn't that strange, seeing as how Longbottom was one of her brother's best friends. But seriously – Louisa and Longbottom? I snorted and thumped on my pillow. It was madness.

And it was I who had been pursuing her – how dare Longbottom snatch her from right under my nose? That was just rude. Even more important, if they were involved, then why had Louisa kept responding to my attempts to communicate with her? Sure, she had snapped a few times, but overall, we had gotten along fine. I resisted the urge to swear out loud and pulled the bed sheets all the way over my head despite still being in my school robes.

I don't believe it, I thought desperately. I want her. Damnit Louisa, Longbottom doesn't deserve you, the useless prat. I rolled over, getting my sheets wrapped around my legs. Was it really possible that Louisa would pick Longbottom over me? That was ridiculous. Totally ridiculous. What did he do to win her over? Merlin, what kind of appeal did Longbottom have what I didn't?

Nothing, of course. It was probably just gossip. That was the only logical answer – somebody made it up and it spread though the school like wildfire. Gwendolyn, being the big fat gossiper she was, picked up on it and decided to dump it on me as revenge for that time I made fun of her in class. Yes – that had to be it. Not wanting to think too much about it, I found a comfortable position and sighed, the mattress groaning with me. Somewhere in the room, I heard Derek mumbling something in his sleep, but the sound of Isaac’s snoring drowned that out. Everything around me was familiar. It wouldn't change.

Change was bad.

~*~

A week later, I was eating breakfast in the Great Hall while Derek read the Daily Prophet to me. I wasn’t paying much attention to either Derek or my toast as I gloomily stared upwards at the ceiling, watching large, grey clouds drift by in an attempt to keep my eyes off the Gryffindor table. When I bent my head to take another bite, my eyes inevitably caught sight of Louisa, smiling and talking to Longbottom. I grit my teeth as I saw him sneaking an arm around her waist and her leaning against his shoulder. He deserved to have his arms ripped off, the bastard.

I took a deep breath and tried to divert my attention from the Gryffindor table, but I just couldn't keep my eyes off them, sitting there and being all happy and lovey-dovey. It was like watching somebody who had splinched himself – revolting, yet fascinating at the same time; I couldn't look away. Nevertheless, when Longbottom dropped a kiss on Louisa's head, I couldn't take it anymore. Feeling sick, I put my toast down, planning to go down to the common room and drop into some kind of coma, so I didn’t have to keep thinking.

"Alan, have you seen this?"

"No," I said, having no idea what Derek meant and having no interest either. Derek didn't seem to notice that, however.

"Here, listen: 'It has been rumoured that several Death Eaters who escaped punishment after the War have moved to Australia, planning to recruit new members and hoping to be allies with the growing Dark forces that have been gaining power on the island. The tip came in with an anonymous owl and was delivered at the Minister's office. However, this rumour remains unconfirmed.' Can you believe that?" Derek muttered, turning over the newspaper. "Those morons stayed out of Azkaban with a good court and lots of luck, and now they're trying to revive Voldemort's forces? They've got to be kidding me."

"Like they stated, it's unconfirmed," I sighed. "It's probably just thought up by someone who doesn't want us to forget the War or something like that."

"Who does that kind of thing? Perhaps someone without a life, but..." Derek trailed off and reached for a pancake. I stood up, wanting to go through with my earlier plan and not resurface for a week.

"I'm going," I said, clapping Derek on his shoulder. "I'll see you."

He nodded, apparently engaged in a conversation with Richard now about the article. I scowled and stalked out of the Hall, but couldn't resist turning around one last time to see Longbottom hugging Louisa again. I took a deep breath, resisting the urge to run over and beat that idiot with a stick for touching my girl.

The image kept dancing in front of my eyes – like somebody had burned it into my brain – as I stormed down to the common room. So it hadn't been gossip after all. I was so stupid; had I been oblivious to Louisa's attraction to Longbottom, or was that a recent development? The mere thought of what they might be doing right now made me so angry I kicked a wall in passing, not even feeling the pain it caused in my toe. They probably were kissing somewhere, and Longbottom was groping her, and she liked it, and she probably didn't think of me for one second when she agreed to go out with him. I was hoping she hadn't been the one who asked, at least.

As I stormed through another corridor, I saw a small boy turn around the corner at the end and look my way. My thoughts were still on Louisa, fuming at how she could have been coaxed into liking Longbottom, that utter, bumbling fool. He wasn’t even good-looking, rich, or smart at all – what was there to like, anyway?

"Malfoy!"

I focused on the first year running towards me and realised it was Clambert. I stopped abruptly to avoid harshly colliding with him, and he came to a halt in front of me, a little out of breath. "I'm sorry, I don't want to bother you, but they're after me again and I don't want them to hurt my rat again and everything and I understand if you want me to deal with it but –"

"Stop," I commanded, holding up my hand. "Breathe. Who are after you? Your classmates?”

He took a deep gulp of air and nodded, nervously looking over his shoulder. "Can – could – please take me with you?" he squeaked, sounding a bit like his pet rodent. I sighed, suddenly drained of all my anger and leaving me feeling just tired and empty.

"Fine. I'm going to the grounds. Follow me."

I turned around and walked into a different corridor to avoid Clambert's classmates. Perhaps focusing on the first year’s problems would distract me from my own. He scuttled by my side, his hand fleetingly hovering next to mine, but when I didn't take it, it simply dropped to his side. Honestly, how old was he? I wasn't going to hold his hand. I merely told him to keep up as I took the next door.

"Malfoy?"

I sighed again. "You don't need permission to talk outside of lessons, Clambert."

He gulped nervously. "Sorry. I was just wondering if – if you think I'm wasting your time. I mean, if you'd rather I'd –"

"Clambert," I said again, stepping outside and walking onto the grounds, shivering in the cold air, "it's my duty to help younger students when they're in trouble or don't feel at home here. No, you aren't wasting my time. Anyway, if I really didn't want you around, I would've told you to sod off, okay?" When he nodded, I asked, "So what did your classmates do to you this time?"

"They wanted to copy my homework," Clambert said, his steps a little hurried to keep up with my longer strides, "but I wouldn't let them. I mean, why would I if we're not friends? But then they went after Jack again." He took the black rat out of his pocket. "I don't want to carry him around all the time, but they aren't really giving me a choice, are they?"

I didn't answer, as I had just been distracted by nearly tripping over a stray tree branch. Clambert helped me regain my balance and we set off to the lake in a moment of silence. The grounds looked gloomy; there were no leaves on the trees, there was little grass, and despite it being mid-December, there was no snow. We were the only ones out of the castle – not even the Giant Squid was showing his tentacles.

I watched Jack the rat climb onto Clambert's shoulder as we settled down on the hard ground by the lakeside. "Your classmates pick a lot on Jack, don't they?"

Clambert shrugged. "He's pretty much the only thing I care about at Hogwarts. They know I'd go to great lengths to protect him. Isn't that right, Jack?" He let his rat lick his finger as he talked on. "They've called me Mudblood a few times, but I don't really care about that. I mean – I didn't grow up with the idea it was so offensive, like they have. I just pretend to be upset about it so they won't come up with something worse."

I smiled to myself, pulling my cloak a bit tighter around me. It could be that Clambert did not enjoy his time so far in his House, but he did belong in Slytherin with thoughts like that. I nudged him a little and he looked up from playing with his rat. "You mentioned a brother last time," I told him as Jack took place on his owner's shoulder again, "isn't he at Hogwarts? Can't you discuss anything with him?"

The first year shook his head. "My older brother isn't magical, he didn't get a letter. Neither did my sister."

"How old are they again?"

He flipped his rat’s tail in a would-be-casual way. "Both fourteen - nearly fifteen, though. They're twins."

"I see." Would his two older siblings, who were twins, have gotten him an inferiority complex?

"I've got two younger brothers as well – they're also twins. Weird things never happen around them like they did around me, though. They were always kind of scared of me because things exploded when I got angry. So... yeah." He shrugged a little.

I slowly began to see the problem. "They probably aren't magical either, you mean." Clambert sighed, his shoulders sagging a bit. I nodded. "Feeling a bit left out, don't we? Being the only one without a twin, and the only one who's magical?"

For a while it was quiet and I thought I had offended him, or that he was just thinking about a good answer. However, when I looked closer at his face, his eyes were oddly bright and his bottom lip was trembling ever so slightly. Poor boy, especially with those teasing classmates of his, he must have felt pretty lonely. I awkwardly reached out and gently rubbed his back, like my mother had done to me when I was younger and upset.

Before I knew it, I had a first year pressing his face into my shoulder, his body convulsing with sobs. Uncertainly, I kept rubbing his back, not knowing what to do otherwise to make him calm down. The water of the lake rippled a little in a harsh, chilly wind that made me shiver. I patted the first year’s back a bit harder against the cold. "Shh, it's all right," I whispered, again finding myself trying to console Clambert as he cried. Between sobs, he took deep, rattling breaths as if he'd been smoking for years. I made a few reassuring noises, and slowly, he started to go quiet.

Jack the rat had scuttled over to my shoulder and his paws were tickling the back of my neck. The long, bald tail was hanging down the side of my throat and I pulled the rat down with it. Surprisingly, it didn't scratch, but merely fell down into my lap. What a docile creature this was. No wonder the other first years liked to snatch it. I absently petted Jack as Clambert choked and wiped his eyes on his sleeve, still leaning a little against me but looking highly embarrassed. "Sorry," he mumbled, not looking me in the eye.

"It doesn't matter," I reassured him. "I understand."

After a few sniffles, Clambert was able to talk again. "It's just – I thought I'd make friends here, f-finally have my own person to confide in like my siblings have, but instead of that, I get p-picked on." He sat up and rubbed his eyes, which were red and puffy. "And I – I'm not even a good wizard – my marks are p-pretty average at best. I thought everything would change for the best when I got here, but it just got worse."

"It's nearly Christmas holiday, you'll have a break. Are you going home?"

He nodded, frowning, his tears drying up. "And I'm not coming b-back, either."

"Oh, don't say that." I put my hand on his knee. "You'll be fine in a while. Perhaps you'll never be best friends with your roommates, but you could always look in the other Houses. They've got nice people, too."

Clambert merely shrugged and raised his head to look at me. "I'll try, maybe. Are you going home for Christmas?"

I shook my head. "Nope. My parents always go on holiday for two weeks this time of the year, so I'm staying at school. It's going to be a lonely Christmas for me; all my roommates are leaving." I smiled at him to show I didn't mind it. The smile he returned was a little forced.

"I wish all my roommates would leave." Then his face crumpled again, tears leaking out of his eyes. As soon as I held out my arm he was weeping into my shoulder for the second time that day. I sighed inwardly and rubbed his back, like I had done before. Jack was still sitting in my lap, apparently not noticing his owner was upset. I watched the rodent scratch himself behind the ears until Clambert spoke up again, his voice trembling.

"I'm b-bothering you, aren't I?"

I groaned. "Clambert, I already answered that question. If I allow myself be bothered by you, I am not be a good prefect. It's that simple."

He sniffled, sat up and took his rat, which had climbed onto my knee. "My name's Philip. Nobody's called me by my first name since I've been here. That's more than three months. At least people knew my name at home."

After a tense pause, I said: "All right, Philip. You never told me your name. Why does it bother you to be addressed by your last name?"

"It just does."

"That's not an answer."

He stubbornly stayed silent, though he seemed to be on the verge of tears again. I stood up just as another gust of wind whirled around us. If he wanted to be angry, he'd be angry alone. I placed my hand on his head. His dark brown curls jumped up in between my fingers.

"I'm leaving. Take care."

When I was only a few feet away from the waterfront, I heard a small voice ask: "Are you mad at me?"

I turned to see Clambert twisted around as well, an anxious expression on his face. I shook my head. "No. But I can’t solve your problems for you, Philip. You have to put more effort in them, not me. Stand up for yourself. I can't do that for you."

He nodded miserably, Jack the rat perched upon his shoulder with his little pink nose in the air. I raised my hand at Clambert before walking back to the castle again. I wondered if he would ever see Hogwarts as home, like I did, or if he would be glad to leave it behind him when he'd finally taken his NEWTs.

As I stepped over the branch I had previously tripped over, I realised that, in some strange way, I was responsible for Clambert’s view of Hogwarts. I had been since I'd rescued his rat – and I would stay responsible until I left the school. I had to show him Hogwarts wasn't full of bullies, out for his blood. After all – as embarrassing as it was to admit it – Clambert probably saw me as a friend. Aside from the professors, I was almost certain the only person who hadn’t ignored or scolded him was me.

And then – my head went heavy as I suddenly remembered it – there was Louisa, another matter I had to worry about. She was definitely going out with Michael Longbottom, if their behaviour was anything to go by. But damn, I had been busy winning her over. Sure, I hadn’t always been that successful, but there had been progress. And now Longbottom had her. It was simply humiliating to be beaten by him. Longbottom. What made him think he could take my girl?

I stepped inside the castle again, my temper rising quickly. Revenge needed to be served.

It would be a long year.

~*~

Dear Alucard,

How are you, my dear? I hope you aren't catching a cold up there in Scotland. There isn't a trace of snow here in Wiltshire, though it has been raining for three days straight. Perhaps you have better luck with the weather.

Your grandmother Narcissa has gotten a bad case of the flu, but your father and I trust she will recover soon so we can go on our holiday. I had to tell you she misses you, and looks forward to seeing you and Aiden again in the Easter holidays when we have our Ball. I was surprised to discover it's been nearly four years since the last one – time does fly when you're getting older.

Your father and I were very satisfied with the list of marks you sent with your last owl. I'm glad things are going so well at school, though your father does expect you to brush up on Charms in the Christmas holidays. I'm very proud of your 'A', however. I know how difficult the subject is for you, and your Arithmancy mark certainly makes up for it.

How are your classmates doing? I was having Mrs Goyle over for tea just yesterday and she hasn't been getting letters from Sally lately. Is everything all right, to your knowing? If so, remind Sally to write her parents every so often – her mother is getting worried.

Also, Mr Court has been complaining to your father that you have been rude to his daughter. I will not have any of that from my son. That is not how I have raised you, and that is not how you should grow up. I, as well as your father, expect you to apologise soon to Miss Court, especially since your father would be devastated if the Court family decides not to come to our Ball because you are bothering their daughter. Alucard, you know I do not like to pick sides between you and your father. Don't make this hard on me.

Is your prefect status commanding respect from your fellows? Tell me your opinion on being a prefect; I did enjoy that so when I was at school. I do hope you aren't taking advantage of your authority position, but there is nothing wrong with pulling strings in your favour a little. Being careful not to overdo it is the key.

Study hard. Respect your elders and superiors. Stay on civil terms with your equals. Keep your mind open. As long as you abide these rules, life won't be as hard as you think, Alucard. I look forward to your next letter.

Love,

Your mother

~*~

Dear Mother,

I wish I could be there to take care of Grandmother. The timing of her illness is quite unfortunate. Please tell her I wish her the best of luck and I hope she gets better soon. Perhaps a heavier dose or slight altercation of the Pepper Up Potion would speed the Healing process?

The weather here is awful too – we didn't have any snow until yesterday, and now, all outdoor lessons are cancelled because of the blizzard. The temperatures in the dungeons are torture! Sally and I are planning to ask Professor Malyras for permission to do Semi-Permanent Warming Charms on the walls and floor. Honestly, we can barely sleep at night because our toes are freezing off.

I told Sally to write more often as soon as I got your letter. She's been in the hospital wing on and off because she's got a bad cold and that may be why she hasn't written as much. She said she will send a note when she has some free time, which will probably be by Christmas time. Tell Mrs Goyle she isn't forgotten.

I have sent my sincerest apologies to Mr Court for being rude to his daughter, but I refuse to say I'm sorry to Gwendolyn. After all, I was provoked – she should be the one crawling back to me, begging on her knees for forgiveness. I'm sorry mother, but Gwendolyn Court and I simply do not get along. I'm sure you can relate to me on this matter – after all, we can't like everyone.

As far as my prefect status goes, I know the first years do not want to disobey me. I was forced to put some in detention recently, and they seemed quite put out that 'the good one' had caught them and still handed them to the caretaker. I feel slightly uncomfortable with that, as it gives me the feeling that I'm allowed to play favourites. I don't mind much taking advantage of my position a bit, but the professors do.

Anyway, I'm glad the holidays are nearly there. Two days! Everybody in my year is so stressed; it'll be a relief to snap out of it for two weeks. Have fun on your holiday. Write me soon.

Love,

Alucard


My teeth clattered as I entered the Owlery and a cold draft swept over me, slamming the door I had just come through shut. Cursing inwardly for not bothering to take my cloak, I stepped over a heap of dirty, trampled snow, avoiding the owl dung everywhere on the stone floor. As soon as I was balanced, my feet firmly on a dropping-less piece of stone, I looked around, trying to spot my owl. However, it didn't seem to be inside.

"Where are you, you blasted bird," I muttered, taking a few more careful steps around the slosh that had piled up since it had started snowing. Another gust of wind blew through the tower, nearly taking my letter for a ride. I managed to grip it tightly just in time, the parchment crumpling in my hand. I could only hope the ink wasn't smudged yet. I had meant to post the letter right after I had written it, but had had so much homework that it hadn't quite come up.

I walked over to the windows and almost lost my footing on a particularly slippery part of the floor. I grabbed the frozen windowsill just in time to avoid falling into a heap of snow. When I regained my balance yet again, my hands stiff from the cold and my fingers barely holding on to the letter, a large, grey owl swooped in past my ear before perching somewhere at the top of the tower. I swirled around, nearly slipping again.

"Oi, you bloody bird! Get back here; I have a job for you."

The grey owl turned its head, and I could see a dead mouse dangling from its beak. Still gripping the windowsill tightly with one hand, I beckoned for it to come over. It cocked its head, as if contemplating to whether eat its meal or serve its owner, but after a few seconds it flew over and sat in front of me on the windowsill.

I anxiously checked the letter. The ink better not be running... Thankfully the damage was minimal – only my signature was a bit smeared. I carefully rolled the letter up and fastened it to my owl's leg, holding my breath so I wouldn't smell the dead mouse. My eyes kept darting back to the ugly wound my owl had made on the little animal. When the parchment was securely tied to my owl, I smoothed its wayward feathers and held out my arm. It hopped on.

"It's for Mother. You'll know where to find her, but I think it would be wise to eat your meal first. Have a nice trip." With that, I stretched my arm and leaned out of the window, knowing I wouldn't get a response for a week as it spread its sooty wings and flew off. My owl just wasn't such a fast flier, despite its size. I watched it soar to the horizon, lazily beating its wings as weak rays of sunlight fell onto my face. The warmth the sun could have brought was cancelled by a harsh, cutting wind that made me retreat from the Owlery again, swiftly side-stepping the remains of the snow that had blown in as I made my way to the corridors.

I had never given my owl a name. Heck, I didn't even know its gender. I had never seen the point in doing so. On several occasions, when I had entered the Owlery to send a letter, I had seen people cuddling their owls, or having one-sided conversations with them. They seemed to have the ability to have affection for a bird, something I had never felt. An owl was an owl, and its purpose was to deliver letters, not act like some kind of trusted companion.

However, where affection was lacking, I did have respect for owls, or any other bird of prey, really. When my owl sat on my arm, there was always a burst of adrenaline going through my body; the fact was, an owl could crush my wrist if it wanted, and it was simply a matter of doing it or not. Now, a broken wrist wasn't exactly a wizard's worst problem – with the right knowledge of spells, it could be healed in two minutes. It was merely the fact that an animal could hurt you so much that let me admire them.

Of course, owls could be trained, especially by wizards. They could be taught not to bite, slash, nip, or perform any other kind of offence. However, my owl wasn't like that. When I had gotten it from my father prior to my first year, it had slashed my arm open when I had tried to pet it, and perhaps that was where my respect for its species came from. It had taken me nearly three years to be able to come near it without it attempting to bite me. It stopped when I finally accepted that, while I was technically the owl's owner, it would not obey me simply because of that. In this respect, it represented Slytherin quite accurately; those who wanted power would have to earn it. My owl would probably have fitted in better than I had.

Aside from all that, naming an owl was far too sentimental to my tastes, anyway.

"Alan! Wait up!"

I started walking a bit more slowly to let the person who'd called catch up with me. I heard quick, light footsteps echo through the hallways, and soon Daisy Macmillan was falling into step beside me, her vanilla blond hair waving a little in her hurry. She pulled me to a halt by the sleeve of my robes.

"Hey, what's up?"

I shrugged. "The sky is?"

She rolled her eyes, smiling. "Be more creative, Alan." Letting go of my sleeve, she promptly added: "I'm sorry about Louisa Rosario and everything. You fancy her, don't you?"

My breath caught in my throat as an abrupt panic rose in my chest, all thoughts about owls leaving my head. Merlin Derek, you did not blab it around... "I don't know what you're talking about," I said swiftly.

"Don't be an idiot, Derek told me."

I groaned, rubbing my neck. Some friend he was, gossiping with everybody about everything that went on in my life like some girl. I glared at Daisy, who was impatiently tapping her foot with her hands on her waist. Her inquiring gaze left me feeling rather unsettled.

"Well?" she persisted.

"Fine, fine," I said grumpily. "So what if I did?"

"Did?" she asked, sceptically raising her eyebrows.

"Of course did. I don't go for girls with boyfriends," I lied, seething inside at the thought of Longbottom, as always.

"That's very thoughtful of you," she said absently, then apparently decided we'd had enough chit-chat as she asked: "Anyway, do you know where Derek is? I've looked everywhere for him, and it seems like he just sort of disappeared. I've checked the library, the Great Hall, outside your common room, the grounds –"

"I don't know," I interrupted, cutting off her list. "I haven't seen him since our last lesson, actually."

"Oh." Her face fell. "Did he say where he'd go? Did he have homework or anything?"

I shrugged. "Not that I know of. We do like to mind our own business in Slytherin."

She made a noise that sounded rather like an indignant 'humph' and walked towards a staircase leading to the library on Fridays. "I suppose I'll keep looking, then. If you see him, tell him I'll be studying with my classmates." With that, she quickly sprinted up the stairs and disappeared out of sight when she turned around a corner.

I shook my head. How could she look for Derek and study with her friends at the same time? I knew women were born multi-taskers, having watched Sally from early childhood doing several things at once (like talking to me and her mum, reading a textbook and combing her hair at the same time), but being in two places at once should prove to be a bit hard, even if it was the energetic whirlwind called Daisy Macmillan. I turned and descended some stairs leading to the dungeons.

I had nearly forgotten about Longbottom and Louisa again – in my efforts to push them to the back of my mind, of course – but the sight of Ryan Rosario and James Potter standing just a few steps away made my resentful thoughts return with full force. My hands clenched to fists, and I tried my hardest to just ignore them and simply walk by as if they didn't exist, but of course, Rosario wasn't having any of it.

"Hey Malfoy! Think you're too good to talk to us, do you?"

I had to struggle as to not turn around and push him off the stairs. That could've brought me in a rather awkward position, since I was a prefect. As it was, I was forced to tightly grab the handrail, and said without looking at him: "Why, yes, I do."

"Ryan, let him go," Potter said, his tone amused as if Rosario were holding me in a headlock. "He's not worth all the trouble we'll have to go through if my dad or Aunt Hermione finds out."

"I'm not doing anything," Rosario growled behind me. I stood still as a statue, my hand still holding the banister in a vice grip. I was a prefect, for goodness' sake – I shouldn't be getting into fights – but I didn't want to run away and look like a coward.

"Ryan, get real. You'd have punched him in a heartbeat if I hadn't said anything." Potter laughed, carelessly making a tossing motion with his hand. "You can go, Malfoy."

Fury boiling up in my chest, I turned around to glare at him with the deepest loathing I could muster. "You are not in a position to tell me what to do, Potter. I can do whatever I want when I decide to do so. Now why don't you be a good boy and run to daddy."

Potter snickered in disbelief, leaning back against the handrail. "Wait, wait, wait. A Malfoy is telling me I should run to daddy? Want me to mimic your behaviour? You and your brother are practically the epitome for the command 'run to daddy'." He laughed again. "Just go away before you embarrass yourself even more. I'm doing you a favour by telling you to, trust me."

I angrily opened my mouth to retort, but Rosario threateningly stepped forward and I, trapped, simply settled for another glare, my posture stiff. Despite me being taller, Rosario would certainly win in a Muggle brawl, which this argument seemed to be heading for. I self-consciously compared my thin and bony arms to Rosario's muscular ones. He could probably break my wrist in a snap, like my owl.

"Good boy," Rosario said quietly. "Now, it is only fair that you do us a favour in return." He looked at Potter, who nodded. I tried to keep myself from trembling by holding the handrail even more tightly. I hoped there was nothing else than indifference in my expression. Rosario turned his gaze to me.

"Lay off my sister."

I nearly forgot to breath. Crap. So it was true what they said about rumours at Hogwarts. The damn walls could talk. How could Derek have told Daisy? She was a girl, for Merlin's sake, everyone knew they couldn't keep secrets to themselves to save their lives.

I briefly raised my eyebrows, hoping I looked surprised and perhaps a little bit puzzled. "Excuse me? What are you talking about?"

"Don't play innocent, Malfoy," Potter said, backing up his friend. "We've heard about it."

"About what?" I asked, my mind working at full speed. Deny. Deny everything.

"About you liking my sister," Rosario whispered quickly, as if somebody would hear it and get ideas. "I don't care what your prejudices about Muggleborns are, but she's beautiful and you know it. I've seen how you look at her."

Like you aren't awfully biased, I thought. She's quite good-looking at best. Beautiful is laughable. That’s a description that should be used for art, not people.

"Being a Mudblood never stopped anyone from being beautiful," I said at last, not caring to use the word out of earshot of the people I cared about. My mother would have made me wash my mouth with a scrubbing charm, had she heard it.

Rosario's mouth set into a harsh line. "Do not call her that. She's got a boyfriend; you don't stand a chance..."

He was actually afraid that I would still hook up with her? I couldn't help it – I burst out into laughter. I knew it now – I never had a chance with her anyway, so why bother holding up appearances? She hated me, and she'd probably never do otherwise. She'd never have hooked up with Longbottom, had she actually had interest in me.

I regained my breath and defiantly stared at Rosario. "Did I hear that correctly? You think I want to get it on with your – your – sister? Merlin, have you lost your marbles." The lies flew off my lips with ease. Saying it to her brother's face wasn't any problem. "Tell me, Rosario... why would I care about what your sister does? She's a Mudblood... and a slut, too." I hadn't meant to add the last part, the thought I had kept the most private, but I knew I was in trouble as soon as I saw Rosario's furious face. I leapt away just in time as he swung a fist at me.

"Do not say such things about my sister!" he yelled as Potter hastily stepped forward to restrain his mate, though he looked murderous himself. "Don't – you – she's not a slut! And don't call her a Mudblood either, you disrespectful piece of –"

Get out of here, a voice in the back of my head urged as I caught sight of Rosario's strong arms. I took a few steps down the staircase to avoid his swinging fists.

"Get back here!" Rosario screamed angrily, his face growing purple as he fought against his friend's tight grip on his shoulders. "You called Louisa a slut, you good for nothing rat! I'll give you what you deserve! Get back!"

My mouth went dry as I met the fuming boy's gaze, suddenly realising what I had said. I didn't think – I bolted.

Rosario's shouts faded gradually as I stormed through the corridors to the dungeons, my nervous pace evolving into a run on the way. Crap – with the rate Hogwarts was blowing rumours around as the wind did with autumn leaves, I would not have been surprised if the whole school would know about my words in a matter of hours. It wasn't like I cared about most people, and I doubted they cared about me, but I didn’t want Louisa to hear about it. I hadn't really meant it anyway, right?

It was no good anyway. I had said it to her brother, for Merlin's sake, of course she'd hear about it. She'd hear about it the moment he'd step into the Gryffindor common room. Longbottom would do so too, and she could live happily ever after without a Slytherin at her heels.

There'd be no way she'd take it that hard. Mudblood was just a word, wasn't it? I desperately tried to convince myself I was in the right all the way down to the common room until the door appeared in the wall, and I stood face-to-face with Derek.

"Alan!" he gasped. "I've been looking all over for you! I've looked in the library, the Great Hall, the grounds –"

I pulled him out of the common room by his collar and slammed the door shut, which abruptly caused it to disappear into the dungeon wall again. After that, I furiously grabbed Derek's upper arms. "Why did you tell her, Derek?"

"Why did I – what?" My friends blinked a few times at me, having no clue what I was talking about. "What do you mean?"

"I mean –" I lowered my voice and started talking more rapidly, in case there were other Slytherins on their way to the common room. "I mean, Derek, the fact that you told your dear girlfriend about... about..." I reduced my voice to a whisper. "Louisa."

"Oh, that." Derek smiled and shrugged off my grip on his arms, looking relieved. "Don't worry, man. Daisy's a good girl, she wouldn't tell anybody."

"Think again!" I lashed out, unable to control myself. A wave of panic was catching up with me. "The whole bloody school knows, you moron, because of your damn 'good girl', who's looking for you, by the way. Where have you been, anyway?"

"That's none of your sodding business," Derek retorted, turning a bit red. "What's wrong with you? Who cares if everyone knows?"

"I do! You can't even keep a friggin' secret, what kind of friend are you? Now everybody knows and it's all your –"

"Don't blame me for this," Derek hissed, his normally cheerful face taking on a thunderous expression. "You couldn't even keep it a secret yourself, Alan; why would I?" With that, he turned on his heel and stalked off, presumably to find Daisy. I angrily snapped the password at the wall and pulled the door open again. When I was about halfway across the common room, some students a few years my junior clung to my side, curiously looking up at me.

"Is it true you like the Gryffindor Seeker?" one of them asked in a high-pitched voice, her eyes bulging.

"No," I snapped, jerking my arm away from her.

"But my friend says -"

"Your friend's wrong. I don't hang out with Mudbloods."

She and a few of the other girls giggled at that and retreated, chatting happily in their high voices. Only one person didn't walk away. I halted in my steps to glare at the student, only to realise, too late, that it was little Philip Clambert. His eyes were bright, his face was scarlet, and he was looking at me with an expression of utmost horror and betrayal on his face. Before I could say anything, he ran off, slipping through a group of older students to get out of the common room and away from me. The door to the dungeons closed with a loud bang.

~*~

Chapter 9: Chapter Seven: How A Heart Breaks
  [Printer Friendly Version of This Chapter]

Disclaimer: Everything you recognise belongs to the wonderful J.K. Rowling. I thank her for being allowed to play with her characters and create my own little world with them. The name ‘Alucard’ was inspired by the Castlevania game series, but the character is in no way connected to them.

Author's Notes: I apologise for the long wait - I lost contact with my beta and waited far too long instead of just putting this up for you all. I'm sorry, and I hope the length of this chapter will make up for it.

~*~

Chapter Seven

I'm sorry but it's not a mistake
And I'm running but you're getting away

Rob Thomas - This is How a Heart Breaks


~*~

The food served at this year's Christmas feast was even better than usual. Everyone, even the Slytherins, seemed to be in a joyful mood and there was not a frown to be seen as I looked around the Great Hall. Twelve Christmas trees stood proudly along the space of the room, decorated with aid of much more advanced Charms than I could ever hope of achieving. The Slytherin table was adorned with a green tablecloth with silver dens embroidered on. It looked quite lovely.

"Alan, could you please pass me the chips?"

I put down my chicken leg and moved a bowl of chips over to Theresa Greystone, who was the only Slytherin in my year – not counting me, of course – staying over for Christmas. She was sitting about three seats down and as I passed over the requested food, she nodded tightly. "Thanks."

Theresa and I had never really talked to each other before this holiday, as she was rather closed off and aloof. But as we didn't know too many people who were around now, we just started sitting with each other and finished our holiday assignments together. Still, I kind of missed my roommates when I went back to the dormitory and had to sleep in complete silence, without Isaac's snoring, Richard's multiple trips to the toilet and Derek's frequent tossing. But Theresa couldn't very well sleep in their place, could she?

Just as I picked up my roasted chicken leg again and tore off a strap with my teeth, Daisy Macmillan sank into the empty seat next to me and nicked a few peas from my plate. She then proceeded trying to get them in her mouth by throwing them in the air and attempting to catch them on her tongue. Most of them ended up bouncing on her nose or chin, though. It looked ridiculous.

"Did you run out of peas at the Hufflepuff table?" I asked grumpily after swallowing my chicken. "Because really, I'm not in the mood to talk to you." Three seats down, Theresa was slowly lowering a chip from her mouth, sending apprehensive glances our way.

Daisy bit her lip, rolling the last of peas in her palm. "I just came to – you know – apologise." She took a deep breath. "Look, I'm really sorry I didn't keep my mouth shut about Louisa and you. Honestly. I – I should never have told my friends about it." She looked downcast, rubbing the pea faster between her palms. She did not see my eyebrows, raised in surprise. "It's just – I know it must've been mortifying. And if I hadn't said anything, her brother wouldn't have had any reason to call you over in that corridor and you would never have said such rude things about her." She met my gaze, a guilty look crossing her face. "So I'm sorry."

I blinked a few times, unsure how to react to this. It had already been a week since that particular incident, and to be frank, the lack of reaction surprised me. I had expected whispering, mutters behind my back, angry glances in the hallways, but none of that happened. Life simply went on as normal. Even Louisa hadn't acted any different – not that I had talked to her yet, but I planned to as soon as she came back from her family. She needed to know I hadn't meant it like that, and I was quite confident that she would see reason.

In fact, the only true damage the rumour had caused – and that was what everybody dismissed it by, a rumour – was that I had lost Philip Clambert's trust. The first year had never sought me out for a face-to-face, but instead he now walked into the other direction when I approached, instead of running towards me. But that was my own bloody fault for not looking out who was around when I said certain stuff. It was like admitting that other women were quite fit in the presence of your girlfriend.

Daisy was still awaiting my reaction. I looked her over. She was a Hufflepuff – loyal and honest. She hadn't meant any harm.

I shrugged casually. "Oh, all right. You're forgiven."

She grinned widely and tossed the last pea up. It fell right into her mouth. After she swallowed and I had finished my mock-applause, she said: "Well, now my conscience is cleared..." I expected her to leave me to my dinner again, but she started talking instead. Figures.

After about fifteen minutes of hearing stories about all her classmates and professors, and just as she was about to launch into a raging tale about Professor Potter as I patiently finished my kidney pie, Theresa slid into the seat opposite of me. Yes, I had been sitting alone, like a loner.

She smiled: a rare occurrence. "Getting chatted up there, Alan?"

Daisy's jaw dropped. "I'm not chatting him up!" she said indignantly as Theresa and I laughed. "I'm cheering him up, something totally different."

"How old is she?" Theresa asked me as if Daisy weren't there, her expression slowly sliding back into that stony facade she always kept up. "She doesn't look much older than twelve... How do you know her?"

"I'm already fourteen, for your information," Daisy said before I could answer, puffing out her chest a little bit as if to prove she was no longer a pre-teen. "And I'm Derek Nott's girlfriend, so that's how I know Alan."

"Certainly," I admitted, inclining my head. Trying to change the subject, I quickly added: "Now, what were you going to tell me next?"

"I'm not going to. It's not like you listen, anyway."

"Well, you seemed to be doing just fine holding your own conversation," I said, which was true – my responses of 'oh', 'mmh', and 'I see' had always appeared to encourage her enough to talk another five minutes.

Daisy huffed and turned to Theresa again, as if she was determined to ignore me from now on. "Anyway," she said, "I am grooming him for a girl in my year, that's why I'm telling him so much about my class."

I started and got a violent coughing fit, choking on my last bite of kidney pie. When I caught my breath again, wiping at my eyes, I saw Daisy with a broad and satisfied grin on her face. Theresa's mouth was slightly agape, and she was looking at Daisy with disbelief etched into her features.

"You what?" I asked her weakly, thumping myself on the collarbone to get the kidney out of my air pipe.

Daisy smiled. "I told you about her just now – Anna Copperfield. She's a Ravenclaw in my year, remember? She's really, really smart – I had a few projects with her and she made me feel so ignorant. She ended up doing everything herself. Anyway, she's got a bit of a crush on you."

"Really," I muttered, envisioning someone as hyperactive and talkative as Daisy, following me all over the place while giggling hysterically. "Could you point her out?"
"Sure." Daisy scanned the Ravenclaw table, which was by far the busiest table in the Hall this Christmas. "Eh... oh, look. There, you see?" She pointed at a very petite girl sitting at the end of the table, facing away from us. Her wavy black hair was reaching her waistline and the Ravenclaw next to her was at least a foot taller, but otherwise there wasn't much that I could see of her.

"Goodness. She'll look like a midget next to you."

I turned to Theresa, who was regarding the girl with a look of pity. "Excuse me?"
"Don't you see? She's five feet, tops. You're over six, I bet. You'll tower over her."
I shrugged. "Oh."

"Great!" Daisy exclaimed, clapping her hands. "Does this mean I can set a date for her with you?"

Startled, I asked: "How did you get to that conclusion?"

"You didn't object or otherwise comment on the fact that she has a crush on you. For your standards, that means it is fine."

I scoffed and stood up, as we had just been dismissed by McGonagall. When we left the Hall, I exchanged glances with Theresa, watching Daisy skip to the stairs that led to the cellars. "Wait a second," I mumbled to Theresa and jogged up to the Hufflepuff. "Hey, Daisy."

She turned around, smiling. "Yes?"

"When do you suppose this..." I made a throw-away gesture with my hand, trying to appear casual, "date, as you call it, will happen?" My heart drummed against my ribcage with nerves – it had been quite a while ago since the last time I had been on a date with a girl. Not to mention I had dated only one girl, namely Sally.

"There's a Hogsmeade weekend on programme, two weeks after break," Daisy volunteered, now rocking back and forth on her heels. "Do you want me to tell Anna? I think she'll get some kind of breakdown if you suddenly walked up to her one day – she's really shy, that's why she didn't have the guts to come over and talk to you herself, in case you were wondering."

"Aha," I said, shuffling my feat. "But then – how do you know? I mean, she's not in your House."

"No," she admitted, "but we're pretty good friends. And it was so very obvious she liked you, I had to do something about it."

"Oh?" I enquired. "So she doesn't know you are doing this?"

"You have got to be kidding," Daisy said, snorting. "If she knew, she'd kill me. I mean really. Anyway..." She looked over her shoulder at the small huddle of Hufflepuffs that was now walking past us. "I should go."

"Okay. Goodnight." I offered her a small smile.

"Sleep tight," she said, and turned around to descend the stairs to her common room. I made my way back to Theresa and together we walked down to our own. As soon as the entrance promptly disappeared behind us, Theresa went over to the couch in front of the fireplace and sat down. I gingerly took place next to her, feeling some of the loose springs digging into my legs.

For a few minutes, we kept quiet, simply staring into the fire as the few Slytherins that had stayed over the holidays entered the common room and immediately went down to their respective dormitories. I absently started fumbling with the pendant that was still hanging around my neck, still wondering whose it originally was.

"So," Theresa commented, attempting to string up a conversation, "you've got a date with that little girl?"

"Apparently," I muttered, leaving the pendant alone and scratching my head.
Theresa smiled again, leaning back against the back of the couch. I had seen her smile more this evening than the previous four and a half year packed together. "Well, at least we can't bother you about Sally anymore." She was grinning now. Her teeth shone an eerie orange in the light coming from the fireplace.

"Uh." I hated not being able to come up with something intelligent in response.
"It's all right," she said, shrugging. "I don't think that would have worked out, anyway."
I felt my ears colouring. "Well, err, thank you."

"No problem." She yawned and clapped her hand in front of her mouth as she stretched her legs and put her feet on top of the side-table in front of us. "Anyway, I don't know her. Anna Copperfield, I mean," she explained when I sent her a confused look. "She's a bit young for you, if you ask me."

"Perhaps," I agreed, shifting a bit to get more comfortable, "but Derek's been with Daisy – someone Anna’s age – for a while and they don't seem to have a problem with that. And I'm not even sure if I want to date her – we might not get along, for all I know."

"True," Theresa admitted. She rearranged the clip that kept her hair from falling in her eyes. "But Derek's a fool, and Daisy seems too naive to me. I doubt they both expect this relationship they have to last, deep in their hearts." She sighed. "I know he's your best mate and all, but Derek hardly is the type to hang around with a young girl for a few years. I wonder if something's up."

I chose not to comment and bit on the inside of my cheek instead. It wasn't any of my business what went on in Derek's relationships, and certainly not any of Theresa's. I decided to change the topic.

"What did you think about our game against Ravenclaw last week?"

Theresa frowned for a split second, but went along with me. "We won. What more is there to say?"

"There were quite some fouls, weren't there?"

"Yes." She nodded. "Though I never understood the rule about stooging. My great-grandfather says he loved it when he was a little boy. What's so wrong about having three Chasers in the goal area?"

"Well," I said, trying to recall what I had read about that particular offence, "it is a tactic once allowed where two of the Chasers would ram the opposing Keeper aside so the third Chaser could score a goal."

Theresa snorted. "Sounds like a textbook definition to me."

"That would be because it is."

"Yeah, sure. Anyway, I think our players were a bit exhausted, and that's because they broke the rules so much. I mean, we had that match against Gryffindor just last month! They hardly had time to train. All because those badgers had a few unfit players."
I couldn't suppress a smile. "If 'a few' means 'five of the required seven' in your neck of the woods, then I completely agree."

Just then, the entrance to our common room burst open again and Aiden walked in, laughing loudly with some classmate of his by his side. Theresa and I met each other's gaze and simultaneously raised our eyebrows. Laughter was hardly ever heard in the Slytherin common room, and never was the source of disruption a prefect. Well, until now.

"Did you see his face?" the unknown sixth year guffawed. "Too bad that lousy excuse for a professor had to show up and take all those bloody points. We could've gone on and on!"

Aiden snickered, and I winced inwardly at this pathetic display of immaturity. "Yeah, I know. Damn." He laughed again. Then he spotted us. "Hey Dave, look what we've got here!"

His companion giggled – actually giggled - and followed that up with: "Oops. D'you reckon we've interrupted something, Aiden?"

"Have you two been drinking?" Theresa asked in a bored tone. She had gotten out a comb and was raking it through her hair. Her face, however, was placid and her eyes were half-shut. She certainly didn't look amused.

While Aiden stumbled over to us, his friend hiccupped. "Damn right we have, huh? Wanna join us next time, lassie?" I was left to admire Theresa's ability to ignore him.

"Where have you been?" I asked annoyed as Aiden gripped the armrest of the couch. His breath smelled like something other than Butterbeer. “Didn’t you have to be in the Great Hall for the Christmas feast?”

"Three Broomsticks," he breathed in my face. "Had Firewhiskey. It burns, Alucard, you wouldn't believe –"

"How did you get there?" I interrupted, peering into my brother's slightly unfocused grey eyes while the other sixth year staggered towards the dormitories. "You're not allowed to go to Hogsmeade outside the specific weekends!"

"There was this thing in Potter's office – anyway," he went on, apparently not having heard my reprimand or simply not caring. It could have been both options. "I just wanted to say to you that that stuff you said to Rosario was really, really cool. You're my favourite brother." With that, he turned and managed to leave the room with slightly more dignity than his classmate.

There was a pregnant silence in the air for a while, until Theresa made a disgusted sound and shoved her comb back into one of her pockets. "I don't believe this. They think it's funny to break the rules, get completely pissed and bother other people... never mind some of them hate alcohol with a passion... silly boys..." She broke off her mutterings to look at me. "Promise to me you won't ever do that, okay?"

I held up my hands in mock-surrender. "Yes, Mother."

She sighed and looked away. "It's not funny."

I slowly lowered my hands again. "Do you have something to say?"

She quickly shook her head. "No. No, I'll just..." She stood up to leave, but when she had walked half across the room, she hurried back. "Actually, I have something to ask you."

I looked up. "Yes?"

"Did you really like that Muggleborn girl? I mean really, honestly like her?"

The question jumped on me like an irritating bug would. "No," I said immediately, even though I knew the speed of my reaction was suspicious. "It was just a rumour. Just a rumour. Really."

"Oh," she answered. A trace of disappointment lingered in her voice, and made me perk up my ears.

"How so?"

"It's just –" I turned around to see her pull a pained expression, mingled with sympathy. "I just thought it was kind of cute." She hastily walked away and descended to her dormitory. Her echoing footsteps slowly faded into silence.

I moaned and put my head in my hands.

~*~

On the last day of the Christmas holidays our classmates returned. After having checked if their trunks had arrived safely, both Isaac and Derek left the dormitory for dinner whilst Richard stayed to unpack. I was languidly sprawled on my four-poster, watching on as Richard removed some of his possessions from his trunk. He threw me several annoyed looks, presumably because he wanted me to leave, but I stayed where I was, too lazy to get up and go to dinner as well.

"Stop looking at me already," Richard snapped finally as he carefully stacked his sketchbooks on his nightstand.

"No," I answered, yawning, quickly covering my mouth with both of my hands.
Richard made a weird, spastic motion with his arm, wearing a scowl on his face. "Piss off, Alan."

"And why would I do that?" I drawled, rolling onto my side and stretching my long frame so it covered the length of the bed. The mattress groaned in protest.

"Because you're annoying the hell out of me." Richard kneeled to his trunk's level again and pulled some books out. "Christ, if you have the inexplicable urge to have your face lying in this direction, at least close your curtains or something, will you?"

I shook my head, which Richard didn't see as he had his back turned towards me. Seeing him handling a large assortment of drawing quills, I thought of the little sketchbook I had purchased with Richard in Hogsmeade. It was probably collecting dust in my trunk by now. "Hey, Fammet," I said, sitting upright.

He sighed and turned to me, looking irritated. "What."

"When were you going to teach me how to draw again?"

"I wasn't. How so?"

"Dunno." I stood up and started digging through my trunk, trying to find the little booklet. "Here, I'll just take out this thing we bought in Diagon Alley last time and –"

"I can't teach you how to draw, Alan," Richard said, flopping onto his own bed. "You can stop looking."

I looked up. "What do you mean, you can't teach me? Come on, you can just tell me what to do and I'll mimic your style –"

"No." Richard held up his hand, stopping my little rant. "Mate, if I could, I'd gladly do it for you. However, I can't teach you how to draw. First, I don't know how to do that. Second, it's much easier to develop your own style instead of mimicking others. I can only give you pointers, really, like what worked for me."

"Fine," I said, peeved. I couldn't find the bloody sketchbook anyway and it wasn’t like I wanted to draw. "Can I at least look at some of your drawings?"

"Well... err..."

I frowned, narrowing my eyes slightly. Richard suddenly fumbled awkwardly with his hands, his eyes flashing back and forth between the sketchbooks on his nightstand and me, sitting about six feet away. After a few seconds, he hastily grabbed his sketchbooks and held them protectively against his chest. "No, you can't."

"But –"

"Drawings are private, Alan. Not that I expect you to understand. You can't draw." Richard walked over to his trunk and put the large stack of paper in, almost tenderly, and closed his trunk with a thump.

"So?" I inquired, more than a little annoyed. "What, you think I'll laugh at them or something?"

"I don't care if you laugh at them. They're still private and I only share them with my closest friends or family. You belong in neither category."

Despite that comment hurting a little, I knew it was true. We weren't exactly friends, by any means. I had always tried to involve Richard in the conversations the rest of us had about family gatherings and the like – as a half blood, he never really got to participate. However, though he seemed to appreciate the thought, he never talked with us and after a while (I think it was somewhere in third year) I had stopped asking if he wanted to join us. Isaac hadn't seemed to mind – he and Richard had never really gotten along, mostly because of the blood differences Isaac saw between Richard and us.

Richard sighed and dropped onto his bed again. "Look, it's just like you and your piano. If somebody asked you to teach him how to play, or wanted to hear every single piece you ever mastered, would you do it?"

I opened my mouth to say Yes, of course, but then the doubts crept in. Would I? I didn't fancy myself a teacher, let alone a great one. I probably wouldn't have the patience to mentor somebody. And on the fact of playing for someone... well, I only did that on big events, like the Easter Ball at Malfoy Manor. My stomach lurched. I wasn't looking forward to that.

I settled on just shrugging. "I guess not."

Richard nodded, then looked like he had to suppress a huge yawn. "How was your Christmas?" he asked finally, leaning back on his elbows.

"Cool," I said, laying down on my bed again and tucking an arm under my head. "The feast was nice, not too many people... I finished my holiday assignments... yeah, nothing much happened. How about at your place?"

"Oh, we went to visit my grandparents' gra–" He abruptly cut off his sentence and quickly straightened up again. "We did nothing."

"Who is 'we'?" I asked, raising my eyebrows. "And why did you stop talking? Think I don't know what a graveyard is?"

"Shut up," he snapped, standing up. "With 'we' I meant my family, you moron. Which is practically non-existent, thanks to yours."

Dumbstruck, I stared at him, my mouth slightly open with astonishment. Insults and accusations usually flew around the dormitory all day long, but they were generally good-natured and rarely said with such venom as Richard just had. He had his back turned to me again, his posture stiff, and was fluffing up his pillow. I slowly sat up. "Turn around and say that to my face, arsehole."

"You – no – don't – YOU HAVE NO RIGHT!" he suddenly shouted, twisting around and launching himself on me across the room. Before I could defend myself he had slammed his fist into my face, right on the nose. Then the next blow came, on the jaw. I winced, too stunned to fight back.

"Stop –"

Another fist smacked me against the mouth, and when it retreated I tasted the disgusting iron taste of blood. My hands tried to get hold of Richard’s wrists to stop him from attacking me. He managed to punch me on the nose one more time before I was able to throw him off.

As Richard stumbled backwards, I brought my hand to my face. That last punch had opened the floodgates, and I felt some warm moisture running down from my nose.
"Wha' was tha' for?" I muttered, sounding like I had a bad head cold.

"Don't you dare call me an arsehole," Richard said, his voice trembling. "You're such an entitlement bastard... you know what? I wanted to do that for a long time now. You're bloody annoying, that's what you are. You're just too damn nosy for your own good. Idiot." Then he came over to me. "Well, let me see that."

My face burned with humiliation. What did he expect – that I would let him help me after he'd put me down verbally and physically? All I did was ask a question. He was the one who didn't have any right.

I impassively kept my hand in front of my face. "I'll manage just fine, thank you."

"Jesus Christ, Alan, this is what I mean! Step off your high horse for once."

I simply stood up and walked to the bathroom. Inside, I removed my hand when in front of the mirror. I swallowed uneasily at the sight that met me.

Some of the blood was already dry and starting to darken, but it looked terrible against my very pale skin and made my injury look ten times worse than it actually was. The blood that had escaped from my lip was still red and trickling down from the corner of my mouth, making me look like some kind of vampire. As Richard came in I hastily wiped it off.

"Oh my God," Richard whispered. I met his gaze in the mirror, but he quickly looked away. "You look like – err –"

"Like crap?" I asked, turning on the water taps. Richard stayed silent as I rinsed my hands and face, so I took that as a yes. When I dared to look at myself again, the only things that were evident of the fight were a dark bruise on the side of my jaw and a slightly bigger nose.

"Well," I said, stepping back, "no harm done. Are you coming to dinner with me?"
"I – yes, yes, of course," Richard said, accepting the silent peace offering. "You don't have to stop by the Infirmary?"

I shook my head and wiped my hands on the towel next to the sink. "I'll be fine." When I made way to the dormitory again, Richard awkwardly coughed.

I turned around. "What's wrong?"

"Err – I was just wondering what you were wearing. You know, around your neck. I never thought of you as a necklace kind of bloke."

My hand automatically went up and clenched around the pendant that was safely hanging against my breastbone. I really should keep the sodding thing better hidden. "It – it was a birthday gift. I like it." I narrowed my eyes. "Why do you ask?"

"Oh," Richard said, "nothing important. I was just wondering." He was getting his aloof air back now, the shock of the sudden fight having worn off. "Shall we go? There will be nothing left for us otherwise."

"Sure, sure," I muttered, almost dashing out of the dormitory as I muffled the pendant away under my robes again. I couldn't wait to eat and have an excuse to stop talking to Richard. This was just too awkward. "Let's go."

~*~

Drum. Drum. Drum.

Tap tap tap.

Drum. Drum. Drum.


I watched as Sally slowly laced up her boots, getting prepared for our weekly patrol in the corridors. We had received orders from the Head Girl some time ago, and the fifth year Ravenclaw prefects, who would also be walking around, had just left the Prefects' Lounge. I was getting rather impatient. The longer we waited with getting out of here, the later I would be able to sleep. I still had loads of homework to do, and frankly, I thought that was much more important than grabbing some rule-breaking student out of bed after hours.

Drum. Drum. Drum.

Tap tap tap.

Drum. Drum. Drum.


"Alan, please stop doing that already," Sally snapped exasperatedly, tying up her laces and putting her robes over them. She then started with the other boot. I sighed and started doodling on a piece of parchment someone had left on the large oak table we were sitting at.

The Prefects' Lounge wasn't actually a lounge, to be honest. It was as big as a classroom, and it just fit the twenty-five of us authority-holding students (give or take a few – there always were some people who didn't show up, I had noticed) when the Head Boy and Girl held conferences with all the prefects. Outside of those, we only had to report here for patrol, but we could also sit down at the main table and do homework, even though it technically wasn't allowed (which was why it was usually disguised as 'discussing prefect duties'). However, the most common use for the room was to use it as a private snogging place, as it was often empty during the day and only prefects knew the password.

A sound of clack, clack, clack informed me of the fact that the Head Girl was approaching, so I quickly turned over the doodle I had been scribbling down. I didn't think she would have appreciated a drawing of a beheaded person, not in the least because I had helpfully captioned it 'Longbottom'.

"Are you two set? Come on now, the other two left fifteen minutes ago. You're messing up the timetable." She glanced at her wristwatch. "If you leave now, I won't report it. Otherwise I'll have to put you in another evening."

I jumped up and stretched my legs, not wanting to be deprived of another evening in which I could have been catching up on assignments. Sally suddenly sped up with her progress, convincing me she had just dawdled to tick me off. In ten seconds she was up and ready to go.

"Well, what are we waiting for?" she said chirpily, re-pinning her prefect's badge to her robes so it was clearly visible.

"Throw that away, please," the Head Girl said to me, pointing at the piece of parchment still on the table. "Then you'll be free to go."

I crumpled the doodle and threw it into the wastepaper basket we passed on the way out. The Head Girl smiled and opened the exit for us. "I'll be waiting for you. You will report back half past ten sharp, okay? Any later and you could get into trouble." I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. Did she think we'd never done this before? We weren't thick or anything just because we weren't in Ravenclaw.

Despite this annoyance, Sally and I both nodded and stepped out of the Lounge. The centaur-shaped statue concealing the entrance slid back into place, into a row of other statues that looked exactly like it. I often thought it was a miracle I could find it between all those duplicates. I always got rather jumpy in this corridor, what with all the arrows pointed at me. The guardian centaur narrowed his eyes, but otherwise kept perfectly still. I nervously diverted my gaze, glad I had never met an actual living centaur.

"Do we get to do the sublevels?" I asked hopefully as Sally took out the parchment with our route on it. Nobody was in the dungeons or cellars this late, so we'd generally have nobody to deal with.

"Nope," she sighed. "Third floor, fourth floor and fifth floor – the Ravenclaws got the sublevels and up until our territory." She laughed. "Honestly, I'd rather do this."

"Suppose the Head Boy and Head Girl are doing sixth and seventh?" I asked, frowning. "There's nothing up there. They sure know how to split the duties."

Sally shrugged and pocketed the parchment again. "Probably. We'll have to start by going left, according to our directions."

We set off towards the East Wing. "How was your Christmas?" I inquired politely. My voice sounded falsely casual even to my own ears, but I was trying to break the underlying current in our conversation that kept us from getting too personal.

"Oh, nothing special," she said, steering us to the right and apparently not noticing I wanted to have a conversation. We passed the Weasley Swamp, some indoor mess the two Weasleys who owned Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes had made when they were at Hogwarts. There always was a first year or two who managed to trap themselves in at the beginning of the year.

"I wonder why they never removed that thing," I muttered to Sally, pointing at the swamp over my shoulder.

"Because it's a good piece of magic," she replied. "I think it's pretty cool. Have you seen all the plants that grow in there?"

"Of course I have," I said crossly, annoyed with her pleasant tone. "I go to school here too, you know."

We passed the prefects' bathrooms and we both lapsed into silence after my last remark. After looking around the whole fifth floor and finding nothing out of place, we went down to the forth floor, where we were immediately granted the sight of two cats in the middle of a mating ritual. Well, the male – a very large and overly fluffy orange one – was trying to jump the female, which was twice as small. Her loud screeches echoed through the corridor as the male chased her, so Sally and I quickly shooed them to go elsewhere.

"Get a room!" I called after them as they scampered down a narrow staircase.

Sally rolled her eyes. "They're cats, Alan." She strode over to the Charms corridor. "Come on now, we need to check the classrooms."

I sighed and jogged over to her, as she was already opening the first door. After poking her head inside, she said: "Nope. Nothing going on here."

Suddenly we heard a loud giggle about two classrooms over. I glanced at Sally, who nodded. We dashed over to the door of the respective classroom and I pulled it open, letting Sally enter first. When I slipped into the room as well, I was faced with no other than Louisa and Longbottom. Judging by the way they were standing, they had probably been kissing seconds before. I felt something boiling hot inside of me, but Sally started talking before I could say anything.

"Well, what have we got here." She folded her arms and wore a rather smug look on her face. "Tut tut. Two lovebirds out of bed after hours. What a romantic evening is in store for you." I watched as she tapped her cheek with her finger, like she was pondering what to do. "Ah, yes, I think twenty points from Gryffindor is quite deserved. Oh, and another twenty because your hair is a mess, Longbottom. And ten more because you're sitting on my desk, Rosario."

I was about to object that wasn't really fair, so much points for a bit of kissing after hours, but after glancing at Longbottom's mussed up hair and Louisa's rather haphazard robes I decided Sally could take as many points from Gryffindor as she wanted.

Who, speaking of, had just pulled out the parchment with our route on it and turned to me. "Do you have a quill, by any chance?"

I searched my pockets and found the one I had been doodling Longbottom’s early demise with – if a bit crooked – and handed it over. "There you go. Self Inking."

Sally scribbled down Louisa Rosario and Michael Longbottom and pocketed both my quill and the parchment. "The caretaker will be hearing of this."

"Isn't it enough that you've taken points?" Longbottom said, rather thin lipped. "Why do you take so much pleasure in getting other people into trouble?"

"You got yourself into trouble," Sally retorted, drawing herself to her full length – which wasn’t that impressive, truth to be told. "Now go back to your common room. I assume you know the way. Or would you like an escort?" she added mockingly. When both Louisa and Longbottom threw her a filthy look, she laughed and turned around. "Coming, Alan?"

I smiled thinly at Longbottom, but Louisa refused to look my way and I didn't really want to face her now, anyway. I followed Sally, and said: "I'll leave the door open, hmm?" before resuming our patrol. Sally looked highly pleased with herself and even skipped a few times to express her joy.

When we were on the way back to report we were done, we were held up by somebody calling for us. "Hey, you two!"

The female Ravenclaw prefect, Rowena Chandelier, ran up the stairs Sally and I had just climbed and joined us.

"What?" Sally asked, annoyed. "We're only a few corridors away from the Lounge, what's so important?"

Rowena took a few moments to catch her breath, her eyes darting accusingly between us. "You two... you slacked off, didn't you? You left way later than Callum and I. Why are we here at the same time?"

I tapped my watch. "We had to report back half past ten sharp. We haven't slacked off. I'd say you're running late."

"Never mind," Rowena said quickly, like now was not the time for mistakes to be pointed out. "What I meant to ask was what happened, you see I just met quite an angry couple the other moment and when I tried to give them detention because they were out after hours they snapped at me that they'd already been caught once." She said this all very impatiently, as if we were two particularly dim-witted students. "Was that your doing?"

I snorted inwardly. How very Longbottom to be so stupid. Why hadn't they just gone back when we had told them to? Apparently they had needed an escort.

I glanced at Sally, expecting her to lead the conversation. After all, I hadn't done a thing – technically speaking. However, my fellow prefect remained mute, her arms crossed and her eyes set on a fancy pillar nearby. This Sally was behaving quite unlike the one who had given detention and taken points without letting me get a word in edgewise, not that I had tried.

"Well?" Rowena pressed, shaking her dark red hair back.

"They were out after curfew," I answered, slightly hesitating as Rowena narrowed her eyes. She really looked quite scary like that. "I guess they didn't like us interrupting their snogging session."

"Actually," Rowena snapped, jumping at the bait. "They told me you had taken fifty points. Fifty. Do you know how much that is? They were just out after curfew; a simple fifteen points would have been more than enough."

"Are you saying it's okay to break the rules?" I asked. "I mean, 'just out' after curfew sounds like you're saying that's fine to do."

"You know what I mean." Rowena glared at me. "You're abusing your positions!

That wasn't me, that was Sally! I wanted to say, but I didn't really think that was fair. After all, I hadn't stopped her. "No, we're not," I argued instead. "We did what we thought was right. It's not our fault your standards are different."

"By the way," Sally cut in, still examining the pillar, "it really isn't any of your business what punishment we gave them. They were out after hours, like Alan said, so they shouldn't have been surprised or angered that we docked points. Or do you disagree, Chandelier?" I noticed she conveniently forgot to mention the reasons she had given the Gryffindors for the loss of points, but I refrained from commenting.

"You could have the courtesy to look at me when you try to reprimand me, Goyle," Rowena hissed. Sally locked gazes with her and for a moment the air seemed to crackle with animosity. I kept looking back and forth between the two girls, waiting for one of them to explode or something equally unlikely. Both Rowena's ruffled red hair and Sally's slightly tangled blonde locks seemed to glow eerily in the light of the nearby candles. I absently cocked my head, observing the picture. They were both really quite pretty, actually, especially now they weren't arguing their heads off.

"As prefects," Rowena continued quietly, interrupting my thoughts, "we are allowed to dock points and give detentions, yes, but we mustn’t abuse our positions. Don't even try to deny you didn't, you know I'm telling the truth. Just because they are Gryffindors does not mean that you have the right to take more than thrice as much points than usual. I'll have to report you if I find out you did it again."

"We haven't been abusing our positions," Sally whispered slyly. "Really, Chandelier, I don't know what you are getting at. Do you have a guilty conscience, perhaps? Have you abused your status? Or are you living up to your reputation as a goody two shoes Ravenclaw?"

A dark red blush crept onto Rowena's face, matching nicely with her hair colour. "If being a 'goody two shoes' means I'm not like you, then yes, I'm living up to it. And I'm rather glad I am." With that, Rowena stalked past us, her hair flying around her face as she went in the direction of the Prefects' Lounge.

There was a beat of silence in which Sally and I exchanged looks, but then we both cracked up.

"Merlin," Sally gasped, "I'm sure glad I'm not in Ravenclaw with her. Did you see that hair?"

"The hair's pretty," I managed to say.

Sally abruptly stopped laughing.

"So is yours," I added quickly, and she seemed satisfied with that. We cut a few corners on our way after Rowena, as we really had only a few minutes left. But we made it. The Head Girl took our parchment back and nodded, saying she'd give it to the caretaker.

"Excellent," Sally said, rubbing her hands as if she'd finally won the annual Daily Prophet Grand Prize Galleon Draw. "Then I guess we'll leave."

"Be careful," the Head Girl said absently, still scanning the parchment.

"You'd think there are pixies flying all over Hogwarts, the way she constantly keeps warning us," Sally started as soon as we had rounded the first corner on our way back to our dormitories. "Honestly, she probably thinks we're twelve or something –"

"Perhaps no pixies, but we do have a poltergeist," I muttered, pulling Sally though a nearby door with me as Peeves approached our corridor, carrying a bucket of paint and a paintbrush. I liked to think I slipped in rather stealthily – being in Slytherin and all – but as soon as we stepped inside the space that was apparently a broom closet, I knocked over a large bucket of dirty water, spilling it all over Sally's robes and shoes. We both held our breath as Peeves darted by. He had not noticed anything, having just cackled when I stumbled.

I put the bucket upright, coughing. "Sorry."

"Indeed," Sally said, a disgusted edge to her voice. "I'll have to get these to the laundry; they're my best set! Ew." She lifted her right foot, which made a rather revolting, slurping sound – kind of like somebody eating oysters. "I am not going to walk around like this."

"Then stay here," I joked.

"Isn't there some kind of spell for this sort of stuff? Just for the time being?" she asked, ignoring what I said.

"You mean some kind of vacuum?"

She nodded.

I shook my head. "Not that I know of."

"Great," she said grumpily. "This is entirely your fault, you know."

"Of course it is." I rolled my eyes. Heaven forbid she had something to do with it. "The Prefects bathrooms are on this floor; there's usually a spare robe or two in there. Shall I come with you?"

"And watch me undress?" Sally asked, pulling a face. "Thanks for the offer."

I didn’t say that, I thought, blushing, but kept my mouth shut and settled for a shrug instead. Fine. "I'll see you later then."

Sally hitched up her robes, showing her carefully laced boots. "Ugh. You ruined my shoes too."

"Yeah, yeah," I muttered, opening the door for her. "Good luck."

"I should hope so. Bye." She tiptoed through the corridor, leaving little puddles of water in her wake. I went in the other direction, towards the dungeons, while my mind was in fact in Sally's bathroom. I grinned. A bloke could dream.

~*~

It was a bitter cold Friday morning in the middle of January when my classmates and I stood outside the greenhouses, waiting for Professor Vapor to arrive. The Hufflepuffs stood huddled together in a large group, leaning close to one another as protection against the chilly wind, whilst we Slytherins were scattered amongst the patch of muddy, slippery snow in front of Greenhouse Four. I pulled up my scarf a bit more, half tempted to wrap it around my ears against the cold, but that would have looked ridiculous so I refrained from doing so.

I glanced up the path that led to the castle, still seeing no sign of our Professor. It was not like her to be late – normally she'd be the one first in, determined to give anyone who was late detention. I shook my head and threw Derek a questionable look. He stomped his feet, shoving his hands deep into his pockets.

"What d'you reckon?" he asked, his breath forming a small cloud in the air. "Is she sick, maybe?"

"I hope so," Bridget suddenly spoke up, who had hung around us for a few minutes. Her nose was the colour of raspberries. "I still have to finish my essay for Potions due this afternoon. I mean, gosh, it has to be unreasonably long, doesn't it? I'm not even half way!" She hoisted her scarf further up her face, obscuring more than half of her face.

I slowly blew hot air on my hands, which were slightly blue. "Yeah, I had a tough time with that one yesterday. Crap, it's so cold."

"Thanks for that refreshing piece of news," Derek muttered, but then stood tiptoe so he could look over the Hufflepuffs' heads. "Well, there she is. About bloody time, too. I can't feel my toes. Or anything else, for that matter."

I turned my head, taking advantage of being taller than everybody else. As our Herbology professor marched up the path to the greenhouses, her bun comically flopping up and down, I saw she had a large, iron cage floating next to her. It seemed to hold a bunch of vines, which emitted an eerie green light and writhed against the restrains of the cage.

"What is that?" Bridget asked, her voice slightly muffled through her scarf. "Why isn't it in the greenhouses? Wow, it must be really dangerous. Do you think it's rare, Derek?"
Derek's eyebrows shot up, as if he was surprised at being addressed. He coughed a little and rubbed his hands together. "Uh, I don't know. I've never seen it before... but I haven't read out Herbology book entirely, either, so I'm honestly not the best person to ask."

I snorted. "To put it lightly."

He punched me on the arm, just as Professor Vapor stalked towards the greenhouse we were standing next to and pulled out her wand. "You!" she barked at a Hufflepuff boy. "Get the cage and carry it inside. Everyone else follows in. And no talking, how many times do I have to tell you?" she snapped at Sally and Caitlin, who were standing together with big grins on their faces and obviously commenting on Vapor's bun, which had sagged to the side of her head with a few vapid wisps falling in front of her face. I had difficulty managing my laughter, too.

Professor Vapor shook her hair out of her face and tapped her wand against the greenhouse door. It swung open and she walked inside, the Hufflepuff boy behind her nearly toppling under the weight of the cage. One of the vines had wrapped itself around his arm, and once he had put down the cage he struggled to remove it. By that time most of the class was already in their seats, including me and Hilary Oak. Our professor sighed exasperatedly and cut the vine off with a swift movement of her wand. "Go to your seat," she ordered, and the boy hastened to obey. She turned to the class. I wondered how her hair had gotten back into the eternal bun so quickly.

"In this cage, there are several types of average Herbology plants you have studied in the previous four and a half years. However, each of these samples has been removed from the greenhouses as they became sick or accidentally got in touch with an unfortunate spell, or some dim-witted student used the wrong type of fertilizer." Her pointed gaze snapped over to me. I swallowed guiltily; I had hoped she'd forgotten that particular incident. Hilary scribbled away on her parchment, attempting to keep up with the note-taking. Why was she bothering?

In the next fifteen minutes, each couple was given a sample of a plant and instructed to examine it and describe what was wrong with it. Ours was a particularly squirmy kind of creeper and Hilary and I found ourselves wrestling with it on the table, making the most noise in the whole class. It was hardly giving us the opportunity to actually examine it and do our assignment.

"What does it look like to you?" Hilary panted, taking advantage of the fact that we were permitted to talk for once.

"I don't know," I muttered, dodging a vine that was insistent on hitting me on the nose and quickly pinned it to the table. "It looks like a green octopus to me. A violent octopus."

Hilary let out a slightly breathless giggle. "I think we should try to tie the vines together so we can have a better view. What do you say?" Just then one of the vines wrapped itself around her wrist and pulled. "Ouch!"

"Be quiet, the hag is coming our way," I said, trying to hold the plant in submission and look into my book at the same time. "Come on, help me."

Hilary took over handling the plant as I quickly looked through the book. Professor Vapor passed without comment but with a nasty smile. I glared at her back, wishing there was some rule about having permission to kick impossible professors in the bum.

"All right," I said, looking away from Professor Vapor and pointing at the page. "I think it's a Venomous Tentacula –"

"Eek!" Hilary shrieked, immediately pulling her hands off the vines. No longer restricted, three of them lashed out and hit me across the face, one of them exactly hitting the spot where Richard had punched me just a week before.

Seeing stars, I clapped my hands in front of my face, letting out a pitiful howl of pain. My eyes started burning with hot tears as the vines kept beating me across the face, until somebody apparently restrained them again. I was slightly grateful, until Vapor started screaming into my ear.

"Ten points from Slytherin! Ten points from Hufflepuff! What is this for display? Miss Oak, stop blubbering and Mr Malfoy, get your hands off your face! Now!"

Waves of dislike seeped through my body and I refused to do what she asked. It hurt badly. My nose was throbbing wildly and I felt the warm flow of blood starting to go downwards, again. I rapidly blinked to stop the tears from falling. I wasn't sobbing. I was not sobbing.

"Oh, fine, have it your way. To the hospital wing you go, and write an essay about this plant without witnessing the whole lesson. Go."

I stumbled to the door, peeking through my fingers and trying not to get eye-contact with anyone. As soon as I was outside, I lowered my hands and took a few deep breaths, the cold air doing wonders to the pain in my nose. I started up the path to the castle, still holding up the blood flow that was already slowly subsiding. I somehow managed to find my way to the hospital wing without tripping over or walking into anything or anyone.

Madame Meddletin clicked disapprovingly with her tongue as I walked in. "What is it this time, love?" She led me further into the clinic, muttering under her breath: "Boys these days."

"Herbology," I said thickly, wiping some more blood from under my nose. "I was attacked by a mad plant."

She leaned closer, carefully scrutinizing my nose with a professional look. "Drop your hands, I can't see anything." I did what she asked. She softly touched it a few times before straightening up. "Sit down," she told me, and she quickly walked into her office.

I dropped onto a nearby bed, trying to avoid splattering the crisp, white sheets in crimson drops. Naturally, I didn't succeed, and by the time the nurse got back there were several dark red stains on the bed where I might or might not have attempted to wipe my hands clean. She sighed and waved her wand, cleaning the sheets as well as my hands.

"Scourgify. Now, what kind of plant was it?"

"I don't know," I admitted. "We had to find out ourselves, you see. But I think it was a Venomous –"

"Tentacula," she finished, nodding. "Yes, I thought so too because of the slightly purplish spots it leaves behind after contact."

"Are you sure those aren't just bruises?" I muttered, making an effort not to roll my eyes.

"Yes," she said blandly. "They felt like little pimples. Also, the Venomous Tentacula is teething, and your speech is rather slurred, haven't you noticed? You're tired."
"My nose hurts," I complained.

"And you're whinging," she continued. "But that's okay; nobody's ever died of that. No need to stay in the hospital wing. Here, I want you to take this –" she handed me a red-coloured potion, followed by a clear one, "and this. A blood replenishing potion and a painkiller potion. That's all I can do for now; the plant's magical qualities prevent me from using shrinking potions for your nose, but the swelling will go away on its own eventually."

I scrunched up my nose, which I immediately regretted as it hurt, and knocked back the two potions without a second thought.

"There we go," Madame Meddletin said, looking pleased. "You can go to your common room now."

"Thanks." I smiled and stood up. "I don't have to come back for a check up or anything?"

"You just love the drama, hm?" she asked, the corners of her mouth twitching. "No, you don't have to come back. I'm busy enough. Now, go on, get out!"

I grinned and made my way out of the ward. After slipping around a corner, I met a boys' bathroom and went inside to look at the damage my nose had taken. When I turned to the mirror, I saw that there was a large bruise covering most of my nose, and a few purple spots made their way across the bridge. Luckily, the blood was already gone. I raised my hand and nervously touched a spot on the left side of my nose. It did feel like a pimple. Ew.

I decided to go to the library, as I had left my bag in the greenhouse and so couldn't do homework anyway. I left the toilets and sprinted up the nearest staircase to an empty corridor. However, when I turned the next corner, I got face to face with none other than Louisa Rosario, who was so startled by my sudden appearance that she jumped and fell backwards.

I blinked, looking down on her. I hadn't seen her without Longbottom yet, so I was kind of surprised as well. "I - hi."

She threw me a surprisingly filthy look, got up again and dusted off her robes. Then, she walked past me without as much as a sideways glance. She had almost gone down the same stairs I had used when I called out.

"Hey, wait."

She ignored me. After a brief hesitation, I went after her.

As my legs were much longer than hers, I quickly caught up with her, even though she picked up her pace a bit when I got closer. She took another staircase, but this time she went up, making me wonder why she'd gone down in the first place. "Wait!" I called again, and finally met up with her on the top of said stairs. Still, she just turned the other way, as if she could barely hear me.

"Rosario!" I said indignantly, going after her again. I was going to be embarrassed of this later, I just knew it.

Then why don't you stop?

We continued this for three more corridors and one more staircase before I had enough and caught her by the shoulder. She immediately jerked it from my grip and kept going. Fuming, I walked past her and blocked the way. Before she could dodge me or turn around, I had grabbed her by the arm. She tried to twist it out of my hand, but I tightened my grip. We need to talk. Oh, that sounds stupid, but it's true.

She hissed and pulled one more time before whispering: "You're hurting me, bastard."

"I'll let go if you promise you won't walk away," I said, clearly hearing my heartbeat drumming in my ears. "Promise it to me."

Louisa tried to break free again, but when I still didn't budge, she sighed. "I – I promise." She scowled. "What do you want?"

I tentatively let her go, unsure if she'd still make a break for it, but she stayed. Of course. She was a Gryffindor. "I –" I paused, trying to get the right question in my head. I took a deep breath. "Why did you run away from me?"
Her lips thinned. "You know why."

"No," I said, my voice trembling slightly. "I don't know why." You do. You do.

She narrowed her eyes and raised herself to full height. "Excuse me?"

I quickly lowered my gaze to the ground, feeling an unwelcome blush creeping up my face. "I –"

Her voice was hard as steel. "Look at me. Look at me and say you don't know why."

I raised my head again, meeting her eyes, which were even darker than normal. Seconds passed. After the tension-filled pause, in the wake of her demanding gaze, I looked away from her again. I couldn't say it. I didn't know why. I was a great liar. Why couldn't I do this?

"I have nothing else to say to you," Louisa finally said. She turned around to go.

"Don't leave!" I said, promptly shaming myself with the pleading tone in my voice. "You promised."

She sighed angrily and whirled around again. "So?" She raised her chin. "Spit it out."
I folded my arms. "What if your brother made it all up?"

There was another long, uncomfortable pause, but when she finally spoke, I wished it had lasted longer. There was not a trace of warmth in her voice when she said: "Are you suggesting that you never said a foul word about me? That my brother would lie to me about such things? My brother is a lot of things, but he is not a liar." She stepped closer to me, and the next thing I knew, my cheek stung and suddenly started heating up very quickly. Astonished, I brought a palm to my face to rub where Louisa had slapped me. She withdrew her hand, her own cheeks flushed. "Unlike you, my brother is honest with me."

"That's what you think," I snapped back. That slap hurt.

Louisa, who had already made another attempt to leave the scene, stopped abruptly and stalked back again. That time, I was prepared for what was coming and caught her hand in time, and grabbed the other one just to be safe. She unexpectedly started sobbing as she tried to wrench my hands off her again. I loosened my grip. "Don't cry," I mumbled awkwardly. "Come on, don't..."

"I was right there, you idiot!" she cried out. "At the top of the bloody stairs! And now you're trying to tell me I made it all up?"

My hands went slack and she was able to tug her own away, but I didn't quite notice. It was just occurring to me I had very possibly ruined everything.

"You – I –" I tried to make something up – it could've been anything – but words failed me. Perhaps it was the Venomous Tentacula's qualities messing with my brain.

"You called me a Mudblood!" Louisa yelled right over my useless mumbling. She started crying in earnest. "You – you called me a slut! What do you expect me to do now? Forgive and forget, is that it?"

"But I –"

"I trusted you!" she burst out, wiping the tears from her face. "You said – you – you said you didn't care about my blood, damn it! You were lying all the time! Damn it all!" She clapped her hands in front of her face to hide her tears, making me feel even worse about everything.

"I don't care," I said desperately, reaching out for her. "I wasn't lying, I promise." She glared at me through her fingers, her gaze so hateful I abruptly recoiled, wincing inwardly. It was looking like I had ruined everything.

"Don't you dare touch me again," she threatened. "You're just trying to get me to believe you again, so I can be your bloody toy again, to mess around with when you're bored and to make fun of with your stupid friends, is that it?"

"I – No!" I exclaimed. How could she think that? "You’re getting it all wrong! Look, Louisa –"

"Do not use my name. You're not worthy of it." She dropped her hands and straightened her shoulders, drawing a shuddering breath. "Stay away from me. I don't want to have anything to do with you anymore, do you understand? Stop following me."

I was speechlessly standing there, feeling defeated as she walked away, when she whirled around in her path. "And send my regards to whoever punched you on the nose. God knows you deserved it."

"I'm sure he does," I said, but not loud enough so Louisa'd hear it. She had disappeared around the corner anyway.

I don't know how long I kept standing there, looking at the end of the corridor as if hoping she'd come back and ask me to apologise, and I'd feel relieved. Then it would be over, and we could be civil again and perhaps something else, but that didn't happen of course. Instead, I felt stupid. I felt stupid for liking her, for pursuing her, for talking bad about her, for making a total fool of myself in front of her and messing everything up from the start. I felt stupid for thinking I ever had a chance.

~*~

Author's Notes: Well, finally! I'd say that it won't take that long again, but with the queue closure lurking in the near future I don't know. So the next update will probably be in August. See you then!

Chapter 10: Chapter Eight: Ball Bickering
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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. ;)

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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.

~*~

Chapter 11: Chapter Nine: Proper Dignity
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Author’s Notes: Err, yes. So. I haven’t updated in a bit. However, after some dawdling, I sat down and decided I had to go and finish this dang thing. The scene became soooo long that I cut out the two I had planned on including with it, as that would perhaps take me even longer. Anyway, I hope it is worth waiting for all these months – I’m sorry for neglecting this little project.

~*~

Chapter Nine: Proper Dignity

Remember this -- that there is a proper dignity and proportion to be observed in the performance of every act of life. -- Marcus Aurelius Antoninus


~*~

I hated balls.

In all honesty, there was never an occasion that required more frillying and dilly-dallying than a ball at Malfoy Manor. It was to be held in the evening, which meant that the entire day, my mother could be found running about the house, yelling shrilly at the house elves, at my father, at Aiden and even at me, even if I was hiding in a corner trying to imitate a wallflower. I had lost count of the amount of times I had been ordered to wash my hair, had heard her shriek at my father to please not go into the ballroom because it was being cleaned, and had been witness of her attack on Aiden's robes at least three times.

Ball time definitely brought out the very worst in my mother.

"Alucard!"

Cringing, I hurried up a flight of stairs, to the second floor, nearly forgetting the creaking step that would betray my presence. My mother's footfalls were already thundering upwards, repeating my name almost as if she were on a crusade. Holding my breath, I tried not to make the door move as I slipped into the nearest room, which happened to belong to my grandmother Narcissa. Luckily she was touring the French countryside this year - despite my father's frequent protests that she was too old to do so on her own - but nevertheless, the familiar scent of heavy perfume darted up my nose and made me sneeze in the blink of an eye.

I heard a muffled "Aha!" downstairs, and cursed softly before darting out of the suite again - no point in getting caught in my grandmother's abandoned living quarters if I was going to be found anyway. My heart sank as my mother reached the top of the stairs, slightly out of breath, and the point of her finger was so accusing that I immediately felt guilty, though I wasn't sure of what I'd done wrong this time.

"You, young man, were supposed to give me the shoes you were planning on wearing tonight so I could get them polished! Three hours ago!"

Oh. Right. Forgot about that.

"I - err, didn't I?" Goodness, why was she worrying about shoes? Robes I could understand – well, actually, I couldn’t understand that either – but who was going to pay attention to what I was wearing on my feet?

"No you very well didn't! And you better get to it right now! Leave them in the hall." She took a deep breath, then furrowed her eyebrows a bit. "What are you doing up here, anyway?"

I was about to answer "Nothing," when she turned on her heel and ran downstairs again. That woman was going to break her neck before the end of the day.

Over the course of several hours, not only did I drop off my shoes in the main hall, but I was also ordered to go wash my damn hair again (she actually said 'damn', too - I was surprised into obedience), redress into my dressrobes twice because there were still wrinkles in it before Mother had them ironed once more, and to my bewilderment, she finally told me to go help the house elves in the kitchen. There is no other order that can convey that much of a message of 'You are useless - please go somewhere where I can't see you'.

I wasn't certain if staying within her sight would be a bad thing or not.

Finally, though, after much more yelling and bellowing and hair-pulling, I was wandering around aimlessly in the hall as a few house elves did a last-minute clean up. The large oak doors were open, and a small breeze fluttered through the chamber, promising an altogether pleasant evening. Wringing my hands, I looked up to the balcony that led to the ballroom, connected to a rather majestic spiral staircase, and I hoped none of the ladies would trip on the smooth dance floor - I'd nearly lost my footing earlier.

"Guests arriving soon... Oh I should've - no, got taken care of..." My mother's muttering drifted through the ballroom doors above, and it was rather distracting. I nervously peeked outside, almost imagining people already walking up the lawn, but it was still empty. A few seconds later I was joined by Aiden, and I wrinkled my nose. He reeked of Eau de Ponce.

At least I would be able to smell him coming.

"Anyone?" he asked.

"No," I said.

He scoffed briefly and went upstairs. About a minute later my mother hurried out of the living room - how she'd got there, Merlin knew - and stormed up, her hairdo wobbling precariously. "Aiden! I need you downstairs to welcome the guests! Don't wander!"

Ugh, guest welcoming with Aiden. What were we, clerks? I scowled around the hall as my brother came walking down again, a broody expression on his face. "Wish they'd just cancel the whole blasted thing," he muttered darkly before popping a strawberry into his mouth.

"See you plundered the table first chance you got," I commented, staring at his moving jaw.

"The food's the only good thing about this event," he retorted. I slowly inclined my head in agreement.

It still took about half an hour for the first guests to finally arrive, and five minutes later it was snowballing people into our Manor. Aiden and I couldn't escort everyone upstairs fast enough, busy with taking their cloaks and faking smiles while they stared up at the balcony. Most of them took the initiative when they heard music coming from the ballroom doors, and simply trailed upwards without a glance back to us. Like a herd of geese, the rest followed, allowing us to take a brief break and sneak up to get some grape juice.

Derek's family arrived pretty soon after, brightening my mood somewhat. His little sister could just as well have walked inside on accident, as she absently looked around the hall before her mother tugged her along. For a few moments, Derek held us company in the hall, and he whispered in my ear, "So why didn't I get a welcoming speech?"

"Don't have one," I muttered back, folding Mr Nott's cloak and putting it in the large closet on our right. Honestly, the point of welcoming most of the pureblooded population in our humble mansion was putting on a fake smile and stuffing away their travelling cloaks - many of them had been visiting every four years, anyway.

Derek was called upstairs pretty soon after, and then the boring part started, knowing that the majority had arrived but still having to wait for those few latecomers. After an hour, Aiden went upstairs muttering about food and didn't come back, and I was left to wander around the hall, the open doors bringing in breezes that became chillier and chillier as time progressed.

Of course the last guests had to arrive as I was slouched against the wall and looking like a lost teenager instead of welcoming host. However, the people were Sally and her parents who'd known me my entire life, so it wasn't that bad, I supposed. Her father handed me his huge cloak and gave me a pat on the back that nearly threw me off balance. Ick, nearly got that coat hangar in my eye... He then took his wife by the elbow and led her to the stairs, walking by me again in the process. I frowned, having noticed the pallor of Mrs Goyle's face compared to the raging blush on her cheeks, but had assumed she'd been wearing excessive make-up - however, moving into the candlelight, I could clearly see beads of sweat on her forehead and took note of her slightly ragged breathing, the careful way she walked... Why would she attend if she was sick?

Sally shuffled forward, awkwardly moving out of her cloak to reveal her purple dressrobes, but when she handed it to me she didn't meet my eyes, instead choosing to stare after her mother. While I tried to wrestle the cloak between all the other ones, praying I'd be able to remember which was whose later, I asked, "How's your mum doing?" I retreated from the pressing materials to throw her a strained smile. "She seems rather ill."

There was a short pause that seemed to drag on and on, as Sally kept staring at the staircases. "Or maybe," I mumbled, starting to doubt my observation immediately, "it was just a trick of the light."

"No." The answer was quick and clipped, like this was not at all something she wanted to talk about. "She's just off. It'll be fine."

She was biting the side of her thumb, like she usually did when she was nervous. I sighed. "If you say so."

A brief, pensive silence hung in the air between us before we simultaneously made a movement to walk to the ballroom. I halted. She halted. Then we both moved forward again and I figured that while it might not have been very gentlemanly to do so, I couldn't keep waiting forever for us to sort out our awkwardness – I led her to the ballroom above.

Arriving in the large, oval room, I was glad to see that most guests were entertaining themselves, and more importantly, keeping my parents busy so I could walk to the other side of the room unnoticed. I couldn't care less about some rich, foreign pureblood's son my father would want to introduce me too, or the daughter of an influential political figure who my mother would more than willingly shove on my case. No, the only things that held my interest at the moment were conveniently located together at the end of the ballroom - friends and food.

"Pleasant evening, isn't it?" I said to Derek, ducking around what would have been a slam on the back and reaching for a few very miniscule sandwiches. Why were those things so small? Was that food fashion or something? One of those probably fit in the palm of my hand. Yes, it did.

"You can grump around all you like, but the food is nice," Derek mentioned with a lazy grin, holding a plate with some of the most mismatching food I'd ever seen. From one look I recognised sate, spaghetti, a slab of custard cake and a handful of raspberries. I'd just put one of my pathetic sandwiches in my mouth and couldn't answer immediately with words, but I figured an eye roll said enough on the matter.

We ate in silence for a while, looking at the various people on the dance floor. I was especially keeping a wary eye on Gwendolyn, who was happily chatting - err, snogging away with a bloke not too far away from us. One second she'd need to peek over his shoulder and spot us, another one to excuse herself, and one more to reach our side and bore us to death with snooty bragging about who exactly he was. For some reason, I was rather glad that Caitlin and Sally arrived to form a distraction - the two of them were still better than one Gwendolyn.

"Oi, you two," Caitlin greeted when she reached us, beaming with happiness. What was it with girls and their suddenly becoming inexplicably happy whenever they got the excuse to dress up and dance? It was slightly terrifying to think that, under these circumstances, Derek and I were no longer her rather annoying and immature housemates; we had, stuck into stiff dressrobes with immaculate hair, been graced with the dubious honour of being potential dance partners.

Judging by the expression on his face, Derek had had exactly the same epiphany and we exchanged half-concealed, panicky looks - being tutored in the foxtrot most of one's childhood definitely assured a phobia of dancing later on.

"Err, hi," I said politely, staring over their heads. "Having fun?"

There was no time for them to answer, as the second Sally opened her mouth and Caitlin's curved into a would-be-pleasant smile, a high shriek sounded from our right and approximately three milliseconds later a small, dark-haired girl had flung her arms around my waist. Derek chortled and walked off to retrieve some more food, leaving me in the company of the two bemused girls and a very happy, hyper nine-year-old.

"Nice to see you too, Leonora," I muttered weakly, prying her arms away from me. A steady stream of words flooded from her mouth, though I didn't understand half of them as she kept twirling around, as if she was trying and failing to take in everything that was happening around her. It wasn't until she took hold of my wrist, hopped up and down twice, and yanked me towards the dancefloor, that I fully understood what she wanted.

I glared at Caitlin and Sally, who were looking far too amused for girls who'd been beaten by a nine-year-old brat, ignoring the fierce demand of, "Dance! I want to dance!" and the relentless tugging on my brand-new dressrobes. For Merlin's sake, why was it always me who ended up having to do these things?

"Have fun," Caitlin commented with a giggle, then took Sally by the hand and walked over to Derek - maybe to prevent that he get snagged by an overactive kid as well. I really did not have much choice but to follow Leonora - I was too afraid she'd start crying again if I refused. I'd heard her crying enough for a bloody lifetime.

It didn't help that Leonora was really short and very stubborn, and insisted on reaching up to my shoulder because that was how she was taught to dance and she would have it absolutely no other way. Trying not to look as if I had a hunch, I awkwardly tried to steer her away to the side, where I could see her parents - smiling. Bollocks... Why was everybody staring? Had they never seen a teenager dance with a little kid before?

On a second thought, I figured they probably hadn't.

After two songs, I finally managed to persuade Leonora that the dark-haired, unassuming boy on the other side of the room secretly wanted to dance with her, and was just on my way back to Derek again when my father halted me in my steps.

"Alucard. I'd like you to meet some people... why don't you follow me." I understood it wasn't a question and nodded, automatically glancing behind him as if he were hiding the person from me. However, he turned and stalked to a small group standing slightly further away, who all greeted my father and me with nods and good evenings and it's-such-a-pleasure-to-be-heres. I tried to wipe my sweaty palms on the side of my robes without attracting attention to it -- I hated introductions.

My father held his hand out to a big, bald man with a large auburn moustache that quirked as he smiled at me. I was pretty sure that he had arrived with two classmates of mine, Cecilia and Vivian Answorth, though neither were around at the moment. Taking my father's hand, the man commented, "So, this is your youngest son, Draco? Alucard, isn't it? It's honourable to meet you, boy."

Attempting to keep my eyebrows in their regular positions, I bowed my head slightly. "I insist the pleasure is returned, sir."

While I was sure that I hadn't said or done anything funny, the man erupted in booming laughter, causing the petite woman next to him to slap him on the arm exclaiming, "Charles! Please!"

"This is Charles Answorth," Father said, his mouth curved into a thin smile. "He owns almost every shop in Diagon Alley and regulates everything very successfully."

Charles Answorth's gales turned to chuckles, and he waved off the praise, however coolly it was presented. "Oh, Draco, must we always talk about materialistic achievements? I'll tell you, boy," he turned to me, lowering his voice, though I was sure it still carried all the way through the ballroom, "when I was your age, I could to things with an empty Butterbeer bottle that made all the ladies blush and all the boys hoot!"

I had to bite hard on the inside of my cheek to keep from laughing, as the disapproving glare from the woman I assumed to be his wife looked very threatening. "I -- I'm sure that was very entertaining, sir," I answered when I was certain I wouldn't express amusement anymore, but Mr Answorth was spared a reply by my father's insisting hand, steering me to the other couple who had stayed silent throughout our previous exchange.

"Mr and Mrs Faulkner." The two people seemed to fit the pureblood standard a bit better, a soothing balm for the odd shock Charles Answorth had been; their clothing was immaculate, their smiles polite but dubiously genuine, and their mannerisms like they should be, as they both put out a hand for me to shake. When those formalities were over, my father announced, "My younger son, Alucard."

When not Mr, but Mrs Faulkner spoke up first, I realised that my father had never introduced me to Mrs Answorth, and the thought made my stomach churn. Did that mean I was not allowed to talk to her?

"It's a pleasure to meet you, Alucard. The occasion did not arise at the last Ball held here." Mrs Faulkner's voice was kinder than I expected and I nodded in response, not sure if I should say anything else. My mother had taught me a lot, but I often wondered why she had skipped over most of the pureblood formalities in etiquette lessons.

Father cleared his throat, and I noticed that his smile reached a lot more toward his eyes than when he had done so to Mr Answorth. "Mr and Mrs Faulkner are Unspeakables at the Ministry."

I nodded again to show I had understood, not wanting to appear like I was going to pry. Nobody knew what the Unspeakables did, nobody outside the department, anyway; for all I knew they were sitting there playing cards. It would be a good joke, if a bit of a sour one. Mr Faulkner, however, was looking at me oddly and I quickly broke eye contact, on the off chance that he was a Legilimens and had been wedging into my thoughts. "It's nice to meet you both," I said quickly, smiling at Mrs Faulkner. "I hope you will enjoy the rest of the evening."

My father's hand was on my shoulder again, steering me away from them, and I understood why Father had wanted me to meet them -- an Unspeakable in the family would be very fortunate, as they held a lot of status. It was an approved career. And that was exactly why I vowed never to be one.

I was subtly moved towards two people my mother was talking to -- I hoped they would be the last. I wanted to go back to my friends.

"Lucille, Baldric," my father greeted them, squeezing my shoulder as if I should take note of the immediate use of first names. "I wish to introduce my younger son to you -- Alucard."

"Oh, Lucy, you must hear him play sometimes, he's very talented with the piano," my mother jumped in, taking the woman by the arm, beaming as she looked at me. "I'm sure you'd love to, wouldn't you dear?"

I nodded mutely, not wanting to let my mother down, ears glowing red at the praise and the smile the unknown woman sent my way. "Really now? If you say so, Pansy, I'd gladly." She held out her hand. "Lucille Hoffmann. It's lovely to meet you, Alucard."

Before I could say anything to her, her husband stuck out a large hand, following her. "Baldric Hoffmann," he said shortly, and shook my hand gravely as soon as I let go of his wife, almost as if we were meeting at a funeral instead of a ball. My head was starting to buzz with all these introductions of people I recognised but had never quite known the name of – it was rather disorientating, especially since I didn’t particularly care who these people were.

Baldric Hofmann’s gaze travelled past me, focusing on someone behind me, but not letting go of my hand. "Ah, and young Miss Goyle."

Despite knowing it was rude to turn in a handshake, I did it anyway, and saw Sally approaching and taking place next to me. "Hello sir, madam. Hello Mr Malfoy," she said a bit more meekly when she stared at my father. "This is an amazing ball you have organised."

Finally the handshake ended, and I quickly moved my fingers to get rid of the sweaty feeling. Perhaps Mother ought to invest in Cooling Charms next time there was a dance.

"Thank you," Father replied to Sally, inclining his head slightly. "To what do I owe the pleasure of your company?"

Mr and Mrs Hoffmann were following the exchange with their eyes. It looked oddly comical and I struggled to hide a grin. Sally coughed and shuffled her feet.

"Erm, sir, I was wondering if I could take Alan away from you for the moment? He still owes me a dance." She met my eyes and raised her eyebrows, as if daring me to say otherwise. I held my tongue, eager to take the excuse to get away from these little power plays.

"Hm. If he does, who am I to hold you back? Off you go." There wasn't a trace of disparagement in his voice, and I briefly admired Sally for accomplishing that before she grabbed my hand and all but dragged me to the dance floor.

"Did I owe you a dance?" I muttered when we'd found a rhythm, not being able to recall anything of the sort. Unless she meant that she'd been planning to do so before Leonora had promptly claimed me.

"Mhm," she replied as we twirled to avoid a couple more prominent in waistline than we were, "You looked like you needed one."

I snorted, but she paid it no attention. It was pleasant enough, I supposed, since it wasn't every day I got to dance with pretty girls, even if it was dancing and even if she was my ex-girlfriend. It didn't matter all that much at the moment.

As a matter of fact, something that interested me more caught my eye as the song changed, and while Sally had already slowed down to a stop, I tugged on her hands to indicate I wasn't done yet. Ignoring her bemused expression, I watched as across the room Mrs Goyle was leaning against her husband, and even from the distance the high blush on her cheeks and sweat on her forehead were evident. It really didn't look right. It didn't look, as Sally had told me, 'just off'. We didn't have to dance closer for me to see that.

"What's wrong with your mum?" I asked quietly, raising my voice just enough to be heard over the music.

Sally, who had been looking pleased and content only a moment before, frowned, a flicker of annoyance crossing her gaze. "I told you it was nothing."

"Sure doesn't look like nothing," I muttered back, trying to sound casual.

She blushed, although the frown did not leave her face. "It's none of your business."

"I know. I still want to find out what it is."

"Well, good luck, because I'm not telling you."

She was trying to slow down to a natural stop, forcing us to the edge of the dance floor. I let her. I didn't want to be the centre of attention, anyway.

"So... are you just going to keep lying to me, or will I actually know what it is by the end of the evening?"

"Merlin, if I'd known you were going to nag so much, I'd never have saved you from your father," she hissed between her teeth. "Just drop it."

I felt her tense, and reluctantly, I ceased my questioning. "I don't nag. I'm persuasive."

“You’re a persuasive nag, how does that sound?”

“Like a lie?”

Her only reply was a short laugh that didn't really contain any humour.

At the end of the dance I brought her hand up and swiftly pressed my lips to it, chancing a breath to inhale the perfume I knew she'd sprinkled over her wrists beforehand. My first reflex was to pull a face as it tickled my nose, but I managed to hold it back. When I met her gaze, her eyebrow was lifted slightly, though considering the circumstances her gaze could have been a lot more derisive.

"Trying to get in my good graces, are you?"

Sometimes the fact that she could practically read my mind was very unhelpful. "Yes."

She pursed her lips as she turned around and stalked off, head held high. I noticed that she dodged through several clusters of people, maybe to prevent me from following her, before joining her mother, father, and several others who had gathered round. Battling my curiosity, I decided to not go over and look myself, but before I could actually find Derek again he found me.

"How'd it go?" he asked as we left the ballroom, slipping downstairs, out of the Manor and into the fresh air. "The introducing stuff?"

"All right, I suppose," I answered, raising one shoulder in a half-hearted shrug. I briefly wondered if anybody would miss me back inside, but nearly immediately knew I didn't care that much. "Could have been a lot worse. They weren't that bad. You?"

Derek snorted. "Mate, you know my father doesn't care about all that."

"Oh, that's right." I kicked a pebble ahead of me and heard it bounce on the base of the fountain, which loomed in the darkness a few metres ahead. The clattering water reflected the light from the lamp we just passed, making it seem like the water was simply dancing in midair. It was a bit freaky, to be honest.

The first thirty minutes away from the stuffy ballroom were nice, just sitting around and flinging fountain water after each other, the pebbles gnashing under our fancy shoes. When we did get cold, however, our damp clothes combined with a slight wind not the best in an April night, we decided to head back to the Manor. Maybe we'd hang around and eat, who knew, though my feet hurt so much by then I didn't think I'd be able to stand one more dance.

The warmth inside was like a sodding wall, though, so despite our plans, Derek and I stood just inside the hall and complained about the boring music and the ladies who had apparently marinated in their perfume. The scent of fake flowers practically wafted down to us from the open ballroom doors.

"We're getting career advice soon, aren't we?" Derek suddenly asked out of nowhere, when our conversation had just lapsed into a comfortable silence. "My dad wants me to go into law enforcement or something."

I laughed. Like a law enforcer would have a place among a circle of pureblood families that still owned a great deal of Dark artefacts, even if they always denied it. "That sounds like a really bad idea."

"I know, right?" Derek's tone contained a trace of uncertainty, but his smile was easy and his expression carefree. "I told him I didn't want a boring desk job and he suggested that... Suppose he wants me to bust your father for something."

"Mhm." The possibility suddenly seemed less funny than it had in the previous moment.

"I want to play Quidditch."

Blinking in surprise, I looked up. "Derek, mate, you don't even play on a House team yet."

My friend's jaw was stubbornly set forward, though -- he wasn't going to be averted by common sense. "I'll try out next year. I've been practicing for ages. This is something I really want, not work at the Ministry, not following people for statements, and my marks probably aren't good enough to be a Healer -- I just want to fly. Do you even realise how amazing it is to sit on a broom and not having to think about anything except the broom and not falling straight to your death?"

"Err..." I thought about reminding Derek that I was not terribly fond of heights and that his description was not helping, but I didn't have to. He talked.

"I wonder what Malyras will say about it, if he really says anything at all. I guess he'll want me to have a back-up plan or something if it doesn't work out, or I dunno, I break my neck or something in my first week." He shrugged. "I'll see... there's nothing else that really looks cool to do for the rest of my life, you know?"

The idea of Derek playing Quidditch for the rest of his life was slightly horrifying, but I didn't comment -- perhaps he would have changed his mind by the next month. No use arguing about an unsure future, and I was sure Malyras would bring up the point of retiring early when Derek put his plans on the table.

"Alucard, get up here!"

My father's voice sounded hollow in the big hall, but nevertheless I did not misinterpret his tone -- he'd never been a very patient person. I hastily checked if there was no mud on my shoes and no grass on my robes before running upstairs to the ballroom again, Derek hot on my heels. I had no idea what I had done wrong -- or what I was required for, really -- but I was quite certain it had to do with casually leaving without informing anyone.

However, before I could prepare an excuse at the top of my head, the loud, bone-chilling sound of a wailing child reached my ears, and to my utter horror, little Leonora was shoved at me. "Quick," my father demanded, helping me out of the ballroom nearly as fast as I'd come in, "before her parents notice. Get her quiet! I will tell them you are walking her outside." He reached for the ballroom doors and shut them almost entirely, until only a sliver of light came from between them.

Derek, who had not even managed to enter, chuckled softly. "You must have some really bad Karma, mate."

"Shut it," I muttered, trying to carry the kicking and screaming girl down the stairs without much success.

"Shut it yourself!" she hollered, one of her feet connecting rather painfully with my shins. I winced, throwing a glare at Derek. If he would stop standing there being useless and looking entertained, and actually help me, it would be a whole lot easier. This was the second time this holiday a whinging child had been dumped on me – the same one, who had also insisted strongly to dance with me -- a tiny sliver of sympathy would be grand.

"I was not talking to you, okay, Leonora?" I asked. "Come on, let's go outside for a bit. Or do you want to play the piano again?" Her wails became increasingly louder as I talked, making me raise my voice, too. For a stereotypical tired child, she was being one big handful -- all her left energy was spent trying to get out of my grasp.

I finally got her down the stairs and dragged her over to the corridor leading to the informal dining room, not trusting her in any other space. The Manor contained plenty of sensitive items and I was not about to let Leonora destroy some and let the blame fall on me.

Derek was walking ahead of me, opening every door along the way, so all I really had to do was pull the resisting girl along. Last time I had had to look after her, I had not been as exhausted myself, but it was past midnight and frankly, I would have paid a good sum of money for a soft bed and silence. When we reached the dining room, her high screeches seemed to have dulled down, but I knew it was merely a subtle Silencing Charm on the walls. Aiden and I used to be shut in the room when we needed time to 'cool down', back when we were younger. How fitting.

As a result, there was nothing inside a young child could hurt itself with, so I felt free to let go of Leonora and watched her crumple to the floor. I sat down at the table -- or rather, let myself drop into a chair. If I'd had any energy left, I would have felt bad.

"Hey girl, don't look so sad. It's making me cry."

I'd just put my head down on my arms when Derek spoke, calm and yet loud enough to be understood. I curiously watched on as Derek pulled the oddest faces at Leonora, and for a moment, I was convinced it did not work. However, slowly but surely, between his weird expressions and the occasional pat on the back, she grew silent, with only a hiccup escaping her every-so-often.

"Teach me that trick, please," I muttered.

"Sorry mate," Derek answered with a smug grin lighting his face, "it kinda involves sacrificing my dignity."

"Suppose that rules me out."

"Yes."

Before I could really come up with a semi-clever retort, the door carefully opened and Alessandra stepped in, hopeful eyes glancing around the dining room before catching sight of her little sister. "Oh, Nora," she sighed, hurrying forward and pulling a tissue from her pocket to wipes the tears off Leonora's face. She looked up at me and smiled, still quite pretty despite her obvious weariness. "Thank you so much -- I couldn't get here earlier, I hope she wasn't too much trouble --"

I didn't bother saying we had only just arrived after some small war, instead just shrugging. "'S okay, Derek managed to calm her down." I vaguely wondered where Aiden was.

Alessandra flashed her smile at Derek, too, before lifting Leonora from the floor until the nine-year-old was standing on her own. "There, sweetheart, we're going home. I bet you want to go to bed, don't you? Come on, mum and dad are waiting. Do you want to say goodbye?"

The girl shook her head and wandered over to the door. Derek and I shared a look behind Alessandra's back, my friend's gaze conveying what I was thinking -- brat. What a complete and utter brat.

"Well, it was lovely, and it was great being here," the older girl said, tucking a stray curl behind her ear before ushering her little sister into the corridor. "Bye! I'm sure we'll stop by again soon."

"Bye," I replied dully, but only after the door had slammed shut after her.

A brief silence descended before Derek broke it. "I think I am about 2 percent more deaf."

"That sentence makes no sodding sense," I muttered back.

~*~


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