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chapter graphic by emz


Disillusioned by delta


A/N: Thanks to GubraithianFire for beta-ing and Emz for the chapter graphic!  Both of you guys are just wonderful and helped me out on a moment's notice.  Also, a huge thank you to everyone at SAYS for just . . . existing in general. =]


I.

For all that’s said about her name, she seems fragile, sitting there at the library desk.  The quiet scratching of her quill is rhythmic and steady, faltering only when she pauses to check her references.

They call her the Ugly Duckling because of her clumsiness and bland features.  They wonder how Lycoris was ever born a Black and whisper with concealed importance about quiet dealings in the middle of the night to exchange a squib for a mudblood.  Even her own flesh and blood – Arcturus – eagerly recounts how he remembers a sickly baby suddenly replaced by a healthy one.  It is a testament to her unpopularity that the stigma on her is so strong.  

But even as the rest of the school whispers about her behind shifty eyes and closed doors, I know that she could never be a mudblood.  Mudbloods aren’t brilliant at Charms and devastatingly excellent at Potions.  Mudbloods can’t rattle off the names of all of England’s modern Potion Masters one moment and easily recite the necessary steps to a territorial transfiguration in the next.  My mates don’t find my friendship with her odd.  I’m from a rather poor pureblood family – in grave danger of dying out – and they think I’m in it for the money, even if she’s already betrothed.  So far, I’ve never bothered to correct them.

I slide into the seat next to Lycoris and remove my barely-started Potions essay on the uses of unicorn hair from my green-colored bag.  A moment later, I’m hurriedly flipping through the index of my Potions book and frown when the only mention of anything resembling unicorn hair is ‘unicorn parts’ with close to a dozen page numbers listed after it.  Just as I begin to turn to the first listed page, her voice arrests me.  “Page 243,” she says quietly, but firmly.  “It’s in the second and third paragraphs.  I’d suggest reading Adam Tattum’s Rare Potion Ingredients for more information.”

I look up for a moment to convey my gratitude only to find that her eyes had never left her beloved Arithmancy tables.  I manage a flustered thanks before turning to the proffered page.  Sure enough, the heading Unicorn Head Appendages stares out at me, and I hurriedly digest the provided information.  There really isn’t enough about unicorn hair to fill four inches, much less a foot, and I resign myself to searching for Tattum’s book.  

Sending Lycoris a quick look that she studiously ignores, I stand up and head over to the nearest shelves.  The library is full of people today so close to examinations, and I murmur a passing greeting when I see Kevin Carrow sitting with some of my other dorm-mates.  After I spot Travis Longbottom and Pollux Lestrange eyeing each other murderously from across a shared table, I vaguely wonder why nobody was sitting at Lycoris’s table with her before I arrived.  

The answer hits me abruptly as I finally locate the shelf containing authors Su-Tb and I quickly turn the corner to avoid the familiar well of anger that clenches my gut in sudden fury.  It’s not her fault that she’s not the epitome of gracefulness the way other Pureblood women are, that she can’t simper and sigh with the best of them.  Still – my brain reminds me, it seems that she’s good enough for the likes of Arano Malfoy, her betrothed.

As if called from my imagination, I spot Malfoy and his cronies bantering at a table at the end of the bookshelf.  My hands unconsciously clench into fists and I force myself to continue closer to the group as I work down the row in search of ‘Tattum.’  A thin, navy blue book with the aforementioned title catches my attention, and I slide it easily from its place on the shelf.

I know that Malfoy has caught sight of me by now – the boy is much too observant – and I also know that to walk away from him in the direction that I had come would be a tacit surrender.  Such are the ways of Purebloods.

My back snaps straight stiffly as I begin to move past him and his group of friends; I inwardly cringe at the harsh weight of Malfoy’s eyes and stubbornly raise mine to meet them.  I force myself to take one step and then another and then another.  My eyes drop to the floor.  I never was a bloody Gryffindor.

“Stalwart.”  My surname easily comes to his after three years of confrontation.

“Malfoy.”  I incline my head in mock greeting.

His eyes fall to the book I’m carrying.  “Rare Potion Ingredients?  Lycoris suggested that book to you, didn’t she?”  

I nod stiffly, unsurprised by Malfoy’s guess.  It’s common knowledge that without Lycoris’s help, there would have been no way that my grades would have risen from mediocrity.  

If anything, my muteness makes him angry.  His pretty face contorts, and his tone becomes bitingly sharp.  “Don’t hang around her, Stalwart.  She’s mine.”  

I breathe deeply to avoid the sudden anger in my stomach.  He always seems able of giving me indigestion, especially since we’re always talking about Lycoris.  A petulant retort falls from my lip before I can even consciously recognize what I’m saying.  

“She isn’t yours.”  The momentary, stunned look on his face warms me for an instant before I realize that I’ve just defied Malfoy, Arano Malfoy.  It seems that my survival instincts are pretty weak for a Slytherin.

To my surprise, Malfoy laughs callously at my words.  “She’s not much of a looker, is she?  Shouldn’t I take the opportunity to enjoy the . . . ah, sweeter fruits of womanhood before I’m married?”

Now, it’s my heart that clenches with anger and jealously.  That someone as horrible as Malfoy should marry someone like her is unbelievable.  And with marriage – my mind often drifts in this wayward direction – comes consummation, childbearing.  I feel like I’m going to throw up.

Suddenly, I feel Lycoris’s slight hand pressing down on my arm.  “Did you locate Rare Potion Ingredients yet?  You were gone for an awful long time and I really needed to use it.”  Her eyes are open and guileless and a smile dances across her face.

I struggle to answer her, but my mouth merely hangs limply like a fish.  Lycoris never ceases to amaze me with her acting.

She pivots as Malfoy clears his throat and her eyes widen even further as if she had just noticed him for the first time.  “Oh, Arano.  I didn’t realize Evan and you were talking.”  Her eyes flicker convincingly from his face to mine.  I look for the exit.

“Arano, please let your mother know that I enjoyed our tea over Easter thoroughly and ask her to forgive me for my tardiness in conveying my thanks.  With all of the current pressure on examinations, the thought merely slipped my mind.”

Malfoy returns to his previous swagger at Lycoris’s not-so-subtle change of topic.  “Of course,” he demurs.

She inclines her head gracefully before heading away with me in tow.  Even though I can feel Malfoy’s eyes burning into my back, I don’t dare to turn around – not even for a parting shot.  

-----

II.

I still don’t know how it happened.  

It’s December of 1922 and two weeks from Christmas Break, but I don’t feel much like celebrating.  I’m on the path between the Great Hall and Transfiguration and the rush of people is swelling around me.  Nobody that counts is coming to NEWT-level Transfiguration with me – all my mates opted out back in sixth year, what with the notoriously biased Gryffindor Head of House in charge – and even though I’ve snapped at my friends over the last months to shut it with their insinuations, I can’t help but feel even more introspective without Kevin’s rambling chatter or Oliver’s lewd comments.  

On some level, I’m disgusted that I should care so much that Lycoris and Malfoy are finally getting along – Shouldn’t I be glad for her?  I suspect that Malfoy has finally had a proper conversation with his parents about how he ought to treat his future bride-to-be and has shaped up somewhat like a proper Pureblood.  

But that was expected at least.  How Lycoris has acted was not.  

Now, all I ever see of her is her hanging on Malfoy’s arm or her catering to his every whim.  She’s turned into one of those simpering fools that I would never, in a million years, have pegged her to be.  

A scowl easily falls into place as I step into Transfiguration and slip into a seat near the back of the room, my eyes wandering across the room.  I catch sight of Lycoris and Malfoy sitting together at the far corner as they always do now.  He says something that elicits her quiet, tinkling laugh and she leans in with a smile, allowing Malfoy to kiss her on the cheek.  My scowl’s turned into a grimace without me noticing, and I turn away, revolted.

Damn Malfoy and his Pureblood charm.  Damn him to hell.  

Later, they’re sitting out by the lake, enjoying lunch together.  It’s against Hogwarts rules to be having picnics, but Malfoy’s got the whole Board wrapped around his little finger.  None of the teachers dare to do anything for fear Malfoy’s father would speak a few choice words to the wrong people.

I don’t know why I’m outside, leaning against an oak tree and pretending to read when I could be inside working on my Potions homework, which is a struggle for me without Lycoris’s help.  I don’t know why I subject myself to this self-torture.  But I just can’t help it – seeing her in his arms, seeing her talk and giggle and flirt with him as if he hadn’t mocked her for the last seven years, seeing . . . seeing . . .

If I hadn’t known that I had fallen for her before she had left me to cuddle up with Malfoy, I would have known it now – now that all I could do was hopelessly trail after her like a lost puppy and wonder at the ‘ifs’ instead of the ‘maybes.’

Ah, the difference that a year makes.

Even as my eyes flick across the page in a half-hearted attempt to absorb information on dragon scales and their use in Potions, I can’t help but wonder if she’s a lost cause, just as I’ve wondered every day this year.

I’ve looked, constantly, for some sign that Lycoris really doesn’t love him, that she’s just playing along like a good Pureblood witch should.  But every gesture, every faint blush of her cheeks, every look in her eyes betrays her true feelings.  I’ve known Lycoris for seven years and I know that even she can’t act that well.  Her cold, brilliant eyes would always give her act away – at least to me; but with Malfoy, she’s different.  Her eyes are open, wide, and translucent.  They’re expressive in ways I’ve never seen.  

A sigh escapes my lips.  Evan and Lycoris was never anything more than wishful thinking.  I should have known that a Stalwart would never be good enough for a Black.

-----

III.

The news is on everybody’s lips.  The wedding’s off . . . the wedding’s off . . . the wedding’s off . . .

I wander down the street to work at Gringotts and grimace when one witch next to me suggests that Malfoy broke it off because “there was no way he would bed a creature like her.”  I’m about to accost her when I come to my senses and continue on my way.  It’s been three years, but I’ve never gotten over her.  It’s disgusting.

My steps lead me to the backdoor of Gringotts where all of the workers enter.  I mutter a few spells to unseal the door and allow me passage before stepping right through the stone wall and into a large, cavernous room, at least four times the height of an adult human.  Huge, floating lights adorn the room, basking the place in a perpetual half-glow, and stone gargoyles adorn each support beam.  The sight of a typical day greets me – goblins putting the money away, Cursebreakers intently gathered around an object – Dark, no doubt – and others catching their morning coffee.  I sidle over to Montgomery and Avery, both of whom are part of my Transfiguration team.  Montgomery – the most senior of us three – already has a clipboard in hand.

“Hall 9.  We’re doing an expansion.”  I nod, sighing.  Building transfigurations are long and stressful.  I’m already looking forward to a hot, soothing shower when I get home.

Montgomery sets a hard pace, eager to start as he always is, and Avery and I struggle to keep up.  We’re panting by the time we get there and immediately break off into our familiar triangular positions, the necessary steps for this type of transfiguration already running through our heads.  As we begin, we’re synchronized, moving as one.  We’ve done this so many times that I swear we could do it in our sleep.

Suddenly, my wand slips from my hand, clattering to the floor mid-chant.  Montgomery sends me a mild look of concern – one of us gives out every once in a while when our full concentration isn’t on the spells, and I simply shrug my shoulders to suggest ignorance.  He nods simply – disbelief palpable in his worried glance.  But he turns away, quickly, to move back to the necessary positions for the beginning of the incantation.  He won’t press for information; he never does.  

I bend over to pick up my wand and straighten myself out, moving to my left to regain my starting position.  With my wand out, I nod to signal my readiness even as a haunting picture of dark hair and brown eyes fills my mind.

But by the third time my wand clatters to the floor and I pick it up listlessly, Montgomery’s angry, rage contorting his face.  “Get out, Stalwart.  Go drink your problems under today and come back tomorrow with a clear head.  You’re no use like that.”  I acquiesce silently, too disconnected to argue.  I turn, stumbling slightly as I make my way back to the anteroom.  Montgomery’s voice sounds behind me.  “Get a replacement on your way out.”  I don’t bother to answer and he doesn’t demand one.  I’ve never shirked my duty before, but then again, I’ve never failed three times in a row either.

As I walk under the high ceiling, I’m seized with the sudden desire to leave without getting a replacement.  I know Montgomery will understand – he didn’t do a single thing when his wife was deathly ill two months ago – but I’m too inundated with tradition to let go so easily.  

“Griptorch,” I say unsteadily, “Montgomery needs a replacement.”  I stalk off before the goblin has the chance to reply.  

The cold February air greets me as I key myself out of Gringotts.  I’ve half-decided to head home and read a book, but some rare fit of pique to follow Montgomery’s instructions about getting pissed-drunk strikes me.  

At the Hog’s Head, I’m glad for the relative silence of the place and warily stalk in, preternaturally aware of the fact that the only customers at this hour are drunks.  I wave over Aaron, the barkeep, for a firewhiskey and one of the pretty barmaids, Lucinda, brings it over.   I don’t give her any thanks.

Suddenly, the door opens, a rush of cold air and quiet tinkling, signaling a new arrival.  I turn around, half in curiosity and half out of habit, only to find Lycoris standing in front of me.  I must have sucked in my breath because she looks over suddenly, her long hair whipping around a fraction after her eyes.  The moment she catches my gaze, however, I duck down without a word.  I didn’t want to see her here.

But even so, I know why she’s here, drinking her thoughts away at the preferred Slytherin bar house.  

I can’t help watching as Lucinda brings Lycoris a glass of hardale without her even ordering and see Lycoris press a couple of coins into her hand.  The silent nature of the transaction instinctively tells me that she has been here many times already.  Perhaps, she’s not the intruder, but I am.

I close my eyes, suddenly overcome by the bitter taste of the firewhiskey sliding down my throat.  A moment later, my eyelids pop open, suddenly wary of how I must look to her.  On a weekday, before noon, at a bar – what must she think?  I peer down at my clothes, dirty and unattractive and entirely too large and wonder how I must look in her eyes.  Self-consciously, I straighten the hem of my robe and smooth out my collar.  I turn slightly to glance at her out of the corner of my eye and suddenly feel heady.  The proverbial butterflies are filling my stomach.

I don’t need a mother to tell me that this is a symptom of being around a person you love.

My hands fall flat on the table and shakily pick up the goblet of firewhiskey.  My throat burns as the firewhiskey slides heavily down my throat as I attempt to forget my pathetic devotion to a girl who never spared me a second glance once a better option came along.  I wonder what I ever was to her – a plaything?  a sycophant?  a . . . friend?

The last option sounds bitter and harsh even to my own ears.  It’s a mocking reminder of everything that I never had with her.  Perhaps, I once was her friend, but she was never mine.  

Her distinctive voice says something to Lucinda – what she says, I can’t pick out – but as the click-clack of her heels increases in volume, I’m positive I know where this is heading.  

She never was one for subtlety when she knew her prey was trapped.  

As her rich scent washes over me – so good, oh, so good, I’m momentarily paralyzed and I close my eyes in frustration.  The sound of a chair being moved back and a body being lowered down reaches my ears and I close my eyes even tighter.  

I always was a bloody coward.

“Stop hiding, Evan.”  Her quiet voice reaches my ears and I’m momentarily surprised that it hasn’t changed a bit since Hogwarts.

My eyes open, as if of their own accord and her face, imprinted so heavily in my memory, stares back out at me.  Her eyes are remarkably listless for a face that I have known for so long and I swallow, remembering why she is here.  “I’m sorry about Malfoy,” I say softly.  “He always was a right prat.”

She flinches at my last word, and I scowl, remembering all those times before seventh year when we would take turns criticizing Malfoy after a particularly nasty incident.  ‘Prat’ didn’t even begin to cover the words that passed through our mouths then.

“It wasn’t Arano’s fault,” she says slowly, as if she’s still trying to convince herself.  “My father and his father got into a dispute at the Ministry over Arano’s . . . infidelity” – her voice wavers – “and well, . . .”  Her hands move through the air in an attempt to quantify her current situation.

We lapse into silence, neither of us willing to budge in the issue at hand.  My glass of firewhiskey is empty before I know it and I’m slightly disappointed that I don’t feel inebriated yet.  Scooting my chair back a few inches, I move to rise from my seat to leave, internally debating over how to make my exit.  I’m surprised when the sudden scraping noise of my seat makes Lycoris look up; her eyes had been glued to her hardale previously.  

Her vacant eyes watch me rising.  “Will I see you again?” she says hesitantly, reaching out to place her hand on my arm.  

I want to leave, just leave and have the hope of another chance confrontation fuel my work, but my frustration has festered for so long.  “What exactly do you want from me, Lycoris?”

I’m surprised to see her eyes fall to the ground and the pressure on my arm let up.  A blush permeates her icily pale cheeks.  “I was thinking that . . . that since we were such good friends at school that maybe . . . maybe we could try again to be friends . . . and . . . and . . .”

I’m not fooled for an instant by her stuttering tone, although I wish I could be.  “You want my friendship?”  My voice is incredulous and grating.  After all this time and now you speak?

“I was thinking that maybe – maybe we could be something more.”  She raises her eyes to meet mine, and I turn away disgusted.  Her eyes, cold and empty as they are, don’t reflect the hope a relationship needs.

“I don’t want to be just another ends to a means, Lycoris.  I’m not stupid.”  There is a pleading undertone to my words.

“I never – I wouldn’t –”  Her voice falters and her gaze drops to the ground.  “I never meant to hurt you, Evan.  You have to believe that.”

“Don’t kid yourself, Lycoris.  I was never anything to you after Malfoy came along.”  His name is still acrid on my tongue.  “You gave me up for Malfoy.  Malfoy!  The boy we hated for so many years.”

“I’m sorry.”  It sounds as if she is willing me to believe in her innocence.

“Sorry’s not good enough.”  Years of hate and turmoil swell once again to the surface.  “And every time I say his name you cringe, Lycoris.  Do you think I don’t notice it?  Do you think I don’t know that you still love him?”  My voice drops to a whisper.

I’ve voiced my deepest fear, a truth too terrible for me to believe.  I stare at her, willing her to refute my last inquiry, willing her to tell me that all those loving gazes were nothing but the best acting of her career.  But even as I watch – unavoidably hopeful – I notice her gaze on the ground and the way she’s turned slightly as if to prevent me from discovering the truth.  I see the way her hands clench and unclench slowly and then hurriedly brush a few, nonexistent pieces of lint from her cloak.  

The ticking from the clock is unerringly distinct.

Slowly, she turns again to face me and I can see the mask slide into place and her fingers cautiously unclench for the last time.  I can see a lie written all over her face.

I can’t bear to have her lie to me and use me again.  Five years ago, she broke my heart.  If I let her speak today, she will break my will and my soul.  

Propelled into action, I grab my coat and yank my arm from her grasp, hastening towards the door.  I turn around only slightly as I’m closing the door to see a mixture of disappointment and shock linger on her beautiful face.

I’m running from Temptation herself.

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