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Her mouth trembled, and he noticed her bottom lip was fuller than the top. Scorpius lowered his eyes to the scroll brandished like a talisman.

He remembered one of Grandfather Lucius' sayings: Before all else, be armed. The advice applied to information as well as wands and hexes. "Very well," he said. "Read them."

"You have eyes." She released a breath and said in a conciliatory tone, "My handwriting isn't as fine as yours, but it's legible."

From what he could see, it was feminine and precise without flourishes. Ladylike. Grandmother Narcissa would approve. She had taught him to write "like a gentleman" using sweets as rewards. After countless hours of practice, stuffed to bursting with confectionery, Scorpius developed a "fine" hand and a dislike of sweets. The boxes Grandmother sent to school he intentionally mislaid in the common room to the delight of Housemates.

Scorpius said, "I prefer not to read in low light."

"It might strain them a bit, but it doesn't cause damage. Your eyes adjust." Weasley glanced upward. The flames instantly brightened. She gazed at him expectantly.

A minute went by. While waiting for her to realise he was the one owed the favour, he was in the position of power, and she should do the reading to acknowledge that fact, Scorpius passed the time by searching her face for freckles. It was a Weasley family curse. She couldn't be exempt.

"What is it? Ink?" She rubbed at her jaw.

He said, "Yes, it's gone," and took the unfurled parchment. He read the first line and asked, "How exactly would I make my own patrol schedule?"

"Tell me when it's convenient to patrol and I'll write the schedule around those times, or, if it's easier, you could pick the second suggestion and adjust your—or anyone else's—schedule anytime you choose."

"Why should I care when anyone else has patrol?"

Unaccountably, she blushed. "Well, Albus and Meredith like to have patrol together. If you want to be with Bletchley—" she broke off when he curled his lip. "No? Okay. That'll work too. I could make sure she never has patrol on the same day—"

"Not worth it," he said, reading on. "Attain the services of a personal house-elf for the rest of the term? Explain."

"One of the elves here is a family friend."

"And your mother's S.P.E.W." Scorpius heard Weasley's sharp inhale and said, "She's the head of the organisation—I didn't create the acronym. Grandfather's read her letters to the Prophet at the breakfast table." Sneered over them. "She'd hardly approve."

Weasley bit her lip. "I know, but not all elves are happy without someone to serve. Winky came to me first-year, said if I ever needed a house-elf or any of my family or friends needed her services to call her name." She gave him her trademark beseeching threat of a look. "She may drink more Butterbeer than other elves, but Winky is a kind soul, and very helpful."

And Weasley would jinx him if he implied otherwise. "Are you speaking from experience?"

"Yes."

Kept secrets. Lacked freckles. Made a deal with a Slytherin and took advantage of a house-elf's services. Scorpius previously suspected Phineas Filch was a changeling, but now he wondered if the castle might not hold another. Rose Weasley was mass of contradictions. Not only in personality, but also appearance: she was much more attractive up close than at a distance.

Before he could read further, the Foe-Glass concealed in his robes began to vibrate. He took it out and showed the face reflected to Weasley. "Potter's almost here."

"I forgot to lock the door," she said. "Use a Disillusionment Charm!"

Scorpius did so and thrust the scroll into a pocket while he reached for what he thought was Weasley's arm. His hand closed around slender fingers. "This is the worst place to be if he takes a bath," he said, leading her over to the side.

The painted mermaid on the opposite wall chose that moment to stop combing out her hair with a shell and giggle. The trill reverberated in the marble chamber.

"Shh!" Weasley said fiercely. "Pretend we're not here!"

"Haven't I been doing that?" The mermaid sighed. "And I didn't even get to see a kiss." The click of a handle turning brightened her tone. "More visitors! I'll look out to sea this time. I'm told I have a lovely profile."

"Exquisite," Scorpius said. He whispered to Weasley, "Mermaids always fish for compliments."

He was close enough to hear a faint sound of amusement. Scorpius smiled, and then realised that not only had he joked with Weasley—he was still holding her hand. If he dropped it, she might think him disturbed by the physical contact, which he wasn't.

Her fingers squeezed his like a vice when the door opened and Albus Potter and Meredith Graves strolled in.

"Poor darling, left to fend off all the last-minute schedule changers. You need to release some stress." As she spoke, Graves unbuttoned her robes.

Potter grinned. "If I beat you to the finish, what do I get?"

Scorpius looked at the git in disbelief. A hex.

"A kiss." Graves dropped her robes to reveal a yellow bikini.

Scorpius rolled his eyes. Swimming. The two were going to race across the gigantic tub. How Hufflegryff.

When Potter tossed his robes aside and rushed forward, Scorpius waited for the laughing couple to jump into the water and headed for the exit, dragging Weasley along.

The second they were in the corridor, Scorpius pulled away and countered the Disillusionment Charm.

"You're not leaving, are you?" she asked when he turned to do just that.

He said, "I have your list and I'll consider the suggestions."

"But . . . you might need me to explain something!"

Scorpius said, "If I do, I'll ask," and quickened his stride. He wasn't running away. He was putting distance between them in order to gain perspective.

He took the stairs to the ground floor, shaking fingers that tingled from Weasley's python grip. Scorpius lifted his hand and sniffed. It wasn't his imagination. She did smell like roses. He drew in a deeper breath. Did she like the scent, or did relatives coerce her into wearing it by giving lotion and perfume on birthdays and Christmas? He frowned. If they did, what did he care?

In his dorm, he made a beeline for the ensuite bathroom and washed his hands. The list of favours he examined and locked away in his trunk. All were bribes of one sort or another. Several—like the Quidditch season tickets—were of substantial monetary value. None was comparable to what he'd done.

The next afternoon, his Head of House came round with the list for students to sign up if they were staying at school over Easter holiday. Scorpius remained in his chair by the fire, pretending absorption in the introduction to Gestalt Graphology. Whatever the author wrote about handwriting analysis might as well been Goblin, however. He stared blankly at the page as he covertly tracked the Professor Blackwell's progress around the room. No one signed up.

Scorpius followed when Blackwell started to leave. He brought his book as if he intended to return it to the library. "Professor," he said. "I want to sign up."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes, ma'am." He would do anything to keep from going home.

Her aristocratic features were impassive, yet when he took the self-inking quill, Blackwell said in an undertone, "My office is always open to students needing counsel."

"Yes, ma'am." He signed the parchment.

She said, "You're the first Slytherin to remain at Hogwarts in over twenty years."

And probably the first Malfoy ever. He asked, "Is there any way to keep this confidential?"

"All Heads of House are required to turn in their lists to the Headmaster."

"On a specific date?"

"Today. Otherwise, I would comply with the request eventually rather than immediately."

Although that didn't improve his situation, Scorpius felt a little better. "Thank you, ma'am." He glanced over his shoulder. Housemates—including his best mate—were staring. To postpone questions, he said, "I'll owl my parents right away," and trailed the professor out into the dungeon corridor.

The Owlery provided a writing desk and stationery for student use. It didn't take long to compose a note.

I'm staying at school over Easter holiday in order to revise for upcoming N.E.W.T.s. I will miss you all and do my best to make you proud.

He watched the owl fly away and envisioned reactions to the letter. Grandfather Lucius would stalk out of the room. Grandmother Narcissa would assemble a box of sweets. His mother and father, however, would trade a look of relief. They had to suspect Grandfather's ulterior motive for volunteering to make the trip to London.

Scorpius returned to Slytherin House following a stop at the library, where he turned in the Graphology book and perused the stacks for a half-hour. His entrance into the packed common room killed all conversation. He affected nonchalance and strolled toward the boys' corridor.

Orna Bletchley slithered into his path. "Is it true? Have you signed up?"

Her tone made the question an accusation. He lifted a shoulder and let it fall. "What if I have?"

"You can't," she said. "My father's hosting the ceremony. He said you'll be there. You're supposed to be there!"

Scorpius froze. It was no surprise that her father was a Knight of Walpurgis. Even so, to hear the ceremony referred to in the middle of the common room was a shock. Did she think no one was listening? "I'm staying to revise for N.E.W.T.s."

He left Orna to catch flies in her slack mouth.

His roommates were sitting at their desks. They broke off their discussion—of him, Scorpius assumed—when he walked through the doorway. "It's true," he said. "I owled my parents, I'm going to stay at school."

"But we're to be Knights," Nott said. "All four of us."

Willoughby brushed a speck of lint off his monogrammed shirt. "If you aren't joining us, you owe us the explanation why."

"Don't say exams, mate. You never have to revise and everyone knows it," Edgar said.

"The way they know you're not a troll?"

Edgar said, "No one important doubts my intelligence."

Nott's brows drew together. "Hey, I only figured out you weren't stupid a few minutes ago."

The implication of everything that had been said suddenly hit Scorpius with the force of a Bludger. All the time he thought he and Edgar were different from the others he had only been half-right.

"Is it a girl?" Willoughby asked. "You've been going to the library a lot lately."

"And most of the time you don't bring back books," Nott said.

Scorpius looked at his best mate. "What do you think?"

Edgar smiled slightly. "She must be pretty."

Disappointment choked Scorpius. He had mistaken a dislike of people talking about the war and their parents' roles in it to mean Edgar didn't want to follow old ways any more than he did. "Believe what you like," he said and gathered clothes from his trunk. Dressing for dinner—if only in a pressed and clean set of casual attire—was a family tradition he had continued to follow at school. See, Grandfather? I'm still a Malfoy.

On the way into the bathroom, he stopped beside Willoughby's desk and said, "The only thing I owe you is a hex."

Willoughby fell out of his chair when the bat-bogeys attacked. Father was right: it was a hell of a hex. Scorpius left Willoughby flailing his arms to protect his face and set the water charm to full blast to mute the shrieks.

At dinner, the subdued atmosphere of the Slytherin Table drew curious glances from the staff and other Houses.

"Who died?" Hugo Weasley called out.

The gloomy hush and sombre faces did appear funereal. Over the sniggers that broke out, Phineas Filch said, "Malfoy signed up to stay at school!"

Scorpius continued to eat, ignoring the surge of whispers. Rose Weasley was boring holes through him again. He could feel it. Luckily, no one would notice. Most of the school was gaping at him.

Hugo Weasley, who seemed to have inherited a double portion of freckles, spoke again. "I do feel so sorry," he said, "for all those people who have to stay at Hogwarts because they're not wanted at home."

If the sneering words were a jab at Scorpius, they hit the wrong target. A Hufflepuff girl burst into noisy tears.

Scorpius slipped out of the Hall when Professor Longbottom rose to his feet. He didn't care whether Hugo Weasley got detention or lost House points. He wanted to avoid the git's sister.

Rose Weasley proved hard to evade over the next week. Like a lioness hunting prey, she concealed her presence and waited for him to pass whichever statue she was lurking behind to pounce. A few times, she had the nerve to yank his arm. Mostly, she called his name.

He couldn't refuse. If he didn't talk to her in private she might walk up to him in the middle of the main corridor.

She didn't begin each conversation the same way. She apologised for her brother's rudeness the first time; asked if he was really staying at school to revise the second; commented on the stunflowers they'd re-potted in Herbology the time after that. The endings were what never varied. Weasley always asked if he'd decided on a favour, and he always said, "No."

During the next Prefect meeting, she rattled off the patrol assignments in a tone that dared anyone to ask for their day to be changed. No hands went up.

Scorpius waited in the Prefect's bathroom afterwards. Weasley joined him right away.

She didn't waste time on chat. "I made a promise under duress," she said. "It's unfair for you to hold it over my head indefinitely." She squared her shoulders. "There is now a deadline."

"Oh, is there?"

"A week from today."

It was second nature for him to speak softly when irked. "Get it over with and have a jolly holiday, is that your plan?"

"Maybe not jolly, but yes."

Scorpius looked her up and down. "And you're not afraid?"

"Of what?"

"Your mother is Muggle-born. Haven't you heard their saying?"

"Which one?"

Was that a gleam of worry in her eyes? He said, "Be careful what you ask for. You just might get it."

Weasley didn't shrink away as expected. She tilted her head. "How do you know Muggle sayings?"

"I read," he snapped and edged past her.

The random meetings behind statues continued. Instead of varying her openings, Weasley cut out the small talk, immediately asking, "Have you made up your mind yet?"

Scorpius, the first time he was asked, curtly said no. The second time, he leaned against Bertha's generous backside and answered with a question of his own. "Would you carry my books to class?"

"Yes."

"Wearing a bikini?"

Weasley glared. "I'll borrow Meredith's."

"I was asking hypothetically. Testing to see what you'd do."

"Almost anything," she said.

He put that claim to the test during their subsequent encounters. Interestingly, Weasley said she was willing to do everything he asked, including singing the Slytherin running out tune on top of the Gryffindor table at dinner.

By the morning before holiday, Scorpius had decided not to call in his favour. He didn't need anything. It would also put Weasley off-balance. She wouldn't know how to react. He sat at breakfast, smirking over the dumfounded expression he would see on her face, when a snowy white owl landed on his Daily Prophet.

"Good morning, Maleficus." Scorpius gave the owl a treat and picked up the letter from his grandfather.

"Aren't you going to read it?" Edgar asked.

Suspicion prompted Scorpius. "Why don't you tell me what it says? You've written him, haven't you? Told him my real reason for not going home?"

"Why would I do that?"

Scorpius noted the way his friend unconsciously moved his teacup between them. He said, "Do you think the professors will go easy on us today, or do you think they'll make us earn the break?"

Edgar didn't act confused by the shift of topic or try to bring the conversation back to the letter. He relaxed. Like most liars, he wanted to change the subject. Nott and Willoughby joined in, agreeing with Edgar that the professors would heap extra work on their classes. Scorpius took the opposite view. Every in-class essay assigned would become multiple essays for the professors to read over holiday.

"I see your point," Edgar said.

Not when it counts.

Scorpius didn't open his letter until after the last class of the day. The first to arrive in the Prefects' common room, he chose a corner chair and broke the wax seal.

I'm coming to Hogsmeade tomorrow to discuss your recent decisions and your future. I have hired Madam Puddifoot to provide a private tea.

A private tea. Right. The kind that knocked out an errant grandson so his body could be hauled off to a knighting ceremony. Scorpius laughed bitterly. He wouldn't go. He'd pretend to be ill. And then Grandfather can insist I be treated by our family Healer who happens to be visiting Miles Bletchley! The room started to close in on Scorpius. Headmaster Slughorn was too susceptible to flattery. Lucius Malfoy would ply the man with gifts and smoothly talk Slughorn into allowing him to take his grandson "home." Scorpius had seen his grandfather influence Ministry officials. He would sway Slughorn.

"Oh my God, you look like you're about to pass out! What's wrong?"

Rose Weasley knelt beside his chair. She retrieved the letter he'd dropped to the floor. "Did you get bad news? Did someone die?"

She sounded like she'd care. "Read it," he said.

It only took her a few seconds. "I don't understand."

"I can't stay here," he said, "and I can't run away. He'd say I was mental, track me down." Unless I'm somewhere untraceable. "Is your house Unplottable?"

"What?"

"It has to be," he said. "Your parents are part of the Golden Trio. Loonies would make a shrine at their door if they could find it. Pile on the candles and flowers, camp out and ask for autographs. Sing endless choruses of Weasley Is Our King."

"All right, it is. Why are you asking?"

One change always leaves the way open for the establishment of others, Grandfather said.

"I'm calling in my favour. Owl your parents and tell them a friend's coming to stay with you. They'll find out it's me at Kings' Cross." He braced her shoulders when she lost all colour. "Don't faint."

"I wasn't going to." Pink tinted her cheekbones. "My parents—my family—they'll never believe we're friends."

He shrugged. "Tell them I'm your boyfriend."

Her eyes grew huge. "They'll never believe—"

"Won't they?" Scorpius captured her face in his hands and pressed his lips to hers.








A/N: The book Scorpius pretended to read is the wizard version of Felix Klein's Gestalt Graphology. I left off the rest of the title: Exploring the Mystery and Complexity of Human Nature Through Handwriting. Lucius’ “sayings” came from Machiavelli, and Hugo's taunt was a quote from chapter twelve of the first book in the HP series. Like Harry, Scorpius didn't feel sorry for himself, although he was very much wanted at home, lol. Finally, Stunflowers are originally from Xanth, a magical land discovered by the punny author Piers Anthony.

 

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