The Futile Façade:

Chapter 10:

December landed on wings of ice and roared with the breath of an irritable grizzly. The first Thursday afternoon after the second task found Rigel bundled to her ears, making a slow tunnel through the soft snow toward the Forbidden Forest. Treeslider was curled against her chest, hissing a litany of doubtful words under three layers of clothing.

"The wind isss much too sssearing, Ssspeaker." The boomslang snake's voice came floating up to her ears, and Rigel tucked her chin in response.

"Thisss wasss your idea," she hissed into the neck of her jumper.

"Your nessst isss ssso warm," Treeslider said plaintively. "How wasss I to know thisss monssstrousss ssstorm awaited usss?"

"I sssaid it wasss cold," Rigel said, chuckling a little at the snake's dramatics. It had long since stopped snowing, and was now only blowing the fresh powder back and forth.

"Ssspeaker isss known to have a poor underssstanding of heat."

Rigel thought Treeslider had a poor understanding of words, but she didn't want to argue with the snake. Instead, she stopped moving toward the forest and said, "Doesss thisss mean you don't want to sssee how your nessst isss doing today?"

Treeslider shuddered against her torso. "It isss lossst under thisss messss. We mussst return to the ssstone foressst before we freeze."

"All right." She sighed. Would that the snake had made this determination before she'd slogged halfway across the grounds.

A familiar voice called out from the swirling winds, an unfamiliar tone of urgent amusement in its pitch.

"Save me! Rigel, stop them!" Hermione was tearing across the lawn, bright blue scarf trailing behind her like the tail of a kite. She rounded Rigel and ducked down behind her, as though Rigel's unimpressive girth was capable of shielding her from sight in this expanse of white.

Only a dozen paces behind her, two bundles of burgundy were committed in a headlong charge. Rigel felt mischief curl within her. "When I say so, jump to the side," she murmured to the girl doubled over in breathless laughter behind her.

She waited until the Weasley twins were near enough to see the whites in her eyes. Her arms outstretched, she said, "Guys, we can talk about this like reasonable—now!"

Rigel and Hermione leapt out of the way, and the twins, who'd each taken a running lunge to cover the last several feet, fell in an explosion of powder and spluttered outrage. Fred came up first, spewing, "Traitor!" alongside a mouthful of snow.

George shook himself like a dog, sending wet misery everywhere in a three-foot radius. "N-no fair!" he said, taking his feet with some difficulty. Rigel schooled her face to blankness, refusing to give sympathy to the boys who would have cheerfully plowed her into the snow.

"What are you doing, chasing Hermione?" Rigel asked them, folding her arms in a posture of mock sternness. "When I introduced you, I'm sure I mentioned she was under my protection."

Fred scowled up at her from his seat in the snow. "You can't have all the good ones, Pup!"

"I left you Ron, didn't I?"

Fred pursed his lips. "Ron doesn't squeal like he used to."

Hermione let out a helpless laugh. "Why is everything here so weird?"

"It's Hogwarts," the twins chorused. The looks on their faces indicated the statement should be self-evident.

"You get used to it," Rigel offered. After a moment's thought, she frowned. "Actually, you never should. Harry won't forgive me if I send you back weird."

"Harry is even weirder," Hermione muttered.

From her point of view, that may very well be the case, Rigel allowed. She turned back to George, who was now helping Fred brush the powder from his pants. "Why chase Hermione when there are so many more deserving souls in this world?"

George smiled, and it was so innocent she automatically suspected a lie. "We just wanted to invite her to the Burrow this summer."

Rigel allowed that to sink in for a moment before asking, "In what language is pursuit equivalent to an invitation?"

Fred's expression was pitying as he drawled, "If you don't know the answer to that by now, Pup, you may never figure it out."

Before she could retort, George punched his brother lightly in the arm and said, "No! Bad, Forge, corrupting the Puppy."

"Did they not see you face down a dragon?" Hermione's tone was altogether bewildered.

"Fred and George have known me too long to be in awe," Rigel said. She found she was grateful for the thread of truth woven behind the humor as she spoke. "I can say the same, though. They try to pretend they don't care about anything except fun and chaos, but these two once braced a first year's fractured wrist when he was too scared to go to the Mediwitch."

"Aww, Puppy!" Fred fell into her arms, and subsequently windmilled backwards just as quickly, once Treeslider made himself heard from the confines of her shirt. "Why is your shirt speaking in Parseltongue!?"

She brushed a soothing hand over the front of her jumper, murmuring comforting nothings to her familiar until he stopped threatening to eat the clumsy sack of flesh that had disturbed his slumber.

"Is that the snake from the first task?" George asked, leaning close and peering in the general direction of her torso as though he could see through the layers to the irritable boomslang snake within.

She resisted the urge to shy backwards from his gaze, knowing intellectually that there was nothing but a lumpy jumper to see. "His name is Treeslider," she said. "After the difficulties in the forest, he's been somewhat…resistant to rehabilitation." Not that she minded, really. Rigel felt rather selfish, but part of her wanted to keep the snake. He was a wild creature, not some pet. Still, each time he declined to go back to the forest her heart warmed a little more toward the idea of enjoying his companionship indefinitely.

"He was very brave for you," Hermione said, frowning thoughtfully. "Did you know him before the task, or did you use your gift to find him when you learned the task was in the forest?"

"I met him my first year here," she admitted. "He's been a better friend than I probably deserve."

"Friendship isn't about deserving anything," George said firmly. "It just is."

Rigel smiled, but she knew it was wan. Easy for some to say, she supposed.

"As long as we're on the spirit of friendship," Fred declared, looking between Hermione and Rigel with a deviously innocuous expression. "We really did want to invite you over to the Burrow this summer. Both of you, actually. Bring Harriet too, Rigel. It'll be fun."

She could honestly say she'd never spent a day at the Burrow that wasn't fun. Hectic, farcical, and exhausting, yes, but unmistakably fun.

"They keep telling me this mythical 'Burrow' is somehow held together with magic alone," Hermione said, openly dubious. "It isn't possible, though, to build something out of magic like that." Her eyes darted to Rigel's and she added, almost against her better judgment, "Is it?"

Rigel considered her answer carefully. Hermione was, she had noticed, painstakingly correct in all things. "It has to be done slowly, over time, but yes, eventually it is possible for magic to compensate or even take the place of regular materials. It just depends on how much magic is regularly imbued into the foundational wards. Hogwarts is a great example of that, actually."

Hermione looked vaguely disturbed. "Are you saying the castle is only held up by magic at this point?" She didn't seem comforted by the idea.

"No, don't listen to Pup!" Fred exclaimed. "He doesn't live in a centuries-old house stitched together with magic and love."

"But…you do?" Hermione clarified.

"Sure!" George said cheerfully. "And we can tell you all about it."

"You can?"

Rigel grimaced as Hermione took the bait like a starving guppy. It's a trap, she thought at the poor girl. Don't do it.

Alas, Hermione was no Legilimens.

"Boy, can we!" George looped one of his arms through Hermione's, and it was the beginning of the end for the girl. "The Burrow's primary wards date back several centuries. As you probably know, when subsequent wards are added within an existing set, the two works can be fused to become a single ward. This is the principle behind the Burrow's magnificence."

Fred appropriated Hermione's free limb, picking up the narrative seamlessly. "Indeed, Milady, and the more wards you add to the original as the years pass, the stronger the original ward becomes. Anyone trying to take down the Weasley wards now would have to not only break the power of the original Weasley who cast them, but also overcome the magic of every additional ward that's been cast there since!"

"But what if the wards are contradictory in nature…?" Hermione was gone before Rigel could send a prayer to Merlin for her sanity.

She returned to the castle at her own speed; a part of her enjoyed the bracing bite of the winter wind against her face. It felt real, in a way that the surrealism of the tournament and all the drama orbiting in its sphere never did. Sometimes it was hard to remember what she'd entered this absurd competition for. Just as sometimes it was hard to remember how deeply she was entrenched in the ruse. She tried not to think about it, mostly. It would only overwhelm her to consider the true implications of the wide, furrowed web she and Archie had managed to weave.

-0

[HpHpHp]

-0

Rigel found her plate positively buried beneath packages Friday morning. A heavy parcel from Flourish and Blotts contained several books on rituals that she'd catalogue-ordered after running through most of Hogwart's unrestricted references on the subject. Lily's use of a ritual to imbue the obsidian necklace had refocused her interest in the subject, and she was certain there was a connection between Dumbledore's story about a witch who transferred her magic to another and the bottle of Riddle's magic slowly accumulating in her mindscape.

She set the books aside and took the letter from the next package curiously. It was from Archie, and he advised her not to open it at the table. She heard the rattle of potions vials as she tucked the small rectangle into her bookbag and smiled. It seemed her cousin had sent the additional samples of blood she'd asked for. Rigel already had enough for one unexpected blood identity test, but after the barrier she'd encountered in the second task, she wanted enough for each of the remaining tasks, too.

The last parcel was soft, and contained both a letter and a number of pages from a Muggle newspaper that were yellowed with age. Rigel couldn't help but smile in anticipation as she perused the politely-worded reply to an inquiry she'd sent to the Little Hangleton public records office. Hermione had helped her find the correct address, and after that it was a simple matter of dropping it into the muggle-mail slot at the Hogsmeade owlery.

Dear Mr. Riddle,

Your research has led you to right place, but I regret to inform you that the search for your estranged family is not yet at an end. The Riddle family did indeed have a prominent branch seated in our town for a number of generations, and in fact owned much of the town itself at one point. In 1943, however, Squire Riddle sold the family holdings to the town council and moved his entire family with very little warning.

Unfortunately, Thomas Riddle did not provide any forwarding address. We have heard no news of the family since they left Little Hangleton. In order to facilitate your search, I have included every mention of the Riddle family I could find in our town archives. If you do discover where the subsequent generations of the Riddle family ended up, I hope you'll write again and let me know. It would be a satisfactory conclusion to a mystery that has interested the townsfolk for many years!

Best of luck in your endeavor.

Sincerely,

Agatha Spool

Little Hangleton Archives

Rigel's grin was threatening to spill over her face as she set the letter aside and thumbed through the muggle newspaper clippings. She had no interest in the many articles about Squire Riddle's shady business dealings or Mary Riddle's social proclivities. As she flipped past an article about the acquisition of a large tract of land that had been originally set aside as a primary school, she found it: an edition from 1926 with the brazen headline 'Squire's Son Elopes With Local Tramp!' splashed across the front page. It was exactly the sort of gleefully salacious article one might expect from a small town with no love for its richest constituents.

The text contained more speculation than fact, but one thing appeared to be indisputable: Tom Riddle, handsome son of Squire Thomas Riddle, had absconded suddenly and most perplexingly to London with one Merope Gaunt, daughter of local vagabond Marvolo Gaunt. The picture painted of Merope was not pleasant, and it was clear to Rigel that the townspeople suspected there was much more to the story. Dashing and wealthy young men did not often take up with the backwater, squalor-bred women of the world without the impetus of blackmail, villainy, or both.

It's indisputable, she thought. The feeling of triumph that rushed through her was almost giddy. Tom Riddle is a halfblood. Given the Riddle family's sudden relocation, she reckoned he'd tried to cover his heritage up by sending the Riddle family somewhere far away, but he couldn't obliviate every townsperson in Little Hangleton.

Her next thought cut through the giddiness with wariness. How in Merlin's name could no one else know? It had taken her less than a month of serious searching to put the pieces together. Was it really possible that no one else had ever wondered? Maybe he's silencing them, a grim voice offered. Or disappearing them, like he did his whole Muggle family.

With that ominous possibility ringing in her mind, she rolled up the newspapers and tucked them into her bag with the letter. As she straightened, she met Pansy's eyes, and the blonde girl leaned in from her seat beside her to ask, "What have you done, Rigel?"

The girl had probably caught the name Riddle on every newspaper article as Rigel flipped through them. Still, Rigel tilted her head carefully and asked, "Are you certain you want to know?"

Pansy stared hard at her for a long moment, but in the end, she shook her head and turned her worried eyes back to her own breakfast. "Be careful," was all she said.

Rigel smiled reassuringly, but inside she was torn. On the one hand, Riddle was a dangerous man, and he probably wouldn't hesitate to retaliate if he knew what she was up to. On the other hand, she thought too many people had been careful around him for too long. If those around him had been a little less careful and a little more suspicious, he might never have built the powerful mystique that let him waltz through the world without any regard for it.

There was, she supposed, at least one person she could speak to freely about it. All that morning in her Healing class she was semi-attentive at best, and she barely managed to choke down a few bites of food at lunch in her excitement. It was only after impatiently giving the gargoyle the password and hurrying up the spiraling stairs that she realized Dumbledore was still down in the Great Hall and she would have to wait for him to finish his meal before she could share her grand theory.

The wind in her sails sufficiently snuffed, Rigel sank into one of the soft, oversized chairs that littered the Headmaster's office and took out one of her new books to pass the time. It was titled Rituals of Transference and the table of contents told her it was broken into sections pertaining to familial and non-familial magical transfer.

She settled in to read, on the lookout for any use of transference magic that sounded potentially malicious. The subject matter turned out to be too interesting to skim, however, and she found herself nose-deep in a chapter about Bloodline transference when Fawkes trilled out a welcome. Rigel glanced up to see Dumbledore twinkling genially down at her.

"Are my clocks running slow today?" he asked curiously.

She flushed. "No, sir. I'm running early. There was something I wanted to ask you about before we began today's Alchemy lesson."

"Ah. In that case, why don't we address your question in comfort before adjourning to the workroom?" He rearranged a chair so that it was facing hers with a whimsical flick of his fingers and called for tea and biscuits. The soft, gooey sweets wafted chocolate fumes her direction and Rigel, who hadn't eaten as much as she should have at lunch, accepted one with chagrined gratitude. "Now, to this lunch-averting matter," the Headmaster said with a wink. "What can I help you with today, Mr. Black?"

Rigel opened her mouth, and suddenly realized she had no idea where to start or how to explain her recent obsession with Riddle's genealogy. After a moment's hesitation, she pulled the bundle of newspaper clippings from her bag and selected the relevant one for Dumbledore's perusal. "I've been looking into Riddle's background," she said, grimacing. "I know it's a bit gauche, but I'm so tired of my friends calling him 'Lord Riddle' and acting as though he's the next coming of Salazar Slytherin."

Dumbledore's eyebrows rose as he rapidly scanned the paper's contents, but when he leveled his piercingly blue gaze at her, he showed no real surprise. "So you have discovered Tom's somewhat ignoble roots. I'm certain you're aware that he would prefer this knowledge never see the light of modern day."

"You knew?" Rigel frowned. "Sir, forgive me, but I don't understand why no one else does. This undermines everything he's been trying to do for the last fifty years. If it was leaked, it could change everything." As Dumbledore continued to look impassively grave, she added, "Couldn't it?"

Dumbledore sighed. "I am aware of Tom's heritage, in part because I was the professor sent to introduce him to the Wizarding World. While at Wool's Orphanage, I spoke with the proprietress about the circumstances of young Tom's arrival there. His mother only lived long enough to name him for his father and grandfather, but this information was sufficient to trace his origins the very same way you have now done."

"Why isn't it commonly known?" Rigel asked, still confused. "I mean, wouldn't people have asked while he was in school?"

"Tom himself was unaware of his lineage until very late in his school years, I believe," Dumbledore said slowly. "He was thought to be a muggleborn, at first, but when rumors of his Parseltongue ability began to circulate the school, that belief changed. After all, who ever heard of a Parselmouth who wasn't a pureblood?" The question, eerily reminiscent of something Draco had said, sent a thrum of unease through Rigel. Sometimes, it seemed Dumbledore's gaze was too perceptive. If she didn't have faith in Dom's ability to warn her of even the subtlest attempt at Legilimency, she might worry for her secrets.

Rigel considered the old man's words, but had to ask, "If you knew, why haven't you said anything? This could drastically affect his support base."

Dumbledore regarded her almost pityingly. "Tom will only deny it. All evidence aside, he will claim the Riddle name comes from the mystery of his origins, and that the muggles you traced until their disappearance were a mere coincidence."

"But if the speculation is made, he'd have to give some explanation, wouldn't he?" she asked. Even though part of her balked at essentially treating the halfblood label as an accusation, she knew that his supports would see it that way. Why not use it, then? "His mother is certainly Merope Gaunt. The Parseltongue gift, as well as the orphanage's records, would be proof of that. He'd have to give some account of his father. Who else could he claim?"

"I believe he would probably name Morfin Gaunt, if pressed." The Headmaster said quietly.

Rigel gaped at him. "His uncle?"

"Incest is more palatable than the truth, to those who would care in the first place," Dumbledore reminded her gently.

She grimaced in distaste. "But even still, Morfin was in prison for three years." She shook her head. "It just isn't possible. Riddle's birth date is listed as a year and a half after his uncle's imprisonment. Unless you're suggesting Merope went to Azkaban for conjugal visits with her brother…" She attempted to say it sarcastically, but as the words came out of her mouth she realized with horror that it was exactly what some might suggest.

"There are those for whom even that explanation would be preferable." Dumbledore didn't seem disgusted or disappointed by that fact, merely resigned.

Rigel let out a huff of revulsion. "That's just…ugh. What is wrong with the world?" No matter which way she looked at it, Dumbledore was absolutely right. If she came forward with the information, not only would she paint a giant target on her back, but Riddle wouldn't even flinch. He'd probably play the embarrassed pureblood card and cagily admit that his parents had been siblings in unsanctioned lust. Better than that allow the whisper of a possibility that he, Lord Riddle, head of the S.O.W. Party and preeminent bigot in all of Britain, could be a halfblood.

All her research, for nothing. She bit through the biscuit in her hand with an annoyed growl. After chewing it over both literally and figuratively for a moment, she said, "I don't suppose we could force him to do a blood test." She didn't need Dumbledore's regretful look to tell her it was impossible. Riddle was simply too powerful to make him do anything he didn't want to do. Back to square one, then. Unless…she shot the Headmaster a considering look. "Maybe we could trick him, somehow. Is there any magic that only a pureblood can perform?"

Dumbledore frowned thoughtfully. "Apart from very specific inheritance magic, I'm not aware of anything. That is, of course, what makes the distinction largely superfluous in the first place."

Rigel flushed. "Yes, sir." Really, what had she been expecting? If there was an easy way to undermine Riddle, no doubt the Headmaster would have done it long ago. She glanced down at the book in her lap thoughtfully. "When you say inheritance magic, do you mean familial rituals? I'm reading about them now. There are a few that sound incredibly powerful, but it strikes me that I don't know any purebloods who would actually want to use one."

"How you do mean?" the Headmaster asked, a mild frown on his face.

"Well, a lot of the inheritance type rituals in this book seem to require significant sacrifice on one side. For instance, this line circumvention ritual—" She turned to the page and tilted the book so that Dumbledore could see the description. "—was designed around the transfer of familial gifts to an unrelated, lesser-blooded witch or wizard. The idea was that the last heir to a family could pass his or her gifts to a halfblood or muggleborn. This way, rather than allow the magic of an old line to go extinct or fade into obscurity as it blends into other strong pureblooded lines, the magic lives on even when the family dies out."

"I can't say I've ever heard of such a ritual being performed," Dumbledore said, his slow, elderly voice contrasting sharply with the speed at which his eyes roamed over the page.

Rigel nodded. "Exactly. Because what pureblood in existence would be both utterly selfless and utterly unprejudiced to the extent that they would sacrifice their own gift in order that another, less pure wizard might wield it instead?"

"All who come immediately to mind are also those for whom the passing on of family magic would not be a strong priority." As he said it, she wondered if he was thinking about Sirius. Even if her uncle had a family gift to pass on, he would never consider that it might be his duty to do so.

Really, there was something tragically ironic about it all. Purebloods liked to think of themselves as so very unique, but the type of magic that was truly exclusive to them was also that which would require them to give up that part of themselves in order to make use of it. She shook her head ruefully as she put the book away. "I suppose you've listened to me rail against the system enough for one day, Professor. Shall we, as you put it, adjourn to the workroom?"

"The system might be better-tempered if it had more occasion to resist a good railing," Dumbledore said with a chuckle. "Nevertheless, your father is paying good tuition for me to educate you, rather than the other way around."

"A wise man once said, 'education is a journey, not a destination, and as such may not be rushed,'" Rigel said, standing along with the aged professor.

"Which wise man was that?"

"Uncle Remus," she admitted, grinning briefly. "It was a shame he couldn't keep teaching here. Something should really be done about that curse."

Dumbledore inclined his head regretfully. "The only two cursebreakers to try their wands at lifting it were both irreversibly altered by the attempt. Since then, I have ceased commissioning the work, though I admit it is especially difficult to bear when it means bidding farewell to so dedicated an educator as Mr. Lupin." They crossed to the bookcase where Dumbledore pulled the secret lever to reveal his workspace. It never ceased to amuse Rigel that a wizard who was taken so seriously by so many had an irrepressibly whimsical streak. "Tell me, has your uncle found alternative work to satisfy him?"

She nodded slowly, recalling the last couple of letters from Remus. "I think so. He's begun tutoring a group of orphan kids who live in London. Not as structured an environment as Hogwarts, of course, but I think he enjoys the challenge and the chance to pass on what he knows to those who didn't receive the same opportunities he did."

Dumbledore smiled, but there was something incredibly sad about it. "Many are the risks that turned to regret over the years, and few the gambles brought to vindication. When I balance the scales of my life, however, I do believe the decision to admit Remus Lupin to Hogwarts will be one of the heaviest achievements in the basket of absolute good."

His words brought a lump to Rigel's throat, and she was abruptly reminded of her purpose in coming to Hogwarts in the first place. It hadn't been to challenge the system or prove herself to anyone. She had only come to learn, and sometime this year she had begun to lose sight of that ambition, a guiding star lost in a meteor shower. In the midst of everything raining down around her, she had to wonder if she would ever get back to that girl. And when all of it came to an end, in which basket would her decision to become Rigel Black fall?

-0

[HpHpHp]

-0

Rigel walked into lab three the next morning ready to demand that Snape honor his bargain to teach her freebrewing in exchange for her making it through the second task and mastering projected magical awareness. She wore the unshakable determination like a cloak; this time, no matter how dangerous he claimed the next task would be, she would not be put off with more ancillary lessons. This time, they would brew. Snape was already within, and as he turned to greet her, she cut him off sternly.

"We are freebrewing today or I will transfer to Durmstrang and take up an apprenticeship with Master Montmorency," she declared.

The dark-haired man drew his spine in, increasing his already imposing height, and raised an unimpressed eyebrow at her. "Master Montmorency will never take an apprentice who can't even use his own eyes before speaking."

Rigel blinked. She leaned around her Head of House to see a cauldron sitting innocently at its brewing station and an array of ingredients laid out on the large countertop. "Oh." She felt the blood move into her cheeks and her chin drop an inch as her indignation lost its direction abruptly. "Good," she managed.

Snape watched with open amusement as she pulled on her protective apron, gloves, and glasses. Rigel couldn't begrudge him his humor at her expense, not when the warm glow of anticipation was climbing its way out from the deepest corners of her heart. She took up the brewer's position beside the workstation and gave the Potions Master her undivided attention.

"How do we begin?"

"There are differing philosophies when it comes to freebrewing," he told her. "The discipline is by its very nature non-standard. Some begin with a known recipe and attempt to alter it." He paused, as though gauging her reaction to the idea. Rigel pursed her lips. That didn't sound like true freebrewing. Snape's mouth curled into the semblance of a smile and approval slipped into his voice. "It is my opinion that such an approach only limits the imagination and stifles the entire process. It may be safer, but reward is always proportional to risk."

Rigel quite agreed. She didn't want to incrementally alter existing recipes until she reached an arbitrary threshold of different-enough. The point of freebrewing was to create something entirely new. "How did you learn?" she asked.

"Trial and error," Snape said. He grimaced in remembrance. "It was a frustrating and dangerous path—one I would not lead another down." Rigel frowned. The more she gleaned about his apprenticeship with Master Liu, the more she thought that not all brilliance lent itself to instruction. She was exceedingly fortunate that Professor Snape had both knowledge and the patience to impart it. Her Head of House gestured to the ingredients before her. "Instead, I have devised an introduction to this art that is both open-ended enough to foster free-thinking and limited enough to focus your efforts. What do most of these ingredients have in common?"

Rigel surveyed the counter slowly. Whether powdered, dried, or fresh, there were very few ingredients she couldn't recognize on sight. "All of them have effects on the mind," she said after a moment.

Snape inclined his head sharply. "You must come to freebrewing without a preconceived idea of how your potion will be constructed. Equally true, you must never put things into the cauldron without a purpose. The key, then, is to begin with a strict idea of what you want the potion to accomplish, and work backwards to the how."

She nodded slowly. It made a kind of sense, but she suspected she'd understand what he meant better when she actually did it.

"For now, I will set you goals and provide a semi-limited array of ingredients you may use," Snape said. He folded his arms across his chest and fixed her with a challenging look. "Your first potion must lessen a person's grief without also suppressing positive emotions."

Rigel's head tilted to one side as she thought. Interesting. Not just a blanket emotional suppressant, then. She waited to see if he would give her any other instructions, but her professor merely stared at her expectantly. With a slow grin, she snapped her magical awareness about her like a permeable shield and reached for the oils. Her hand hesitated for a moment over peppermint, but with a shake of her head she took the lavender oil instead and coated the cauldron.

As she set the fire to a mild temperature, Rigel ran through the various subtasks inherent in Snape's challenge. The brain was a complex series of balances, and she thanked her Healing training for giving her the vocabulary to express what she wanted to accomplish at the most basic level. More than anything, bad feelings flourished in the absence of good feelings. Foremost, then, she needed ingredients to increase norepinephrine for positive drive, serotonin for happiness, and dopamine for pleasure. Then something to cloud the sharp memories.

When the bottom oil was warm, she filled the cauldron halfway with plain water and turned up the heat until it simmered. Moving back to the counter, Rigel collected the petals and stigmas of a Crocus sativus plant first. The longer they steeped, the stronger the antidepressant effect would be. Next came root of Curcuma, sliced thin into rounds so unsettlingly orange she thought it must have been grown in a magical greenhouse. Chia seeds, ginseng, and powdered cocoa followed. She tipped a vial of raw honey into the pot and watched as it grew thin and dispersed as Rigel coaxed the fire higher.

Her sensitivity whispered along the edges of her concentration as she stirred clockwise, not counting so much as watching, waiting. Rigel resisted the urge to consciously imbue, reminding herself that as long as she was projecting her magical awareness, she probably didn't need to. She eyed the St. John's Wort, but in the end thought better of it; the powerful antidepressant was also unpredictably reactive. Without knowing exactly what it would do to the serotonin levels, it wasn't worth the risk. When the powder of the cocoa had completely dissolved, she removed the stirring rod and reached for two shining strands of hair. The first was Veela, and the second from the tail of a unicorn. She twisted the two hairs together and wound them around the stirring utensil before submersing it in the hot liquid. Rigel held it there, watching silver bleed slowly into the mixture, and when she felt the magic stop seeping into the potion, she removed the hairs, now blanched, and set them aside.

After a scoop of crushed Fae fruit to dull recollections, she sealed the bulk of the mixture with a layer of sunflower oil and sprinkled a handful of dried pixie wings across the top. Rigel thought the oil might allow the calmative magic of the pixie to seep into the potion without risking a reaction with the fairy fruit.

She was wrong. Her potion tried to explode—tried, because, just as the reaction began, Rigel flooded the cauldron with magic. The reaction froze before it could go any further, stalling into a kind of half-putrefied state, and Rigel thanked Snape's stubborn insistence on her perfecting her magical awareness that she got to keep her eyebrows.

Rigel let out a slow breath and stepped back from the cauldron with a sigh. She glanced over at her professor and surprised a look of utter astonishment on his normally impassive face. "What is it?" she asked, a frown sliding onto her face. "Was I supposed to wait for it to explode?"

He shook his head slowly and pulled a vial of thick, black sludge from his belt. She recognized the inertifying mixture as he poured it over her ruined cauldron and grimaced in rueful realization that he'd never expected her to create a viable potion on the first try. "Well done," Snape said, fixing her with a stare that was once again unfathomable. "Now, tell me what you did wrong."

"The sunflower oil wasn't strong enough to keep the fairy and pixie magic from reacting negatively," Rigel said at once. After a moment's thought, she added, "Maybe an entire layer of honey would have served better."

The Potions Master made a noise of agreement. "Why did you add the pixie wings at all? The potion as it stood prior to the addition of sunflower oil would in all likelihood have at least approached the goal."

Rigel shrugged. "I wanted something that would suppress the amygdala. That's where anger and fear reside, and I think those can be a part of grief, too."

"Interesting hypothesis," Snape said. "You'll write half a roll on that theory for next week." She nodded, and tested the heat of the cauldron with her hand beside it. Deeming it safe to touch, she carried it to the sink.

"That was fun," she said, looking over her shoulder. Rigel had expected freebrewing to be exhilarating, and perhaps intellectually satisfying, but she hadn't anticipated the sheer, untainted pleasure that came with creating something completely from scratch, with no recipe or rules to tell her what she should or shouldn't do within the cauldron. "Is it always fun?"

"When it isn't terrifying," Snape said drolly.

She laughed. It was impossible to imagine the serious professor being afraid of anything, so she supposed he only meant to tease her about the near-disaster that was her first attempt at the art. Never mind failure, she thought. She would try again. Now that she knew what it felt like, bringing a brew to life with nothing but the impulses of her own mind, Rigel didn't know how she could go back to relying solely on recipes. It would be like asking a bird to walk, after it had already learned to fly.

Well, she thought wryly, not fly, exactly. Glide, maybe.

Rigel helped her professor consolidate the ingredients into crates to take back over to lab one, and she thought nothing could ruin her good mood. Then Snape said, "Has Lord Riddle discussed his intention to prepare you for the third task himself?"

She growled audibly before she could stop herself. "I've no intention of humoring his attempts at mentorship. In case he doesn't get the picture, tell him kindly that I have a mentor—one who didn't shove his magic under my skin like some kind of human mosquito."

Snape winced minutely, perhaps in response to her analogy, but more probably at the reminder of what Riddle had done to her with the help of his own machinations the year before. "Have you…made progress in isolating the injection?"

Rigel scowled at him from under her lashes, not sure how much she really ought to tell him. He was as beholden to Riddle as ever, after all. "I've been looking into it. Given enough time, I think I can separate it from my own magic, but I still don't know what it was intended to do. Do you know?" she added, daring him with her level gaze to lie to her.

His expression was grave. "I have only suspicions. Lord Riddle never forgot that day you eavesdropped on our conversation in the Malfoy gardens. He does not have the subtlety required of the mental arts to recognize mental shields at a distance, as I do. It is my suspicion, therefore, that at least part of his intention was to mark you in a way that only he would recognize."

"It's not supposed to work like that," she said, frowning. "I've been reading about ritual transfer of magic, and the party who relinquishes a piece of his magic always loses touch with it as a consequence."

"There was no ritual that day," he reminded her. "No runes, no sacrifice. When you imbue magic into a potion, do you lose the ability to sense it?"

Her eyes widened. "No," she whispered. Then she shook her head. "But I can only sense the resonance when he touches me."

"It isn't your magic," Snape said. "What you perceive may not be a reflection of its limitations."

Her hands shook on a container of saffron and she stilled them with a desperate will. It was a terrifying thought, that she'd been wrong about how the magic he'd mixed with hers might be utilized. A fool she was to think Riddle would forget that her lack of aura allowed her to successfully eavesdrop on his private conversations more than once. She'd been so sure that he couldn't possibly track her with the bit of his magic swimming in her veins…but maybe it was all just wishful thinking.

Her Head of House caught her eye and said, with the air of someone stating the obvious, "If you refrain from attempting to hide from his immediate perception, it may not cause you additional difficulties."

It probably seemed simple to him. Snape had no idea as to her real concern. She'd thought avoiding any physical contact with Riddle would be tricky. This was much worse. How was she ever to be Harry Potter again, if Riddle could identify her as Rigel Black just by being in the same room? How was Archie to ever pretend to be Rigel in his presence? They couldn't until Riddle's magic was isolated and purged. A nuance in Snape's phrasing caught up to her and she looked sharply at his carefully blank expression. "What do you mean 'may not'? You think there is something else it could do?"

"If I am not wildly mistaken, Lord Riddle's primary motive in offering his tutelage in the first place was to convince you to use your magic in ways he deems beneficial," Snape said. His voice was so even as to be almost inflectionless, but she caught the hint of disapproval in the way he said 'tutelage.' He didn't think much of Riddle's teaching abilities either, then.

Rigel nodded easily. It had been obvious that Riddle wanted her to make the most of her powerful magic. "He wanted me to stop suppressing it."

"And he got what he wanted," Snape reminded her.

"That was due to circumstances beyond anyone's control," Rigel said quickly.

"Don't underestimate his hand in seemingly unrelated events." Snape looked down at her with a frown. "Did your magic not become more aggressive, harder to suppress, and more prone to defying your express will in the immediate aftermath of Lord Riddle's visitation?" Rigel blanched at the implication. Could that really have been his aim? To force her to deal with her magic by making it even more unruly than it had been? She began to shake her head slowly, wanting to deny Riddle any hand in what had occurred in the forbidden forest the previous spring. At her pained disbelief, her Head of House made an impatient noise. "Think, boy. The most obvious piece of evidence is one simple fact: Lord Riddle wanted you to confront your magic, and you did."

A dark scowl crept over her face. "Sure I did. Only after it killed Pettigrew, though." A hollow laugh escaped her. "If Riddle did have a hand in it, I guess the joke's on him."

Snape's hand came down on her shoulder and she snapped her eyes up to meet his storm-filled gaze. "You said the Dominion Jewel killed Pettigrew."

Rigel dropped her gaze first. "Both are true. The Jewel mummified him, but I suspect my magic was well on its way to crushing him by the time that happened." The words came out utterly detached, and all she felt was a distant resignation, a pity for circumstances that were no longer hers to alter.

Her Head of House growled. "Even if that's true, your magic was beyond your control at that moment."

"Maybe it was, or maybe it was acting on some subconscious desire I was afraid to acknowledge." She swallowed the bile that tried to rise at that admission. Steeling her stomach, she went on. "Even if I try to lay that at Riddle's feet—even if I believe his magic inflamed the wild, indominatable aspects of my magic to the extent that it acted more aggressively than it otherwise would have—that still leaves me with a handful of Riddle's magic and no idea what to do with it." She shuddered. "I hate that there's a piece of him in me. It makes my skin crawl."

"I understand," Snape said slowly. "However, I do not believe that some miniscule amount of him could make you any more or less than you already were. Any claim you perceive his magic has placed on you is symbolic. He cannot own you unless you let him."

Rigel's smile was brittle. "He owns me this year." She looked up at her professor with a determined expression. "It'll be worth it, though, if it crushes his awful legislation. If I win, things will be better for non-purebloods in Britain." She had to believe that.

-0

[HpHpHp]

-0

Rigel found fire in her heart as she prepared to face the final preliminary task. Dueling was an arena she felt fairly comfortable in, but she knew that very sense of security might be her downfall.

Too many people knew Harry Potter's style of dueling. Even without Remus attending the third task, the chance that those who knew her in the alleys might catch the mirrored dissemination of the event was high. Rigel could not use any of Harry's tricks to succeed in the upcoming duels. Her only recourse was to prioritize speed above finesse, and hope to outclass her opponents in sheer efficiency alone.

The Room of Requirement obliged her needs, providing half a dozen panes of spell-reflecting glass that would throw anything she cast at them back in her face. Rigel trained with all of them, sometimes concentrating a flurry of spells on a single, shimmering pane, other times changing her target between every spell to test her footwork.

There were limits to the training. She could only practice countering spells she herself knew how to cast, so it would do nothing for the sort of tailored defense Dawlish was attempting to drill into their heads. Still, it was better than casting at a dummy that couldn't hit back.

By her third such session in the Come and Go Room, Rigel had ceased attempting to block any of the spells she cast. Instead, she moved the reflecting glass closer and closer, forcing her mind and muscles to react faster in order to avoid getting hit. There was something also dance-like about the exercise, and as her mind became clearer and her body lunged and twisted with increasing fluidity, she thought she finally understood what Remus had been trying to push her instincts toward all this time.

Such was the trance-like state her exercise inspired, Rigel didn't hear the door to the Room opening behind her. She didn't notice the footsteps that approached the circle of mirrors in which she spun, and she didn't realize she was no longer alone until Draco's voice called out, "What on earth are you doing, Rigel?"

She whirled to face him, and the spell she'd already cast sucker-punched her in the shoulder. Rigel hissed at the sharp Stinging Hex and rubbed her hand over the flesh with a huff of annoyance. "Draco," she said after the pain faded. "What are you doing here?"

"There's DA today," he said, stepping between a gap in the suspended panes of glass and examining them curiously. "I came early to set up. Do these reflect anything you shoot at them?"

"As long as it isn't more powerful than the magic that went into creating them," Rigel said absently. She felt an incomprehensible desire to wipe the sweat from her neck and brush back her hair, but she ignored it. The last thing she would ever do was primp for Draco Malfoy. A part of her wanted to collect her bag and just leave the room, but she was braver than that.

Draco turned away from the glass and silence stretched between them. Rigel didn't know what to say, and her friend's expression seemed suspended in some sort of cross between reluctance and regret. When she couldn't stand it anymore, she said, "This is ridiculous."

At the very same moment, Draco blurted, "I didn't mean to."

She stared at him. Blinked. Finally cleared her throat and asked, "Didn't mean to what?" She was pretty sure he had meant to kiss her. Unless someone had Imperiused him. That would be a pretty pathetic use for an Unforgivable Curse, though.

Draco blew out a frustrated breath. "I didn't mean to make it weird between us. This is why I never… before."

Her eyebrows rose against her will. He made it seem as though it hadn't been a spur-of-the-moment impulse. "Has this been malingering?" she asked, almost afraid to know the answer.

He laughed, a short, hoarse sound that cut off as abruptly as it had begun. "It's not an illness," he said, shaking his head. "Rigel, I've been interested for a while, all right? That night…I'd been thinking about you all day, since you reacted so strongly to my teasing." She winced, having already guessed that something about her embarrassment had triggered some underlying curiosity on his part. Draco wasn't finished yet, though, "I was half asleep, and getting all this feedback from my empathy, and I let myself get carried away. I'm sorry, okay? I wish I hadn't done it, with how it's changed everything."

Rigel sighed. Draco was dramatic, but she couldn't deny that things had changed, somehow. The kiss was like a wrong number in an Alchemical equation. A small mistake that had cascading effects. His expression beseeched her for forgiveness, and Rigel couldn't refuse her friend such a small thing. "I'm not upset, you know. I don't like you taking my emotions for permission, but I understand how you might feel…misled by your ability. That said, do you understand why I don't think this will work despite any feelings that may or may not exist? My life is complicated enough. Time is something I don't have to devote to a relationship. And there are other things," she added before he could speak. "You know about my…illness. Even if I returned your feelings, we would—could never progress beyond what it was that night."

Draco's face clouded. "I don't need—"

"Don't be an idiot," she said gently. At his scowl, she reached out to take his hand and pressed it between her own. "I know it's hard to redirect emotions when they've already gained momentum. I'm asking you to, though. For both our sakes, Draco." She took a deep breath and smiled wryly at him, even though it felt like a she'd swallowed a jar of snakes. "We would never work together. My goals preclude it. Really, though, that's a good thing. You're going to end up with someone a lot less crazy than me. Someone communicative and honest. Someone whose priority is you, Draco."

Her friend was visibly pained, but he swallowed the hurt and lifted his chin with a staidness that would probably do his father proud, had the man been present to see it. "You are crazy," he said bluntly. "And incredibly uncommunicative, most days. I don't pretend to understand all of your priorities, Rigel. Here's what I do know, though: I've never met anyone with your intelligence, courage, patience, or tenacity. If you think you don't shine brighter than everything and everyone around you, then you don't see yourself clearly at all. After knowing you, everyone else seems smaller, with petty problems and bland personalities." Rigel opened her mouth to protest, but Draco held up his free hand. "I'm not trying to argue with you. I can feel your determination from here, and I know better than to try to change your mind when it's made up. I just want you to understand why it might take me a little while to do what you want." He slipped his other hand from her grasp and shook his head ruefully. "No matter what you say, I don't think there's anyone in the world like you."

Rigel blinked the moisture back from her eyes and whispered, mouth twisting, "I promise you wouldn't want to fall in love with someone like me."

He grimaced, but didn't contradict her. "Are we still friends, then? I've missed you, lately."

She summoned a small smile. "I'll be your friend as long as I can, Dray. Even that much you might regret in the end. Just don't ask me for more. This time, I really mean no."

Draco peered at her, a frown tugging at his brow. "Why do you feel so foreboding? Don't scowl at me," he added, "You know it's a strain to turn off if you aren't Occluding."

Rigel rolled her eyes, but silently admitted that he was right. If she really didn't want him to read her emotions, she had the ability to prevent it. "It's nothing," she said after a moment, smoothing her feelings away to a place he couldn't see them. "Just an ominous feeling I have sometimes."

Perhaps he would have pressed her, if Pansy hadn't walked in at that moment. As it was, they exchanged bracing smiles and left the circle of mirrors to greet her. As her friends discussed the plan for that evening's DA meeting, Rigel thought at least some of the awkwardness between them had dissolved. Her heart felt lighter, and where there had been a ball of guilt and confusion in her gut there was now only a vague sense of soreness, like an infected boil that had finally been drained.

That feeling, too, would fade, she thought, and soon it would be as though nothing had ever come between them. Whatever the poets said of the power of romantic affection, true friendship was something far beyond it.

-0

[HpHpHp]

-0

Thursday Rigel skipped lunch in favor of going to the library. She'd finally cracked open the Auror's Handbook that Dawlish had given her and found a long list of recommended spells, many of which she hadn't heard of. At the end of the section on spell choice was a footnote recommending Deter, Delay, Deny: Nonlethal Spells for Every Enemy, by Armando Dippet, and Rigel was curious to see whether Hogwarts stocked the book.

She found several copies in the Defense section, none of which looked terribly well-worn. She supposed when it was shelved next to Most Riveting Revenge Spells and 1000 Hexes and Jinxes, most people overlooked the more pacifist option. Rigel smiled as she tucked one of the copies under her arm, however. The less destructive magic she knew, the better, at least until the Vow no longer held her wand to the fire. She had no illusions about how the next task would be framed. There would be no third option this time, no wooly interpretation of winning that might give her leeway under the Vow. She could only win a duel or lose it, and losing would not be an option.

On her way to Madam Pince's desk, she spotted Hermione's exuberant hair peeking over a table full of books. Rigel changed direction and peered curiously over the tall stacks. The girl was hunched over a scrap of paper and appeared to be doing furious long-hand calculations, muttering under her breath as number after number appeared in the wake of her quill.

"What kind of arithmancy is that?" she asked, wincing as Hermione, startled by the unexpected question, slashed ink across her paper. "Sorry."

Hermione blew out a breath and scattered sand over the streak of ink quickly. "Hi, Rigel. That's all right. I'm just double-checking my calculations at this point. It's not Arithmancy; it's about the Fade."

Rigel raised her eyebrows. "You have enough data to begin drawing conclusions?" She'd tried to convince as many of her schoolmates as she could to speak to Hermione, but she hadn't honestly held out much hope that they would.

The brown-eyed girl nodded, gesturing for Rigel to sit beside her. Hermione pulled a sheet of paper from between two books in the stack before her and said, "This is everything totaled. I interviewed fifty-two students and cross-checked everything they said against at least one other person to verify they'd remembered correctly."

"Fifty-two?" Rigel was stunned. She hadn't known there were even fifty-two students in the whole school whose families had been affected by the Fade.

Hermione smiled, and there was a hardness to it. "I realized quickly that people who'd directly witnessed the Fade weren't keen to speak about it. Your friend Selwyn did answer my letter, as did your father. Miss Bulstrode approached me on her own, and Mr. MacMillan, but everyone else I asked directly declined to talk about it. So I started asking students who didn't have anyone in their immediate family succumb to the illness. I suppose one thing in favor of the rampant bigotry in this society is that every pureblood knows a great many of the others."

Rigel whistled. "So you asked people whether they knew of any families who had been affected, and if so to what extent. That's brilliant." Even about a topic as sensitive as the Fade, people rarely minded talking about other people's problems. It troubled her that she hadn't known Millicent's family lost a child to the Fade, but she supposed it wouldn't have come up in any casual conversation.

"The Weasleys gave me the idea," Hermione admitted. "They freely listed everyone they knew about, so that I'd know who to approach, and that made me realize that in a society this insular, everyone would know of someone, most often more than one. By having everyone list all the cases they'd heard about, and only using those confirmed by at least one other in my data, I've done a rudimentary statistical analysis of the phenomenon." She ran her finger down each column on the sheet of parchment. "No one reported any cases of the disease in a child who had at least one muggle or muggleborn parent. Seventy percent of reported cases are from pureblood couples whose families have married only other purebloods for four generations or more. Of the remaining thirty percent, about half were cases where one of the parents' family had only been 'pure' for three or fewer generations, and the other half were couples in which one of the parents was a halfblood. In both of the later cases, the other parent always came from a family with four or more generations of pureblood breeding."

She looked expectantly at Rigel, whose eyes were very wide. She swallowed, then said carefully, "You appear to have narrowed it down to a single constant. In every reported case, at least one parent came from a family that was four-or-more generations pure."

"That's what the numbers say," Hermione confirmed. "I've been combing the most recent Book of Gold, and I've come up with a list of every family in Great Britain whose pedigree meets that criterion." She reached into her bag and pulled out a roll of parchment. "This is all of them. Every family with a high risk of contracting the Fade."

"How high is the risk?" Rigel asked, almost afraid to look at the list. She was certain she'd see the names of most, if not all, of her housemates on it.

"That's where the numbers get tricky," Hermione admitted. "The number of first-borns to succumb to the disease is very small. In those instances, both of the parents in question came from an extremely long line of purebloods. For the vast majority of cases, it strikes the second child born to the same parents. In instances where the couple separated or the second born was the result of an affair, cases of the Fade were much less likely, particularly if the child was born of a different witch."

"That supports the theory that the mother's magic may have more to do with the Fade than the father's," Rigel said.

Hermione glared at her. "What theory is that?"

"Until now, I thought it was something wizards said to make themselves feel better. Like how they used to think the female determined the sex of the child, too." Rigel shrugged apologetically. "The first instinct is always to blame the woman."

Hermione huffed in amused agreement. "This time, they may have a point. It also gets more complicated if a couple continues to attempt to birth more children. There are a few cases, such as your father and uncle, where a couple had one healthy child, several Fade-stricken children or miscarriages, and then another healthy child. Lord Black indicated he suspected his mother of performing some sort of black ritual to ensure his younger brother's survival. There's no way to verify that, of course." She tapped her quill on the table restlessly.

"And it would have to be a very black ritual for other families to not even consider it as an alternative to losing a child," Rigel pointed out. "Perhaps it was something known only to my grandmother. I'll look through the Black Family library over the winter break."

There was a brief, but acute look of envy on Hermione's face at the mention of a family library. It passed after a moment, but Rigel wondered if Hermione ever wished she'd been born into an old magic family, if only for the sort of knowledge it afforded one. "I'll be doing a little more research of my own over the break, as well," Hermione said. "Healer Hurst has promised to let me look through the clinic's records and add the data to my study."

"The Lower Alley citizens don't keep long records of their families the way people here do," Rigel cautioned her.

Hermione nodded. "Still, more data doesn't hurt. Especially more information on the exact medical progression of the disease. All this information helps us understand where the Fade is likely to present, but it doesn't get us closer to curing it."

"Doesn't it?" Rigel blinked. "It seems to me that the Weasleys are the wisest of us all. If every family on this list made a concentrated effort to marry a muggleborn or halfblood this generation, the disease would be effectively eradicated for at least another four generations."

"I don't know if I'd go so far as to conclude that," Hermione said carefully. "Weren't you the one who said that most purebloods would only accept a cure that didn't force them to compromise their beliefs?"

Rigel grimaced, but had to admit she was right. "It's just maddening to know that, with a simple choice, no more children would have to die."

"It seems simple to us because it doesn't violate any beliefs we hold dear," Hermione said. "There are some muggles who have a religious objection to vaccines, for instance." At Rigel's frown, she explained. "Vaccines are a way of immunizing people against diseases before they catch them. Some are created with animal cells or even human cells, and there are groups of people who object to having them administered. It presents a social health risk, and it's always a tragedy when a child falls ill or dies from a preventable disease, but when someone believes something so strongly, almost nothing can change their mind." Hermione's eyes were alight, and in that moment she looked like a crusader of old, only her cross was something like the individual freedoms of all.

"So if we can't convince them to change their ways, the only thing to do is to cure it," Rigel concluded. She smiled ruefully. "No big deal, then."

Hermione laughed. She opened her mouth to say something, but they were interrupted by a gruff voice from behind them.

"Hermy-oin."

It was Krum, looming over them with an uncharacteristically uncertain expression on his face. He nodded briefly to Rigel, but his attention was drawn back to Hermione inexorably, and Rigel recognized the look in his eye with a jolt of surprise.

"Hello, Victor," Hermione said, her hands fluttering nervously before she clamped them firmly together before her stomach. "How are you today?"

"Very vell," the older boy said softly. "I vanted to ask you a quvestion."

"Oh, all right. I'm good at questions." Hermione laughed a bit awkwardly, reached up to tuck an errant curl behind her ear, then seemed to remember her plan to keep her hands still and returned it to her lap abruptly. Her face reddened. "Go ahead."

"Is there someone who vill be escorting you to the Yule Ball?" The Quidditch player's dark eyes were fixed on Hermione's face with cautious hope.

Hermione coughed, as though the air in her lungs had decided to choke her of a sudden. "Ah, no. Not yet. I—" her eyes darted toward Rigel, an expression of both panic and guilt in her eyes. "—no."

Krum glanced suspiciously at Rigel, who blinked at him blankly before realizing he expected her to challenge him for Hermione's hand. She grimaced and turned pointedly away to stare unseeing at a nearby bookshelf. Once she had, she heard Krum said, "Then vill you do me the honor, Herminon?"

Hermione's voice was somewhat unsteady as she said, "It would be my pleasure. Thank you very much for asking, Victor."

From the corner of her eye, Rigel saw Krum bow gallantly over one of Hermione's hands before smiling widely. "The pleasure vill be mine." He left the library, and Rigel turned back to Hermione with a feeling of cold foreboding in her stomach. How was she going to explain this to Archie?

As she watched Hermione's expressed descend from embarrassed, disbelieving pleasure to utter misery, thoughts of Archie receded and all Rigel could think of was how to stop the girl in front of her from dissolving into tears.

"What's wrong, Hermione? Don't you like Krum?" she asked carefully.

Hermione's breath hitched and her lower lip trembled. Rather than cry, the girl closed her eyes tight and counted to three under her breath. When she opened them again, her gaze was wretched, but clear. "I don't know. He's very…well. There's something alluring there. It's what I always thought I would feel, when…" She shook her head and gripped her hair, her shoulders slumping in despair. "I want to, you know. I want to want Harry."

Rigel froze, utterly sure that she had no more idea how to navigate this particular conversation than she had the last time. Hermione didn't appear to need her input, however, as she continued.

"Harry was my first friend. S—he understands me better than anyone. Harry is so much more than I ever thought one person could be. More outgoing, more earnest, fun, kind, protective, smart!" Hermione let out a watery laugh. "God, but Harry is so smart. Perfect. Almost. But without physical attraction, it's just friendship, isn't it? Not romance?"

After a moment Rigel realized she was expected to respond. She shrugged helplessly. "I don't know anything about romance. Really, I'm the worst person to ask." Hermione's heartbreakingly torn expression ate away at her reluctance to get involved, and she added, "If you really want my opinion, I think…be with who makes you happy. Whoever makes you feel whole. And maybe you don't know who that is yet. And that's okay, too." Rigel thought no one should have to decide about forever when they were fifteen.

Hermione considered her words with a solemn expression. "I do like Victor. Maybe it's just hormones, but I won't know unless I try, will I?" Something firmed in her eyes and she nodded slowly to herself. "It'll be an experiment, then. If I can puzzle through how I feel with different people, then maybe I'll figure out what it is I really need. Thanks, Rigel." She began to pack up her notes, and Rigel realized the lunch period was probably almost over. Rigel picked up her book, and was about to leave when Hermione added, "Who will you take to the ball, then?"

Rigel frowned. "What ball?"

Hermione stared at her. "The one Victor just asked me to. The Yule Ball."

"I assumed that was…some kind of Durmstrang thing?" The statement came out as a question as Hermione's expression turned exasperated. "I'm starting to feel as though there's a mailing list I've been left off of."

"The Yule Ball is scheduled the night after the third task," Hermione told her. "It's to celebrate the three blood champions and the halfway point for the tournament. Do you really not know about it? McGonagall told me weeks ago."

She groaned. "Snape probably cares less than I do. Is it mandatory?"

Hermione laughed. "The champions are to open the dancing, so I would say so." Rigel scowled in displeasure, but the scowl fell into a blank expression as Hermione added, "Will…Harry come?"

Rigel had the sudden realization that rampaging hippogriffs wouldn't be able to keep her cousin away. All she said was, "We are engaged, so it would be proper. Did Harry tell you about that?"

Hermione made a noise of affirmation. "Harry said it was arranged but not serious."

"That's right," Rigel confirmed quickly. "There's never been that sort of attachment between us. Harry's more like my sibling than anything. The engagement was drawn up as soon as we found out about the S.O.W.'s marriage law, just in case."

"For protection," Hermione said, eyes wide. "I see. That's quite a sacrifice for you, isn't it?"

"No more than it is for Harry." Rigel shrugged. "Anyway, it's not forever. Only until we're seventeen, as long as the legislation is killed once and for all before then."

"Do you think it will be?" Hermione asked, eyes penetrating.

"I aim to see it so."

-0

[HpHpHp]

-0

Between freebrewing with Snape, training her reflexes in the Room of Requirement, and wrapping up a number of other projects in preparation for the end of term, the remaining week before the third task passed all too quickly.

Before she felt fully resigned to it, Rigel found herself walking down to the pitch through the early morning fog, frost crunching beneath her trusty boots. In addition to her Hogwarts jersey and loose breeches, she wore an underlayer of warm silk that she hoped would prevent her muscles seizing in the freezing air.

A part of her wished she was back in the alleys, that this was just another day spent in the courtyard of the Dancing Phoenix with her friends, but she willed those thoughts away firmly. She had to distance herself from that person. Harry-the-alley-free-dueler couldn't be anywhere near the tournament stage that day.

Draco and Pansy walked on either side of her, silently supportive, and in the distance, she could see the stands already filling up with spectators. "Are your parents coming to watch today?" she asked them, more for something to break the tense atmosphere than anything.

"Of course!" Draco looked offended that she would even ask. "They wouldn't miss it. Or did you forget again that you're family?"

Rigel smiled, but said, "I asked my family not to come to this one, actually. It's too much pressure with them watching."

Draco frowned. "Since when does pressure get to you?" After a moment's shrewd contemplation, he said, "You just don't like people fussing over you. Well, I'll tell Mother and Father not to overwhelm you, but what else can you expect when you risk your life and limb in front of all and sundry?"

"It wasn't Rigel's choice, exactly," Pansy said, defensive on her behalf.

"I don't mind your parents' version of fussing," Rigel said, a small laugh escaping her. "Sirius would wrap me in a bubble charm if he could."

"Rigel!"

They all three turned to see Zhou hurrying down from the castle behind them. Draco made an annoyed noise under his breath, but didn't stop Rigel from waiting for the girl to catch up to them.

"Hi, Zhou," she said.

"Hi." The girl panted a bit, but caught her breath enough to say, "I just wanted to wish you luck today. Ravenclaw is supporting you, no matter what happens."

"Thank you," Rigel said, genuinely touched. Never had she imagined the school could rally around her like it had. She'd expected so much more resentment for being chosen over older, better-liked students like Cedric Diggory. "I'll do my best to represent Hogwarts proudly."

"I'm sure you will." Zhou's voice was still a little breathless, and her eyes darted between Rigel, Draco, and Pansy nervously before she blurted, "Do you have a date to the ball?" Rigel's lips parted, but nothing came out for a long moment. Zhou turned red, disappointment creeping into her eyes. "I mean, you probably do. I just thought I'd…ask. In case you didn't."

Rigel summoned a smile despite the awkwardness she felt internally. Zhou was only trying to be nice, after all. If she hadn't had anyone to go with, she'd have been grateful to accept the girl's offer. "It's very kind of you to think of me," she said warmly. "Since I'm engaged to Heiress Potter, though, I'll be escorting her." She'd already discussed it with Archie, and he was prepared to play 'Harry' for the evening. Rigel thought some crazy part of her cousin was actually looking forward to it, from the mischievous gleam that had entered his eyes as they discussed the possibility. It worried her a little, but in light of the portion of Riddle's magic that Dom had yet to filter from her core, they had no other choice.

Zhou murmured something understanding and fled quickly toward the Quidditch pitch. Rigel peered after her with a somewhat puzzled expression and heard Draco snort from beside her. She slid a glance toward him. "What?"

"You really are the worst," he muttered. There was more amusement in his voice than censure, though.

"What's that supposed to mean?" she asked, unsure what she was supposed to be apologizing for.

"Ignore him, Rye," Pansy said, looping her arm through Rigel's. "Focus on the task."

Rigel didn't miss the look Pansy shot Draco behind her back, but she didn't know what to make of it, so she did as her friend suggested and bent her attention to the upcoming ordeal.

They'd all been officially informed of the nature of the third task three days before. Rigel wasn't sure what advantage Riddle thought an extra week and a half to prepare was supposed to have bought her, but she suspected he merely wanted her to feel beholden to him. That was his game, after all. Make people trust him by bestowing small favors on them, then take advantage of the impulse toward reciprocity. Rigel refused to be fooled. She also refused to feel guilty about any supposed advantage his words tried to bestow on her.

Draco was muttering last-minute strategy in her ear, and she humored him by listening, but she knew general strategy would be secondary to direct observation. The first match she would be going in blind, but every subsequent match she would have some notion of her opponent's style, simply by watching the others fight.

She left Draco and Pansy at the stairs to the stands and made her way to the center of the pitch alone. A large, perfectly circular platform had been raised there, not as high as the obstacle course had been, but elevated enough to give a better view to the spectators above them. The other champions waited in a loose circle in the shadow of the stage, and when Rigel joined them, Crouch cleared his throat.

"Now that we are all present, the task will proceed as follows: Granger and Sousa will duel first, followed by Krum and Zahi, Delacour and Antiope, and finally Shang and Black." Crouch raised his voice to cut across the murmurs. "Owens, being in the lead currently, will get a by the first round. The tournament is elimination style until the final round, so second round matches will be directly determined by the results of round one."

Bagman cut in with a broad smile. "That is to say, the winner of the first match will face the winner of the second match, and so on. Someone else will get a by in the second round, of course, but that will be determined at random."

Sure it would, Rigel thought cynically. She didn't miss the fact that both muggleborns who hadn't been given a by in the first round were on the same side of the bracket. At best, it meant only one of them would make it to the final round.

Hermione's face was set with determination, but Rigel wondered how much time the girl had really been devoting to preparing for the tournament on top of her investigation into the Fade. She couldn't fault the girl's priorities, but she worried for her safety. The Triwizard Tournament was, she thought, not a place for good people.

Hermione and Matheus climbed the steps up to the platform as the crowd began to thunderously communicate its approval. Crouch and Bagman directed the rest of them toward the edge of the pitch, where a staircase led them to their own private box from which they could view the duels.

After just a few short minutes, Bagman's amplified voice counted down the moments to the beginning of the duel. Hermione's stance was almost textbook, but she leaned slightly away from her opponent rather than toward him. Lack of aggression, Rigel thought. While initiative wasn't everything in a duel, it was harder to control the pace when you began on the defensive.

"—TWO, ONE, BEGIN!"

Hermione had a shield up before the echo of Bagman's voice had faded from the stadium, but Matheus merely stared at her, not moving, from across the ring. He spun his wand in idly, and faint laughter came down from the stands. The AIM girl scowled, clearly torn between keeping her shield up just in case and dropping it so that the magic didn't drain her unnecessarily. It was smart of Matheus to use her indecision against her. As long as she kept the shield up, she'd wear away at her own endurance.

Finally, with an impatient flick, Hermione dropped the shield and sent a wordless disarming spell at Matheus. The Brazilian boy was all the way on the other side of the ring, and had plenty of time to dodge the spell. She sent another, then two more in quick succession, but Matheus side-stepped them all without bothering to shield.

"Get closer," Rigel muttered. Hermione was only going to wear herself out at that distance.

The girl seemed to realize Matheus could dodge faster than she could cast, for she broke off the point-spell offense and instead lifted her hands into the air dramatically. A dozen small boulders materialized in the space above her head, and a sharp jap with her wand sent them hailing down toward Matheus. The spectators cheered at seeing such an advanced conjuration, and Rigel clapped along with them. It was smart; using an attack that covered such a wide area precluded physical avoidance.

The dark-haired boy finally lifted his wand and it bobbed in the air like a conductor's baton for a moment before a shimmering barrier of a type Rigel had never seen before appeared between him and the falling rocks. It didn't shield him so much as it spun the incoming projectiles off course and deflected them away. It was as though he'd created a localized twister out of the air before him.

A few of the rocks shot sideways and came to rest at the edge of the wards surrounding the stage. The rest fell somewhere between the two duelists. Hermione set about transfiguring the rock closest to her, and Rigel's eyebrows rose. To transfigure something you'd already conjured was a very advanced application of magic. A cloud of smoke momentarily obscured the girl, and when it cleared, they could see the rock had burst into a dozen shards. Hermione banished them with an audible cry. They rocketed toward Matheus, and for a moment it seemed the fast-moving pieces would cut through the wind barrier. At the last moment, they were turned aside.

Hermione stood at the ready position, but didn't cast another spell. A moment later, Matheus flinched violently and his barrier dissolved as he ducked his head and waved his arms wildly against something Rigel couldn't see. Hermione had a spell off the moment the boy dropped his barrier in distraction, and abruptly, it was over. Matheus caught the disarming spell in the back and crumpled.

"I'M NOT SURE WHAT WE JUST SAW, BUT HERMIONE GRANGER HAS WON THE FIRST DUEL!"

The stadium erupted, and Rigel breathed a sigh of relief that Hermione had made it through the first round unscathed.

"What waz zat?" Fleur demanded, glaring down at the pitch as though the duel had personally offended her. "I could not zee what happened."

Tahiil laughed. "It was clever! Did you see the smoke when Hermione transfigured that rock? It was a screen. I felt two spells, not one. The invisible thing that attacked Matheus must have come from that moment."

"She surprised him ven he let his guard down," Krum said. There was a pleased note in his voice.

Antiope scoffed. "It was still a boring duel. I hope you two provide us some more entertainment," she added, giving Krum and Tahiil a mocking look.

Tahiil was utterly unfazed. "We will certainly do our best, Antiope. Will you cheer for me?"

The redhead sneered at him. "Not a chance. I want to face Krum in the finals."

Fleur tossed her hair with a huff. "Getting ahead of yourzelf, are you not?"

Antiope's only response was a confident smirk. "This task was made for me. You're all using just your wands, but I petitioned the judges to be allowed use of my sword." Several of the others protested, but Antiope only laughed. "It's only right that I be able to show my skills to their best advantage. If any of you had trained with a weapon, you could have used it just the same."

"Freedueling iz dizgraceful," Fleur said. The fierce disgust in her voice didn't wholly disguise the trepidation in her eyes, though.

"It is the noblest of all arts," Antiope spat. "Only countries who have forgotten how to do it think it's beneath them. Luckily, this is an international tournament, so your close-minded rules don't apply. I'll prove to everyone watching today that steel is vital to true combat."

The appearance of Hermione at the top of the stairs forestalled the argument. Rigel went over to congratulate her, with Krum right on her heels. Hermione gave them a weak smile. "It wasn't great," she murmured. "I didn't realize what it would be like, dueling for real."

"You ver vonderful," Krum rumbled. "Very advanced magic."

"Matheus wasn't even trying," Hemione said with a sigh. "Thanks, though. Good luck in your match, Victor."

He took her hand and kissed it despite the sweat and dirt. "If you are vatching, I vill vin."

The frustration melted from the girl's face and she nodded. "I'll cheer you on."

Krum and Tahiil left the box, and Hermione's face hardened again. "Be honest, Rigel. How did I do?"

"You were a little timid," Rigel said kindly. "You hung back on your side of the ring without moving closer. If you'd been casting from halfway across, for instance, he wouldn't have had time to dodge your spells." Hermione winced, but nodded. Rigel went on. "Your quick-thinking was impressive, though. That sort of creativity can't be taught. I'm sure the judges were impressed with your conjuring and transfiguration. Can I ask what spell you got Matheus with in the end?"

"Avis," she said, smiling sheepishly. "I just conjured them invisibly and sent them around the barrier to dive at him from behind."

"Brilliant," Rigel said, smiling back. "Not many people can alter a spell before casting it. Harry would be so impressed."

Hermione flushed. "I'll wait to feel pleased with myself until we see how the next round goes."

"Just don't be afraid to move around, really use the whole platform," Rigel said. "The barriers won't let you fall off the edge."

Hermione nodded. "The next duel is starting," she said, and they both moved to the edge of the box with the other champions to watch.

Tahiil still had his irrepressible smile on his face, while Krum, whose dueling stance was slightly lower than Rigel would have expected for a boy with his height, was the picture of solemn concentration. At Bagman's word, the two boys sprang into action. Krum darted forward, aiming two spells in swift succession to either side of Tahiil. Trying to pin him in place, Rigel guessed. Tahiil batted at the air with one of his hands, however, and the spell that would have impacted to his left met an invisible force and reflected. As Tahiil moved left, Krum was forced to roll under his own spell. By the time he stood, Tahiil was behind him.

Krum cast a shield at his back without looking, and as Tahiil's first spell fizzled harmlessly against it he spun, catching the dark-skinned boy with a Flipendo that hurled Tahiil into the air and deposited him clear across the stage.

Tahiil held up a hand toward his opponent as he climbed slowly to his feet, and every spell Krum shot at him rebounded from the invisible defense. With his free hand, Tahiil began casting. It was eerie to watch spells appear from the end of a person's fingertips, Rigel noted. Stranger still to watch the boy cast wandlessly over and over again, a feat that would exhaust most wand users she knew before long. Tahiil was still smiling, though his eyes held a wary respect for Krum that had been absent before.

Krum grew tired of avoiding both his own spells and Tahiil's. The broad-shouldered Bulgarian stopped casting point spells and instead aimed his wand at the stage. A torrent of water burst from his wand like a flood, catching Tahiil up to the knees and forcing him to stop casting and brace against the hard current to avoid being swept off his feet. Krum was all the time chanting something, and beginning from his side of the platform the water, trapped by the wards at the edge of the stage, began to freeze.

Tahiil clambered onto one of Hermione's boulders to keep from getting stuck in the ice. By the time he'd reached the higher ground, Krum had conjured skates on the bottom of his boots and was gliding across the arena as though he'd been born doing it. He closed the distance between them in moments, and none of Tahiil's spells could hit him and he pivoted and slid back and forth on the frozen platform.

"He changed the terrain to suit him," Hermione said wonderingly.

Rigel agreed. "He's too fast on those skates for Tahiil to hit him now."

The Somali boy seemed to have realized the same thing. He lowered his hands, seemed to shudder violently for an instant, and then he was folding in on himself, transforming, Rigel realized. Her mouth fell open without her consent as Tahiil, now a spotted hyena, leapt from the rock and knocked Krum from his feet. The crowd went mad, shock and awe giving way to wild excitement as it became clear just what Tahiil was truly capable of.

Both boy and hyena rolled across the ice, and the hyena was the first to rise. The animagus gave a "woo-op" call and used its clawed feet to restlessly pace the ice until Krum, one hand gingerly poking the back of his skull, regained his feet. Krum eyed the animal warily, slowly circling on his skates. He cast a stunner at the hyena, but the large canine nimbly avoided it, something like a laugh escaping the powerful jaws.

Tahiil made a small bound toward Krum, then away again, feinting left, then right as Krum tried to decide which way to go. More laughing followed, and Rigel could see Krum's frustration even from her vantage point. The Bulgarian's wand flurried into motion and a thick net sprung out toward the animagus. Tahiil came back on his hind legs and batted it out of the air, coming down on top of the net and using the extra purchase on the ice to leap forward. Krum conjured a physical shield, but the force of the hyena's weight bore him backwards onto the ice anyway. As his head hit the ice a second time, the shield failed and Tahiil's jaw clamped around Krum's wand arm. He twitched his head the barest amount, and Krum's wand fell from limp fingers, spinning across the ice.

Rigel thought Krum would surrender. Tahiil must have expected it, too, as the animagus released Krum's arm and "woo-op"-ed loudly into the sky. As the hyena's head came back down, Krum punched him in the snout. A sickening yelp rang out and Tahiil scrambled back, but Krum found the strength to follow him. The Bulgarian tackled the hyena, wrapped thick arms around Tahiil's neck, and summoned his wand. When the tip of his wand pressed into the animagus' fur, Tahiil froze, then slowly shifted back to human form.

Krum didn't let up. He gripped Tahiil by the jaw and exposed his throat for all to see the wand-point digging into the vulnerable skin there. Stunned applause filled the pitch as Bagman said, "THERE YOU HAVE IT! VICTOR KRUM CLAIMS THE SECOND MATCH!"

The boys separated at once, Krum going so far as to help Tahiil to his feet on the slippery ice. Impossibly, the slighter boy still had a grin on his face. Healers took charge of both of them as they left the wards, and a small break was called as tournament organizers were sent to clean up the stage for the next match.

Rigel exchanged a look with Hermione. "Krum did well," she said.

"He never gave up," Hermione agreed, respect in her eyes. "Tahiil, though…do you think he went easy on Victor?"

Rigel's eyebrows rose. "He used his animagus form. I don't think he was holding back."

Hermione seemed unconvinced. "I read somewhere that hyenas have stronger jaws than a bear. If Tahiil wanted to, he could have ripped Victor's arm clean off."

"He wouldn't do that, though," Rigel said reassuringly. "These are exhibition matches, Hermione, not fights to the death. No one should be aiming to maim or kill. Tahiil did his best within reasonable limits. That's all any of us should do."

She didn't know if she was trying to convince Hermione or herself of that.

By the time the third match was ready to start, Krum had been released from the healers' care and rejoined them in the champions' box. Hermione congratulated him for his win, but Krum did not seem wholly satisfied with it. "I am not sure he vanted to vin," the older boy muttered when pressed.

Rigel couldn't speak to Tahiil's motivations, but she didn't think lack of heart would be an issue in the next match. Fleur and Antiope stared each other down like mortal enemies, for all that they'd only known one another a couple of months. Antiope did indeed have her sword, an impressively sturdy weapon that she hefted one-handed in her left hand, her wand clutched tightly in her right. Fleur appeared undaunted, though Rigel suspected that was mostly out of pride. The girl's distain for weaponed combat indicated she had no familiarity with it, and Rigel knew from personal experience what a jarring difference it could make in a duel.

"Who do you think will win?" Hermione asked from beside her.

Rigel felt bad saying it, but there was no point in dishonesty. "Antiope. If she's half as good with that sword as she thinks she is, it'll mess up everything Fleur's been trained to."

"Why is freedueling banned in Britain, anyway?" Hermione asked curiously. She lowered her voice and added, "I've heard Healer Hurst mention it once or twice—a lot of the injuries we see at the clinic are from such illicit duels."

Rigel nodded. "Part of it is because it causes so many injures. The added element of complexity that comes when you introduce weapons, potions, and other forms of magic into a duel can exponentially increase the probability of lethal harm, even when both participants know what they're doing."

"And the other part?" Hermione asked shrewdly.

"Old fashioned prejudice," Rigel said with a faint smile. "Wizards like to think they're too good to use anything 'muggle' in their traditions. Relying on something other than one's own magic is, for some, the sign of a weak wizard. Magic is Might, and all that."

Hermione groaned. "That phrase alone makes me want to take up a sword myself."

"Maybe Antiope will teach you," Rigel said with amusement.

"Maybe I'll get the king to teach me," Hermione said, laughing quietly.

Rigel froze, then immediately tried to disguise her alarm with a casual tone. "King?"

Hermione shot her a guilty glance. "Never mind. I think…maybe it's something I'm not supposed to mention." She sighed. "I don't understand everything about the lower alleys yet."

"Have you asked Harry?" she asked.

Whatever Hermione might have said, it was lost in the roar of the stands as the third match began.

Antiope charged. Fleur began casting, probably as fast as she could, but Antiope darted around every spell without ceasing her relentless advance. The fact that she wasn't blocking the spells outright with her sword made Rigel think it probably wasn't imbued with the same ability to absorb magic that Goldflame's had been. By the time Fleur realized Antiope wasn't going to be stopped, the redhead was upon her. She slashed viciously through the air and the beautiful blonde girl barely managed to leap out of the way in time.

Fleur retreated, shielding against the next several attacks as she steadily backed her way to one end of the platform. With a scowl of frustration, Fleur conjured a thick, earthen wall between her and her opponent. Antiope made to go around it, but Fleur cast a Bombarda at her own transfiguration and it exploded outward, burying Antiope in dirt.

As the redhead struggled out of the debris, Fleur took the time to conjure a shield of pure magic and affix it to her left arm. By the time Antiope had regained her feet, Fleur was ready. She met Antiope's next strike with her shield, but Rigel could see the way the impact reverberated through the part-Veela's slim frame. Antiope rained blows down on the girl again and again, and Rigel had to wonder if the freckled warrior was just toying with the Frenchwoman. Antiope hadn't cast a single spell yet, using only her sword to batter at Fleur's defenses over and over. She certainly was out to prove something.

The physical blows visibly tired Fleur, who had taken to hiding behind the shield as often as she attempted to cast. Antiope had uncanny reflexes, and a way of sliding out of the way of spells even when they were fired almost point-blank. The Beauxbatons champion couldn't get space to breathe, let along come up with a viable strategy in the face of Antiope's relentless pursuit.

Really, it wasn't too surprising when Antiope gripped her sword in both hands and finally brought it down with enough force to break through the conjured shield and bite into Fleur's biceps. The silvery-blonde girl fell to her knees, cradling her bleeding arm, and Antiope moved her sword to the place above Fleur's heart. The French girl glared up at Antiope from her defeated position, but Antiope merely shook her head, waiting until Bagman had officially declared her the victor before lowering her weapon.

"She didn't cast a single spell," Hermione said, clearly marveled.

"Her style gave her an overwhelming advantage against a dueler like Fleur," Rigel said ruefully.

"It seems as though her advantage would be the same against any of us." Hermione appeared troubled. "I hope I don't face her in the second round."

Rigel hummed, but didn't say anything. She sort of hoped Hermione didn't face her, too, but she didn't want to undermine the girl's confidence. She glanced across the box at Feiyan, who gave her a small smile.

"Now is our turn," the Asian girl said. She was dressed warmly, in a long tunic and thick leggings, and her long, black hair had been pulled back from her face in a bun.

Rigel nodded. "Shall we?" She followed the slightly shorter girl down the spiral stairs and onto the grassy pitch. The stage loomed large and intimidating ahead of them, but Rigel felt more anticipation than fear as she climbed the stairs to the top. Dark forests and obstacle courses were not really her forte. This, though? The look of determination in her opponent's eyes, the feel of her wand gripped securely in her fist, the sturdy, even platform beneath her feet—this she knew.

Feiyan's stance was wide, almost dramatically so. Rigel favored a loser, partial-crouch that kept her centered without sacrificing maneuverability. When Bagman called for them to start, it was a long moment before either girl actually moved. Rigel darted right, and watched as Feiyan matched her with sweeping footwork that explained her wide stance. A tripping jinx bloomed effortlessly from her wand and she carefully watched as Feiyan turned around it. There was something lovely about the economy of movement the dark-haired girl displayed, as though she were merely following a pattern long committed to memory.

Rigel wanted to know what that pattern was. She teased Feiyan's defenses, casting first to the girl's left, then to her right, then high and low, sizing up the nature of her response to each spell. Most of the time, Feiyan opted to dance around it rather than block it. Rigel moved closer, her spells coming faster, and Feiyan's footwork sped up in response. The girl was well-trained.

When Feiyan's first spell came, it was not one Rigel had ever heard before. A cloud formed between them and ice particles that had seemingly condensed within it shot out at Rigel. She summoned magic to heat the air around her, and when the attack finally reached her it was but the sting of fast raindrops. She sent an Incarcerous toward Feiyan, but the girl turned away from the spell even as she cast another, unrecognizable spell toward Rigel's feet.

The solid platform beneath her turned to mud, and Rigel promptly sank three inches. She conjured a Fortis shield to protect her as she pulled her boots free with a squelch and froze the mud directly below her feet with a spell from her free hand. Feiyan shot several fireballs her direction, but the Fortis repelled them easily. When Rigel dropped the shield to prepare her next spell, the Chinese girl turned to the air once more, calling up a torrent of rain over Rigel's head with a swirl of her wand. Rigel's clothes were instantly soaked through, and she realized the other girl was playing the long game. In the frigid December temperature, the rain clung to Rigel's bones and forced her to consciously ignore the impulse to shiver and slow. The rain also made the mud on her half of the platform much more slippery.

The rain didn't stop her from sending two Relashios in quick succession, however. Feiyan's footwork saved her from both spells, but Rigel had the time she needed to leap over the remaining mud and shorten the distance between them. She pressed forward with spell after spell, forcing Feiyan onto the defensive while she closed the gap. When she was close enough to see the consternation in Feiyan's eyes, Rigel tried a trip jinx again. The other girl did stumble, but not before hissing, "Feng!" at her with a sharp jab of her wand. A gust of wind lifted Rigel off her feet and knocked the breath from her lungs as it deposited her back the short distance she'd just gained.

So 'Feng' means Ventus, she noted sourly as she rolled with the fall through the waiting mud and came up on the defensive. Feiyan had already cast her next attack—fire again, this time a litany of small, burning hail that forced Rigel to call up another shield. With her free hand, Rigel reached beneath her to etch a basic state-change rune into the muck. The water evaporated from it instantly, leaving a layer of dry dirt behind instead.

Rigel gripped a handful of the dirt and, when the fireballs had stopped, dropped her shield. She flung the dust into the air, banishing it in a rocketing cloud toward Feiyan with careful control. It caught her in the face, and the girl spluttered and coughed, eventually choking out the wind spell again to disperse it. By the time the cloud was gone, Rigel was halfway across the platform again, an Impedimenta on the tip of her wand.

Feiyan swirled around the spell with one of her curious, sweeping half-turns, and Rigel heard her say, "Feng!"

She was ready this time. Rigel flung a Ventus with as much force as she could muster in the space of a second. It met Feiyan's wind spell head on and overpowered it, knocking the pale girl off her feet with an audible "Oooff." Feiyan was so close to the edge of the platform, Rigel's spell slammed her into the wards and she slumped to the floor with a groan.

Rigel summoned the girl's wand, and found herself almost disappointed with how quickly the match had gone. Then she shook her head at her own foolishness. She should be grateful to not have tired herself out in the first match. Cheers rained down on her from the stands, and Rigel summoned a smile as she helped Feiyan to her feet and handed her back the wand she'd taken.

"You all right?" she asked.

Feiyan nodded, shooting Rigel a rueful look. "I am well. Only shamed."

"It was a good match," Rigel said.

The girl shook her head, but did not seem overly disappointed. "After task number two, there was small chance I advance. Now, at least, I can go home."

Rigel made a noncommittal noise and they exited the platform as Bagman announced a short break while the second-round matches were decided. She was shivering with the drenching she'd had, but otherwise uninjured, so the healers let her go back up to the champions' box after a very thorough drying spell, a heated blanket wrapped around her shoulders.

"ROUND TWO WILL BEGIN WITH OWENS VERSUS GRANGER!" Bagman informed them all. "BLACK AND ANTIOPE WILL DUEL SECOND, AND KRUM RECEIVES A BY!"

Rigel wondered whether that decision was based on Krum having incurred the most severe injuries during the first round. She supposed it wouldn't be the worst way to decide, though it didn't escape her that the muggleborn candidates were exclusively matched against one another.

Hermione seemed, if anything, more nervous in the face of her second match than she had been before the first. Rigel thought the girl hadn't known quite what to expect the first time. She wished the AIM girl luck, but Hermione only grimaced at her before descending the stairs once more.

It was clear from the start that Owens had a great deal of training. The American boy took the initiative at once, with a handful of not-particularly-dangerous spells that nevertheless came one after the other fast enough to keep Hermione on the defensive. The girl was being herded slowly toward the end of the platform, and Rigel doubted she even realized how many steps back she'd taken until her back came up against the wards.

Hermione took a Tarantallegra without shielding in favor of getting time to cast a spell of her own. The ground beneath Owens' feet heaved, throwing the boy off his feet. Hermione cast a quick Finite on her jerking legs and dove around the boy's next spell, which boiled through the air where she'd just been. When Owens regained his feet, Hermione had switched their places and clearly hoped to box him against the wards instead. Owens blocked each one of her spells with split-second shields that he called up and released in the space between instants.

Rigel had never seen someone shield so fast before. The flickering technique probably saved him a lot of magic in the long run, she thought, but it had to take exemplary concentration and reflexes to get the shield up just in time to meet each of the spells Hermione hurled at him. Certainly, the strategy was having an impact on the girl's morale. Rigel hoped she found a way around Owens' defenses before frustration drove her to something desperate.

Finally, Hermione cast a spell that Owens couldn't shield against: conjuration, again, this time two small dogs that raced toward her opponent with lolling tongues. They closed on Owens from two different directions, but the boy swept his wand out with a vicious slash and something like a slicing charm swept out around him in a horizontal arc. It cut right through the conjured animals, severing their bloodless heads, and Hermione froze in momentary shock before stumbling backwards to avoid the tail end of the cutting spell as it dissipated.

Owens didn't give her a chance to regain her equilibrium. He began to cast again, almost lazily at first, and then faster and faster, battering Hermione's shield such that she couldn't risk dropping it to retaliate. His spells were not so innocuous any longer; Reductos and Bombardas replaced jinxes meant to slow or impede. Hermione lost ground, and, eventually, her shield slipped.

She jumped backwards as it failed, but couldn't escape the full range of a Confringo that exploded at her feet. Hermione was propelled across the platform, and the limp way she rolled to a stop told Rigel the girl was no longer in full control of her faculties. There was a sickening silence as Owens walked closer to where Hermione lay, gasping weakly. The girl attempted to raise her wand, but it shook in her fingers. The American boy paused, and Rigel thought he would disarm her.

He didn't. The spell that came out of his wand was Flipendo, and it impacted Hermione's chest point-blank with a sickening crunch. Rigel let out an involuntary sound as Hermione's body was flung backwards so hard she hit the wards with a second crunch and crumpled unmoving to the stone stage. The stadium erupted at the sudden violence, and Bagman hastily declared, "THE MATCH IS OVER! OWENS ADVANCES!"

Owens left the platform without looking back. Healers descended on Hermione's supine form, and Rigel waited in the grip of fear for her to move. Please, Merlin, let her move. A hand on Rigel's shoulder jerked her back from where she'd leaned dangerously over the railing and she inhaled sharply.

It was Krum's hand. She didn't know when he'd been released from the medical tent, but when she glanced back, she saw that his face expressed exactly the murderous anger Rigel felt flailing helplessly inside her. Muted clapping drew her eyes back to the stage, where Hermione was sitting up. A healer held a wand to her chest, and the girl was visibly struggling to breathe, but she was alive. Rigel slowly unclenched her hands from their death-grip on wood between her and the pitch, and by the time Jacob Owens had climbed the stairs to the champion's box, Rigel was pretty sure she didn't want to maim him. Much.

She wasn't above giving him her best glare as he casually said, "It's your turn next, isn't it?"

Rigel tucked the anger away, knowing it would not help her in the fight against Antiope. There was no smothering it entirely, however, and it simmered in the back of her mind, ready in case she needed it later.

She felt almost naked stepping up to the platform without a knife in her left hand. Antiope's sword was, if possible, even more intimidating when the redhead brandished it toward her across the stage. Rigel took a moment before Bagman began his countdown to tighten the long gauntlet on her left hand, grateful that the top plate extended nearly halfway up her forearm. There was no doubt this match would test its workmanship even further than her encounter with the werewolf had.

"—ONE! BEGIN!"

Antiope sprinted straight at her. Rigel had been charged by bigger people than her before, and stood her ground. Having seen the redhead dance nimbly around Fleur's spells, Rigel went for a broader approach. She conjured a net of fine steel links and banished at Antiope in the next breath. The girl sliced through it without stopping, proving beyond a doubt just how wickedly sharp that sword was. Rigel realized with sudden surprise that the girl had checked her strength when she struck Fleur. Otherwise, the sword would have bitten clean through her chest.

When Antiope was almost on top of her, Rigel called up a swirling cloud of black smoke. Snape had taught her the spell, and the only downside was that without her enchanted glasses, Rigel couldn't see through it either. It did stop her opponent's charge, as even Antiope was not reckless enough to run where she couldn't see. As Rigel was about to take the opportunity to put space between them again, a spell she recognized boiled at her through the black cloud. She ducked beneath it and dove forward to escape the resultant explosion. Her roll took her through the opaque cloud and into Antiope's booted feet. The girl gave a grunt of surprise and swung at Rigel in wild reflex, but she was ready with a shield that flung the girl back, sword and all, as it bloomed from her wand right into Antiope's personal space.

Rigel released the shield before it had even fully formed, choosing to press her advantage as Antiope quick-stepped backwards to regain her balance. She cast three stunners with barely a pause, aiming each one in a slightly different place so that the girl could not avoid all three with one move. Antiope's footwork could have made even Draco blush with envy, though, as she lunged and twisted around the oncoming spells. Her last spell went over Antiope's head as the stocky girl ducked under it and swung her sword up to try and get under Rigel's guard.

Rather than shield again, Rigel slammed her left hand down and to the side, meeting the blade with her gauntlet and redirecting Antiope's sword with sheer force. It was more surprise than anything that let her succeed, she thought, as Antiope's sword bounced off and away. Rigel didn't waste the second of shock that widened her opponent's eyes. She shot a stunner point-blank at the girl's chest and watched, unwillingly impressed, as Antiope's reflexes took over and the girl fell backwards in a truly beautiful backbend. The girl's left foot came up with a sweep as she did, and Rigel jumped back a step to avoid a boot to the face.

Rigel could do little more than gape as Antiope reversed her momentum on her right foot alone, her left leg arching forward to force her upright again before joining its pair on the ground in what was, she realized with a disbelieving smile, a perfect dueling stance.

"Incredible," Rigel breathed.

"Shut up." Antiope cast a Bombarda and Rigel called up a reflecting shield to send it straight back at her. The girl stepped back and to the side to let it sail over her shoulder and impact with a boom against the wards some twenty feet behind her.

There was a brief pause as both girls stared one another down. Rigel wasn't sure what tactic to use with someone as skilled as Antiope. There would be no getting around her footwork, and she seemed to seamlessly transition between sword and wand when necessary. Rigel would have to surprise her, she thought.

Antiope was clearly resizing Rigel as well. The girl brought her hands together and gripped her sword between both of them, her wand trapped parallel to the sword's hilt beneath her right palm. With a battle cry, the girl charged again, her chin-length hair flying wildly behind her. If Rigel thought Antiope wouldn't be able to cast with her wand pinned to the sword pommel, she was mistaken. Before she could consider how to defend against the sword, a stunning spell came jetting toward her along the trajectory of its point.

Rigel hastily got a shield up to intercept the spell. It held easily, but a moment later the sword came whooshing down. Rigel braced herself against the reverberations of such a strong blow impacting the Fortis, but Antiope's sword barely slowed when it touched the edge of the shimmering shield. Rigel yelped and twisted to the side with enough desperate force to strain several abdominal muscles simultaneously. The sword missed her neck, though, continuing down with enough force to clang against the stone floor as Rigel dragged herself sideways.

She sprinted away from the girl and her shield-eating sword, her heart thumping in her chest at the inexplicably close call. What in Merlin's name had happened? Rigel had seen Fleur's shield hold up against Antiope's sword several times. For that matter, Rigel's own shield had deflected Antiope's sword just minutes earlier. What had changed?

Rigel eyed the redhead across the healthy distance she'd put between them, and her gaze was drawn to the two-handed grip Antiope had on her sword. That's it, she thought. She'd switched to a two-handed grip when she broke through Fleur's shield, too. Something about it gave her sword that extra ability. Rigel had never heard of anything that could just slice through protective magic like that, but then, she was well aware that the world was full of more things than she'd personally catalogued in her short life.

Armed with renewed caution, Rigel cast several Impedimentas in quick succession, hoping that if she could slow the girl down, even for a short period of time, she might gain the upper-hand. Antiope ducked and dipped around each of them without trying. Perfect footwork, she reminded herself. Ranged attacks gave her too much time to dodge, and close-in combat gave her the advantage. Really, Rigel thought, this task had been made for a witch like Antiope.

Well, Rigel was not afraid of close-dueling either. She cast a few moderate dueling spells, but ultimately allowed Antiope to eliminate the space between them. She met the girl's next strike with the back of her gauntlet, using her right hand to brace her left and her slight height advantage to bear down on the girl until she disengaged. Antiope audibly growled as she came back for a second strike, this time toward Rigel's right side. She spun into the attack, dropping her wand from her right hand to her left and using the momentum from her pivot to counter the force of the redhead's blow, this time with her right gauntlet. She was casting a disarming charm with her left hand before Antiope's sword had even finished connecting, forcing the girl to let go of the pommel with her wand hand in order to simultaneously attack and shield.

As soon as Antiope switched to a one-handed grip on the sword, Rigel summoned her own shield and slammed it against Antiope's with as much force as she could summon. The redhead, not anticipating the physical assault, cried out as her unanchored shield was slapped backwards into her face. The unmistakable crunch of a broken nose made Rigel wince, but Antiope's sword descended like an avenging angel, precluding any true remorse.

Rigel spun away from the weapon and took a couple quick steps back to catch her breath. Antiope had blood dripping down her chin, but one wouldn't know it from the utterly focused look in her eyes. She spat a glob of red spit onto the platform, and Rigel couldn't help but think that no one should be so careless with their own blood.

Antiope advanced with a vengeance, resuming her two-handed grip and casting with a speed that Rigel spent every ounce of focus keeping up with. Eventually, the girl was close enough to begin slashing at Rigel again, and without the option of a shield, Rigel met every blow with one or both of her gauntlets. Her arms began to shake with the sheer amount of force raining down on them, but she was maneuvering Antiope around the platform all the while. Finally, Rigel reached the position she needed; she flung a Ventus so powerful she could perceive the net change in her core, and it flung Antiope back and down, pressing her into the ground until it dissipated.

With her opponent temporarily occupied, Rigel dropped into a crouch and dragged her fingers through the congealing wad of red spit that Antiope had abandoned. As she drew an abbreviated rune with the fresh blood on her fingers, she said, "Rigescunt indutae."

Antiope, who had scarcely regained her feet, literally froze. The blood in her veins seized just long enough for Rigel to lunge forward, wrap her gauntleted hand around the sword, and wrest the blade from Antiope's fingers. The effect of the single-rune magic only lasted a brief moment, not nearly long enough to do the girl any real harm, but it was long enough for Rigel to drop the sword to the ground and cast a sticking charm with a truly vindictive sense of satisfaction.

The first thing Antiope did was try to wandlessly summon the sword. It remained fixed to the stone, and the redhead girl shouted her fury to the sky. She charged, but Rigel thought the girl looked a lot less frightening with only a wand to brandish before her.

Antiope's entire style depended on her weapon. Without it, her defense had glaring holes, and Rigel took advantage of each and every one. She kept the duel close, so that Antiope had neither time nor space to dodge. Antiope tried several debilitating spells, but without the sword to swing in their wake, Rigel was free to shield or dodge as she preferred; the redhead was good, but Rigel was faster. She whipped spell after spell into Antiope's defense, and after the sixth over-powered stunner, Antiope's magic faltered. Rigel saw the shield flicker, and when it failed, she had an Incarcerous waiting. Antiope fell, bound and shortly thereafter disarmed, to the stone.

Rigel stared at her opponent's wand, resting innocently in the palm on her free hand, and it took her a moment to realize it was over. Then she realized no one was cheering.

"WELL THERE YOU HAVE IT." Even Bagman seemed vaguely stunned. "BLACK ADVANCES TO THE FINAL ROUND!"

The applause started slowly, and faded quickly. Rigel was amazed that she still had it in her to care, but something about the lackluster response to her victory set off warning bells in her brain. As the adrenaline receded and full reason returned, Rigel wondered belatedly if blood magic hadn't been the best way to endear the public to her cause.

It's not as though it was a blood curse or anything permanent, she reasoned. The rune was one she'd found in Dumbledore's book, Arrays for the Harried, and she didn't believe the Headmaster would give her anything dangerous.

She released Antiope and returned her wand, all the while trying not to quail under the fiery fury in the shorter redhead's glare. "What kind of dirty trick was that, Black?"

Rigel did not pretend to misunderstand her. "I drew a rune in your blood," she said, indicating the smudge on the platform that remained. "It wasn't shed willingly, but that doesn't mean it holds no power."

Antiope scowled and pointed her wand at the smudge. "Scourgify." Her expression was still furious, but there was a grudging understanding in her eyes, too, when she looked back at Rigel. "They don't teach us runes at Chalcioecus. Aside from the trick, you fought well. This wasn't your first time facing a weaponed duelist."

Rigel smiled, but didn't respond to the implied question. The two of them made their way toward the stairs, but Bagman's voice forestalled their descent.

"THE THREE REMAINING CHAMPIONS WILL EACH DUEL ONE ANOTHER FOR THE FINAL ROUND. THE MATCHES WILL BE: BLACK AND KRUM, KRUM AND OWENS, THEN OWENS AND BLACK." Rigel suppressed a groan as she realized she'd be dueling again immediately. Antiope gave her a smirk as she continued down the stairs. "THE HIGHEST SCORE WILL BE GIVEN TO EITHER THE COMPETITOR WHO WINS BOTH HIS MATCHES OR THE ONE THE JUDGES DEEM TO HAVE FOUGHT MOST IMPRESSIVELY OVERALL."

It didn't escape Rigel's notice that she was the only champion who would have to duel four times instead of three. Why couldn't they give her a by this round and let her duel the winner between Krum and Owens? Riddle really was a sadist, she decided as she turned around and moved back to the center of one side of the platform. She tightened the laces on her boots, gave her muscles a quick stretch, and waited for Krum to take the stage as well.

Krum regarded her warily as he took up a ready stance on the opposite side of the stage. Rigel dipped into a slight crouch and bent her mind to the upcoming duel. She'd seen from his match with Tahiil that Krum was a careful, strategic duelist. He was also well-rested from his break, while her muscles ached from the battering of Antiope's sword. If she wanted a shot at outlasting him, Rigel would have to keep him at a distance and wear him down with magic.

Grimly, she brandished her wand and waited for Bagman to count them in.

Three. Two. One.

-0

[TrTrTr]

-0

The scene playing out on the platform below could not have gone better if he'd choreographed it himself. He supposed, in a way, he had, but Rigel Black had once again surpassed his every expectation. The boy was a diamond under pressure; each match he performed better, even as his competitors grew wan and worn.

Originally, he'd not expected the Slytherin to actually win the third task. The boy need only advance to the final round, and his existing point lead would ensure that he was crowned the pureblood champion. The two girls he was matched against should not have posed a major challenge—at least, not if the judges had followed his advice against allowing Antiope a weapon. The promise of a more exciting spectacle had been too tempting for the Department of Magical Games and Sports to ignore, however, and he was forced to grit his teeth as Black dueled an opponent he was in no way qualified to face.

Again, however, the boy had surprised him. Rather than fumble before the added challenge, as Delacour had, Rigel became more efficient. More creative. Pain seemed not to slow him and nothing—neither the cheers nor jeers of the crowd above him—could break his concentration. Few wizards had any real experience with dueling these days, much less the skill to handle both wand and weapon simultaneously. It was why he'd expected the boy to leap at the chance for real training in the art. When Rigel rejected his offer in amused pride, he'd thought him wholly foolish.

Now, he wasn't so sure. The boy looked utterly at his leisure, neither overly tense nor particularly nervous as he led the Durmstrang boy around the stage in a subtle dance. Krum thought he was setting the pace, carefully probing his opponent's defenses with an unpredictable combination of grey magic that mixed dangerous spells with relatively innocuous ones. It was clear to him, however, that Rigel was only obliging the pace to recover energy after his last duel. Eventually, the boy would strike back. Rigel Black was more ruthless than he admitted, whether he realized it or not.

He took a moment to observe those around him in the judge's box. Most of the occupants were utterly enthralled in the duel, impressed, as well they should be, in the level of talent the young wizards were displaying. There was one rather predictable exception. Albus Dumbledore's eyes were, as ever, leveled at Tom.

He wondered whether the old Headmaster suspected his final aim in all this. Probably he did—it mattered not. For once, Dumbledore was only tangentially related to his primary target. A dismayed gasp from Marchbanks brought his head back around sharply. Rigel had taken the edge of a slicing spell to the arm. The boy didn't slow, and Riddle's eyes narrowed thoughtfully. After several more spells were exchanged, Rigel failed to fully shield against a buffeting charm, and was knocked back several feet. Krum began to cast in earnest, no doubt sensing victory on the horizon. Rigel took several other spells in some peripheral way or another, and then Riddle realized his game. The boy never flinched or even betrayed surprise when one of Krum's spells caught him. Telling, too, was that none of the seriously damaging spells came anywhere close to him.

He's letting them hit. Lulling Krum into a false sense of security. Riddle had to smirk in heady approval. The boy was allowing Krum to come to the conclusion that he was tired, slowing down and getting sloppy. It was gloriously satisfying to watch the Durmstrang champion advance, like a particularly bold lamb to the slaughter.

His sharp peripheral vision surprised a troubled frown on Dumbledore's face. Tom slowly turned to acknowledge the ancient wizard, unable to hide his amusement at Dumbledore's distress. So he was worried for his precious student, was he? Rigel Black would not be the first soul Dumbledore failed to save, nor would he be the last.

Another sharp sound from Marchbanks, whose objectivity was but a fragile screen when it came to the young Slytherin dueling below, brought his attention back to the entertainment. Krum had attempted to press his advantage. He was nearing the center of the platform, risking the added vulnerability of the position under the assumption that Rigel was losing steam.

Rigel allowed himself to be thrown backwards and rolled, seeming to miss the next two spells almost by sheer luck alone. Krum darted forward, but by the time the fourth spell left his wand Rigel was on his feet again, sprinting toward the surprised Bulgarian boy with no sign of the fatigue he'd been feigning just moments before. Krum was thrown on the defensive as his opponent closed the gap between them, forced to hold a shield against the barrage of spells the slighter boy threw his way, scrambling backwards all the while.

Faster and faster the boy cast, continuing to advance until there was nowhere left for Krum to retreat within the wards. The stadium around them was almost silent as Rigel threw magic across the stage as if it was effortless. It seemed impossible that the young wizard could produce magic any faster, and yet, within the space of one breath to the next, he did. The entire platform was lit with the ferocity of the boy's casting, each spell taking off on wings of light before the one before it had been dispersed. He doubted any shield, no matter how expertly cast, could hold against it for long. Krum was utterly overwhelmed.

It was gratifying to see the boy perform so well, even as his talent made attempting to mentor him…inconvenient. The more Rigel Black succeeded, the harder he would be to control. And yet, his very plans depended on the boy rising higher than he ever dreamed. If only the child would not resist his destiny.

He could feel nothing but pure pleasure watching Rigel force his opponent to submit. Cunning. Patient. Ruthless. Was the boy not a perfect conduit for his knowledge and influence? Even his stubbornness would be an asset, when turned in the proper direction. As Bagman proclaimed Rigel's victory, he listened to the crowd's uneasy rumblings. As the boy lifted his head uncertainly to the sky, he saw the trepidation in his eyes.

He smiled slowly. This, he could work with. Often he bestowed on his followers validation where otherwise in their lives it was absent. Rigel Black would be set apart after this demonstration. Envied. Feared. Suspected of anything the shallow minds of the masses could conceive. The boy knew it, by the uneasy way he ducked his head and allowed the medics on standby to escort him to the healing tent.

Tom caught Dumbledore's eyes as he made his way from the box. The icy gaze levied a heavy judgement, but he was no longer a child. He had no interest in the following match, and took his time descending the many steps to the ground level. By the time he stepped into the healing tent, Rigel's wounds, minor as they were, had all been treated. The healers left the tent quietly as he entered, and he turned his attention to his quarry. The boy sat on a cot with his head down, a cup clutched between his hands. The water in the cup trembled, and when he spoke, it sloshed over the edge.

"Congratulations, Rigel."

The boy lifted his head with a gasp that was only audible to his superb hearing. "Riddle." His voice was flat, but resigned rather than combative.

"What a spectacular set of duels you've had," he went on. "It's easy to see that you're the most impressive competitor on that stage."

Sure enough, the boy's eyes flickered up toward the roaring crowd and back down unconsciously. Rigel grimaced. "I'm winning, at least," he said, shrugging uncomfortably.

He shook his head slowly. "And yet you sound guilty for doing so." Rigel scowled, but before an argument could surface, he'd pressed on. "Their applause means nothing, you know." The boy gaped at him in surprise. He smiled down at him ruefully. "There will always be those who are envious of true ability and trepidatious of its implications." He carefully did not mention the word 'power.' The boy had responded poorly to it in the past. "Of course they try to make less of you. They would rather see you as other than as something they could all aspire to if they ever bothered to truly apply themselves."

Rigel's eyes were wide, and he stared at Tom as though he'd never seen him before. He took a small step closer and lowered his chin slightly, just enough to convey a sense of empathetic rapport. "They don't see the hours of training, the late nights spent in fervent study, or the early mornings of disciplined practice. They don't see weekends and holidays sacrificed to self-betterment, but I see those things. I see your ambition, your perseverance, and your drive. You are extraordinary, and you shall not apologize for it in my presence." He lowered his voice, softening it deftly. "Anyone who doesn't realize that is in the wrong. Well done today. You've shown the world what you're truly capable of."

Rigel looked more lost than accepting of the words, but that was all right for now. He turned to go, and thought the boy didn't mean his muttered, "That's what I'm afraid of" to be heard by him. He did not acknowledge it, except in his head.

One day, Rigel Black, you will not be afraid of anything. When you stand at my side, fear will be but a memory of a time before uncompromising greatness was fully embraced.

-0

[HpHpHp]

-0

As Riddle walked out of the tent, Rigel had to admit that, if she hadn't been a halfblood pretending to be a pureblood, and if she hadn't known he was full of shite, she might actually find him convincing. There were times, she conceded, when the man was incredibly persuasive. She could hardly blame people for being swayed by him. Somehow, in some sick twist of the fabric of time and space, Riddle had known exactly what she longed to hear in that moment, when doubt and unease churned their way to dread in her stomach. It was precisely that which made her distrust the man, though.

Friends did not come to you when you were at your most vulnerable and attempt to sway you. If the man had known the first thing about true friendship or even mentorship, he would know better than to try to use her weakness to leverage her viewpoint toward his own.

She sighed. Riddle's little pep talk aside, she still had one last duel before the day was done. The look in Krum's eyes as she'd pinned him in place and ripped away the last of his defenses was something she'd never forget. The Bulgarian had looked at her as though she'd peeled off her own face before his eyes. Shock, disbelief, fear, and panic all shot across the staid boy's face in the instant he realized how badly he'd underestimated her. Now they would all know that beneath Rigel's calm, collected demeanor there was something undeniably aggressive. Something merciless.

Knowing that staying in the tent wouldn't help her analyze Owens for her upcoming match, Rigel levered herself up from the cot and left the healing tent behind to seek out the stairs up to the champions' box. She was the only one left, so she let her shoulders slump and leaned heavily on the railing, taking in the match below with tired eyes.

It was clear almost immediately that Krum had exhausted himself in his match against her. He spent more time dodging than casting, and when he did cast the spells flew sluggishly. The boy's magical core was just about tapped from all the powerful spells he'd thrown her way. Owens was fairing much better, likely because this was only his second duel, not his third, and he conserved a lot of energy with his shield flickering technique.

Owens' footwork was fluid, and he seemed to slide effortlessly out of the way of Krum's ranged attacks. Whenever the Bulgarian attempted to close the distance between them, Owens switched his spells to area-effect charms and transfigurations to keep him back. It was clever, Rigel admitted, watching Krum once again fall back before a barrage of sharp stones banished his way. Krum's already weakened magic would be even more ineffectual at a distance: easy to dodge and somewhat attenuated by the long way the spells had to travel.

The match didn't last much longer. Without the strength to conjure any of his own area-effect spells, Krum was at an unrecoverable disadvantage. When Owen's caught the boy in a petrification charm at last, Rigel made her way down from the box with a thoughtful frown. Getting through Owens' defense was going to be a challenge.

She passed an exhausted, bruised, and scowling Krum on the way up to the platform. "You fought well," she offered.

He paused to let her by, shaking his head. "I lost the pureblood spot ven you beat me," he said. "I just vanted to pay that boy back for vat he did to Hermy-one." Krum leveled an imploring look at her. "Thrash him, Black."

Rigel pressed her lips together but nodded slowly. She didn't like the dark desire for vengeance that thrummed in her blood, but she also couldn't forget the sound of Hermione's ribs cracking beneath an entirely unnecessary Flipendo.

Owens was waiting patiently for her as she ascended the final steps. He smiled, and there was an unruffled quality to the tall boy that didn't sit right with her. Rigel wondered why she hadn't paid closer attention to the boy during the first two tasks. With so many competitors on the field, many of them boasting unique and exotic abilities, it was too easy to overlook the blond American. She should have listened to Pansy and Millicent; she couldn't for the life of her remember anything specific about his background. It should have been a red flag that the innocuous looking boy across from her was leading the scoreboard. Before, Rigel had been too focused on her own concerns to really see this boy, but she was looking at him now.

The boy bowed with a mocking grin as Bagman counted down to the last match. Rigel solemnly returned the bow—if he was going to invoke the courtesies, then she wouldn't be the one to disgrace them. As the final word rang out, Rigel's wand arched into motion. Two stunners and a disarming spell cast so fast there was scarcely space between them were enough to wipe the smile off the Ilvermorny boy's face, but his micro-shield flickered up to intercept each attack.

She had to admit his timing was impeccable. Not many could judge the speed of a spell's approach accurately enough to confidently raise and lower a shield at precisely the right moment. It meant he never spent much time passive, easily moving between defense and offense with seamless speed.

Every time Rigel tried to close the distance between them, Owens repeated his strategy for keeping Krum at arm's length: area-effect spells nasty enough to deter most people from bearing the brunt of them. She allowed him to force her retreat with wind charms, fire spells, and blasting curses. Just as she could see him begin to relax into the rhythm, she charged.

Startled, Owens conjured a barrage of icy shards and banished them toward her in a razor-sharp rain. Rigel shielded without stopping and didn't let up her sprint. Owen's jerked his wand down and the ice instead began to solidify beneath her feet. Rigel leapt forward over the ice and tucked into a ball, maintaining her shield tightly around her and letting it roll her forward in a dizzying tumble. The roll carried her forward so fast, even Owens couldn't get another spell up before she was in his guard.

Rigel's left hand clamped down on his wand arm, jerking the weapon away from her with brute force. Owen's let out a grunt of surprise but reacted quickly; his free hand grabbed wildly at her head, gripping a fist full of hair and yanking it down harshly. Rather than let him leverage his strength to pull her off him, Rigel inverted her wand and severed the hair with a wordless charm. Owens' wide eyes were riveted on her wand, waiting for it to turn around and curse him, but he was looking in the wrong direction entirely.

Her left hand hadn't been idle. The runeless fire array she'd imprinted in pure magic on his sleeve ignited, and the taller boy let out a strangled howl of pain. Rigel had let go of his arm before the array activated, and the boy was free to drop to the platform and roll in an instinctive attempt to put the fire out. Maybe she could have disarmed him right then in his distraction, but she didn't. Later, she could tell herself that she'd been playing it safe, hesitating to avoid overextending herself, but in that moment, she simply wasn't done with Jacob Owens.

As he rolled, she crouched to the stone and drew a ground shaking array with her wand. It ripped up the stage in a circle around her, bucking Owens' rolling form with the force of the magic she'd shoved into it. He hit his head on the stone but managed to raise a shield as he rolled to a stop—not one of his flickeringly short varieties, but a real shield, carefully layered and intended to last. No doubt he would try to hold it until he could regain his feet.

Rigel cast a Lightning Jaw at the shield almost idly, and the magic collapsed in on itself with a shudder. Owens cursed, only half-risen, and stumbled backwards away from the blasting curse that followed. As she pursued the boy around the platform, Rigel reflected that it was for the best that theirs was the last match. The stage wouldn't be in much condition for anyone after she was through with it.

The next several minutes were an exercise in sheer stamina for Rigel, and a prolonged, desperate escape attempt for Owens. The more disheveled the boy became, the more satisfied Rigel felt. By the time the boy found himself leaning, panting and sweating, against the wards, the stage was a lunarscape of potholes and crevices, interspersed with the occasional scorch mark. Rigel was beginning to tire too, however, and knew that only an end to the match would bring her real peace.

She tossed a couple of standard disarming spell at him and let Owens shield as usual, his signature defense flickering up and away again with the same precision it had at the beginning of the duel. Then, Rigel cast a stunning spell with her wand and followed it immediately with a wandless Banishing Charm, cast from her left hand without moving it from her side. The second, nearly invisible spell caught up to the first about two-thirds of the way across the space between her and Owens. The boy, clearly familiar with the speed at which a standard stunner moved, defended automatically. This time, however, his timing was just the tiniest bit off.

Rigel's accelerated spell reached him before his shield was fully formed, and he collapsed like a puppet with its strings cut. It was a long moment before Rigel lowered her wand and let out her breath in a slow whoosh. Her ears were ringing with the noise in the stadium, but for the life of her she couldn't tell whether it was approval or not. She supposed it didn't matter. She'd won.

The energy which had sustained her for most of the day began to drain out of her like the air coming out of a balloon when the hand holding it closed had let go at last. She considered reviving Owens, but there were already healers coming onto the stage to do just that. Instead, Rigel tucked her wand away and began her final descent from the dueling platform. A healer approached her as she crossed the lawn, but she waved the wizard off. There was nothing wrong with her that he could fix.

Bagman was shouting something to the crowd, but she wasn't listening. All her energy was bent toward putting one foot in front of the other. Pansy and Draco, somehow, got to her before she reached the exit. They must have left their seats the moment Owens collapsed. She attempted a smile for them, but it withered on the vine. She felt like a rag that had been wrung out and left to hang limply on a line. Already, she regretted losing her temper with Owens. Why had she let the stupid tournament get to her?

"Congratulations, Rigel," Draco said earnestly. "You did it. You're the pureblood champion."

The pureblood champion. She, Harriet Potter, was the pureblood champion. A hollow laugh escaped her, and she clamped her hand to her mouth to hold it in. Her shoulders shook with the effort. I'm the pureblood champion. Even her mental voice sounded hysterical. What a joke.

The laughter turned to hiccupping sobs, and Pansy gathered her close in a gentle embrace. "It's all right, Rigel. It's over, now. Let it out."

It wasn't over, though. At best, she was only halfway through the storm of madness. She turned her face into Pansy's shoulders and listened to the girl tut over her newly shorn hair. Somehow, the inane concern centered her, and she calmed as Pansy prattled on about the charms it would take to fix the uneven length.

"He looks dangerous," Draco argued. "We should shave it all instead."

Rigel choked out a laugh, imagining Archie's face if she told him he needed to go bald for the winter holidays. When she leaned back to send Draco a grateful smile, he smiled back bracingly.

"Seriously, you were great, Rye." He waggled a finger at her and added, "I think you've been holding back in Dueling Club."

The joke fell flat, and Rigel knew by the slightly awed look in his eyes that she'd really surprised him that day. Beneath his concern for her and his unquestioning support, Draco must be wondering how kind, studious Rigel Black could put someone on their back like that. She'd never gone so far in training.

She turned away from his conflicted gaze and took a deep breath. Forcing a nonchalant grin, she said, "I guess you never brought out my full potential. Maybe Pansy should take over the DA."

"But then it would be the PA," Draco complained. "The Pansy Association just sounds sad."

"How about the Perfect Army?" Pansy suggested lightly. She tucked her arm through Rigel's and began to tow her slowly toward the exit, studiously ignoring the churning crowd that stood between them and the castle doors.

"More like the Pathetic Army."

They bickered over the options all the way back to the Slytherin common room, and somehow the normalcy of their banter cut through the awe-struck faces and the whispers when no amount of stoic pride or quiet humility would have protected her.

By the time she reached her dorm, she had almost stilled the quivering anxiety in her chest. Whatever conclusions her friends may have drawn from her performance in the third task, they were sticking by her. It was that thought that Rigel clutched tightly to as she locked herself in the bathroom and turned the water as hot as it would go.

As the water washed away all evidence of the day, she told herself that Riddle was wrong. Power didn't count for everything, and not everyone who witnessed it would inevitably flinch away from it. It just confirmed her suspicion that the politician had no real friends. From that thought came another, far more disturbing. How different might the world be if he did?

-0

[HpHpHp]

-0

Rigel woke the next morning with a vague idea of spending the day in her lab. She deserved some relaxation after the third task, she thought, and her walk to the Great Hall for breakfast was occupied imagining which potion she would brew first.

She veered toward the Slytherin table, but was waylaid as she passed the Gryffindors by a pair of highly complimentary redheads.

"Puppy! You were a right terrier yesterday!"

"Didn't stick around to let anyone congratulate you though," George added, shaking his head in mock disappointment. "Don't you know your adoring fans need face time to sustain their obsession?"

"More reason to remain scarce," Rigel said.

"No chance of that today," Fred said, chuckling.

She frowned, looking between the two sixth years suspiciously. "Why's that? I hope you haven't done anything extravagant."

The twins stared at her. George coughed and said, "It's, uh, the Yule Ball tonight, Rigel." His voice climbed higher as he added, "You do have a date, right?"

Rigel rolled her eyes on a groan. "I forgot about that."

"Forgot?" Fred laughed. "You're only the main even, Pup. Listen, if you need a date, I'm sure we can—"

"No need for that."

The three of them turned to see Matheus Sousa with a relaxed half-smile on his face. She searched his expression critically, but his eyes seemed clear for the moment. The Brazilian boy leaned down and said, voice light, "I will take you, if you like."

It took her an embarrassingly long moment to realize he was asking her to the Yule Ball. Her eyes widened and she shook her head apologetically. "That's very kind. I have a—well, my…fiancée is coming. But thank you. Sorry?"

Matheus tilted his head consideringly at her, but then he sighed dramatically. "I will never heal from this hurt. My life is now pale and black."

Rigel frowned. "It can't be both pale and black."

"Ouch, so harsh, Puppy." Fred snickered.

"Give the bloke a chance," George added, smirking down at her superiorly.

She glared up at them. "Why don't one of you give him a chance, then, if you feel so bad?" She turned to Matheus with a sweet smile. "Fred and George are excellent company. You should ask one of them."

The twins exchange an affronted look.

"One of us?"

"Impossible!"

"We're a set, Puppy."

She was certain they were joking, but Matheus smiled widely and spread his arms. "Will you two do me this honor, then?"

Fred and George had matching expressions of mischief.

"I'm imagining Mum's face," Fred admitted, grinning widely.

"And it's difficult to resist," George agreed, nodding in false solemnity. He eyed Matheus with sudden suspicion. "Say, we weren't your second choice, were we?"

Matheus widened his eyes with affected dismay. "Pray, do not imagine this. In truth, Rigel was but an excuse to talk to you."

"In that case, however could we refuse?" Fred wrapped his arms around George's neck and batted his eyes at Matheus playfully. "Be gentle with us."

Rigel looked between the twins and Matheus, confusion warring with horror as she imagined the three of them unleashed on the world. A thought struck her and she narrowed her eyes at the twins. "Don't drink anything he gives you," she said flatly. A moment later, she reconsidered and shot a worried look toward the Brazilian boy. "Don't drink anything they give you, actually."

All three of the boys laughed, and Rigel firmly told herself that it was not her fault if Hogwarts was a smoking ruin by the end of the night. She turned resolutely away, thinking that if the world was to end in a matter of hours, she at least wanted to eat breakfast first.

As she sat, Blaise said, "Bit early to be breaking hearts, isn't it, Rigel?"

She shot him a look that said she did not appreciate him using his enhanced hearing to eavesdrop. "The castle has gone mad," she muttered, spooning porridge into her bowl.

"One night of madness never hurt anyone," Pansy said, smiling slyly.

Rigel gave her an unimpressed look. "What hapless soul are you taking, then?" she asked.

Pansy sniffed, but there was something more nervous than haughty about it. "Draco is accompanying me, actually." Her eyes met Rigel's briefly before turning to study her orange juice with undue gravity. "As friends, of course."

"That's great," Rigel said at once.

There was an awkward pause before Pansy said, "Yes, well. Blaise is escorting Miss Abbot, of course. Theo has managed to catch Heir Smith's eye, and Millie is taking Mr. Zahi."

Millicent flushed, the color dramatic against her pale skin. "He's interesting."

Pansy nodded sagely. "He is, indeed. I think it's quite decorous of you to be such a faultless ambassador for Hogwarts, Millie. The visitors are in an awkward position, attempting to secure escorts in a foreign place."

"Not all of them did, though," Theo pointed out. "That Chinese girl brought a beau from home, I hear, and the American Rigel trashed in the finals did, too."

Rigel winced. It hadn't been that bad, had it?

"Delacour is going with Roger Davies, of all people," Draco put in. "Can you imagine that twit attempting a waltz?"

Rigel did a quick mental tally and said, "What about Antiope?" She was the only one, besides Krum and Hermione, they hadn't mentioned.

Pansy smiled slowly. "Miss Weasley asked her. I was there when it happened. She said that stunning redheads such as themselves could only logically deign to accompany one another, and Antiope agreed."

Rigel could easily imagine Ginny saying such a thing, and she had to smile in amusement. Picturing the two fiery, bold souls, she thought the combination would either be spectacular or disastrous.

"Weasley just wanted to be the only third year to attend the ball," Draco said cynically.

"Then she succeeded, and we can't fault her for that," Pansy said primly.

Rigel thought privately that people faulted others for succeeding all the time, but she didn't say so. She made it halfway through breakfast without thinking about anything other than how many cauldrons she could reasonably expect to brew simultaneously that morning. She was a little rusty at juggling multiple brews, but the challenge would be refreshing.

The mail brought ripples of surprised exclamations and murmured conversations. Rigel, despite her better judgement, turned her attention to the paper that Pansy was poring over with Millicent and said, "What is it, Pan?"

Her friend had a familiar, uneasy look on her face. "It's…the marriage law."

Her heart dropped. "It's passed already?"

Pansy shook her head quickly. "No, but…it passed committee last night."

Rigel was not at all familiar with legislative processes, but Millicent clarified at the frown on her face. "The bill was introduced for consideration and has passed the preliminary requirements for being voted on by the full Wizengamot at a future point."

"When will they vote on it?" she asked weakly.

"Not for a while," Millicent said, shrugging. "The Wizengamot is in recess through the holidays, and typically only sit about 60 days a year. With the number of propositions already on the docket for the spring session, I'd estimate it'll be at least after the spring break before it's considered."

She felt the ice in her veins thaw in slow relief. She still had time. To do what, she wasn't sure. All she knew was that there must be some way she could influence the outcome. If not, then all the time spent preparing for and stressing over the tournament would be an utter waste.

After a moment in which her blood pressure attempted to convince her to just pack up and move to Majorca, Rigel took a deep breath and turned back to her breakfast. There was no need to be macabre over breakfast. Rather, she should turn her mind to something more productive. How exactly Archie was going to get to Hogwarts, for instance.

-0

[HpHpHp]

-0

Professor Snape had already made the arrangements, it turned out. Archie would be arriving in her Head of House's office by special international Floo access a short while before the ball was set to start, and Rigel had to wonder just how focused on the third task she'd been that she could hardly remember the conversation she'd had with Snape several days before outlining precisely that.

Pansy, bless her patient heart, had graciously found the time to select Rigel's dress robes amidst her own preparations, and so it was with tentative confidence in her attire that she arrived at Master Snape's office door. She pulled at the stiff collar awkwardly as she knocked. When the door opened, she was entirely surprised to find her professor also dressed in formal robes, his hair clubbed back neatly and his expression no less severe for the transformation.

It made obvious sense, she supposed. It was a formal event for all attending, not only the champions, and that included teachers, too. She stepped into the room to wait and tried not to scuff the shiny toes of her entirely unfunctional shoes as she walked. Archie was right on time, and both she and Snape moved out of the way as the temporarily connected fireplace lit up in a way that had nothing to do with the fire.

Her cousin spun out of the grate with a graceful stride, his delicate, sky-blue dress robes swirling around slender legs. There was an odd gait to his approach and Rigel realized with raised eyebrows that Archie was wearing improbably constructed heels of sparkling silver. Her eyes trailed up the form-fitting tailoring about his hips and waist, and she nearly choked when she noticed the cheerfully bouncing twin globes affixed to her cousin's chest, scarcely contained by the thin, draping material that gathered almost in afterthought around Archie's lithe neck.

What on Merlin's green earth…? Rigel did not return her cousin's stunning smile. Her face looked absurdly incongruous atop the menacingly curvaceous form she could only assume Archie had constructed solely on the basis of a Playwizard magazine.

"Cousin!" Archie wrapped graceful arms around her. "I've missed you so."

Rigel forced her arms to hug the alien being clinging to her, but dropped them immediately in distaste. Archie felt so wrong as a female. "Harry, so glad you could make it safely. Thanks for coming all this way."

Archie shrugged, patting his elaborate updo as he pulled back from their embrace. "Term is over anyway for us. Easier to Floo here and go home with you and Sirius tonight than to catch a flight from the States. Master Snape, you look fantastic," Archie added airily. "Thanks so much for setting up the international Floo tonight."

Snape's face was entirely blank as he said, "Perhaps you and your guest should make your way toward the Great Hall, Rigel."

She nodded, taking Archie by the wrist and saying, "Good idea, Professor. See you in a bit."

When they were safely in the corridor she whirled on Archie and demanded in a strident whisper, "What is wrong with you?"

Archie blinked at her in surprise. "What?"

She jabbed a finger in the general direction of Archie's metamorphized chest and hips. "That! Why didn't you stick to something more androgynous?"

"In this dress?" Archie looked down skeptically at the clinging fabric. "It would never have worked."

"Who told you to pick such a revealing dress?" she hissed. Could he honestly not see any problem with his appearance? "How am I supposed to look like that for the rest of the holidays after Sirius sees you tonight? Salazar, how am I supposed to replicate that for the rest of my life?"

A sheepish look dawned across her cousin's face. "Ah, I see. Well, the clothes you wear are usually so baggy. Who's to say what size rack you have? I bet Sirius will assumed he just never noticed. If he notices at all—I mean, he's your uncle. Ew."

"He'd have to be blind not to notice those. Trim them down. Now."

Archie pouted at her, the red lipstick on his mouth making the expression more dramatic. "Then it won't fit right."

"I'll shrink your dress a little," Rigel said through gritted teeth.

"Snape's already seen me."

"I swear on your life Professor Snape will. Not. Ask."

The boy in female flesh sighed, but obligingly went down a cup size. It was still overwhelmingly wrong in every way, but at least 'Harry' no longer looked like an underwear model.

When Archie's dress was appropriately adjusted to his satisfaction, they started toward the Great Hall again. He peeked over at her under dark mascara. "Are you still angry with me?"

Rigel sighed. "No. Sorry, Ar—Harry. I've been sort of stressed lately."

"I know." Archie smiled ruefully at her. "I heard you won the third task."

She immediately felt guilty for having forgotten to tell him so herself. "Yes. Sorry, cuz. I should have used the mirror to tell you. I just…"

"I get it, Rigel. Really. You've got a lot on your shoulders right now. I think you're doing great, though. Halfway through, right?"

She nodded wearily. "I can't wait to go home tonight. I need to get out of this mess for a bit."

"Just a few more hours," her cousin said, patting her on the back consolingly. His expression was poised and, if she admitted it, his version of her face was quite pretty all done up in makeup, glittering drops in his ears. It doesn't look like me, though, she thought uneasily. Then she shook her head and impatiently reminded herself that she didn't even know what she looked like anymore. What did it really matter what Archie did with her face? It wasn't as though she hadn't ever caused him difficulties wearing his face the last few years.

They reached the Entrance Hall and found the other champions waiting to the side of the Great Hall doors with their respective dates. Hermione waved shyly at them from her place next to Krum, but her welcoming expression faltered as she caught sight of Archie in full female getup.

"H—Hi Harry," she said. After a moment of awkward hesitancy, she stepped forward to embrace her friend warmly. "I've missed you," she added, her brown eyes searching Archie's. Whatever she found there, it softened her smile and relaxed the tenseness in her shoulders. "Letters just aren't the same, are they?"

Archie's eyes swept Hermione with bright appreciation. "Not at all the same. Look at you, 'Mione. You look like a fairytale come to life."

Hermione flushed and giggled embarrassedly. "I spent ages getting ready. I felt such a ninny in front of the mirror, but…well, it's not every day you get to attend a party like this."

Rigel realized that the Yule Ball, which had seemed like just another stiflingly elitist event to her, would be the first time Hermione had any real exposure to pureblood high society. She hoped the girl wasn't expecting a true fairytale—there were more thorns than roses to be found on a night like this, in her experience.

Then again, perhaps Rigel was just cynical. There was no reason Hermione couldn't have a wonderful time, dancing and drinking and reveling in the sparkling beauty around her without ever looking too closely at the sins it concealed.

Merlin, I sound like Rosier now. Rigel cast her eyes about for something else to focus on and found Krum hovering awkwardly where Hermione had left him. She smiled bracingly at him, knowing the Bulgarian boy had no idea what sort of undercurrents were being exchanged between his date and her friend from America. Taking pity on the situation, Rigel introduced Krum to Archie before Hermione had to present him as her date.

"Have you met Victor Krum, Harry? He's one of the other tournament champions," she said. "Krum, this is my cousin, Harriet Potter. Harry was nice enough to come all the way from America to be here tonight."

Archie's eyes left Hermione reluctantly and settled on the Bulgarian boy with careful blankness. "Nice to meet you. Shame you didn't make it to the finals."

Krum grimaced, but politely responded. "Your cousin vas the better vizard. I vish you luck in the next tasks, Black."

She thanked him, and it was a mercifully short wait that followed before McGonagall began to usher the champions into the hall. As Krum and Hermione pulled ahead of them, Rigel whispered, "Can you dance in those shoes?" to her unusually quiet cousin.

Startled from whatever internal reverie he'd been lost in, Archie blinked at her. "Dance?"

"Yes, dance. We have to dance now," she said.

"You hate to dance," he reminded her.

"I was not given the option of refusing," Rigel said, frowning. "So is that a yes or—"

"Mr. Black. Wait here until Mr. Krum and Miss Granger pass through the doors, then proceed." McGonagall barely glanced at them as she focused on the timing of their entrance. "When the first dance concludes, you'll be called to the small platform in the center to be officially announced as a finalist. Go now, Mr. Black."

They were the last through the doors, and she felt the air catch momentarily in her lungs at the sight of the Great Hall done up in all its festive splendor. She wondered whether the castle was always this beautiful during the holidays, but reasoned that whatever the usual standard was, an event such as the Yule Ball would no doubt have raised the bar higher.

The floating candles had been replaced with shining balls of soft light that danced to their own soundless tune above their heads. Great wreaths sat proudly in a river of thick garland, anointed by the same golden frost that coated the sills of every window. A dozen towering trees broke up the otherwise cavernous hall, each one decorated more spectacularly than the last, and in the center of them all was a large open space clearly intended for dancing. A full orchestra was stationed where the Head Table usually sat, and a long table of refreshments lined the left side of the hall.

The dance floor already held six couples and one triad, and as soon as Rigel and Archie took up their spot, the music began. She and Archie both stepped the same direction, then froze. Archie's eyes widened comically. "I don't know how to follow," he blurted.

Rigel felt a smile tug at her lips. "Neither do I."

They both laughed quietly, and Archie shrugged. "Let's just make it up."

They began again, Rigel moving so painfully slowly that Archie at least had a chance to mirror her steps before she stepped again. She tried to apply the correct pressure to his waist and hand, to cue him as to her intentions before each step, but Archie was comically incapable of processing her signals in time to meet her movements with his own. They fumbled about in a largely stationary circle, while other champions gracefully danced around them in their procession across the floor.

She met Archie's eyes again and couldn't stop the laugh that bubbled up from her stomach. "This is ridiculous," she said. Still, there was a large grin on her face. When was the last time she'd really smiled about anything? There was a lightness in her heart that hadn't been there for some time. She didn't even mind the pitying glances Delacour and Davies shot them as they twirled by.

The twins, who had formed a loose sort of triangle formation with Matheus, joined hands and lifted them over Rigel and Archie's heads in a bridge as they passed to either side. Archie pretended to cling to Rigel in swooning terror and she laughed again.

Finally, the music swam to a lingering halt and Rigel let go of her cousin to bow. Archie tried to bow too, forgetting that a dipping curtsey would make more sense in his robes, and they bumped heads. "You are the worst date ever," Archie said, rubbing his temple.

"Me?" Rigel snorted. "You're all over the place, Harry."

"But you love me that way, darling." Archie lifted his nose. "Shouldn't you be over there, anyway?"

Rigel looked to see Delacour and Owens both moving toward the very center of the dance floor, where a small platform was raised above the rest of the room. Riddle stood atop it in grand, silver-trimmed robes of evergreen. Rigel sighed, but comforted herself that after this, she would be free of champion duties for the whole winter break. She shot Archie a look before she left and said, "Don't wander off."

He gave a simpering finger-wave and smiled through closed lips. Praying he didn't cause any trouble without her there to stop him, Rigel moved to the raised platform and waited for the other two to ascend the short staircase first before she stepped up after them. From her vantage point, she had just enough height to see over the tops of every head in the Hall. Delacour moved sideways to give her room to stand, her short, moon-white dress glinting in the soft light, and a hush fell over the crowd.

"Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to our little celebration," Riddle said. He did not seem to shout, but something amplified his voice clearly throughout the room in a way that was exponentially more pleasant than the usual Sonorous Charm. "As of yesterday, the New Triwizard Tournament is halfway concluded, and tonight we crown our Blood Representatives!"

Thunderous applause echoed up to the rafters, and Riddle paused a moment before beckoning Owens forward to the edge of the platform. "First, the Muggleborn Champion. Jacob Owens attained the highest overall score after the first two tasks, and in the duels he progressed further than any other muggleborn competitor. Congratulations, Mr. Owens. Is there anything you'd like to say?"

Owens had a broad smile on his face as he raised a hand in acknowledgement of the polite applause. "Thank you, Lord Riddle. All I can say is that I'm deeply honored to have made it this far, and I look forward to being able to test my mettle against serious competitors going forward."

Rigel's eyebrows came down in a frown at his words. What was that supposed to mean? That he didn't consider the other champions to be true competition?

Delacour was presented next as the Halfblood Champion, and Riddle explained that although she earned no points in the third round, her scores from the first two were high enough that Antiope, who had earned twenty points for winning her first match but subsequently lost the second, was unable to surpass her. The French girl smiled prettily at the assembly and gave a short speech expressing her renewed determination going forward and the glory and honor she wished to win for Beauxbatons.

Then Riddle turned to Rigel, a truly patronizing smile on his face. "Finally, our Pureblood Champion. Rigel Black. What can one say about this young man? Mr. Black demonstrated remarkable talent, rising to the top against incredible odds in the first two tasks and going on to defeat not two, nor even three, but four opponents in the final task. I think it's safe to say that he's the undisputed winner of the preliminary round!" Applause broke out all around them, and Rigel had to fight the urge to scowl at Riddle for singling her out of an already singular group. "Mr. Black, if you please."

Riddle's expectant expression told her it was not a request, and she stepped forward into the range of his amplification spell. She looked at all the upturned faces, wondering what she could say that would mean anything at all to them.

"Good evening. I'd like to first thank all the people who have supported me since this tournament began. I don't think I would be standing here without you." She gazed thoughtfully at the cheerful, entertained expressions below her. "It must seem very exciting, watching us all run and jump and bleed and fall, then get back up to do it all over again. I can't imagine what it's looked like, but I can tell you what it's felt like. These tasks are unlike anything the average person would face in a lifetime, much less just a few short months. I feel more as though I survived something than won anything. To the champions whose scores, determined by whatever arbitrary metric, didn't merit a place in the finals, I'd just like to say: congratulations. You survived it too, with grace and heart both, and I think that's all anyone could ask of us. Thank you."

She met Riddle's eyes with a defiant expression, but he didn't appear overly displeased at her subversive speech. Rather he bowed his head to her and said, "Thank you, Mr. Black, for reminding us all what an arduous journey it's been so far. Truly the young witch and wizards here before you have accomplished a Herculean task already. What awaits them in the new year…well, you'll just have to wait and see, won't you?"

Amused titters rippled through the hall, and like that, the solemn spell was broken, and any small amount of shame Rigel's words might have stirred settled back beneath the blanket of cheap delight.

"As a reminder, for making it to the finals each of our three Blood Representatives will receive an additional 1000 Galleons and a full scholarship to the secondary institute of their choice!" Rigel had actually forgotten about the prizes, and she wondered which secondary program Archie would want to go to. Riddle waited for the cheering to fade before continuing. "And of course, whoever is crowned Blood Champion will be going on an all-expense paid world tour next summer, in addition to becoming the new owner of this rare and powerful magical focus—the Rod of Zuriel!"

Riddle seemed to draw the silver staff out of the very air, and he held it high so that the light-catching red stone cradled on top could be seen by all. The splitting headache that attacked her had Rigel stiffening in pained surprise. Her ears roared and Dom's voice drifted through the white noise. Just a little closer…

Without realizing she was doing it, Rigel stepped forward. The pain receded and she cast out her magical awareness toward the staff, wondering what about it had got Dom so riled so quickly. It didn't feel powerful, exactly—there was no intense concentration of magic in the stone and it didn't seem to be exuding any sort of power into the air around it. There was something there, though, other than a pretty red stone. Something soft, dark, and slow-moving. She bent her focus toward the jewel with a frown, certain that there was more beneath the shadow-feeling at the surface.

She felt a creeping sensation in her mind, the likes of which she had not experienced since she was eleven. Rigel flinched backwards, breath stuck in her throat, and she rooted her feet in place while leaping inward to her mindscape. She'd only just manifested on the mountainside when she heard Dom yelling, "Get back, you fool! I can handle Zuriel's crawling mist!"

Rigel caught a glimpse of inky black fingers pressing through the storm at the edges of her mindscape, but a hand on her arm snapped her back to reality, where Delacour was tugging her surreptitiously toward the platform stairs. Riddle's eyes asked a question as she turned to descend, but Rigel ignored him. She was in the midst of a terrifying discovery and had no extraneous mental energy to spend.

Delacour hissed at her to hurry, but Rigel barely had the faculties to stumble down to the dance floor at her own pace. Her head was aching, her hands shaking, and she very much wanted to hurl at the idea of that stuff invading her head. Never again, she snarled in her mind, and only Dom's answering, I've got this, kept her from sitting down right there on the floor and sinking into a meditative state without care for where she was or how it would look.

She kept her Occlumency shields strong, aware of the parasite's tendency to jump into unguarded minds nearby, and pushed her way unseeing through the crowd. Rigel was vaguely aware of people calling out to congratulate her as she passed, but she didn't answer them. She made her way to a corner of the hall, skirting around one of the large trees to the backside of it, where she found a small space. The tree blocked the view of the rest of the hall.

With space to breathe, and think, Rigel turned her mind to the wonder, the horror, of the realization that the Rod of Zuriel was a great big ball of Sleeping Sickness. Had Riddle infected it? To what purpose? She replayed Dom's reaction in her mind and let go of the first suspicion. If Dom was familiar with what he called 'Zuriel's crawling mist' then it couldn't have been a recent change to the rod's nature.

What if the Rod of Zuriel was the original source of the Sleeping Sickness? She didn't know how long Riddle had been in possession of the staff, but there was a less than zero percent chance that he'd had it long enough to learn to weaponize its characteristics.

She could tell the exact moment when Dom succeeded in eradicating the black infestation from her mindscape. She felt instantly cleaner and more clear-headed. Rigel did her best to send feelings of gratitude toward the construct, knowing that if it weren't for him, she'd be collapsed in a heap on the floor. She got the echo of smugness in return, and the faint sound of his voice saying, Typical Zuriel.

That confirmed, Rigel was left to ask why Riddle would give the staff up now, and what he hoped to gain by awarding it to the tournament's winner. It could simply be that he had no more use for the tool, but she doubted it. At close range, its power was incredibly fast-acting and potent. It made her appreciate exactly how diluted a form of the sickness she'd dealt with in her first year. She wondered how susceptible she would be to its influence if she was in its presence for a prolonged period of time.

"Rigel, what are you doing?"

She whirled around to see Theo holding the hand of Zacharias Smith, clearly startled to find her in the place he'd intended to sneak away with his date to. "I just…needed a moment," she said. Summoning a smile, she smoothed her dress robes restlessly and calmly made her way back to the party proper.

It was only after she began to wander through the crush that she realized she had no idea where Archie had gone.

-0

[DmDmDm]

-0

Rigel's cousin had changed. There was the obvious—made more so by her aggressively feminine attire—but something about the girl's very nature seemed to have altered since the last time Draco had seen her. Potter seemed to…bubble. She wandered the hall with a wide, cheerful smile on her face, greeting those who met her eyes good naturedly and without reservation.

He supposed with a critical frown that she may have simply gained some sort of social confidence with her…physical maturity. Certainly no one would mistake her for her cousin now. He personally hadn't found the halfblood lacking in confidence before, but what did he know about teenage girls? Pansy alone was enough mystery for one person to spend a lifetime unraveling.

The Potter Heiress paused in her journey across the hall as the Weasley-twin menaces called her name, and shortly the girl was engaged in animated conversation with the two of them plus a rather bemused looking Sousa. From his vantage point near the windows, he could see the girl's green eyes as she flicked them restlessly about the room. Eventually her gaze settled, and he followed its trajectory to the dance floor. She was watching the Bulgarian champion and his date, the Granger girl Rigel kept bringing to their table during meals.

No, he realized after a curious moment of analysis. She was only watching one of them. Potter's eyes followed Granger's smile with a wistful longing so heartbroken that it could only mean one thing. Potter wanted Granger. Draco was bewildered as the implications settled over him. Why hadn't the girl asked Granger to the ball herself, then? Had she not had the chance before Krum got there first?

Draco snorted. Perhaps the mudblood was smarter than he'd thought, if she'd chosen the pureblooded Bulgarian over a halfblooded bluestocking like Potter. The longer he watched her watch Granger, however, the more his emotions turned from amusement to irritation. Whatever her feelings, Potter had accompanied Rigel to the ball, not Granger. She ought to be at least attempting to pay attention to her date.

Where was Rigel, anyway? Draco craned his neck, aided by the extra height he'd gained since the beginning of the term, and eventually spotted Rigel near the refreshment table on the other side of the hall.

"Thirsty?" he asked Pansy.

His patient date slid him a sideways look that said he was not fooling anyone and said, "Yes, now that you mention it. Shall we move toward the punch?"

He took her arm with perfect gentility and led the delicate blonde confidently through the crush. A glance at her face revealed a very small smile of amusement, tucked into an otherwise blandly polite expression. Draco felt a pang as he admitted the lovely girl could have had her pick of suitors and had probably only accompanied him to save him the trouble of escorting someone he had no interest in giving his full attention. Pansy was too good for him, but then, that wasn't really news.

He didn't make further pretense of perusing the refreshments when they had crossed the hall; rather, he towed Pansy toward Rigel and caught their friend with a light hand on his arm. Rigel turned and eyed them both with a relieved smile. "How's it going? Have you seen Harry?"

"She's busy mooning after Granger," he said before he could check the words.

"Mm, not surprising," Rigel said distractedly. "Where, though?"

Draco made an impatient noise in his throat and said, struggling to keep his voice even, "Don't you even care? She wants someone else, Rigel."

"I know." Rigel looked over at him with eyebrows raised in surprise. "It's not a love match, remember?"

Draco didn't understand it. How could he value himself so lightly? Would he really rather be with someone who doesn't love him than entertain even the possibility of being with Draco? He tried to steel his mind against such thoughts. He was supposed to be moving past that, or at least trying to for Rigel's sake. It was hard to watch him act as though he didn't deserve anything more than his disinterested cousin, but Draco reminded himself that Rigel's priorities were not his own.

He guessed it was probably easier for Rigel to be in a relationship he didn't have to contribute to. Still, he thought Harriett Potter an unforgivable idiot who didn't deserve Rigel in the least.

"She was over by that tree with the silver birds on the branches," Pansy said softly.

"Thanks, Pan." Rigel shot them a parting smile and melted into the crowd again.

Draco forced himself to turn and begin ladling punch from a bowl rather than stare after his friend like some sort of lovelorn idiot. Pansy took the glass with a sympathetic smile and patted his arm gently.

"It's his life," she said. "We can't make him live it differently."

Draco looked at her, really looked, for the first time that night. He noticed the silver dusting of diamond powder in her hair, the painstakingly perfect curls that must have been created one at a time, and the slightly bored glaze to her soft blue eyes. "I've been a poor date," he said, apology in his tone.

She lifted a corner of her mouth. "I anticipated as much," she admitted. Then she added, "I considered a match with him too, you know." Draco's eyes widened in surprise, but Pansy only shrugged self-deprecatingly. "It was early on, before I realized the truth."

"What truth?"

"Rigel's already decided to live without love." Pansy's eyes were sad, but firm in their belief. "I don't know when he made that choice, but I suspect it was before he ever met us. It isn't personal, and it isn't something anyone can make him un-decide. Until he allows affection willingly into his life, it will always be something intrusive to him. Something troubling, rather than something wonderful."

Draco's mind fought against such a proclamation. "But he cares so deeply," he said, voice slightly hoarse.

"It isn't that he's incapable," Pansy agreed. "One day, Rigel may love someone quite fiercely. For now, however, he simply won't accept it from anyone."

Her words didn't make him feel better, exactly, but a pinch in his pride that he hadn't realized was there did ease just a bit. She's right, he realized with an internal groan, And I really am a willful fool. All the evidence had been before him, from Rigel's constant discomfort with attention and affection to his oblivious dismissal of those such as Zhou and Matheus. Even his lack of concern with his cousin's obvious desire for someone else was proof of Pansy's point.

Rigel neither sought love nor recognized it when it came for him. Perhaps it was best, then, that the dark-haired boy hadn't attempted to entertain Draco's suit out of some sense of kindness or duty of friendship. Perhaps, as Rigel had said, it would only have ended poorly.

-0

[HpHpHp]

-0

By the time she got to the tree Pansy had indicated, it seemed Archie had moved on. She pressed herself up onto the toes of her too-shiny shoes and tried to see over the heads of those around her. Most of those present were adults, however, and she resigned herself to searching the sea of bodies one section at a time.

She saw her father standing at the Minister's shoulder and carefully avoided that circle. He didn't look pleased to be on guard duty again, but she supposed he couldn't ask Dawlish to do it as long as he was technically assigned to Hogwarts. Thankfully, Archie didn't seem to be anywhere near there. The last thing she needed was to see James publicly lose his mind over Archie's choice of attire.

"Archie!"

At the sound of her cousin's name, she whipped her head around to look for him, then realized that, obviously, it was meant for her. After a moment of confusion, she saw Sirius dart from behind two witches in voluptuous skirts and come to a panting stop before her. "There you are," he said brightly. "Mad crowd, eh?"

He scooped Rigel up into a hug fierce enough to take her breath away. "Congratulations, Arch. I'm glad you'll be coming home to us safe."

She hugged him back firmly. "I always will, Dad. And thanks, but I'm pretty sure the judging is rigged."

He barked out a laugh and drew back to look down at her. "I liked your speech. Thought Riddle was going to swallow his forked tongue."

She let out an undignified snort, picturing the statesman with said appendage flicking out from behind his teeth whenever he talked. "It was spur of the moment," she admitted. "I couldn't resist an opportunity to rain on Riddle's blood-fueled parade.

"Undermining from within, I get it," Sirius said, nodding slowly. He leaned closer and added, "Don't tell your aunt I said this, but… sometimes having a seat at the table is more productive than protesting the table's existence." His face screwed up as he attempted to caveat his metaphor. "That is not to say the table is the only outlet for expression. Just, you know, throwing away the opportunity to sit there won't help those who never get a chance to, right?"

She frowned. "Sure," she said, though she wasn't certain she knew what exactly he was trying to say.

Maybe he would have explained further, but Regulus Black swooped down on them in that moment, clearing his throat as he approached. She wondered whether he had embedded a tracking charm into Sirius's skin at some point; the man never had trouble finding his older brother, no matter how large the gathering.

"Sirius," he said, nodding with the barest suggestion of respect. "Nephew." His grey eyes on her were warm with approval. "Excellent showing in the third task. The might of the House of Black will be unquestioned for years to come."

She stared up at him in utter surprise. Regulus had never been so openly complimentary. "Thank you, Uncle," she said slowly. "I'm gratified you didn't find the display overly vulgar."

The slender man narrowed his eyes at her. "If the tournament were subject to the Common British Dueling Etiquette, you'd have been disqualified a number of times over. Then again, you'd never have faced an opponent with a blade in those circumstances, either. Anyone could forgive a certain amount of…indecorous creative action, as it were."

"Any Slytherin, you mean," Sirius said, rolling his eyes. "Just admit Archie was awesome, Reggie."

"Do not call me that," Regulus hissed. Watching his eyes flare over the childish nickname, Rigel tried to hide a smile. They never looked more like brothers than when they bickered. Regulus seemed to catch her amusement in any case, and he let the faintest of scowls cross his face. "Don't think you'll be excused for every lapse in tradition you displayed on that stage," he said sharply. "Wherever did you learn such swift application of runes? That's not in any compendium of standard dueling techniques that I've seen."

She smiled innocently at him. "It was more Alchemy, actually, than runes alone. Headmaster Dumbledore taught me."

"Dumbledore?" Regulus very nearly spluttered. "He takes less than a dozen students a decade. I'm to believe he's teaching you some sort of—of battle Alchemy?"

"He teaches me all sorts of things," she said, honesty making her words even sweeter. "His class is quite unstructured. Some days we just talk about whatever strikes our interest." Regulus went pale as his mind supplied a number of topics that the venerable Light wizard might broach. No doubt he thought the Headmaster was working to turn the Black Heir against Dark politics, at the least. She cheerfully twisted the knife a little deeper when she added soothingly, "I'm not surprised you haven't come across runeless arrays, though, seeing as Dumbledore writes all his own textbooks."

Sirius laughed lightly. "Of course he does. Half the time, I'm pretty certain he only humors the rest of us by pretending to be bound by magic's typical limits."

Rigel chuckled as well, much of her amusement derived from the apoplectic annoyance Regulus was trying and failing to suppress. "You're right, Dad. I've caught him using wildly different wand movements for the same Transfiguration. I think he's just having fun when he waves a wand. Great wizard, Dumbledore."

Regulus opened his mouth to say something, then snapped it shut and turned on his heel to leave their presence. Rigel and Sirius met one another's eyes and both burst into guffaws that had people around them turning to stare.

"That was priceless, Arch," Sirius said, wiping his eyes with one hand and clutching his stomach with the other.

"Uncle Regulus makes it so easy," she said with an amused sigh. "Do you think he's got the hint that I'm not worried about his approval yet?"

Sirius shook his head with a rueful smile. "Reg means well. He just cares a little too much about the Black Family legacy." His eyes took on a wistful gleam. "Cares for it more than he does for the individuals it consists of, anyway." He shrugged off the pensive expression a moment later and made a show of looking around. "Where's Harry, anyway? Don't tell me you lost your date already?"

Rigel grimaced. "I've been looking for her, but I'm afraid we got separated when I was called onto the platform."

She and her uncle spent a moment searching the Great Hall for a glimpse of Harry's sky-blue robes. Rigel saw Millie on the dance floor, wryly attempting to teach Tahiil an approximate quadrille. Blaise was locked with a blushing Abbott beneath a mistletoe-strewn branch, and Rigel turned away as the dark-skinned boy plucked a flower from the tree and tucked it into the girl's blonde hair.

When she finally spotted Archie, it was with an internal groan of despair. He was talking to Rosier. Why, in the name of Godric Gryffindor, was he talking to Rosier?

"Found her," she said in a clipped voice.

"Great," Sirius said, not seeming terribly concerned. His eyes had found Professor McGonagall, who was suspiciously casting revealing charms at the punch bowl, and he waggled his brows as pure mischief took flight in his eyes. "Think Minnie will agree to a dance?"

"If she does, Uncle James will kneel in awe at your feet," she said dryly.

Sirius puffed out his chest and said, "Challenge accepted. Hold my punch."

He thrust a glass of red liquid at her and Rigel sighed. Seeing nowhere to put the cup down, she tossed the rest of the drink down her throat and pocketed it. A moment later, the flavor caught up with her and she blanched. What on earth had Sirius been drinking? The sharp, biting taste was like no potion she recognized, so she could only assume he'd spiked it with a common spirit of some kind. Rigel shook her head against the unpleasant sensation and swallowed the nausea back. That would teach her to drink anything after her uncle.

Rigel set off toward where she'd seen Archie and Rosier near the orchestra, skirting the dance floor so she wouldn't collide with any of the dancers. She'd only made it halfway around when she was stopped by a frail hand on her elbow. Madam Marchbanks, dignified in a sober, high-collared robe of deep blue, had forestalled her.

"Mr. Black, there you are," the elderly witch said with a satisfied nod. "We wanted to congratulate you on your stunning performance in the tournament thus far."

She ducked her head with a murmured thanks, looking past the woman to where Mr. Ogden stood with a pair of unfamiliar, much younger men. Ogden smiled at her conspiratorially. "I suppose you haven't met the Lords Goldentower yet, have you? You can blame Raoul here for the points you lost in the second task."

The dark-eyed, curly-haired man he indicated gave an affronted look. "Unlike some of the judges," here he eyed Madam Marchbanks with a sharp glance, "I have been perfectly impartial." The man, who must have been the tallest and broadest person present apart from Hagrid, bowed with a chivalrous flourish. "Raoul Goldentower, at your service." he said. "This is my partner, Gareth Goldentower."

He indicated the paler, slightly less broad wizard with soft chestnut hair beside him. The second Lord Goldentower—and didn't that get confusing?—gave her a warm grin. "Nice to meet you, Mr. Black. Don't mind Raoul. His honor compels him to be harder on those he approves of."

Rigel smiled back, a little off-guard by the familiar way the man spoke to her. Something Pansy had said rose from the depths of her memory, and she tilted her head curiously at Gareth Goldentower. "Do you by chance run a correspondence school called Sphinx, sir?"

The wizard, who she judged to be about her father's age, raised his eyebrows in surprise. "Indeed, I do. Well, it's really Callaway who runs the program. I only finance the overhead."

"My cousin is one of your students," Rigel said. At Gareth's polite frown of confusion, she clarified. "Harriett Potter. She attends school in America, but is hoping to get around some of the restrictions on employing halfbloods in Britain by doubling up with your courses."

Lord Raoul Goldentower cut into the exchange, curiosity sharpening his sloe-dark eyes. "Smart girl. How does your cousin feel the curriculum compares?"

Rigel thought for a moment before saying, "She thinks Sphinx's Defense Against the Dark Forces material is more comprehensive than most programs' and that Household Charms should be taught in formal schools, too."

"But…?" Gareth pressed her with a cajoling grin. "Don't hold back."

"His ego can take it," Raoul added.

She smiled apologetically and said, "Harry says the Potions curriculum is fairly basic. She has pretty high standards for that subject, though. You should hear how she disparages her Potions Master at AIM."

Ogden made a noise of realization and said, "Miss Potter is the one who came up with the new imbuing technique Burke's nephew has been going on about."

Rigel nodded, but Marchbanks said sharply, "She also saved your life last Yule."

Ogden flushed. "I haven't forgotten." He turned to Rigel beseechingly. "I could never forget the debt I owe the two of you. If you or Heiress Potter ever find yourselves in need, I pray you come to me."

"Or me," Marchbanks put in staunchly.

Raoul groaned. "You can't be so openly partial, Griselda. Does the integrity of the tournament mean nothing to you?"

Marchbanks sniffed. "You know as well as I do that this entire affair has been bungled from the start. There are ways to test an adolescent's magical prowess without risking life and limb. We do it every year, after all."

"Somehow, I don't think the equivalent of a public O.W.L. test would garner the interest the Department of Magical Games and Sports is looking to cash in on, darling," Ogden said wryly.

"Crouch could certainly do a better job reining in that son of his," Raoul admitted. He gave Rigel an apologetic look. "The first task in particular was wildly inappropriate, and I hope you don't think we condone the danger you all were placed in."

Rigel looked between the adults in confusion. "I thought Riddle was designing the tasks," she said slowly.

Ogden shook his head dismissively. "A man of his position doesn't have time for such details. He's left the majority of the logistics to certain members of his party."

"Some of whom didn't do so well on their O.W.L.s," Marchbanks muttered.

Raoul and Ogden politely bit back smiles, but Gareth laughed outright. He caught Rigel's eye and winked. "I'm sure you have better things to do tonight than listen to a group of old-timers complain. Before you go, however, I wonder if we might ask a small favor."

Rigel blinked at him, but tentatively inclined her head. "I'm at your disposal."

The two Lords of Goldentower exchanged an embarrassed glance, and Gareth reached toward his robe pocket. Rigel fought against the instinct to stiffen, and felt foolish when the brown-haired man simply pulled out a piece of blank parchment and a quill and said, "Our heir, Gilmyn, is a fan of yours. He asked us to procure your autograph, if we got the chance."

Rigel stared at him, eyes wide. Then she let out a disbelieving laugh and said, "Really?"

Raoul met her eyes with long-suffering amusement. "His godmother, Buri, took him to see the second task in Diagon. The whelp hasn't shut up about you since."

"He thinks you're the greatest hero since Godric Gryffindor," Gareth added, a fond smile tugging at his generous mouth.

She took the parchment and quill with an expression of sheer incredulity. After a moment's debate, she simply wrote, To my first fan, Gilmyn Goldentower. I hope you grow into a hero more worthy of renown than I. Sincerely, Rigel Black.

It was only after she'd handed the parchment back with a nonplussed smile that she realized how natural it felt to sign Archie's name. Her smile grew stiff, but she held it as she turned to Marchbanks and said, "I should find my cousin before she thinks I've abandoned her for more beautiful company."

The older witch chortled dismissively, and Gareth shot her an appreciative grin. Rigel bowed and took her leave, determined to find Archie before she got sidetracked again.

It wasn't that she didn't trust her cousin, only that she would feel no surprise to find Hogwarts had been set aflame in his wake.

She searched the hall high and low for Archie, and as she neared the doors with increasing trepidation, she came across Ginny and Antiope sharing a sparkling glass of something pink near the entryway.

"Lost something, Rigel?" Ginny asked tauntingly. Her red-orange hair tumbled in gorgeous curls down her back, the sight a subtle contrast to Antiope's blunt, crimson locks. Both girls were stunningly beautiful in matching golden gowns, but Rigel was too on edge to appreciate Ginny's black humor just then.

"Hello, Ginny. Antiope. Where did Harry go?" She stared Ginny down with a no-nonsense expression, and after a moment the third-year caved.

"Your buxom fiancé left a few minutes ago," Ginny admitted. Her bright eyes flashed as she added, "Said she wanted to see a bit of Hogwarts while she had the chance."

Rigel groaned under her breath. Of course Archie would want to see the school while he could. Why didn't she think of that? He was supposed to have attended Hogwarts, after all. It only made sense to take advantage of the one night he could walk the halls to cement a few convincing details in his mind.

She muttered a hasty thanks and left the Yule Ball without a backwards glance, wishing she'd tucked the Marauder's Map into her dress robes that evening.

The Entrance Hall was deserted, the great doors leading out onto the lawn shut tight against the winter chill. She tried to imagine where she would go if she was Archie, and figured the dungeons probably wouldn't interest him. She headed up the stairs quickly, pausing at each landing to look down the main corridor, hoping Archie had the sense to not wander far from the central staircase. If he tried to take on the twisting side corridors or—Merlin forbid—the narrower, moving staircases in the upper levels, he could be lost for hours.

On the third-floor landing, she caught sight of light spilling out onto the flagstones from a doorway and made her way down the corridor to find the iron-gate door to the Trophy Room standing ajar. Rigel frowned and slowed her steps. Why would Archie be drawn to the Trophy Room of all places? He'd never been one for museums.

She peered into the cavernous room and startled backwards almost at once. It wasn't Archie; it was Riddle. The man was standing with his back to the door, staring with arms clasped behind his waist at a shining plaque. He hadn't seen her—she knew he hadn't—and yet his voice drifted out into the corridor. "Haven't you learned better than to listen at keyholes, Rigel?" Snape's theory was right, then, she thought with a sinking stomach: Riddle could identify her by proximity alone. When she hesitated, not really interested in having a one-on-one conversation with the man, he added, more quietly, "Shall I teach you that lesson again, then?"

With a brief grimace, she slowly stepped around the doorway and into the room proper. "Reminiscing doesn't seem your style," she commented.

He raised an eyebrow. "Do you imagine you know me so well?"

She glanced at the plaque he'd been staring at—his own, of course, and for 'Special Services to the School' no less. Knowing what he'd gotten the award for, she felt her mood sour further.

Riddle noticed, and he tutted chidingly. "What reason have the young to be so embittered? You should be downstairs, enjoying your youth with folly."

"I've seen where youth's folly can take one," she said sharply, still eyeing the brightly polished award. "Besides," she added, finally looking back at Riddle, whose face had gone carefully blank. "Thanks to you, I've more pressing concerns than my youth."

"I'm sure I don't know what you mean. You've won your spot in the final stage of the tournament. You have nothing to worry over until the new year." He put a hand to his breast and affected a hurt expression. "Why, I orchestrated this entire, frivolous event—or my people did, at any rate. You should be thanking me."

Thanking him? Surely, the man jested. Rigel stared at him with open incredulity. "I heard your prejudiced pet project passed committee," she said baldly. "How convenient for you, that it will probably be put to vote before the tournament ends."

Riddle smiled slyly. "My plans are proceeding apace, yes. Thank you for your concern."

"I'm concerned for the world, not for you," she said, disgust riding into her tone.

"I'm trying to save the world."

Rigel scoffed. "Yes, I know. 'Save Our World,' right?"

Riddle's eyes grew cold at her dismissive return. "No, Rigel. You don't know. Without this law, our world as you know it will fade to nothing within the next generation. You should be helping me, not undermining the tournament's messaging at every opportunity."

Rigel dearly wished to reject his words as so much political smoke. Something about the vehement cast to his sneer gave her pause, however. He truly believed what he was saying. She cautiously took his bait.

"How is your bigoted legislation going to make anything about the world better?" she challenged. "All it's going to do is consolidate power where it already exists and marginalize muggleborns further by denying them the opportunity to even marry into established wizarding families."

"The plight of the mudbloods can wait," Riddle snapped. "Ours cannot."

He looked as though he wanted to say more, but he didn't. That, combined with the word he'd used before—'generation,' he'd said, not 'century' or 'lifetime'—made Rigel stop and really think for a moment.

A horrible suspicion took root, and she immediately wished she had walked out the door when she had the chance. "No," she breathed, repulsion taking the sound from her denial. "Not even you could be so…" Rigel couldn't finish the sentence. Looking into Riddle's eyes, the truth slapped her in the face. It was utterly counterintuitive, but wouldn't that be just like him? He, who sickened the children of his own supporters in order to increase their political power. He, who found profound purpose in the repudiation of his own past. He, who tore to the fore the one student in all of Hogwarts who wanted most to slide into the shadows.

"I'm sure I don't know what you're mumbling about," Riddle said, turning his gaze away as though her suspicions were nothing worth considering. Riddle was a predator, though, and she'd never known him to look away from his prey. He was trying to dispel her confidence so she'd drop the subject. It was too late. In a moment of awful clarity, the whole of it had come to her awareness unbidden.

Still, she wished it wasn't true. "Tell me you aren't trying to preserve your twisted party ideals and stop the rate of population decline." She gazed at him in wide-eyed accusation. There was a sick feeling in her stomach and she could feel the sweat beading on the back on her neck.

His sharp eyes swung back around to meet her own, and lurking behind the warning there was a sort of mild surprise, as though he hadn't really expected her to figure it out.

"You are," she said dully. "Do your supporters even know?"

Riddle's face was blank as he retreated inward to calculate a response, no doubt attempting to come up with a way to spin her discovery. "In the long run, those in doubt will thank me. We've tried it their way for too long. Encouraged same sex relations, pushed witches to have children younger, longer—nothing works. The blood is now its own poison. We must take halfbloods into the fold."

"Not muggleborns, though," Rigel said sharply. "Why not? The data suggests that merging pureblood lines with the newest possible blood will result in the least likelihood of the Fade."

Riddle actually smirked at her. "Don't be ridiculous. Even I could not convince the old families to go that far."

"So you'll just leave muggleborns out of your new world order." She couldn't say she was surprised.

"Unless our society expands the genetic pool and procreates without the delay that forcing the traditionalists so far from their worldview would inevitably trigger…well, there won't be a Wizarding World for the mudbloods to stumble into one day, will there?" Riddle's tone was utterly condescending, as though she were being tiresome suggesting that something like equality or common decency should get in the way of his grand design.

Rigel dropped her gaze to the floor, disgust at his methods warring with the truths Hermione had recently confirmed. It was insidious, yet in retrospect so obvious an idea that she was stunned it hadn't been proposed sooner. The concept of imposing dictatorial limitations on who people could and couldn't marry was a hideous violation of free will, and of course it would end up consolidating pureblood power into the old families while at once strengthening the lines, if it worked, but…but.

Wizarding families are dying out. Magical children are falling victim to the Fade. What if he's right and wrong?

Shaken, she couldn't move when Riddle leaned closer to her and said softly, "I'm doing this to save us all, Rigel. Won't you help me?"

She didn't know what to think. She needed space to sort through everything, time to reevaluate what she wanted to do. Her instinct was to mistrust what Riddle was saying simply because it was Riddle. Just because an evil man said something, however, didn't make it untrue. If he said the sky was blue, she wouldn't call it orange just to spite him.

Still, she would be a fool to believe him outright, after all the careless manipulation she'd witnessed from his hand. Rigel stepped backwards, putting space between them, and said, "There has to be another way. Just because you haven't found it, doesn't mean it isn't there."

"Wishing such a path to exist won't make it so," Riddle reproved.

"Taking the path most convenient to you isn't any better," she said, lifting her head to allow him to see the stubborn set to her expression. "You do what you think is best, and I'll do the same. If the world is saved, great. If not, at least it won't be because nobody tried."

Riddle scowled down at her, clearly unamused with the turn the conversation had taken. "Rigel, don't be a fool—"

"Good evening, Mr. Riddle," she said firmly. Without waiting for him to respond, she left him there in the Trophy Room, amidst the reminders of a boyhood that, to her eyes, still lingered in the man in spite of his attempts to deny it.

She descended the stairs blindly, not truly paying any attention to where she was going, and her feet carried her past the Great Hall, where the party was evidently still in full swing. By the time she found herself in the dungeons, she realized she had no intention of going back up there, no matter how rude it was to abandon a gathering that was, in some ways, meant to celebrate her.

Rigel slowed her steps as the cool, dungeon air seeped into her bones. There was something calming about the still, somewhat damp atmosphere, and peaceful thoughts of the dungeons inevitably turned her mind to thoughts of potions.

With a jolt of surprise, she realized she'd completely forgotten to give Snape his Yule present. All thoughts of Riddle and the party receded to the back of her mind as it latched onto something she could do that very moment. Somehow, her intention to find the time for Snape's present had been lost in the maelstrom that was the third task and its aftermath.

With a smile of anticipation tugging at the corner of her mouth, she turned away from the main corridor and into the maze that made up the dungeons proper. He'll be so surprised, she thought with a small sense of satisfaction.

-0

[SsSsSs]

-0

Severus paced the length of the Great Hall with a not-unanticipated sense of annoyed resignation fueling his steps. As expected, his colleagues were too busy socializing to pay any mind to exactly what their charges got up to. It fell to him to patrol the shadowy corners of the hall, all the while suspecting Hagrid of intentionally giving the hormone-laden beasts the perfect cover for mischief.

He rounded a garishly-strewn tree of gold and orange to find Nott plastered indecently against a Hufflepuff whose father assuredly did not know his son was stepping out with a Slytherin. Severus cleared his throat sharply and Nott, attuned to the noise after four years in his House, broke for air with a sharp gasp.

"Professor Snape! Uh, we were just—"

"Spare me the pathetic splutters of your false explanations, Mr. Nott," he hissed. "Unless you wish me to send happy solicitations to your parents, I will not catch either of you again this night."

Smith flushed a violent red and began to stammer a panicky plea that Nott cut off with a none-to-subtle stamp of his foot against the stockier boy's ankle.

"Yes, Professor Snape," Nott said firmly. "Won't happen again."

He jerked his chin toward the edge of the tree and the boys fled. He took a deep breath in a futile attempt to calm his irritation before following them back into the crowd. If he was being honest, and he always strove to be with himself, if no one else, Severus could admit a large portion of his annoyance had nothing to do with the rambunctious improprieties of his students.

He'd been…not looking forward to, precisely, but certainly amenable to the opportunity to speak with Potter about what progress she'd made toward the completion of her portable healing kit. Severus had a number of theories he needed to run by the young potioneer, only to find the chit had morphed into some nightmarish product of adolescent insecurity for the evening. If he was the chit's father, she'd not dare leave the house in that getup.

With a sneer, Severus shook his head sharply. No matter. He would speak to the girl when she was in a more academic frame of mind. He knew well the idiocy of youth.

As he veered for the next tree positioned too close to the edge of the hall, a frisson of discomfort along his spine alerted him that one of his wards had just been tripped. He froze, turning his mind to discovering which one, and identified it almost at once as the entry ward for his personal laboratory.

With a growl that sent nearby students scurrying away with apologies dripping from their lips, he rounded toward the exit. Severus might have known, with so many alumni on the grounds that evening, that the sanctity of his workspaces would be at risk. No doubt some former Gryffindor hoped to gain a small revenge for petty grievances past.

Guests and students alike slid out of his way automatically as they caught his eye, but it was still a frustratingly slow slog toward the Entrance Hall. Severus wanted to blast a path through, but knew that Albus would not appreciate his making a spectacle with so many eyes on Hogwarts that night.

By the time he'd escaped the sea of socialites, he estimated ten minutes had passed. He made a swift descent toward his lab, fury spurring his heartrate higher with every second that passed. Despite his hurry, his pace slowed to a creep as he approached the lab. The door was ajar, and the torchlight within told him the intruder hadn't yet escaped. He stalked closer on silent feet, wishing fervently for the perpetrator to give him an excuse to use lethal force. Albus could not be too angry, if it was in self-defense.

The door was open wide enough to slip in with the barest whisper of his robes against the stone, and he smirked when he saw the intruder crouched on the ground with their back to him. Amateur mistake, but then, the stature of his vandal told him it was likely a student taking advantage of the distraction upstairs. Severus raised his wand to the ready and said, in his most intimidating snarl, "Lost, aren't we? Did you really think—" The boy spun around on his heels, and the words died in his throat.

It was Rigel, kneeling on the stone in his dress robes and looking up at him with a sheepish smile. "Hello, sir. I suppose the wards gave me away, huh?" The boy looked wrinkled, but content.

"What are you doing?" he bit out after taking a moment to holster his wand. Rigel was holding a piece of chalk, and he'd scribbled several rows of runes across the floor of his lab.

Rigel looked back at his work, added a couple of lines to the last rune, then pocketed the chalk and drew his wand instead, saying, "Caelum gave me the idea."

Once his mind had reviewed the words and confirmed his hearing, he pointed out, "Caelum Lestrange hates you."

"Well, he told Harry and Harry told me," Rigel admitted. "They're sort of…friends?" The boy's nose scrunched and he shook his head. "No, that doesn't work. They have an understanding, I guess. Anyway, do you like it?" Severus raised his eyebrows, a pointedly blank look on his face, and Rigel flushed lightly. "Oh, right. Hold on, sir."

He turned back to the runes and began to cast slowly, a chant-like spell that caused the runes to glow white. The floor of his lab began to ripple, and he felt it buckle slightly beneath his feet. Severus locked his knees in place until the spell had finished and the runes dissolved. The floor did not reassert itself fully, however. With a frown, he tapped down on it with his foot and encountered a springy give that seemed to mold itself around his boot. He took several steps and his frown receded. It was…not uncomfortable.

At his silence, Rigel began to babble again, dusting off his hands carelessly. "I wanted to thank you for everything you've done for me this term. You tried really hard to prepare me for the tasks, and I didn't make it easy on you." Severus snorted. Rigel grimaced and said, "I was a brat, all right? And thank you for teaching me free brewing. I mean, I know this isn't close to equal value for your lessons, but…thanks. Happy Yule, sir."

Severus stared down at the child. Rigel looked back at him earnestly, chalk smudged across his cheek and nervous anticipation in his gaze. "Thank you," he said slowly. "This was very thoughtful." He did not, as a rule, accept gifts from students. Usually it was little more than a transparent attempt to bribe his favor. This, however…Rigel had taken time to adapt the idea, no doubt researched the necessary runes and spells, and attempted to surprise him with the gesture.

He was unavoidably moved and reminded why it was that, even when Rigel was being bullheaded and deliberately obtuse, he would bend over backwards to see him succeed. Rigel was, without question, deserving of everything he could give the boy and more.

-0

[HpHpHp]

-0

The rest of the night was a blur. She remembered stopping by the Slytherin common room to collect Treeslider and her trunk before Snape escorted her back to the Great Hall, an oddly embarrassed expression on his face all the while. She remembered the relief at finally finding Archie talking cheerfully to Professor McGonagall about AIM's Transfiguration curriculum. After that it wasn't long before Sirius had found them both and asked if they were ready to go. Many of the guests had begun trickling out of the castle toward the Apparition point, and she was all too happy to join them.

It was late when they dropped Archie at Potter Place, and she hoped her cousin changed out of those robes and wiped off his makeup before James got off duty and confronted him about it. They would switch back tomorrow, and she was better at handling her father's ire than Archie was. If he went straight to bed, he could put off the lecture until the next day.

She dropped into Archie's bed as soon as she had deposited Treeslider with Sirius' other snakes for the night, not bothering to take off more than her shoes. The next morning, Harry was up with the sun. With a sleepy yawn, she mentally asked Dom to switch over to their pyramid mindscape. With the echo of his affirmation in her ears, she chose a pair of Archie's more comfortable jeans and a jumper to don before jogging downstairs. After leaving a note for Sirius saying Archie had gone to Potter Place, she snagged an apple off the counter and Flooed over.

Archie wasn't awake yet, but Addy was. The eighteen-month-old girl toddled her way across the kitchen under Lily's feet and squealed in delight when Harry ran into an invisible, waist-high barrier across the doorway and nearly fell on her face.

"Archie! You're up early," Lily said. She waved her wand and the barrier changed to a soft blue color so Harry could see to climb over it. "Sorry about the baby gate. She wanders into everything these days."

Harry shrugged, and hugged Lily quickly before answering Addy's insistently tugging fists. She swung the redhead up into her arms and bussed the cute kid on the forehead. "How's it going, munchkin?"

"Hawee!" Addy exclaimed, clapping her hands together seemingly just for the fun of it.

"No, darling, that's Archie. Ar-chie," Lily said, smiling apologetically at her.

Addy's cherub face scrunched unhappily. "A-choo," she kid gurgled, somewhat less confidently.

"Smart kid, Aunt Lily," Harry said wryly.

Lily smiled proudly. "Isn't she? The other day she recognized Sirius in his animagus form."

Harry waggled impressed brows at her little sister, and Addy giggled before squirming to be put down again. "I'm gonna go wake Harry," she told Lily.

"She's usually up by now," Lily said absently. "Maybe she's reading."

She nodded in agreement as she stepped over the baby barrier once more, but wasn't at all surprised to push open the door to her room and find Archie sprawled like a starfish, face down in her pillow. Harry shut the door quietly behind her and went to shake the boy awake.

Archie murmured a protest at the jostling and rolled over to swat at her arm. In his sleep, the boy had dropped his metamorphmagus ability and Harry stared for a moment at her cousin' true face. He'd grown so much in the last year. She shook his arm again, thinking it was a good thing she'd thought to come over so early. If James or Lily had come in to wake their daughter before she got there, they'd have had a lot of explaining to do. That is, if James let Archie explain anything before hexing the unknown boy in his daughter's bed.

"Archie," she hissed softly. "Come on, get up. You can go back to sleep at your own house."

"Wha—Harry?" Archie blinked open steely grey eyes and smiled sleepily. "Hi."

She rolled her eyes. "Hi. Tell me when your brain starts working again."

Harry got off the end of the bed and crossed to her chest of drawers to pick out her clothes for the day. She was going to get out of the house and take a break from everything, so she chose warm layers and dug her winter coat out of the closet. She shrugged off Archie's sweater so he could wear it back to his house and paused in slipping her own shirt on at the strangled sound from the bed. She cut her eyes over to Archie with an unimpressed look. "If you can handle altering my bust size to fit into an entirely inappropriate cocktail dress, then I think you can handle me in my undershirt, cuz."

Archie's ears were red and he coughed uncomfortably. "Yes, in retrospect my imitation was a bit off," he said, glancing embarrassedly at her androgynous torso and away again. "Still," he said, injecting a cheerful note in his voice, "I think you'll have a few new offers for your hand after last night."

"That's not a good thing," she told him, scowling as she shrugged first a long-sleeve shirt, then a warm jumper on over her tank top.

Archie shrugged and closed his eyes for a moment. His features rippled and slid into a perfect mirror of her own, and when he opened his eyes he abandoned her oversized pajama shirt and dragged the sweater she'd shucked over his own head. She'd changed into her own trousers while he morphed, and Archie slid his pale legs into the discarded jeans with an ungraceful hop that revealed how sleepy he still was.

Harry was lacing up her boots when Archie said, "Don't forget your contacts."

With a sigh of resignation, she fished a key out of her underwear drawer and opened the box on her bedside table. She only had a few sets left, but it would last her through winter break, at least. She'd order more in the spring.

She and Archie looked one another over once Harry had her eyes right. Archie had done a good job matching Harry's newly shorn hairstyle, and she allowed him to lengthen her hair with a quick charm so that it would at least approximate what he'd achieved with his updo the night before. With nods of mutual approval, they both made their way downstairs.

"When are we going to take the you-know-what?" Archie asked.

She grinned at him. "Whenever you like. Not today, though. I'm going into Diagon."

"Tomorrow night?" Archie suggested quietly. "That'll give us enough time to start pretending to be ill."

"Good call," she agreed. "After dinner, then."

She stopped by the kitchen to tell her mother she was headed to Diagon, and Lily bade them a fun time distractedly as she attempted to dissuade Addy from climbing the rubbish bin. Not correcting Lily's impression that Archie would be going with her, Harry led the way to the Floo. Archie gave her a tired grin and said, "Grimmauld Place."

She waited for the flames to die down before stepping in herself and Flooing to the Leaky Cauldron. Striding through the dim pub, she felt a strange buoyancy fill her chest, as though she'd shrugged off a heavy lifejacket and could swim freely for the first time in ages. By the time she melted into the bustling holiday crowd, Harry could feel a smile blooming across her face. A laugh bubbled up in her chest, but she held it in instead of letting it out. It made her chest tight but her head light.

She'd known as soon as she woke up that morning that she didn't want to spend the day at home. Her parents would want to catch up with her, would nag her to eat or play with her little sister, and for once she wanted an entire day to herself. Harry beelined for Tate's apothecary and greeted the cheery shop-keep warmly.

"What can I do for you today, Miss Potter?" He gestured toward a sign near the till and added, "Got a new model of portable fire charm on sale."

"I'll take two," she said brightly, collecting a basket with a practiced swing. "I also need a new standard size four pewter cauldron, a size two platinum cauldron, a starter kit of stirring rods and steel knives, two stands, three crates with glass vials, and a large ladle, if you don't mind."

Tate raised his eyebrows as he jotted the list down. "Stocking a new lab, are you?"

"Something like that," she said, smiling. As Tate fetched the equipment from the back, Harry began to peruse the isles of ingredients, loading her basket with all the basics and a few more specialized ingredients she used often.

By the time Tate had all her requested items lined up on the counter, she was finished. "Your usual account, Miss Potter?" Tate confirmed.

She nodded, and added, "Could you please shrink them for me?"

He obliged, and within twenty minutes of entering the apothecary, she walked out with the makings of a rudimentary lab in her pocket. With a satisfied bounce in her step, Harry slipped away from the crowds, into Knockturn Alley, and headed toward Kyprioth Court. She half-expected to run into Leo on her way to Dogwood Lane, but supposed the king must be busy with other matters. Just as well, since she really wasn't in the mood to chat. There was a restless energy in her veins that could only be cured with brewing.

Her flat was dusty, the corners smattered with cobwebs, so she took the time to cast each of the household cleaning charms she'd picked up from her correspondence course. When she no longer felt a sneeze lurking in the back of her nose, Harry pushed the furniture in the living room up against the walls to make space in the middle for her cauldrons. She tugged the musty quilt from the bed and spread it over the living room floor to protect it from small splashes, then set about unshrinking her purchases and arranging them to her liking.

After cracking the window to provide a bit of ventilation, she grinned in anticipation and started on her first potion. The size four cauldron would be used to make large batches of the potions she owed Krait, while the smaller, platinum cauldron was for her experimentation. Harry wasn't fool enough to freebrew in a lab with no protective wards, of course. While she thought she could probably contain any explosions if she was quick enough, it would be unwise to take the chance when she had neighbors living below her.

Still, that didn't mean she couldn't work on improving her latest series of shape-imbued healing potions. With the assumption that she could get a needle to administer potions to very specific areas of the body, Harry had gone ahead and made headway on potion versions of the spells to heal broken bones, torn muscles, and ligaments, as well as one to stymie internal bleeding.

Next, she wanted to develop a true emergency potion that would counter severe allergic reactions. There were a couple of spells that blocked histamine receptors in the body, and she wanted to try them both in a base with Bicorn milk as the signifying ingredient. Harry thought the protein-rich milk could, with the right emphasis, induce acute adrenaline production.

The faint sounds of passersby drifted in through the window, and Harry let the peaceful atmosphere lull her into complete relaxation as she worked. After months of stealing an hour or two at a time to brew, it was utter bliss to ignore the clock completely and let the world drift by without her.

She worked steadily from potion to potion, bottling, corking, and labeling before moving on to the next. The shadows walked across the room, but they meant nothing to her. When she ran out of bottles, she cleared away the dregs from her cauldrons with a quick spell, then set them in the sink to wash properly.

With the cauldrons resting upside-down to dry, Harry stretched her arms and back and peeked out of her front window with a contented smile. Looking out at the cloudy, mid-winter day, she felt more centered than she had in a long time.

Harry shut the window and separated her experimental brews from the bottles that would go to Krait. She hefted two full crates and carried them out to the stairwell, setting them down just long enough to lock up before continuing down to the street.

Across the way, the white-haired Mrs. Whitlock was leaning on her cane, watching the two Botting children kick a small Quaffle back and forth. Harry raised a hand in a friendly gesture, and Mrs. Whitlock waved her over.

"Good afternoon, Mrs. Whitlock," she said, setting the crates down for a moment to rest her hands. "How are you?"

"Just fine, Mr. Potter, thank you," the old woman said, squinting a smile her direction.

"Harry's not a mister," Jim Botting said smartly. He was about nine now, she thought, and last she knew not one of Leo's scamps. She wondered how he knew about her gender, but supposed the word must have slowly spread through the alleys after the freedueling tournament. Harry had to wonder how many people knew her last name now, as well. Mrs. Whitlock had known from the start, but she didn't think the older woman was the type to gossip. With luck, Leo's friend Harry would not be immediately connected with Harriett Potter.

Mrs. Whitlock wacked Jim with her cane lightly. "I'll address people as they're introduced to me, Jimmy." She turned back to Harry with a polite smile. "Haven't seen you in a good while. Away at school, I suppose."

Harry shrugged vaguely. "I'm sort of homeschooled, actually." At Mrs. Whitlock's somewhat disbelieving expression, she added, "I muffle the floors in the flat so I don't bother the downstairs neighbors. I suppose since I usually Floo everywhere, it must seem abandoned, huh?"

"Well, we never see any lights on anymore," Mrs. Whitlock said slowly.

"Unnecessary use of magic," Harry said with an easy smile. "I had a friend staying with me for a while, but since she moved out, I just go to bed when the sun goes down."

Mrs. Whitlock made a noise that was neither agreement nor reproof. "You've certainly been a very easy tenant. Everything working okay?"

"Just perfect," she said. Glancing at the crates, she added, "I'd best get these where they're going. It was lovely to see you again, Mrs. Whitlock. Jim, Clara, see you around."

"Bye Harry!" the two kids chorused.

She continued on to Krait's. The Serpent's Storeroom seemed to be doing good business when she walked in; Harry had never seen more than eight people in the shop at once, but Krait currently had over a dozen customers. She wove around them to the back room, where she deposited the crates out of the way. She was about to leave when Krait popped back into the storage room and shut the door behind him.

She raised her eyebrows, taking in the tall, blond man's serious expression. "What's wrong?" she asked.

He clenched his jaw before answering, and the scar along his neck jumped erratically. "There's been some trouble, kid. People are looking for you."

Harry frowned. "What kind of people? Why?"

"The bad kind," Krait said impatiently. "I've been threatened twice, once by mail and then last month some punk defaced my front window. Someone wants to know real bad which of my brewers can manage Potter's shaped imbuing method."

She sucked in a concerned breath. "Plenty of people in the alleys know I brew for you, and some of them know my last name."

"Exactly," Krait said. "It's only a matter of time before they ask the right person and put the pieces together. Watch yourself, kid. Leo can't be everywhere at once in these alleys."

"But why would they care who brews them when you sell the potions themselves in your shop?" she asked, bewildered. "If someone wanted one, they could just buy it."

Krait dropped his voice lower before saying, "There's recruiting happening down this way. Mostly cesspool scum, and for what, I don't know. Could be they're looking to round out their talents with a good brewer of their own."

"Recruiting for a play at the Kingship?" she guessed, disturbed. It had been over a year since a real challenge was made to Leo's position.

"No," Krait said slowly. "Something bigger. There's whispers…dangerous rhetoric, you know? Like the kind linked to these attacks what keep happening. Just take care, all right?"

"I promise to," she said quietly. "Thanks for the warning."

Krait straightened and rolled his neck in a too-casual gesture. "Can't go losing my best brewer when she's just started outclassing all the rest, can I? Get on home before it gets dark, then."

She smiled at his gruff dismissal and ducked out of the back room. When she stepped out into the late afternoon air, she spotted Leo lounging against the alley wall opposite the entrance, his posture so casual she knew he was trying hard to appear nonchalant. Merlin, but he was a welcome sight. There was something intrinsically comforting about Leo. It was in the familiar smile that hovered about his mouth and the unconsciously relaxed grace to his gait as he pushed off the wall and came up before her.

"Harry," he said, a fond crease around his eyes. "Right on time."

She raised an eyebrow while smiling up at him. "I didn't know you were the keeper of my schedule."

"Just a keen observer," Leo said with a laugh. He held up a hand and began to tick fingers off jokingly. "Let's see: first day of winter break, a restless Harry who suddenly has too much free time, and late enough in the afternoon to allow the completion of a handful of potions. Yep, that adds up to you being at the Serpent's Storeroom at this exact moment in time."

She shoved him for his presumption, but couldn't deny that he was exactly right. "So I'm predictable," she said, lifting her chin haughtily. "Maybe you should find a less boring friend."

"Boring, no," Leo said as they set off walking toward Diagon. "How was your first term?"

She shrugged. "Busy. A bit stressful. I just have too many projects going at once, I think."

Leo shot her a knowing look. "And how many of the projects did you bring home with you?"

Harry ducked her head in acknowledgment. "One or two…or a few." He laughed at her, but it wasn't censorious. Leo never was. "How've things been here?" she asked, Krait's warnings fresh in her ears.

"Pretty good," he said cheerfully. "The tournament up at Hogwarts has been great for business. They put one of the observation mirrors here for the second and third tasks, and my pickpockets made out like princes. Of course, it was lucrative for the shops and stalls in the main alley as well. Tithes are going to be good this year."

Harry kept her voice light as she asked, "Did you get a chance to watch the third task?"

Leo hummed. "I bit. I notice you taught your cousin a few things—he was wicked fast."

Harry grinned. "I tried, at least, when he came back from the Americas this past summer. He didn't take to the knife, though."

"A shame," Leo said, chuckling. "That would have been a thing to see: a nobleman wielding a knife like a common tramp on a worldwide stage. I almost wish he had."

"You're not angry at me for passing on your teachings?" she said, just to make sure.

Leo shook his head. "It's your skill now to do what you want with. I can't exactly patent hard work, can I? Anyway, I'm glad the boy's doing well, for your sake. I know it would kill you to see him hurt."

"Thanks," she said, her mood dipping a little. "I'll be glad when the final task is over."

"Might get to see that one in person," Leo said. "I gather it's to be a grand sort of spectacle, and one of our troupes got the contract with the Ministry in exchange for the damage that occurred during the World Cup."

"That's great," she forced herself to say, even while thinking it was anything but. "Won't it be dangerous for you to go, though? The Aurors might be looking for the elusive King of Thieves, and it'll be suspicious if my dad, who knows you as the son of the Aldermaster, notices the strange deference your people show you."

Leo waved an unconcerned hand. "You may not know it, but I'm a fair hand at disguise. My people know better than to identify me so publicly, too. It'll take more than the Ministry's usual security precautions to catch me."

His grin was infectious, and she found herself smiling back. It was so easy with Leo. Why couldn't it be like that with Draco? By all rights, it should be similarly awkward between her and the tan boy walking beside her. It wasn't, though.

Maybe it was the distance, she thought. Space and time could bring equilibrium to anything. Whatever the reason, she was grateful. She didn't know what she'd do without Leo. He was a fixture in her life, a strangely solid constant in a mercurial world that was otherwise defined by temporary truths in a perpetual state of change.

-0

[HpHpHp]

-0

The following evening found Archie and Harry competing for the best-sickness acting award. Both were well-practiced in deception by now, and it was with some amusement that they attempted to one-up one another over dinner.

Archie was pale, and a sheen of sweat beaded on his brow. He picked at his food and every so often grimaced and averted his eyes, as though the very sight of the green bean casserole was making him nauseated.

In retaliation, Harry was somewhat flushed, her fringe sticking to her forehead damply and her eyes deliberately unfocused as she stared dully ahead with seemingly no care for her empty plate at all.

With a worried look between the two of them, Lily set down her fork and said, "Archie, Harry, are you all right? You both look ready to collapse."

Harry turned her head slowly toward her mother, blinking lethargically. "What, Mum?"

Lily put out a hand to feel Harry's forehead and tsked under her breath. "You're burning up, dear. Do you feel sick?"

She nodded pitifully.

Sirius, who was next to Archie, felt his own son's head with a frown. "This one doesn't have much of a fever, but he's clammy as anything."

"I was clammy earlier," Harry said, keeping her throat constricted so her voice came out rough. "Do you feel kind of achy, Arch?"

Archie groaned. "Very. Don't tell me it gets worse. What did you give me? Some American virus?"

Harry gave a weak glare, as though she hadn't the energy to be truly annoyed. "There was a bug going around school a couple of weeks ago." She looked apologetically around the table. "I hope I didn't give it to everyone."

"That's rather fast-acting," Remus commented with a frown.

James was already leaning away from her sharply. "I can't afford to get sick right before the holidays. Sorry, kids, but you both need to go to bed right now. Lily will bring you some soup later."

Lily raised an eyebrow at James and huffed. "I will, will I? What if I get sick and pass it to Addy, then?"

"I'll bring the broth," Sirius volunteered quickly.

"Maybe Harry should stay with me, then," Archie said slowly. "I've already got it, so we can quarantine ourselves from Addy."

Lily looked grateful at such thoughtfulness, but hesitated. "Will you be able to look after them both, Sirius?"

"Just leave it to me," Sirius said, tapping his fork against the table to emphasize his words. "I'll have them hearty and hale in no time."

Archie smiled at his father, then swayed in his seat suddenly. Sirius reached out a hand to steady him and said, "Let's get you home, sport."

"No soup tonight, Dad," Archie moaned as he took his feet slowly. "I don't think I can stomach anything."

"Drink lots of water, though," Lily said. "And take a Fever-reducer before you fall asleep."

Harry nodded, then winced and clutched her head as though the act had pained her. "I have some in my kit," she said. She pushed back from the table and made her way gingerly toward the stairs. When she was out of sight, she picked up the pace and rummaged in her potions kit quickly to find the bottles of Animagus Revelation along with two vials of spit-soaked Mandrake leaves. She pocketed all four and grabbed a couple of Fever-reducers to carry in her hands.

When she reached the Floo, Sirius was waiting for her. "Archie's already gone through," he said, sympathy in his eyes. "Go carefully, now."

She held the bottles in her hands tight against her sides, keeping the ones in her pockets from moving too much as she Flooed. Archie was waiting for her on the other side. He shot her a mischievous grin that quickly morphed into a pained grimace as Sirius followed Harry through the grate.

"Harry, you still have spare pajamas here, right?" Sirius asked. He shooed the two of them up the stairs like a fretting nursemaid.

She nodded and smiled weakly. "Always. Thanks for letting me stay, Sirius."

"Of course, of course," Sirius said. They reached the landing for Archie's room and Sirius said, "You two get comfortable and I'll get you some water."

He left them to change quickly into their pajamas. Harry fetched the sleeping bag she used when sleeping over at Archie's and laid it out on the ground with one of Archie's extra pillows. When Sirius came back with the water, they were both tucked up to their chins and the lights were out.

Sirius set a large glass of ice water beside each of them and brushed Harry's sweaty hair back from her face before saying, "Did you take the potions?"

Harry gestured to the empty bottles she'd dumped out in the sink just moments before.

Her uncle smiled and crept toward the door, closing it softly after a murmured, "Sleep well."

Harry and Archie were silent as they counted the seconds it would take Sirius to get downstairs and Floo back to Potter Place to finish his dinner. After a few minutes, they both sat up and lit the torches again. Archie had a grin as wide as his face as Harry pulled the bottles and vials they needed out of her pockets.

She handed Archie the vial with his spit in it and one of the Animagus Revelation potions. He eyed it with mixed excitement and trepidation. "It's going to make us sick for a week afterwards, right?"

She nodded. The Animagus Revelation took quite a toll on the body; there was a reason people didn't drink it whenever they wanted to turn into an animal, after all. "It'll make our cover more believable when we're actually sick tomorrow," she said.

"How do you know it won't cancel out the Modified Polyjuice when you take it?" Archie asked next.

Harry grimaced. "I don't. I made an extra batch just in case, though."

Archie nodded, his concerns evidently satisfied. He lifted the bottle of shimmering potion to the light. "I can't believe we're finally going to find out our forms," he said. "I hope it's something useful. Like a phoenix."

Harry rolled her eyes. "You read the book—you know it won't be a magical animal. There have been no recorded cases of that ever happening."

Her cousin shrugged, a smile tugging at his lips. "It was just an example. Useful comes in all kinds, I guess." A thought struck him and he blanched. "Harry, what if I'm a fish?"

She snorted. "There's nothing fish-like about you."

"I'm a water sign, Harry! I could die before we change back. Doesn't it take an hour to revert?" Archie gazed at her with wide, earnest eyes.

She sighed, but said, "I'll let you go first, then. If you're a fish, I'll put you in the bathroom sink." She was pretty sure neither of them would be a fish, whatever astrological indications to the contrary.

Her ludicrous reassurance seemed to calm Archie down, and he took a deep breath. "Okay. So I just add the leaf to the bottle and drink, right?"

"That's the gist of it," she said, nodding. She gestured to the mirror next to Archie's closet. "Try to note as many details as you can when you transform, so you can recall them later. Remember: after we take this potion, we still have to learn how to do the actual self-transfiguration. This is just to identify our forms."

Archie nodded. "Yeah, I get it. Ready?" He unstoppered the vial of spit and dipped a finger into it with a grimace. With the wet leaf clinging to his skin, he transferred it to the bottle of Animagus Revelation and swirled it gently.

"Wait until it turns silver," she said. It only took a moment before the potion looked like liquified unicorn horn. With a ready grin, Archie tipped it back and gulped the whole thing down at once.

He grimaced, opened his mouth to say something—no doubt a comment on the taste, but froze comically. He shuddered, his muscles twitching briefly, and then the bottle fell from his limp fingers and his body twisted around and into itself in the blink of an eye. Under Harry's watchful gaze, Archie shrank, his clothes folding into some dimension that only Transfiguration Masters had mapped, and in just a few short seconds her cousin was gone. In his place was a tawny fox about two feet in length, complete with narrow snout, pointed ears, and fluffy tail.

The fox rolled across the floor and back to its feet with a shake. He took a couple of steps forwards, fell, then took a couple more back. Archie seemed to notice his own tail out of the corner of his eye, because he spun quickly on the spot before tripping over his own feet and flopping clumsily to the floor.

Harry had to laugh. She'd worried it might be difficult to identify their exact animal types, but Archie was the most obvious red fox she'd ever seen. He was significantly larger than other species of fox, and his white underbelly ran all the way up under his chin to curl around the sides of his mouth. In a way, it made sense, she mused. Foxes were playful and adventurous, with very strong family ties. On top of that, they were a species of canine. When Sirius found out, he was going to be pleased as anything.

As Archie struggled to coordinate his newfound limbs, Harry turned to her own bottle. She added the leaf and swirled it expertly. Before taking it, she hesitated, Archie's worry echoing in her ears. With a soundless grumble, she headed into his bathroom, filled his sink with water, and sat herself on the counter next to it before drinking the potion. If she was a fish, at least she'd be able to flop her gills into the water before she suffocated.

The sensation was utterly dizzying, and Rigel had to close her eyes against the vertigo as an experience not unlike Polyjuice Potion wracked her body. Her stomach heaved against the feeling, but in the next moment a hook like a portkey in the vicinity of her navel overtook her awareness and she collapsed in on herself.

She could feel her body shifting, she noticed with a small sense of wonder. Harry felt every bone and muscle and organ as they shrank, shifted, and twisted into something new. When all the movement stopped, she held herself very still. Nothing hurt and she was still conscious of the fact that she was Harry Potter, human girl under the effects of an animagus potion. She could also breathe without effort, which told her without a doubt that she was not a fish.

When she opened her eyes, the first thing that struck her was the wide field of vision now afforded to her. She didn't have to move her head at all, yet she could see almost the entirety of Archie's bathroom. Including his mirror. Surprise took her as she caught sight of her new form, and her neck muscles twitched almost involuntarily. Her vision swam oddly as her head moved, but by keeping it still she could process what she was seeing.

Harry was a bird. A black one, at least a foot and a half long, with glossy feathers and a deep black beak to match. The only spots of color were her eyes, which gleamed like emeralds in her small skull. A startled noise escaped her, emerging as a sort of croak. Curious, she made the noise again, this time on purpose. A deep throated, "Pruuk, pruuk," rang through the bathroom clearly.

She lifted a foot, just to see if she could, then lifted the other one next. It wasn't easy to balance the clawed appendages against the smooth counter, and her arms went out automatically to stabilize her—wings, rather. The iridescent plumage was like slick oil, and she admired it for a moment. The wedge-like shape of her tail caught her interest, next, and Harry mentally classified herself as a raven, subspecies of the common crow.

Snape would be so disappointed if he knew, she thought with amusement. A raven instead of a snake. Better than a lion, she supposed, ruffling and smoothing her feathers reflexively. Ravens were exceedingly common. She could blend in just about anywhere, which was more than could be said about her father's stag animagus form.

A noise from Archie's room brought her attention away from her own reflection, and Harry waddled to the edge of the sink before pausing. The most obvious thing to do would be to fly down to the floor. She had no idea how to go about such a trick, however. Harry tried to lift her wings, and after a confusing moment realized the muscles to do so were located in her chest, not the wings themselves. With a few minutes of experimentation, she was able to isolate the muscles and draw her wings out to their full breadth. She had maybe four feet total wingspan, but the wings themselves were so light she didn't feel unbalanced at all.

She tried flapping her wings up and down quickly, but it only took her a couple inches off the ground before she landed awkwardly on clawed feet again. Harry peeked over the edge of the sink and wondered if she ought to jump or not. How did birds do it? She crouched down, pretty sure she'd seen birds do so before taking off. With a powerful beat of her wings, she tipped forward off the edge of the sink—and fell, plummeting to the ground as the air streamed between her feathers.

Harry rolled to her feet with an irritated twitch of her head. So much for animal instincts. She toddled toward the door, awkwardly holding her wings out as she wasn't sure how to tuck them back into place properly.

Archie was preening in front of his closet mirror, picking up his paws one at a time and every so often emitting a high-pitched yip that was almost a bark. Harry croaked to get his attention and the fox spun around instantly, a growl on his lips. Archie tucked his sharp teeth away a moment later, as his human mind caught up with him, but it didn't stop Harry from letting out a caw of alarm.

The stared at one another. It occurred to Harry that foxes sometimes ate birds, but after a moment Archie's tongue lolled out and he rolled on his back with a very foxy-like grin, showing his white underbelly. Harry relaxed, her feathers soothed back into place, and she cocked her head at the fox in inquisition.

Archie took to his feet again in answer and proceeded to prance about the room on all fours. Her cousin had gained an admirable amount of control over his limbs in such a short amount of time. Harry watching him with amusement before attempting to flap herself into the air once more. She rose a couple of inches, then landed again. Archie released a series of yips she was pretty sure counted as a laugh, and she clicked her beak at him in retaliation.

They didn't have forever in their current shapes, so she and Archie both set about learning as much about the feel of their animagus forms as possible. Harry desperately wanted to figure out how to fly, but the exact mechanics of it weren't intuitive at all. Eventually, she realized she needed to keep her feathers close together to prevent the air from simply escaping between them. Somehow, she still wasn't getting enough force to take her into the air, however. Focused only on her new shape, Harry didn't realize how much time had passed until Archie barked agitatedly to get her attention and pointed his muzzle at the clock on the wall.

It had been an hour and a half. Harry felt her heart sink as she realized they had far exceeded the advertised amount of time the Animagus Revelation should have afforded them.

She tried to remember what it felt like to be human. The awareness of her true form was just out of reach, and with a trickle of fear she realized for the first time that she couldn't feel Dom in this form at all. It was as though a large part of her human consciousness was locked away for the moment. She had no access to her magic, wandless or otherwise, and no matter how her mind raced she couldn't think of any way out of the raven's body.

Archie whined in the back of his throat and sank to the floor to rest his head on his front paws, ears drooping. Harry tilted her head to focus one of her eyes on him better and realized his fur was slowly changing color. It looked more rust now than tawny, and she wondered whether some of his natural metamorphmagus ability had bled over into his animagus form.

Harry waddled toward her worried cousin and tucked her beak up against his neck fur gently. Somehow, they would get out of this. The potion couldn't have gone that wrong, seeing as it had changed them perfectly into animals while allowing them to retain their human thoughts. It just appeared to be a bit…over…powered. Harry croaked in annoyance. Of course. She'd over-brewed it. Hadn't she replaced all her ingredients after Snape told her about the issue? Everything in her kit was new, except, of course, what had already been put into the Animagus Revelation potions before she'd been made aware of the problem. That, and the vials of spit, she thought in grim understanding.

It wouldn't last forever, then. Just…significantly longer than expected. Hopefully, it would wear off before either of them got too hungry. Harry didn't know exactly what ravens ate, but she suspected it included bugs.

Archie's ears twitched and he turned his head toward the door just moments before Harry heard the sound of footsteps coming down the hall. They both scrambled for cover, but neither was coordinated enough to move quickly. Archie dove into Harry's sleeping bag while Harry attempted to flap her way back toward the bathroom. She almost made it.

Sirius opened the door carefully at first, no doubt expecting to find two teenagers sleeping off acute illness, but when he spotted their empty covers, he flung it open wide and stepped into the room with alarm on his face.

"Archie? Harry?" He scanned the room and noticed Harry at once, conspicuous as she was in the bathroom doorway. With a frown, he drew his wand in an instant and leveled it at her warily. "What the devil—?"

Before he could decide to cast at her, Archie sprang from his hiding place and skidded toward Sirius's feet with a barking battle-yip, baring sharp teeth in her defense. Sirius leapt backwards with a cry and he tried to stun the fox, but Archie rolled out of the way and whined loudly, tongue lolling out at the wizard as he placed himself between Harry and Sirius' wand.

Sirius blinked, lowered his wand slightly, and said, "…kids?" Archie yipped happily and Harry let out a single croak of agreement. Sirius's eyes, already wide, blinked hard. "You…you managed the transformation already?" A smile grew across his face until he was grinning proudly. "Well done! Look at you! I mean—it's only been a few months. Now who is who?" He looked between the two of them eagerly. "Wait, I know! Archie, you're the fox, right?"

Archie bounced on his feet and plodded forward to nudge up against his dad's legs. Sirius sank to his knees and Archie happily jumped into his lap. The wizard laughed and ran his hands gently over the fox's sunset-colored fur. "Do you know what this means? We can go running together, Arch. Wait until James finds out—and Harry! I might have guessed you'd be a bird; always one to observe from afar before that endless curiosity drew you in. I suppose you're some sort of magpie or jay, eh? It's only just that the next generation of Marauders would embody the trickiest of nature's creatures."

After another minute of looking over their animal forms and making various exclamations, Sirius said, "Well, turn back then, and tell me how you managed it so quickly."

Archie began to whine again, his ears pulling back, and Harry ducked her beak into her wing embarrassedly. Sirius narrowed his eyes, looking back and forth between them. "Don't tell me you haven't learned to turn back yet."

Archie jumped out of his lap and over to where his empty potions bottle lay on its side. He nudged it with his nose and yipped.

Sirius let out a sudden laugh, throwing his head back in merciless delight. "Oh, I see! You haven't learned it at all yet—you've only taken the Revelation potion." He shook his head at their downtrodden postures and laughed again. "Serves you right, not waiting like I told you to. I suppose you're stuck for now? You know, a crueler man than me would leave you to sit it out."

Harry tried to make a noise of supplication, but the "pruuk" just sounded agitated. She flapped her wings restlessly and rose half a foot before dropping back to the ground.

Sirius snorted. "You might want to read up on bird mechanics, Harry. You look like a duckling with two broken wings."

She ruffled her feathers in annoyance, but had to concede that she would be doing just that, if she ever regained her human shape. Sirius raised his wand again with a sigh and said, "I suppose I can't torture you too long, seeing as I did promise Lily to look after you."

The Animagus Reversal Spell lit the room with a blue light, and with a lurch that felt a bit as though she was an accordion that someone had pulled sharply apart, Harry found herself standing on her own limbs again. She lunged forward to hug Sirius, nearly tripping as her usual muscle control reasserted itself. "Thank you," she said into his shirt. "I over brewed the potion and thought we were going to be stuck all night." Surreptitiously, she put a hand up to feel the shape of her face, double-checking that the Animagus Revelation potion hadn't interfered with her Modified Polyjuice at all. They'd been incredibly lucky, it seemed.

Sirius hugged her back before letting go to study her carefully. "You appear to be in one piece, at least. I wish you hadn't gone behind my back like this, though. It's dangerous to try and do this on your own. What would you have done if Archie got hungry and lost himself to his animal instincts?"

"The thought occurred to me rather late," she admitted, eyeing Archie's now-russet form with the respect paid by prey to a predator.

A second spell reverted Archie to his own, albeit metamorphed, form, and he whooped with delight before joining in on the group hug. "I wouldn't have eaten Harry," he murmured, sounding mildly offended. "She didn't smell like food."

Harry drew back with a skeptical expression. "What did I smell like then?"

"Not-food," he said at once. "Can't explain it better than that."

"You may have recognized her as pack on some level," Sirius said, sounding excited. Then he seemed to recall he was supposed to be scolding them. "Promise you won't do something unsupervised like that again. Why didn't you just wait for me to teach you?" he added, something like hurt in his eyes. "I told you I'd help."

Archie and Harry exchanged a guilty look. "We sort of wanted to prove we could do it," Archie admitted slowly. "Like you did, when you and Uncle James were young. Also, we thought since we don't have much time over the holidays, our lessons would go faster if we already knew our forms. Now we don't have to spend valuable learning time with you meditating or trying to cast a patronus."

"We wanted to surprise you, too," Harry said ruefully.

Sirius gave them fond looks of exasperation. "Come on, you two: you should know you don't have to try to look cool in front of me after all these years." They both poked him in the ribs as he laughed.

"But seriously, are you going to tell the other adults?" Harry asked. She had a feeling Remus hadn't changed his mind since the last time they'd brought it up to him, and Lily would almost certainly be furious that they'd taken such an unnecessary risk, on top of lying about being sick in order to do it.

"Would that be a very Sirius thing to do?" her uncle asked, waggling his eyebrows. He considered them for a long moment, then smirked. "Besides, now that I'm in on the secret it's much more fun. I can't wait to see the look on their faces when you really achieve it, but until then…well, it might be better to present the facts as fait accompli."

"Ask forgiveness, not permission," Archie agreed, grinning in relief.

Sirius pulled them into a hug again. "Aww, how can I be mad when you turned out exactly how I always wanted?"

Harry and Archie both had to smile at that. It was quintessentially Sirius to be more proud of the mischief behind an act than upset by the trouble it caused. They were lucky to be raised by a man so understanding and supportive, who encouraged their flight even as he guarded against their fall.

-0

[HpHpHp]

-0

Once she and Archie recovered from the truly miserable sickness the aftermath of the Animagus Revelation potion inflicted on them, the holidays passed quicker than she wished. Days danced off the calendar in dizzying pirouettes of potions, animagus study, and time with her family. With Lily now working independently from home, she saw a lot more of her mother on those days when she didn't venture into the alleys. Lily also used her home lab more frequently, which meant Harry stuck to the makeshift lab in number eight, Dogwood Lane when she wanted a prolonged period of uninterrupted brewing.

Her experiments with Bicorn milk were only partially successful. The reaction was exactly what she needed it to be, but it wasn't enough of what she needed, unfortunately. A few short days before she was to return to Hogwarts found her tapping her fingers against the windowsill in her small kitchen, wondering if there was a way to tweak the base such that the Bicorn milk featured more strongly in relation to the neutral ingredients.

She supposed there wouldn't be any point to having a constant base for the process of shaped imbuing if she went and tweaked it whenever she wanted to achieve a different result. Maybe she could try imbuing the Bicorn milk before adding it into the potion? She didn't want to just increase the volume of milk; she was fairly certain the high fat content was already distracting the amplifying magic from the true signifying ingredient, which should be the proteins in the milk.

She had to remove the fat from the milk somehow. Harry sighed in annoyance. She knew only the bare bones of distillation theory. Mostly, she was good at adding things together, not separating them into their constituent parts.

There was someone she knew that might be able to help, though. She checked the position of the sun and wondered whether he'd be awake so early in the afternoon. Harry could wait until nightfall, but Krait's warning had made her more conscientious about her safety, and she didn't want to wander the alleys after dark if she didn't have to.

Thinking it couldn't hurt to try, she locked up the flat and made her way back toward Knockturn Alley. The Lamia Lodge hadn't changed at all, except that a significant amount of paint had abandoned the grey door since that summer. Eyeing the newer scratches distrustfully, she pushed the door inward with a wince for her poor ears.

Eyes narrowed in annoyance, Harry rummaged in her potions kit and produced a small vial of sunflower oil. A few drops on each of the hinges and the door swung shut near-silently. Feeling vaguely vindicated, she tucked the oil away and made her way down the dim corridor. Gavril was halfway across the lobby when she emerged from the entryway, no doubt having heard her entrance and prepared to investigate the delay. He stopped so fast at the sight of her his lank hair swung forward to drape around his shoulders.

"Good afternoon, Mr. Gavril," she said with a pleasant nod.

From his looming height, Gavril stared down at her consideringly. His waxen features creased in a slow smile. "The Rogue's little messenger bird. Come with more bad news?"

"Not at all. I was wondering if Mr. Kasten was awake yet. I wanted to ask him about a potions problem."

Gavril made a noise of impatience that was the scrape of metal on stone. "Always with the honorifics. We are not 'misters' here. The Newborn is below, as always."

He glanced toward the staircase that led down to the lower levels and turned to make his way back toward the desk, which she noticed had acquired a new leg since the last time she'd seen it.

She took a couple of steps toward the stairs, then remembered the way Leo had been careful not to use his wand in coven territory unless given explicit permission. "Could I take a light down with me?"

From the desk Gavril produced a taper that was as long and slim as he was, and as she approached he set a single match beside it with a smile that flashed his fangs. "How is the Rogue these days?"

"Fine, I'm sure," she said. "How's Irina?"

At mention of his mate, Gavril's smile softened just a little. "Still beautiful." As she headed toward the dark staircase he added playfully, "Watch your step."

She took what she thought was the correct passage at the bottom of the stairs, and before long came to a door that read 'Distillery' in faint letters. She knocked, and there was a long pause before the door swung slowly open.

The short-haired, yellow-eyed vampire blinked down at her over her small candle. His head tilted and he sniffed delicately. "You were here before," he said, his voice a strange combination of rustling leaves and trickling water.

"Harry," she reminded him. "I'm sorry to bother you while you're working—"

"I'm always working," Kasten said.

Harry smiled. She knew that feeling. "I just wanted to ask whether you had time to teach me a little about essences. It doesn't have to be right now," she assured him.

Kasten left the doorway and retreated back to his workstation. She hesitated, unsure whether he was dismissing her, but then he said, "Come inside."

The workroom was as she remembered it. Counters ran at waist height all along the walls, and the little light her candle gave off illuminated shelves upon shelves of purified ingredients reaching all the way to the ceiling.

"What do you want to know?" he asked, not looking at her as he put what appeared to be a thermometer into the cauldron that was simmering over a blue flame.

"I'd like to learn how to distill Bicorn milk into its constituent parts," she said. "I'm working on a potion that needs a more concentrated form of the milk. Could I turn the raw ingredient into an essence?"

"Perhaps," Kasten said vaguely. "It depends on what you want it to be. Milk is simple to separate, but the quiddity of the substance you're searching for will determine what kind of a separation is required."

Harry was quite sure she had no idea what he was talking about. "Quiddity?" she repeated, hoping her confused tone would encourage a more elaborate explanation.

Kasten's voice was impatient as he said, "Quiddity, yes. That which a thing is in itself, which is to say, that which, without it, it would not be."

"Okay," she said, only slightly more enlightened. "Well, I basically want the proteins from the Bicorn milk, but not the fat."

The vampire hummed in understanding. "You want the dry matter. Removing the fat will be easy. Once it is gone, heat and salt will decouple the water from the proteins you need. With some encouragement, you'll have an essence in no time."

Harry was heartened to hear that, though some of what he said was over her head. "Can you teach me how?"

His yellow eyes caught the light of the candle as he glanced over at her. "Yes."

She smiled. "Thank you. I can pay for your time, of course."

"Money is meaningless," he said, uninterested.

"Oh. Well, what would be not-meaningless, then?" she asked.

Kasten seemed to think it over while slowly stirring the cauldron before him. Finally, he said, "There is a shop in Diagon. It is only open while the sun is up."

She waited for him to continue, but he fell silent. Patiently, she said, "I could go there before it closes. Do you need something they sell?"

"I need a snake," he said.

"A snake." Of course he did. "I can get you a snake. Which one?"

"I also need a kneazle."

Harry blinked. "Okay. Is it a…pet shop?"

"Yes. The snake must be an elapid." Kasten hesitated before adding, "That's a family of snakes."

She nodded. "Tropical and subtropical, right?" Elapids included cobras and kraits, and as far as she knew all of them were venomous. "Are you still working mainly with toxins?"

Kasten shook his head, paused, then nodded instead. "Partly. I am interested in antisera at present."

"Like antivenins?" Harry guessed.

"Antivenins, antitoxins, and more," Kasten agreed. His voice began to pick up speed as he explained. "Sometimes the essence of one thing is an antiserum to another. Quite fascinating, isn't it? Practically speaking it is, of course, the opposite of essence creating, as usually a serum requires re-diluting to some extent before it is useful. The two fields are related, however. Antisera are an extension of my experimentation with inactive essences."

It did sound fascinating, and Harry said so.

Kasten seemed pleased, if his elaboration was any indication. "Essences are rarely understood. It isn't a simple function of opacity, as some assume. At times it is as simple as removing the non-essential, however, I find that an essence is also sometimes an amalgamation of separate, mutually dependent parts."

She didn't pretend to fully understand him, but she smiled in thanks for the explanation. "One elapid and one kneazle, then. Anything else?"

The young vampire shook his head slowly. "You'll go now?"

"Of course." She left him in his lab and made her way carefully back toward the staircase. When she rejoined Gavril in the lobby she said, "I'll be back."

Gavril didn't lift his head from its resting place on the desk, opting to flick unconcerned fingers at her instead. She set the candle down beside his lax arm and left the vampire hotel.

The sun was still strong in the sky as she strode into the Magical Menagerie. She told the young man behind the counter what she needed and he scratched his chin lazily.

"Got a green mamba," he said. "Bit dangerous, though."

She shrugged. "I'll take it. And the kneazle?"

"We've got black, grey, and orange," he told her.

"Any is fine." In truth she felt a bit awkward choosing the unlucky kneazle, as the odds of its being exsanguinated once it produced the antibodies Kasten wanted were relatively high. At least, that's what she assumed he was doing with the animals. She didn't know enough about his work to say for certain.

In the end, she left with the green mamba and a black kneazle in separate carrying cases. Harry wove her way back to Knockturn Alley and reached the Lamia Lodge well before sundown.

Gavril eyed her interestedly on her way back through the lobby. "Is that a courtship gift?"

Harry stopped walking to stare at him. Was it a what?

"Because you really should have sought permission from Count Aurel first," he drawled, disapproval lacing his rasping voice.

Harry spluttered. "Why would—? No. It's—he just needs these for his experiments." She didn't know where Gavril would get the idea she wanted to court the Count's grandson, much less why two random animals would be considered an appropriate offering to a vampire in such a situation. Gavril gave her a skeptical expression, as though she might be lying about why she was toting a snake and a kneazle through his lobby.

Her cheeks flaring, she transferred both carriers to one hand and swiped the still-burning candle with the other. Deciding to ignore Gavril's insane question, she descended the stairs again and fairly ran the distance to Kasten's workspace.

He bade her set the carriers on an empty counter and motioned her over to where he now had a second cauldron set up next to the first.

"You have raw Bicorn milk?" he asked. She produced a small bottle from her kit after a moment of searching. He took the bottle from her and examined it before nodding. "This will do."

He moved over to the counter on the right side of the workroom and Harry followed him with her candle. The counter held a strange-looking device. It was shaped like a wheel lying on its side, and in each spoke was an angled slot about the size of a small bottle. Kasten slid her bottle of Bicorn milk into one of the slots and put his hand on the edge of the wheel. With a sharp motion, his arm flew sideways, flicking the wheel into motion.

Round and round it spun, at a speed she could scarcely comprehend. Kasten used his incredible strength casually, pushing the wheel twice more to keep it moving at the rate he wanted.

When it stopped, he quickly removed the vial and held it up for her to see. The once-homogenous milk was now separated into distinct sections. "The heavier components will be pressed to the outside," he said. Uncorking the vial, he skimmed the top layer off of the milk with a spoon and said, "Fat is light. Now it is gone."

Harry was stunned that it could be so simple. She didn't know where Kasten had obtained such a spinning device, but she supposed she could find a spell to do the same basic function for her.

Kasten wasn't finished yet, however. He poured the remaining milk into the cauldron and took a pinch of something from a pouch at his waist, tossing it into the small cauldron as well and adjusting the portable fire charm to his satisfaction.

"Salt?" she guessed.

He nodded. "The proteins are not truly dissolved in the water, only bonded to it. The salt will disrupt those bonds. The heat will encourage them to abandon the bonds altogether, and the water will eventually evaporate. What is left it the essence you need."

Harry smiled, knowing she could recreate Kasten's methods herself with a bit of practice. If the concentrated Bicorn protein worked, that would be one more potion for her portable healing kit.

While they waited for the water to evaporate, Harry said curiously, "If you don't mind me asking, how long have you been doing this?"

Kasten's yellow eyes seemed to flicker in the candlelight. "I have been studying essences for sixty years, fifty of which I have spent as a member of the undead."

Seeing as he didn't look much older than twenty, she supposed he'd become interested in the subject as a teenager. "Are you really Count Aurel's grandson?" she asked. She had heard the count was hundreds of years old. It didn't seem possible.

Her fellow potioneer rolled his shoulders uncomfortably. "The Count is a distant ancestor of mine. It is easier to call him 'grandfather' than to count how many 'greats' our true relation reflects. He does not make a practice of turning all of his descendants," he added before she could ask. "Why he chose me, when I had several older siblings more conventionally talented and sociable, I've never been able to discern."

She wondered whether it had happened suddenly, or with his permission. Kasten didn't seem fully at ease with the subject, though, so she let her questions fade into the back of her mind. "Sometimes it does little good to ask why things happen. Better to focus on what to do once they have," she suggested quietly.

Kasten hummed his agreement. "I've found my purpose. I don't want for more in this life."

Harry was hit with an acute, irrational bolt of envy. What she wouldn't give to be left to brew whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted. Could there be a more perfect existence? In the wake of that longing came the bitter-sweet knowledge that such a life was beyond her, for the time being. Someday…but then, it didn't do to dwell on someday and ignore the now, did it?

Soon there was nothing left in the cauldron but a kind of damp paste. Kasten scraped it into a vial for her and said, "Any more and it might burn. Will this suffice?"

She grinned. "We'll find out when I try it in the potion tomorrow. Thank you, Kasten."

The vampire rolled a shoulder in a motion that she was coming to associate with some slight embarrassment. "Come back if you find another essence you need."

"I will," she promised, more than pleased with the day's work.

Harry took her newly acquired essence and left the lab. She was drifting somewhat absent-mindedly up the stairs when she heard a voice that made her pause and listen. It wasn't that she recognized the voice—in fact, she doubted she'd ever heard it before—rather that the tone of it was so out of place in the Lamia Lodge as to be remarkable in itself.

"—demand to see the Count this time," the man was saying fiercely.

It was Irina who answered. "The Count only entertains humans when he's hungry. Are you volunteering?"

An outraged huff preceded the man warning, "My master will hear of this insolence. When the time comes for the oppressed peoples of the world to take their rightful place, you'll be out in the cold."

Gavril let out an amused chuckle. "Mortals fear the cold, not we."

"And if you stay a while, I don't think you'll find us oppressed at all," Irina added, dark promise thrumming through her words. "In fact, we can be quite unrestrained when the mood takes us."

The man hissed something too low for Harry to hear, and footsteps told her he was leaving. Quick as a cat, she crept up a few more stairs until she could see the wizard. She caught his profile from the side and immediately recognized him from the World Cup. It was Crouch's son, disheveled haircut and strange lip-tic intact. When she heard the front door slam behind him, Harry slowly climbed the last few steps and gained Gavril and Irina's full attention.

"Eavesdropping is plebian," Irina told her.

Knowing full well that vampires could and did listen to almost anything that happened in their vicinity, Harry ignored the reprimand to ask, "What was he doing here?"

"Same as those who've come before," Gavril said, shrugging unconcernedly. "Trying to convince our coven to join in his glorious revolution."

"As if we'd ever participate in something the Carpathians deemed a worthy cause," his redheaded mate said with a curl of her upper lip.

"What revolution?" she asked, eyes tight with concern. Was this the same recruiting Krait had spoken of? "Did he say who he represents?" She didn't know much about Crouch jr., but Mr. Ogden had said he was one of the party members Riddle entrusted to help formulate the tournament tasks. If he was there representing the politician, recruiting from the alleys for some kind of coup d'état, then Riddle had played them all.

Gavril scoffed. "His mysterious backer does not give a name. Calls himself the flight of death. Baroque, no?"

The flight of death. Her French training translated the phrase automatically and Harry felt her stomach clench in unchecked dread. Voldemort. It had been a year and a half since she heard that name, but the memories came without calling, a rush of pain, anger, and fear.

"You can't trust Voldemort," she said sharply. "Whatever you do, don't listen to a word he says. And be careful; he doesn't like to take no for an answer."

Gavril exchanged a lightning-fast glance with Irina and said, "We've no interest in listening to a wizard who sends such rude messengers. If the conflict grows too irksome, we may simply relocate."

Harry accepted that with a small amount of relief. If Voldemort was truly still alive, and actively recruiting to boot, then the fewer who joined him the better. "Have you told Leo?"

"The Rogue has not asked."

Right. She would warn him, then. Come to that, she should warn others, too. Her father, to start. She had no proof that Crouch jr. had broken any laws, but surely she could think of something to tell James that communicated the seriousness of the potential threat Voldemort represented.

The only one who might truly understand, she realized with a sick sense of irony, was Riddle himself. Harry's mind raced in circles as she left the Lamia Lodge, and finally settled on a memory of Pettigrew, of all people, fiercely justifying his coming to Hogwarts with a simple truth. Those in Riddle's party were always more afraid of him than they were of anything else. If the DMLE couldn't get to Crouch jr., Riddle certainly could.

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[end of chapter ten]

A/N: Well there it is my lovely readers. A bit shy of the 50k that was promised, but a doozy nonetheless. Thank you all for your exceptional patience and support. I hope everyone is having a wonderful summer (or winter, if you're in the opposite hemisphere), and happy belated birthday to me!

I just wanted to give a shout out to my amazing beta Mary. Thank you for all you do, and I hope you are feeling better soon. As always, thanks to everyone for reading and reviewing.

-Violet