Chapter Sixty-Three

Slughorn's Office

All of a sudden it was Halloween. This year the holiday fell on a Hogsmeade weekend, so people were in higher spirits than usual.

Alex woke up that morning and screamed. The Bloody Baron was standing by the head of her bed, staring intently at her.

"How long have you been here?" she asked, barely hearing herself over her thunderous heartbeat.

"A few hours," the Baron admitted freely.

She gawked at him. "Did someone die?"

"Not yet."

"Am I going to die?"

He frowned. "It's hard to say."

Now that the initial shock had worn off, Alex was straight-up pissed. "Well, I will die if you do this again. You almost gave me a heart attack!"

The ghost smiled. It was not a kind expression. "You reek of Death today – more so than every other year."

Alex hugged her knees to her chest and drew her blanket tight across her. "Would you believe me if I said I had another brush with Death earlier in the year?"

The Baron's gaze sharpened. "Do tell."

No one was in the room. Still, Alex cast a muffliato – a charm from her Potions book that made everything sound fuzzy to any eavesdroppers in the vicinity.

"In the Department of Mysteries there is an arch with a veil. Barely audible whispers can be heard from the structure. I fell in, met who I believe was the personification of Death, and returned as I was on the other side of the arch."

"Your second encounter," murmured the Baron. "I do wonder what will happen with the third?"

Alex flinched.

Spitfire hopped onto her lap and glared at the Baron, who turned his nose up at the cat and drifted outside. Alex scratched the spot between Spitfire's ears in silent thanks.

Several of her Housemates wished Alex a happy birthday when she walked through the common room. A few ghosts greeted her on her way to the Great Hall, none of whom were as foreboding as the Baron, thankfully. Alex slid into her seat between Katherine and Agatha just in time for the mail to come in.

Three nondescript school owls dumped some packages onto Alex's empty plate. One was from her mum (and dad) and contained a few books on blood runes. Another was a potion from Alastor that was almost as priceless as felix felicis; after a long and arduous search, he had finally found a Potions master good enough to create a concoction that could prevent your DNA from being used for the Polyjuice. As he explained in the note, however, the Anti-Polyjuice had the nasty side effect of killing one's cells unnaturally. Alex's hair would be weak and brittle, her nails prone to breaking, etc. Was it worth it when someone exceptionally gifted as transfiguration could mimic her appearance anyway? The only bright side (she supposed) was that the potion had to be taken fortnightly to maintain its effects. It wasn't permanent; she could stop any time she wanted.

With that reassuring thought in mind, Alex burnt the note, pocketed the potion, and moved onto her next present. There was no sender, and a quick run-through of several detection spells promised her that there was nothing fishy involved. When she tore open the nondescript wrapping and caught a glimpse of what was inside, her eyebrows shot upwards.

It was an expensive-looking robe that was thick and soft to the touch. If Alex had to describe the colour, she would say it was a blend of grey and blue. Alex wondered how long the robe was – knee-length? Ankle? As much as she wanted to pull it from the packaging and check, she didn't want to draw more attention to the pricey present than she already had.

There was a golden clasp that would sit against her collarbone. Bordering the thin chain of the clasp were two symbols: a crescent moon and an eight-pointed star that resembled a diamond. Alex used the tip of her finger to brush the delicate, handmade adornment. It was, simply put, gorgeous.

"Wow," murmured Agatha appreciatively. "Who's that from?"

Alex shrugged. "Your guess is as good as mine."

Katherine leaned over to inspect the robe more closely. "Secret admirer? Or a fan?"

"I'm not Harry," scoffed Alex. "I don't have any fans."

Jacob snickered. "Maybe it's from Slughorn."

"Ugh, don't even joke about that." She shook her head in disgust. "Even if it was from him, he'd definitely let me and everyone in the world know about his efforts."

"I mean, it's rather unethical to be your student's sugar daddy, so I can see why he'd like to keep mum about it."

"I will literally leap over this table and punch you in the mouth if you don't shut up."

Zubair gasped. "Anything but the money maker!"

"Fine, the crotch."

"That's acceptable."

"Oi," snapped Jacob.

Alex momentarily debated wearing her new robes on her date with Blaise after breakfast. She decided it was too formal and decided to throw on a light coat on top of her plain green robes instead when she returned to her room to store her gifts.

She paused in the midst of putting away the anti-polyjuice. Better for Blaise to think her slightly less pretty than to steal her DNA. Alex unstoppered the vial and took a tentative sniff. It legitimately smelled like mud. Grimacing, she downed the entire thing in one go, almost vomiting it all up in the process. Was a potion meant to feel this lumpy?

"Ugh." Shuddering, Alex popped the cork back on the now-empty bottle and tossed it into her trunk before locking it.

She scanned her reflection. Already her hair looked limper and duller. Alex heaved a sigh and headed for the entrance hall. When she got there, there was an impossibly long line of students itching to leave the school grounds. Filch was insistent on triple-checking each and every person for Dark items with his secrecy sensor — a long, thin device not unlike the metal, handheld detectors security guards sometimes had.

Blaise smiled when he saw her. He didn't offer his arm or hand, much to her relief, and simply fell into step beside her as they walked down to Hogsmeade, filling the time with small talk.

Hogsmeade, much like Diagon Alley, was quieter than usual. No one except Hogwarts students bothered to linger around, not wanting to be exposed. More than a fair few shops were closed and boarded up, but at least Honeydukes's was open. The shop was consequently packed.

Alex grimaced. "Three Broomsticks?"

Blaise nodded. It was either that or Hog's Head…or Madam Puddifoot's. Needless to say, the Broomsticks was the only real viable option.

The fire was roaring in the pub, chasing away the autumn chill as they stepped inside. Madam Rosmerta smiled vaguely at them, dispirited the same way her town was. Alex shot the owner a sympathetic smile and slid into the booth furthest from the entrance and took the seat facing the door.

"A trick your mother taught you?" asked Blaise, obviously recognising her tactical choice for what it was.

Alex smirked and tried not to think about all the times she and Cedric had sat in this exact booth. "Something like that," she replied, glancing at the menu. "Do you come here often?"

"I'm actually a fan of Puddifoot's myself," he drawled.

Alex snickered. "You're one of her regulars?"

"Her best," he confirmed.

Once decided, Blaise—ever the gentleman—got up to the counter to order while Alex surveyed the room. Harry, Ron and Hermione waved at her when they walked in, but their expressions soured simultaneously when they noticed Blaise returning to his seat across her.

"Are you and Potter no longer joined at the hip, then?" wondered Blaise, handing her a bottle of butterbeer.

She clinked it against his. "We haven't been for quite some time." Not since her third year, probably.

"You don't seem too sad about that."

Alex smiled without humour. "People grow apart. That's something you learn the hard way."

Blaise sipped his drink and leaned back in his seat. "I don't get you," he said sincerely.

Her smile widened into a small, amused grin. "Is that what's drawing you to me?"

Alex's response startled a laugh out of Blaise. "Something like that," he replied with a grin.

She tried not to stare directly at his smile. Between that and his genuine laughter, Blaise seemed like a completely different person when he let his guard down. Alex liked this version of Blaise the most, and she wanted to see him like this more and more. Worse still, she wanted to be one of the only people capable of bringing this side of him out.

Maybe slow down a bit, she reminded herself. Alex conjured the imagine of a parachute in her mind.

"I got you something for your birthday," said Blaise, causing her to freeze. He set down a small box on the table between their respective drinks. "It caught my eye when I was browsing the catalogues."

With some trepidation, Alex picked up the box and opened it. As she thought, it contained a ring. It was designed to resemble a silver crown that framed the opal in the centre. Smiling, Alex ran a finger over her gemstone.

"I love it," she told Blaise, smiling. "But I won't wear it now because it'll clash with my other one." She wiggled the finger adorned with the dragon and black pearl ring.

Before Blaise could ask why she couldn't just swap the rings, their food arrived, saving Alex from having to find another excuse to hide the fact that she wanted to check whether the ring was cursed or not before slipping it on her appendage. It wasn't that she distrusted Blaise, exactly — he'd be pretty daft to try to curse her in public. It was just that Alex made it a rule of thumb most things were safe to handle as a precautionary measure. For all she knew, the accessory was cursed without Blaise's permission or his knowledge.

Alex mimicked Blaise to the best of her ability as they ate. After years of dining with her fellow Slytherins, it was easy to pretend she had undergone the same etiquette lessons as they had when they were younger.

When all her fish and chips and Blaise's shepherd's pie were done, Alex excused herself to the bathroom. There were only two stalls in each bathroom, and one was occupied. Alex slipped into the available stall while the pair of Gryffindor girls behind her bit back sighs as they turned back to wait outside.

Alex hated using public bathrooms even though she magicked everything clean before touching them. Sharing a bathroom with four other girls every day at school had been nightmarish to her at first. It was never truly devoid of errant hairs no matter how hard the house-elves struggled.

Thankfully, the Broomsticks' lavatory was spotless. Alex did her business and smoothed out her appearance after washing her hands. Several strands of hair were pulled from her head when she used her fingers to detangle her locks. As always, she disposed of the loose tresses by burning them – and then remembered she didn't need to anymore.

She very nearly lost control of the fire when Madam Rosmerta emerged quietly from the other stall. Alex clenched her hand, extinguishing the fire as she turned to the owner of the pub.

"Sorry," she said sheepishly. "Wasn't gonna burn down the place, I swear."

Madam Rosmerta appeared not to have heard her. She pointed her wand directly at Alex's forehead. "Imperio."

Her instincts were screaming at her to duck even before the other witch finished her incantation. Unfortunately, she forgot to take into account how cramped the area was. Alex folded her legs and ducked but ended up banging her head against the sink on her way down. Dazed, she could only blink as Madam Rosmerta cursed her again, this time successfully.

"Take this," the barmaid said, handing Alex a considerably large package that had been tucked away in her robes, "and deliver it to Albus Dumbledore."

Alex accepted the package, idly noting how distant everything seemed. She could never get over the forced levity induced by the Imperius Curse, no matter how many times her friends practised casting it on her.

Why would Madam Rosmerta want her to deliver this to Dumbledore? It was obviously something dodgy if she couldn't owl it to him or give it to him himself – not to mention the whole Unforgivable Curse thing. Bemused, Alex tucked it under her arm, not wanting to deposit it into her pockets with the rest of her stuff.

She was still frowning when she left the washroom. The back of her head throbbed dully from where it had met the sink. The imperius was gone, having been exceptionally weak in the first place. It might've worked on a first-year or someone equally inexperienced with the spell, but Alex could break out of almost every imperius she had encountered, sans Alastor's – real Alastor, not the impostor posing as him in her fifth year.

To her pleasant surprise, Blaise had already settled the bill. He rose from his seat when he saw her, seeming as eager to leave as she was. He stared quizzically at the package in her arms.

"Did the restroom wish you a happy birthday?" he wondered.

"Madam Rosmerta did," Alex said quietly as they left the Three Broomsticks. "Did she seem off to you when you spoke to her?"

Blaise shook his head.

"Weird," she mused.

"Do you want to go for a look around the shops?"

Alex swept her gaze over the sad state of Hogsmeade. "Maybe next time. I have an appointment with Dumbledore to keep. Duncan should be there already," she sighed, checking her watch.

Blaise accepted her lie easily. Gratified, Alex slipped her free hand into his as they began their walk back to the castle.

Dumbledore was in his office for once. He was gone more often than not these days, doing who knew what. Cleaning up Riddle's messes, no doubt.

Alex greeted her grandfather with a curt nod before dumping the package onto Dumbledore's desk with little fanfare.

"Madam Rosmerta tried to curse me with the imperius not twenty minutes ago," Alex informed him, not bothering to sit down for this conversation. "She seemed to have done this of her own free will, all so that I could deliver this present to you."

Dumbledore met her eyes. Less than a second later, she felt magic brush against her occlumency shields. "Don't," she said irritably. "I'm not cursed. Her spell was too weak."

"Braggart," huffed the portrait of her grandfather. She just knew he was proud of her.

Carefully, Dumbledore unwrapped the package without making direct contact with it. His fingers twitched; the lid of the flat box lifted itself open, revealing a hideous necklace. It glowed red with a wave of his good hand.

The old headmaster hummed thoughtfully. "Had you or another student touched this, you would've fallen unconscious for days, and possibly died."

"An assassination attempt," surmised Alex, taking half a step back from the necklace. "Bit of a random one, too, no offense."

"How, pray tell, would you go about killing me?"

"Rock up to Hogsmeade when all the students are out and about, kidnap Harry and threaten to maim him unless you came to a specific, predetermined location on your own." She shrugged. "And that's just from the top of my head. Either the person responsible for this necklace situation doesn't really want you dead or they're really incompetent." Or even both.

"They could be targeting you," Dumbledore pointed out calmly.

"With a necklace that ugly they could've just made me look at it and I'd faint on the spot. Kidding," she added for the benefit of the stunned portraits judging her. "I'm not that shallow. Also, I'm far easier to get to than you, professor, locked in your ivory tower as you are."

"The audacity!" complained her grandfather's predecessor.

The current head of Hogwarts paid them no mind. "You're right," he said over their grumblings. "I'm their actual target. The Dark Lord has tasked one of his followers with the honour of killing me."

Alex stared at him in the ensuing silence. "You're taking this remarkably well."

He returned his attention to the necklace. "It seems like the bystanders drawn into this will suffer the brunt of these attempts far more than me."

"Do you know who's behind this?"


Irritation began to seep into her. "Well? Do you have a plan?"

Dumbledore leaned back in his seat. "You don't play wizard's chess, do you, Alexandra?"

"You're not going to whip a board out, are you?" she asked, tamping down on her mounting annoyance.

"Ah, but life itself is a convoluted game of chess, is it not? Therefore you are a player, albeit an unwitting one. The person more or less trying to end my life is but a pawn in the grand scheme of things. Dire consequences will befall us all if their attempts are thwarted so early on."

Us. Alex peered at the schemer through narrowed eyes. "You're content to act the fool," she said slowly. By doing so, he could watch things play out on its projected trajectory while pulling the strings from behind. Alex could see the merit in that.

Still… "Other people will get in the way. Madam Rosmerta is already a casualty. I could've been one too. Who next? A first-year?"

"More aurors will be stationed at Hogsmeade," said Dumbledore. "Whoever cursed Madam Rosmerta will need to return to her in-person in order to reapply the imperius. For now, I will send someone to break her out of it."

He wasn't budging, even with her guilt trip. Was Dumbledore truly that cold, or was he simply so full of self-assurance that he couldn't possibly envision the derailment of his plan?

"Very well. Have a good evening, professor."

"Before you go," said Dumbledore, "there's something I'd like you to see."

The ancient wizard's age became apparent as he heaved himself out of his chair. He led her to the back of his office, which had been cleared out for the sake of a grimy pensieve.

"Am I about to unlock your backstory?" she couldn't help but ask.

Dumbledore smiled. "Not mine. Tom Riddle's."

Alex fought the urge to check her appearance on the nearest reflective surface. Unless she suddenly impersonated Harry, she couldn't see why Dumbledore was sharing this with her of all people.

Either her shields were weakened or Dumbledore was incredibly gifted at reading people's faces, because his smile grew a touch amused. "I wasn't planning on showing you this, but your insight may prove beneficial."

Ah. So, she was yet another pawn in his eyes. Well, whatever. Alex ignored the slight to her pride and approached the pensieve.

"It took me a great deal of trouble to find this," he said, withdrawing a small vial from his robes. It was filled with a murky substance Alex could only assume was someone's memory. "Few people knew of Riddle while he was a boy, and fewer still could be coerced into sharing what they knew of him. Riddle grew up in an orphanage and was obsessed with discerning his heritage. The only clues he had were his middle and last name, which inevitably led to disappointment as his father was neither a Hogwarts student nor a wizard."

Dumbledore tipped the silvery memory into the basin. He gestured at the pensieve. "After you."

Merope Gaunt had been an ugly thing. That was more a reflection of her circumstances than anything. If she had grown up in a wholesome, loving household, she would have been a pleasant woman – she had none of the hate her blood purist brother and father had, going so far as to fall for a muggle man. Riddle Sr had been blessed from birth with a wealthy and doting family, so he was allowed to flourish beautifully. Unfortunately, his good fortune landed him in hot water, as Merope set her sights on him and, when she could win his heart through normal means, she dosed him with love potion after love potion.

After years of being showered with affection, Merope deluded herself into thinking Riddle Sr genuinely cared for her. Without the potion poisoning his heart and mind, her lover promptly abandoned her and drank himself stupid to clear his memory of the inconceivable things he had witnessed and experienced. His son saved him from dying an alcoholic by murdering him and his grandparents before Riddle Sr could turn fifty.

"If there were a moral to this story," said Dumbledore after the pensieve spat them out, "what would it be?"

"Don't date-rape?" Alex suggested blithely.

For the most part his expression remained neutral. Alex had an inkling he was somewhat disappointed, though.

She couldn't really bring herself to care. Merope Gaunt had had a pitiful upbringing, yes, but it didn't excuse her actions. Abused and neglected, she had been so desperate for love that she seized it through the only means she felt possible: by manipulating another and manufacturing the impossible.

"Do you feel sorry for Merope Gaunt?" she asked Dumbledore, dipping her fingers into the pensieve.

"To an extent. I'm mostly sorry for the monster she brought into this world as a result of her discrepancies."

Alex hummed thoughtfully. "Surely you don't blame the circumstances of Voldemort's birth for his depravity?" To say so would be a grave injustice. "Harry's situation is so much worse and yet you don't see him going around murdering innocents left and right."

Dumbledore beamed at her. The unfiltered approval from him was almost too much to bear; it was like gazing right at the sun. "I'm pleased to hear you think that way. I agree wholeheartedly."

Wincing, Alex retracted her hand from the basin and flicked it dry. "Thanks. I should get going. Should I send Duncan up here? It's too suspicious otherwise."

He assented with a nod. "Until next time, Alexandra."

"Hopefully not too soon," she couldn't help but toss over her shoulder as she left his office.

Part of Alex wished Dumbledore had never revealed that side of Voldemort's heritage to her. In the following days after her dip into the pensieve, her mood was foul, so much so that almost all of her friends commented on it. Alex hated and pitied Merope Gaunt in equal measure – sentiments that were ultimately useless considering she was dead. Her scion, unfortunately, wasn't.

On the fifteenth of November, the Daily Prophet reported that Amelia Bones had been murdered in her own home. Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement and a valued member of the Wizengamot, Amelia Bones was tough but fair and vocally anti-Voldemort. There were claims that she was murdered by the Dark Lord himself – an honour as far as some of Alex's Housemates were concerned.

The newspaper slid out of Alex's loose grip. Amelia Bones' death was a blow not only to the movement, but to their small, sheltered school as well. Her niece Susan Bones was conspicuously absent from the Great Hall, no doubt shying from the limelight for the time being.

"He killed most of the Bones the first time around," Katherine mused quietly. "I wonder if he has a grudge against them."

Alex pressed a hand against her mouth as she struggled to calm her breathing. Even though it was pancake day, she didn't dare entertain the thought of taking another bite. Unable to muster a single word, she pushed herself away from the table and all but ran from the Great Hall.

She wanted to get as far away from everyone as possible. The forest was out of bounds (not just as ostensibly this time) due to mounting hostility from the centaurs, so that left her two options: up or down. As much as she missed her merperson friend, it was too easy to lose her life in the Black Lake. The Astronomy Tower was the highest point of the castle, but its isolated nature made it a popular hook-up point for hormonal couples. It was breakfast time, though; surely no one had that much energy in the morning. What she'd give for the Marauders Map right about now.

To her visceral relief, the Astronomy Tower was unoccupied. Alex sagged against the railing of the balcony and breathed in the cool, crisp autumn air as her hysteria abated. She didn't dare shed a tear over Amelia Bones' murder. She had no right to, having never met the woman. It'd be an insult to Susan if she of all people dissolved into tears over her aunt's demise.

"Do you intend on jumping?"

Alex glanced sharply behind her. Her hackles lowered when she saw it was just the Grey Lady. "Good morning," she responded cordially.

Ravenclaw's representative dipped her head in a shallow nod. "Were you to tip yourself off the edge, you would surely die from this height."

Of the four House ghosts, the Grey Lady puzzled Alex the most – and that was saying something, considering who Slytherin's spectre was. Still, the Baron was straightforward in a way the Grey Lady seemed averse to. Few knew her true identity, and fewer still were at liberty to discuss it. Even Alex didn't know, and she was arguably the only mortal in the castle who had a solid rapport with the ghosts of Hogwarts.

"I don't plan on dying yet," Alex assured the Grey Lady. "There's too much to be done."

The Grey Lady regarded her quietly. "Yet," she echoed. "That implies you envision yourself departing from this life to the next."

Or stuck in between like you. "You think I desire immortality?" Alex asked a tad incredulously.

"Am I wrong?"

Alex considered her question. "I don't fear death. We actually get along well. But my life goal is to change the world for the better, and that's hard to do when you're ten feet under."

"And how, pray tell, do you wish to fulfil that goal?" the Grey Lady asked, her disposition marginally warmer.

"Getting rid of Voldemort would be a good start," Alex said wryly.

Now that got her attention. "Like you, he was once a student here. He also planned on changing the world."

"We're not the same," she said more harshly than she intended. "His motivations were purely selfish. If anything, his goals are the complete opposite of mine."

"Perhaps," acquiesced the Grey Lady. "Just know that people have their eye on you, Alexandra Fortescue. You may have charmed the other House ghosts, but I have more than enough reservations about you to suffice."

This was more than precautionary wariness. Just who was the Grey Lady?

Regardless of her true identity, Alex was grateful for her sudden appearance and rather enigmatic conversation. Momentarily distracted from the wave of despair that threatened to submerge her, Alex left the Astronomy Tower and promptly decided to skive all her classes.

The thought of spending the rest of the day surrounded by other people left her feeling nauseous. She considered going to the Room of Requirement, but it was occupied more often than not these days, and besides, what if something befell the castle while she was hidden away? A million awful scenarios popped into her mind, driven by a paranoia that wasn't entirely baseless.

There was one place she was guaranteed isolation, unconventional though it was. One might even consider it improper. There was a chance Dumbledore would praise her – granted, he wasn't the best person to base her moral compass on.

Well, whatever. It was probably fine.

Her mind mostly made up, Alex set off for Slughorn's office. The Potions professor had been absent from the staff table during breakfast, which meant he had opted to dine in his own quarters this morning, as he was wont to do every now and then. Alex sympathised with him greatly.

He appeared mildly surprised to see her, having undoubtedly used one of his many security devices to discern the identity of the person knocking on his door before daring to open it.

"Did you hear the news?" she asked, cutting to the chase.

Slughorn was the type of person whose age became more apparent when he frowned. "Amelia Bones," he sighed, stepping back to allow her inside. "A great student and an even greater witch. Her death is a loss to us all, especially so for her dear niece. Susan, if I recall correctly."

"You know her?" Alex asked, only sounding somewhat astonished.

He nodded. "She doesn't take N.E.W.T. Potions, unfortunately, but I did run into her on the way to the Great Hall once. Polite girl, if a bit distant. Very reluctant to accept my dinner party invitations," he remarked. "I should send the Bones family my condolences."

Gracious host that he was, Slughorn bid her a seat at his coffee table where she helped herself to some tea while he composed a note at his desk.

"Are you particularly close to Susan?" he asked, not looking up from his parchment.

"I don't think I've exchanged more than a word with her," confessed Alex.

"Are you picturing yourself in her shoes?" he wondered, frowning sympathetically. "Any word of your father?"

Right, her dad was allegedly on the run. "Not yet," she said carefully.

Slughorn nodded once and said no more on the matter.

"Professor," she began hesitantly when he was done with his letter. "Truthfully, I came here for a favour. I'm…not exactly in the mood to go about my day as if nothing's the matter. If you don't mind, I'd like to hide away here, at least for the morning. You have class all day, right?"

"Well, yes," he replied with equal uncertainty. "I suppose it shouldn't be too much of a problem. Feel free to help yourself to some more crystallised pineapple. If anyone asks, tell them you're making the first-year essays as a way to brush up on your studies."

She shot him a wry smile. "Will I actually be marking them?'

"Why, yes." Slughorn pulled out a pile of papers from his filing cabinet.


Alex sure as hell rifled through Slughorn's office as soon as the first period began. The only real thing of interest was his alcohol shelf; if he had hidden intel on Riddle, there was no physical evidence of it. After five minutes, Alex gave up and sat down at his desk. There were several dozen papers that needed grading.

This is painful, she thought with a wince after the third essay. I should start a tutoring business.

She made quick work of the abysmal essays and was done before the second period bell could ring. Slughorn's plush chair was promptly dragged onto his balcony and positioned so that it faced the grounds. Cup of tea in hand, Alex reclined into the seat and contented herself with watching time tick by.

Sometime later a knock on the door woke Alex up. Having not even realised she fell asleep in the first place, Alex hopped out of the chair and stood in a dazed manner until another, more insistent rap against the door jolted her back to awareness. Grumbling, she vanished all traces of tea from her person and returned the cup to its unbroken state before rushing to the door.

Draco's surprised face was on the other side of the entrance. "Are you cavorting with the professor?" was the first thing out of his mouth once he regained his wits.

"I'm helping him with some marking," she snapped. "What do you want?"

"No need to be so defensive," he sniffed. "And my business with Slughorn is none of your concern."

Alex tilted her head and peered at Draco contemplatively. "You want to join the Slug Club. Why? Don't you have something better to occupy your time with?"

"I could say the same of you," he hissed. Half a second later he schooled his features into something resembling a calm and collected expression. "Invite me to his Christmas party."

"I'm sorry?" she said, genuinely baffled. "Why in Merlin's name would I do that?"

"You owe me a favour."

"This is a weird way to cash it in," Alex said honestly.

"Okay, then break Potter's legs for me."

Alex rolled her eyes. "No, thank you. If you're that desperate to attend, why not do what normal boys do and flirt with a girl so she invites you of her own will?"

Draco smirked. "Are you asking me to flirt with you, Fortescue?"

"You're hilarious," she drawled, ignoring the fight or flight response his reply had triggered within her. "I'm seeing Blaise, remember? Your friend and roommate? You think he'll be pleased with this turn of events?"

Draco waved his hand in a dismissive gesture. "He'll understand."

Alex sighed. Admittedly, this was an easy way to pay Draco back from the huge favour she had cashed in on two years ago. It was almost too easy.

"Let me discuss it with Blaise first," she said wearily.

Draco nodded curtly. "I expect a response by tomorrow evening."

Alex offered him a mock salute. "Yes, sir."