Lyra smirked, listening with half an ear to Gin explaining the recent implosion of her parents' household to Harry and Maïa. She couldn't say she was surprised that Molly had grown up to be an obnoxious, controlling bitch. She always had been one of Lyra's least favourite cousins. It sounded like Bill had finally stepped up and started acting like a decent First Son ought to, which, better late than never, she guessed.

She also wasn't surprised that Molly was apparently concerned about Sirius seducing Gin, despite the fact that Gin claimed that was absolutely ridiculous. Gabbie insisted that half of the reason Gin went so pink talking about it was that she actually did fancy him a bit, and Lyra was more inclined to believe the veela than the inexplicably embarrassed Weasley on the matter. Thirteen was a little on the young side for Sirius, but if Gin wanted to shag him, Lyra was fairly certain he would go for it.

"If you want to shag Siri, you can just ask him, you know," she noted, craning her neck, trying to spot her owl through the feathery horde descending on their table. Well, not her owl, one of the school owls. The one which was supposed to be carrying a message to Cæciné for her, because that bitch was avoiding Lyra for no explicable reason! It had been an unusually grey tawny, but it was more difficult to make out the colouring from below... "I mean, he did turn me down, but only because he was trying to be responsible and—"

"Wait. What do you mean Sirius turned you down?" Maïa asked, her expression falling somewhere between confused and horrified, though her tone was definitely more horrified. "When did you—? Why would you—? You didn't really ask him to— did you?"

"Well, not really, though he is on the list of people I don't mind touching me. After the World Cup Riot, when I was sort of brain-fried but still up and antsy and not ready to be done, he told me that the thing to do in that situation is find someone to screw your brains out, and I asked if he was volunteering."

Ha! There! She hadn't managed to spot the owl until it landed, but it did find its target, so that was fine.

She waited with bated breath as the blonde detached the letter from its leg, giving substantially less than half of her attention to Maïa's insistence that Sirius shouldn't say things like that to Lyra in the first place, and since when did Lyra even fancy blokes? Which was silly on both counts.

She didn't fancy blokes in general any more than she fancied women in general, and who else was going to give her frank advice on how to deal with post-battle antsiness? Well, Bella, but it was hardly as though she'd specifically been going out of her way looking for advice, it had just come up in conversation. And Maïa didn't like Lyra talking to Bella as a matter of principle, anyway (not that that made any difference to Lyra, she just suspected that Maïa wasn't likely to suggest that Lyra ask her for advice on being a functional crazy person, rather than Sirius, and there really weren't any other options), whereas Sirius saying shite like that was just...inappropriate? for some reason?

Lyra had assumed that Harry's general discomfort with Sirius flirting with her was a muggle thing, which would track with Maïa also disapproving, but Gin was giving her a look over Harry's shoulder too, so maybe not. "Am I missing something?"

Gin rolled her eyes. "An incest taboo? And more importantly, I don't want to shag Sirius!"

"I think they bred that out of the House about four-hundred—" She cut herself off mid-sentence as she realised that Cæciné had indeed received her note (an invitation to a rematch, and also several paragraphs demanding at length to know why the hell the trainee battlemage was avoiding her when Lyra knew that she'd had just as much fun in the Task as she had, and she had to want a rematch as well, Lyra refused to believe that she didn't, and how could she not see that this was like Gilgamesh meeting Enkidu perfect, it would be an affront to the damn gods for Cæciné not to be her duelling partner) but she didn't read it, she just took one look at the seal and burnt it unopened!

That bitch! What the fuck was her problem?!

"Excuse me, I need to go smack a certain blonde bitch," she grumbled, slipping off the bench and stalking toward the visitors' table, ignoring Maïa's attempts to suggest that maybe it just wasn't meant to be, she should let this whole duelling partner thing go, and Harry's attempts to suggest that she just leave Cæciné alone for a few days, both of which were absolutely ridiculous propositions.

She couldn't let the duelling partner thing go — she needed someone to blow off steam with, and Cæciné in particular was perfect, now that Lyra knew she existed and how well-matched they were, she literally couldn't let her get away. She wasn't quite to the point of throwing curses at the other girl from the next table over and forcing her to retaliate — she was holding off until Saturday before trying anything that direct because her left arm could still use a little more time to heal and if she did just attack the stubborn bitch, it would probably lead to an all-out fight which she wasn't quite prepared for at the moment — but she would if she had to, and she was pretty sure no one could possibly say it was an overreaction to do so, because Cæciné was the one being completely unreasonable here!

Lyra had been trying to talk to her for an entire day, now — she hadn't really stopped glowing until well after reasonable people were asleep, so hadn't even been able to try on Tuesday, but yesterday, after a very brief exchange which consisted entirely of Cæciné preemptively saying no and not even letting Lyra get a word in edgewise before claiming that she needed to get back to the Carriage for a lesson, when Lyra had attempted to just shadow-walk to her and catch her in a free moment, she'd cast a bloody patronus to chase her off! When she'd tried to approach her again later in the afternoon — with some of the other Beauxbatonnais around, with the thought that she wouldn't brush her off so rudely with witnesses (the Cæcinés were much more conscious of and concerned with their public presentation than the Blacks, generally speaking) — she just kept saying this is a bad idea, Black, and ignoring everything Lyra said until one of her friends cast an area-effect sound-cancelling charm so she couldn't be heard, even with an illusion. And while it was a neat spell, stopping sound-waves from being transmitted at all, that was really fucking annoying. Obviously the veela and the mind-mage hadn't found this an impediment to their conversation at all, while Lyra had been forced to retreat and regroup (and figure out a counter-charm to nullify the sound-nullification thing).

Writing her a letter, ensuring that Cæciné couldn't cut her off mid-invitation again, had seemed like a reasonable next step — less invasive, pushy, obsessive, and annoying than physically following her around demanding to know how the hell the blonde battlemage could possibly think this was a bad idea (and if necessary, assure her that Lyra wasn't at all concerned about her own safety — that was literally the only reason she could possibly think of that Cæciné would think this was a bad idea — maybe there was some sort of misunderstanding going on that Lyra was completely oblivious to?) — but apparently not.

So now she was back to marching right up to her and asking her to her face what the hell her problem was. Forget trying to convince her to be her duelling partner, at this point, she'd settle for knowing why the fuck Cæciné thought it was such a bad idea!

If this didn't work, she was going to make Gabbie talk to Cæciné for her — that had been Blaise's suggestion, to use their only mutual friend as a go-between to sound out the situation — maybe the veela would be able to explain what the hell was going on here. There had to be something Lyra was missing, because she didn't actually think Cæciné was deliberately trying to drive her insane, if only because she didn't think that Cæciné could possibly have predicted that she would be quite this annoyed. Lyra hadn't anticipated being this annoyed. Yes, ignoring her was one of the more effective ways to annoy her (possibly the most effective, actually), but it was exponentially more annoying when it was the one person she absolutely needed to talk to more than anyone else in the world who was ignoring her.

Of course, she hadn't anticipated any sequence of events where Cæciné wasn't equally enthusiastic about finding a perfect duelling partner (they weren't perfectly matched, Lyra wasn't quite as good a partner for Cæciné as Cæciné was for her, but she wasn't so far behind that she couldn't put up a decent fight, and it wasn't like she'd been training as a battlemage her whole life and was as good as she was ever going to get, Cæciné would definitely have to work to keep ahead of her), so maybe she was just bad at this, but she knew Cæciné had been having fun too, and—


And she really didn't have the patience to deal with Draco right now! "What?" she snapped, turning to face him and stepping into his space as he reached to poke her in the shoulder, quickly enough that he actually walked into her and...sort of bounced off, stumbling back a step. He was taller and heavier than she was, but she had been expecting the collision enough to brace herself. He clearly hadn't been. When he didn't respond immediately, she turned on her heel again to continue stalking toward the blonde bitch she actually intended to smack.

"Wait! I need to talk to you!" he said, grabbing her shoulder, which spoke to a dangerous degree of obliviousness, or possibly desperation. She froze, casting an attention-deflecting charm around them almost reflexively.

Do not kill Cissy's son, do not curse Cissy's son, do not stab him, even non-fatally—

She couldn't quite talk herself out of knocking the wind out of him with a quick jab to the solar plexus as she turned around again, and grabbing his chin when he reflexively bent forward, trying to breathe. "You do not have permission to touch me, Draco. Not ever, and especially not now."

He made a delightfully terrified, strangled little eep, which did not in any way encourage her to let him go. She did anyway (because she was capable of self-control, damnit!), and took a deep breath, making an effort to contain herself. If there was one thing she'd realised sitting in hospital meditating all Sunday and Monday, it was that she'd let her control get even sloppier than she'd thought. Not enough to affect the effectiveness of external charms — no matter what Bella said, her casting wasn't sloppy compared to...practically any normal person at all, just compared to her, and like, Venetian duellists — but enough that casting Dru's homeostasis charm had been noticeably more difficult than the last time Lyra had done it.

(Yes, good, think about charms and meditating and not how much you want to bloody Draco's pointy little nose.)

Dru's charms tended to be easy in terms of initialisation, because economy of magic was elegant (and also she'd designed a lot of the more useful ones before coming into her power), but complex and delicate and finicky enough that anything sloppier than five to ten per cent residual energy bleed-off would interfere with their actual functions (because she either didn't realise that only a tiny handful of people could manage that level of precision, or because she'd designed them for her own use and just didn't care if anyone else could cast them). And things just happening because Lyra wasn't controlling her magic and letting it express her desires or frustration or whatever was damn close to being in the same category of not subtle as throwing raw chaotic energy around in public.

Okay. Focus, Lyra!

"What the fuck is so important that it's worth courting death to talk to me about it right fucking now?"

"What the fuck is so important that it's worth courting death to talk to me about it right fucking now?" Black snapped, glaring so fiercely that Draco almost said never mind and walked away.

But that wasn't really an option.

He swallowed hard. "Y–You're not going to kill me," he stuttered. In his own defence, he still hadn't quite gotten his breath back. He still cringed almost as much at how weak he sounded as at the absolutely feral grin she gave him.

It was, he thought, entirely unfair how intimidating his 'cousin' was. Even if he hadn't seen her fighting in the arena with that mad Aquitanian, or if he couldn't sense her barely-restrained power like lightning on the air, she would still be bloody terrifying, because that was most definitely the grin of a madwoman who could kill him without blinking and wouldn't feel a moment of remorse, and would if he didn't cooperate. He'd literally thought she was going to, when she was demanding to know why he'd hexed Potter on Samhain. (Which he didn't know, he was pretty sure he'd been compelled, because Scarhead was an annoying idiot, but Draco wouldn't just hex him in the back on a bloody whim!) She'd probably enjoy it, if any of the stories about Aunt Bellatrix were even half true. The fact that she was tiny and he'd say adorable, if he didn't know her (like he'd thought the Cæciné girl was cute before Saturday), was just adding insult to injury.

It also made the mad grin seem somewhat grotesque — pretty little noble girls shouldn't look at a fellow in a way that made him wonder how badly it would hurt, not if, but when they ripped his throat out with their bare hands.

"How certain are you of that?"

Honestly? Not very! "Mother said!" he managed to get out. His voice cracked halfway through; he had to clear his throat before he added, "But Rowle, Bletchley, and le Parc actually might! I don't know what you told Rowle, but you have to call him off!"

He did, actually, know what she'd told Rowle, at least in broad strokes, he just couldn't say it here, in the middle of the Great Hall. Yes, her attention deflecting charm (that had to be what that was) had held up to her bloody punching him like a bloody heathen — no one had so much as glanced twice in their direction — but he couldn't assume it wouldn't break at an inopportune moment letting anyone and everyone hear him talking about kidnapping and attempting to obliviate the Black Heiress a few months ago. (He couldn't assume she wouldn't intentionally drop it just in time to let him incriminate himself, either.)

The three older students had dragged him into a corner to interrogate him yesterday, demanding to know exactly what he'd told Black about their attack on her at the end of last year.

Nothing, he hadn't had to tell her anything, he'd told them that — that the obliviation hadn't taken, that she remembered it without any help from him — but they hadn't believed him, obviously. And they were more afraid that she might go to the authorities and get them thrown in Azkaban than whatever she might do to them, so they weren't going to tell anyone that it was her fault Rowle had been cursed to seven hells in the Task, and Draco had better not either, but that didn't mean they weren't furious at him for ratting them out. Which he hadn't done!

Neither had Lavender. She'd relented a little since he'd explained at the beginning of the year that he couldn't write to her the whole second half of the summer holiday, because Mother had been stopping his owls and he'd been confined to the Manor. Enough that they'd spoken a few times in passing, if not enough that he'd dared invite her to Hogsmeade as he'd half seriously been considering since Mother had insisted that she was an inappropriate companion for him and forbade him to see her. He'd actually enjoyed spending time with her last year and he thought she liked him, too, at least enough to go to Puddifoot's with him and see what all the fuss was about, but she still hadn't entirely forgiven him for involving them in the mad scheme to kidnap Black, and imagine if she said no. Imagine if she said no in public.

Still, they'd spoken enough he was sure she would have told him if she'd told Black anything — or more likely, if Black had said anything to her. He was positive Black remembered everything, she didn't need either of them to tell her what they'd done.

But instead of just telling Rowle that — that le Parc had buggered up the obliviation — she'd told him that Draco had sold them out because she'd threatened to turn him over to the Aurors or something, and now they all had it out for him, damn it!

"A, you're a shite liar, you know exactly what I told him, and B, no."

"What?" The single indignant syllable was drawn from him entirely involuntarily.

He regretted it immediately, as Black's scowl — adopted when he'd invoked Mother, and the fact that she'd assured him that Black wouldn't kill him (if only because Aunt Bellatrix would come out of hiding to curse her to seven bloody hells if she killed someone on the Do Not Kill list, which Mother said she hadn't been joking about) — deepened. "Oh, sorry. I should have said, fuck no. Piss off."

She began to turn away again, clearly this was a bad time, but this couldn't wait! He hadn't been able to spend more than thirty minutes outside of his room (or an actual lesson) without getting hit with a pain curse or minor jinx since breakfast yesterday! And he hadn't been able to catch them at it, and even if he did, he didn't have any way to make them stop — he'd have the same problem reporting them as they would reporting Black for using black arts to curse Rowle in the Task: if they did, they'd have to explain why they suspected that they were being targeted, and there was no good explanation that wouldn't incriminate them as much as their respective tormentors.

The only way to get them to lay off, he was sure, was for Black to admit that he hadn't told her anything!

Another involuntary syllable escaped: "But—"

She rounded on him again, thankfully without socking him in the gut this time. (Though he tensed reflexively anyway, because she might have.) "But what, Malfoy? You have ten seconds, and then I'm going to strangle Cæciné."

"Wait, what?" Why was she going to strangle Cæciné? Yes, she'd obviously lost their fight, but Mother and Lord Black didn't seem to think that she would mind, really. Lord Black had said something about the riot in the stands being a little disappointing, but at least Bella didn't get to have all the fun, and Mother had brushed off Granger's mother's concerns about the beating Black had been taking with a comment to the effect that Black would be be thrilled if she lost because losing would give her an excuse to demand a rematch.

And she was clearly fine. Well, not entirely well, clearly — her left arm was still in a sling, and she'd come out of hospital skinnier than usual and deathly pale (Draco didn't know how she was on her feet already, but he was certain Madam Pomfrey hadn't given her permission to leave) — but she still had the same manic energy about her as always and she was mobile and casting magic like she didn't get hit with a bloody Judgement Curse at the end, there—

Oh! Unless maybe she was angry that Cæciné had almost killed Granger?

"Nine. Eight."

"They keep hitting me with pain curses!"

For a long second, she just stared at him with an expression of utter confusion. "...Good? Four."

"No! Not good! Do you know what it feels like to have every hair on your body ripped out by the roots?!" It bloody well hurt! (Or at least the curse meant to feel like it did.)

Black was not impressed. "Consider this a character-building experience."

"Character-building?! What kind of character? Is that— That's not funny!" Honestly, he wasn't sure whether it was supposed to be, but it didn't make sense — how the hell was getting Draco cursed by those three lunatics supposed to build character? — so maybe she was just being absurd (as always).

"It would be if I weren't fucking furious with that—" Draco didn't speak Gobbledygook well enough to know what she'd just called Cæciné, but it clearly wasn't complimentary. "She won't even tell me why she thinks this is a bad idea! Am I being unreasonable here? Because I don't think I am!"

"Er." Probably. "Unreasonable about what?" Maybe if he could get her to...calm down a little, she'd be more open to negotiating. Maybe if he actually helped her with...whatever her problem was with Cæciné, she'd feel obliged to help him with Rowle, le Parc, Bletchley, and their thrice-cursed pain curses. (It did, he would admit, seem like a slim hope, but maybe.)

She glowered at him for a long moment, as though debating whether she ought to tell him. "I need to talk to her. And she won't, which is the most annoying thing anyone has ever done to me, and completely insane, illogical, and infuriating, because she owes me a rematch at the very least! If she's really that miffed I broke one of her wands, you'd think she'd want another chance to kick me around for a while even more! And I know that she was having fun out there, so why wouldn't she want to?! Angel said she was disappointed with how it ended, too! And—" She turned back toward the spot she had been stalking toward when Draco waylaid her, only to let out a frustrated growl, because the Beauxbatonnais group had risen and were already making their way out of the door at the opposite end of the Hall. "And she got away again! Fuck! If you weren't Cissy's son..."

"Er. I know this is probably a bad time—" ("You don't think?!") "—but since I am Mother's son, will you please set Rowle straight before he bloody well kills me? I'll— What do you want me to do? I can't take it back! I would if I could, I didn't know they were going to do...all that! It was– It was horrible having to watch—" It was literally the most awful thing he'd ever had to witness, the most awful thing he'd ever been party to. He'd left the Shrieking Shack that day shaking and ill, terrified that they were going to be caught making their way up to the school and more certain than ever that he wasn't cut out to be a dark wizard, because he had felt the presence of the Dark there with them, enjoying their cruelty and Black's pain. "I wish I'd left with Lavender! But I didn't, and I can't, and tricking them into torturing me too isn't going to fix anything, so—"

The next several seconds were easily the most terrifying Draco had ever experienced: Black growled something like, "Fine, if you want me to spell it out for you..." over his attempt to convince her that there was no point torturing him (or getting Rowle to do it for her); stepped forward and grabbed his left arm with her right, just above the elbow, shoving him off balance and sort of spinning him halfway around; and then the entire world vanished.

There was just— nothing. He couldn't hear himself screaming, couldn't see Black — she let go of his arm for a moment, just long enough to slap him across the face, knocking him off his feet — not to the ground, there was no ground, just– just darknesscold and there was something wrong with the air (he was gasping for it, finding it hard to draw into his lungs, and it tasted like blood, metallic on his tongue) — he was suddenly certain that he was poisoning himself just by breathing in this place, his heart beating too fast, panicking—

She let go of his arm and it was as though he might have vanished, he instantly lost track of which way was up, scrambling blindly to find her again, terrified tears hot on his face — and then she grabbed his wrist, tugging him further into the dark void. He stumbled after her — it felt like walking, even though there was no real ground and he didn't think he'd actually stood up? But he'd felt himself fall over... — seizing onto her arm as tightly as he could, he couldn't let her let him go again

And then he blinked — except he didn't actually blink, he didn't think, he just couldn't tell if his eyes were open or closed and then the world came back. He immediately shook off her hand, collapsing onto the nearest chair — clinging to the realness of its arms so hard his fingers hurt digging into the thin upholstery and wood beneath, but he couldn't seem to stop — before he registered that there was someone else in the room.

"Lyra? Mister Dr— Malfoy?" Snape's spazzy, Gaelic apprentice still hadn't quite gotten used to calling students by their surnames.

"Morning, Éanna. Cæciné escaped again. Well, first she burnt my letter without even opening it, and then she escaped, while this useless twit was distracting me."

"...Not my problem," Éanna decided after a moment of consideration. Probably the wisest course of action, Draco should've done the same, let Black stalk off and kidnap Cæciné or something, rather than trying to talk to her and getting himself dragged into— Was that the Shadowlands? "I have essays to mark. Please don't do anything to Mister Malfoy which will result in people asking me questions as a potential witness," he added, completely straight-faced, casting an opaque paling to split the room in half over Black's "Ha, bloody ha."

"I...don't think he was joking," Draco said, his voice shaking because he still couldn't seem to breathe properly, and his throat hurt from the screams he hadn't been able to hear under the Dark. "And I second that. What– What the deuce— Why would you— Aaahhh! It felt like I died!"

Black ignored him, bringing up a suite of proper anti-eavesdropping wards, almost as suffocating as the 'air' he'd just been choking on. "I don't want you to do anything for me, you idiot." What? "I don't like being kidnapped and beaten—" Oh, right... "—and I had to use Skele-gro thanks to Bletchley's fucking bone-breakers — I might actually say that was worse than Morgan's Cruciatus, at least not being Crucio'd feels really nice, and she really didn't do it very well, anyway — but like I told Cissy, you got me fair and square. Well, like a sneaky little shite, but. I'm not looking for an apology.

"This is how feuds work," she insisted, entirely seriously. "If you use a bunch of older Slytherins to hurt me at their own discretion, the most symmetrical and elegant response I can make is to turn those same older Slytherins against you to hurt you at their own discretion. It's not technically an escalation because my action, turning them against you, exactly parallels your own, and no matter what they do to you, it's not going to be worse than what they did to me, but the fact that they're not going to hurt you as badly as they did me is still an acceptable degree of retaliation —meaning making it clear that you can't hurt me without consequences — because it will certainly be in excess of what you did to me directly, and if you aren't actually as stupid as you generally act, it will convince you that playing another round would be a bad, bad idea, which you concede — tacitly, if not explicitly — by not retaliating with an escalation, which means I win."

"I— You—" Draco stuttered. He bit his lip to make himself stop before trying again: "It's not a game, Black! I've been cursed twelve times in the last twenty-four hours! At this rate, they're going to kill me!"

"They are not, don't be such a baby," she sneered, as though he was being overly dramatic.

"I don't think you understand, Black—"

She cut him off with a scoff, not that it mattered. He was sure she wouldn't have cared if he told her that one of them had nearly tripped him down a staircase after dinner last night — he could've broken his neck! "They wouldn't kill me, Malfoy. They're not going to kill you. Oh, boo hoo, you've been cursed twelve whole times? With petty pain charms like a fucking Hair-Pulling Hex? What else? A Nerve Tweaker? Maybe a Toe-Stubbing Jinx? I know Cissy didn't raise you like we were raised — and she got off easy with Wally, too — but Merlin's balls, fucking grow a pair!"


It wasn't until Black sneered at him and said, "I did tell every newspaper in Britain and half a dozen from the continent that I was born in Nineteen Fifty and unofficially apprenticed to Ciardha Monroe, who has been dead in this timeline since the early Forties. Do the arithmancy, Malfoy," that he realised he'd said it out loud.

...Was she implying that she was actually...from a different timeline?


That meant...

That meant Black wasn't just Bellatrix's daughter, she was...

Oh, bugger.

"If you recall our discussion over the summer, I distinctly remember telling Cissy—" Did mother know? "—that there was nothing she could do to stop me from retaliating against you, and you that you've been horribly spoiled and she did you a gross disservice by giving you a childhood. Getting hexed with schoolyard jinxes for a few days or weeks or however long it takes to convince them you're telling the truth isn't going to kill you, and being forced to find a way to deal with problems like someone framing you is exactly the sort of thing an heir to a Noble House should be practising — honestly, you should probably be trying to set other people up like this for your own gain and/or entertainment, but since you're the worst Slytherin — I mean, I'm a complete fucking disgrace to the House—" Because she was really a Slytherin, Bellatrix had been, Black must have been, too, in her own timeline... "—but at least I know how the game is played — you should learn how to deal with your plans blowing up in your face and people turning your allies against you."

She paused, forcing Draco to come up with something. Preferably something that wasn't just: You're really, truly, actually Bellatrix?! HOW?! WHY?! "So, you're not going to tell them the truth." He sounded, in his own opinion, incredibly cool and collected, for someone quietly panicking over having been antagonising not just someone who shared the Blackheart's madness, but who was literally a teenaged version of his mad aunt, with the same mad upbringing and all...

She grinned, the expression sharp and toothy. "I didn't actually lie to Rowle, you know. Lying is cheating."

"There are rules?!"

"Of course there are rules. All games have rules." It's not a bloody game, Black! "Wait." She paused. "Was Cissy not explaining that to you when I dropped in on you over the summer? I mean, I know I sort of came into the middle of the conversation, but...she did say something about me getting carried away with my game and killing you, right?"

She had, but... For some reason it struck him as even more inappropriate for actual, fourteen-year-old Bellatrix to think that they were playing some sort of– some sort of twisted game than for her 'daughter' to think that. Was his Aunt Bellatrix this...weird? absurd? He knew she was insane, but—

"I mean, not that I would, I know you're basically still in the nursery—"

"I am not still in the nursery!" he objected, purely reflexively, his face growing warm as she gave him another narrow-eyed, terribly unimpressed, who do you think you're fooling look.

"You came to me begging me to make Rowle and company stop using schoolyard jinxes on you, after setting me up to be literally tortured by them, rather than trying to solve the problem yourself. You're an embarrassingly entitled little bitch, and Cissy absolutely should not let you out in public unsupervised. I didn't know Brax Malfoy all that well in my timeline, but I met him enough times to know he was a proud fucker, and he'd be completely appalled by how unprepared you are to take over the House if something happens to Lucy. I mean, sure, he wasn't the most responsible either — he knocked up Mel when he was our age, you know — but he would still be horrified if he realised how fucked House Malfoy is when you take over."

This was just— surreal. It was just incredibly bloody surreal, Black talking about his grandparents as though she actually knew them. Father, he realised abruptly, was several years younger than Aunt Bellatrix — Black must have known him when he was a small child, that would explain why she called him Lucy (though it didn't explain why he let her — did he know that she was actually Bellatrix?), just... Merlin's beard, this was mad...

"I know that. I know you didn't really know what you were doing, setting me up — either in terms of picking a long-term fight with me or in terms of what the upperclassmen were planning to do to me — and that you absolutely are not capable of handling an actual feud, no matter how intent you were on starting one, even before Cissy tried to warn me off. Why do you think I didn't escalate and just completely crush you? It's not because I like you — but I did think you at least knew—" She cut herself off with an exasperated growl, pacing the length of the room, along Éanna's paling, like a tiger in a cage.

"Look. Basic run-down: Someone insults you, attacks you, silences you for being a distracting twit while they're trying to heal an injury they sustained saving your pathetic arse. You can either let it go, or you can retaliate — hex them, trap them, be an annoying little twat and insult them at every turn, et cetera. If you let it go, they might be encouraged to continue pressing their attack, if there's something they want from you or it's a matter of demonstrating the superiority of their House or whatever, but they're more likely to just move on as well. Even I don't hound people relentlessly to pick fights with them for fun if they make it clear they're not going to take the bait.

"On the other hand, you can retaliate, either proportionately or escalating. A proportionate response says you're not interested in a long-term feud, but you couldn't let this insult or injury or whatever pass by unaddressed, you're even now, you can call it quits. An escalating response, like, say, arranging to have someone tortured for humiliating you in an honour duel or accidentally trapping them in Shadows for an entire week instead of in their bedroom for cursing you in the back—"

That was an awfully specific example. Draco couldn't help wondering somewhat morbidly who she'd trapped in the Shadows, and how, and what they'd done to get her back — if they'd still been capable of rational thought after spending an entire week trapped in that empty hell. He was sure he wouldn't be. The few seconds it had taken for her to pull him up here had been bad enough! (He thought they must be in Éanna's office. Draco had never visited any of the assistant professors during their office hours, but he couldn't imagine why else the apprentice would be here, marking essays.)

"—or even just not calling it quits after they get even, says that you aren't going to let this go, it's personal now, and it ends when one of you escalates to a level of violence the other is not willing or able to maintain. Understand?"

"Yes, fine, I get it," he grumbled, resisting the urge to tell her that he already knew that. He did, he just...hadn't been thinking of their rivalry in terms of historical dynastic blood feuds, which was definitely where she was getting those "rules" from, albeit with her examples scaled down.

Apparently she didn't believe him. "You picked a fight with me by repeatedly insulting me for a petty, inconsequential jinx, when you ought to have been thanking me for saving your bloody life at the cost of physical harm to myself." ...Or maybe she just wanted to have it out that she genuinely thought that she was in the right here. Which she obviously wasn't, he hadn't asked her to save him from that bloody Hippogriff — it probably wouldn't even have really hurt him— She hadn't been hurt that badly! "I don't actually care about you not being properly grateful, you're Cissy's son, even if you're not legally a Black, I'm sort of obligated to protect you. But it does make you whinging about me 'hexing you in the back' when I did so to stop you from distracting me in the middle of a healing emergency which you caused, even more petulant and obnoxious, and constantly trying to insist I was just some up-jumped, muggleborn squib-spawn when literally no one else believed that cover story was bloody stupid. So I kicked your arse in a duel. That should have been the end of it, because we were already at a level you couldn't maintain. You could have just taken the lesson, kept your head down, left me alone."

"No, I couldn't! You insulted the honour of my House and made a bloody laughingstock of me! You stole my wand!" He'd had to at least try to do something to get her back. He hadn't been able to just let things lie — not like that!

"I captured your wand and the only forfeit I demanded to release it was an apology from you for being a twat, and you insulted the honour of my Lord, my House, and myself, going around insisting that I wasn't worthy of the Black name." ...Yes, in hindsight, knowing that the girl pacing before him was actually Bellatrix Black, presumably raised by the Blacks until she had appeared here, and all— Bellatrix, who was, if Mother was to be believed, literally everything the House of Black was supposed to be, that did seem...rather embarrassing. "In public. With witnesses. I made a bloody laughingstock of you because I was trying to make a point! I specifically humiliated you so that you would recognise exactly how badly outmatched you were and that it would be suicidal for you to keep that shite up!

"But you obviously got Lucy's brains to go with Cissy's pride and certainty that you can't lose, which in your case is absolutely delusional, so you went and arranged for me to be kidnapped and tortured, which is a major escalation and a huge fucking miscalculation on your part, because me coming back with a proportionate response and calling it even is the best outcome you could hope for — I could have taken my 'suspicions' about who was involved to the Aurors, you know—" He did. He'd had nightmares about it all summer, even after she'd dropped in uninvited for tea and all but said that she wouldn't. "—and you weren't even prepared to deal with an illusory dementor, much less me deliberately inflicting actual physical harm on you. Apparently you aren't even prepared to recognise when you're getting off lightly and even try to solve your own problems—"

"It's not my problem! It's a problem you made! And how is having a bunch of upperclassmen out for my blood getting off lightly?!"

She stopped pacing to fix him with an unnerving, purple glare, her eyes glowing with power, just enough to make shivering tingles run down his spine and his stomach do a terrified little flip at the sight. His teeth clicked painfully in his haste to shut his bloody mouth. "Yes, it's a problem I made for you. Now you have to solve it! That's how this works! You don't get to be a little shite and kidnap someone and then go to them when they retaliate and demand that they help you solve the problem they arranged specifically for you, as retaliation for you kidnapping them! I have seriously never heard anything more entitled in my entire life."

Well...when she put it like that, it did seem a bit stupid for him to have believed that she would help him if he could just make her see how absolutely unfair this was.

"And this — turning your allies on you for 'betraying' them and letting them do whatever they like to you — is a perfect retaliatory move, because if you look at it one way, it's exactly symmetrical to your own actions and therefore the definition of proportionate; if you look at it another way, it's hurting you at least three times as much as the Nerve Tweaker and whatever other lame shite you threw at me directly; and if you look at it another way, it's absolutely a hollow bludger, because I'm not arranging for you to be hurt nearly as badly as I was as a direct result of your actions, which I guarantee is what Cissy was concerned I was planning to do when she was flipping over me getting carried away and possibly killing you. She's going to think this is brilliant, by the way, if you go crying to her over it."

Well, now, that was an idea. Not crying to Mother, but if Black wouldn't set the record straight, maybe Mother would tell him what he had to do to convince the upperclassmen that she was lying, he hadn't said anything to anyone!

"Even Dru might admit that this is a passable effort." (Probably not. It was impossible to impress Grandmother. ...That Black was actually Bellatrix was a better explanation than any other he'd come up with for her familiarity with Grandmother's stupid board game, at least...) "It's far more sophisticated than simply hexing you in a corridor and more subtle than humiliating you in front of the entire school again — which isn't even really an option unless we all want to face awkward questions about why I'm humiliating you, and I really don't think any of you deserve to go to Azkaban for the next three years to life, so clearly it's best to just settle this between ourselves. It's teaching you a lesson about picking fights with me — I.E., don't — and forcing you to learn a valuable life skill, dealing with your disgruntled former allies."

"It's not your job to teach me valuable life skills, Black! Mother said!"

"Yes, but then she asked me to explain the ramifications of her putting the Death Eaters under an Unbreakable Vow not to serve the Dark Lord if and when he makes his way back here, and she can't have it both ways, so here's another one: Political gambits like this simply must be executed without lying, because lying is gauche and politically inadvisable just in general. I mean, if it comes out you tricked someone with the truth, good on you, you're a clever, silver-tongued snake and a potentially valuable ally who can be trusted as long as said potential ally is cleverer than you, and for some reason powerful people seem to have a hard time admitting they're not the cleverest person in the room. If it comes out that you just blatantly lied to trick someone into doing something for you, congratulations, you're no longer a trustworthy ally, no matter what else you bring to the table. Plus, it would detract from the beauty and perfection of this particular gambit if I had to actually lie to make it work.

"So no, I'm not going to correct their mistaken impression that you're a cowardly little pissant who absolutely would sell them out to save his own soul from the dementors. Oh, wait, did I say mistaken?"

Draco felt himself flush at the insult, his face growing uncomfortably warm. So what if he would do...practically anything to avoid going to bloody Azkaban?! Anybody would! Anybody sane, at least! Black was just a bloody freak, that was what! So was Bellatrix, Mother had even said so once, in an argument with Grandmother (the context being that Grandmother couldn't compare Draco's progress and development to her own children because the only one she'd ever paid any attention to at Draco's age was Bellatrix, who was just as much of a freak as Grandmother — Draco had been nine at the time; Grandmother hadn't visited the Manor since). "I'm not a coward!" he insisted. Then, gathering his nerve, he decided to prove it by adding, "You're just a freak!"

"Me being a freak and you being a coward are not mutually exclusive, you realise?" Of course, she didn't even care (because she was a freak).

"You don't understand what dementors are like for people who aren't completely insane, Black! You just don't! I'm not a coward for not wanting to be anywhere near them! No one in their right mind would! Just like no one in their right mind would laugh after being bloody well Crucio'd, or try to get revenge over someone trying to kill their girlfriend when they still aren't fully healed from tangling with the same bloody person, or—"

"Wait, what?" Black said sharply, cutting him off. "Are we talking about Cæciné?"

"Has anyone else tried to kill you or Granger in the past week?"

"Well, no. But Cæciné wasn't trying to kill Maïa, either. Who told you that she was? I already explained to Maïa that she was exhausted and borderline delirious, and almost certainly didn't recognise her in the moment," she said, scowling into the middle distance, clearly annoyed. With...Granger? He thought? But...

He almost let her keep thinking that Granger was the one who was putting it around that Cæciné had tried to kill her, just to drive a wedge between them. It was no more than Black deserved, turning the older Slytherins on him. But she'd find out he was lying eventually, and he was already on her bad side, so. "No one told me, I was watching up in the stands, wasn't I?"

He had been. There really hadn't been anything for him to do up in the stands. Mother and Lord Black and Madam Tonks had had their defence covered, and Madame Delacour, her oldest daughter, and...whatever her name was, the French trainee healer who was somehow related to the Grangers, had had the process of enchanting their escape carpet well in hand. There had been nothing for Draco to do but try to stay out of the way, and keep the little veela half-breed out of the way, too, shuffling around on his knees to let the adults enchant different areas of the carpet. (He hadn't minded. It might have been a bit soft of him, he was fairly certain Father wouldn't approve of Lise Delacour and her unnatural experiments, but Maëlie was an awfully cute kid, alien eyes and ridiculous Potter hair notwithstanding. She'd spent most of the task chattering at her mothers and sister in Gascon about how wonderful Enyo Seran was and how she hadn't known humans could fly like that, she didn't think veela could fly like that, and Mama, I want to learn how to fly like her!) He thought he might be the only one in their group who'd actually seen the end of Black and Cæciné's fight. Everyone else had been a bit preoccupied by Dumbledore wading into the fight like a bloody moron.

"Well, you obviously weren't paying attention. She kept moving us away from unconscious casualties, she wouldn't have deliberately targeted Maïa."

Draco frowned, trying to square that opinion with Black's obvious desire, earlier, to murder Cæciné. "Then why are you trying to demand satisfaction from her?" He assumed that was what the letter she'd mentioned had been about — and it was undeniably rude that Cæciné had refused to so much as read it, he would have expected better of a lady of her standing, even if she was clearly just as mad as Black.

"I'm not," Black protested. "I'm— You don't think that's why she's avoiding me, do you? She has to know I'm not upset about how it ended. Well, I am, but only because Maïa fucked it up. It wasn't Cæciné's fault she got there when she did."

"Wait. Then why were you going to strangle her, earlier?" he asked, now even more confused. "Didn't you say something about a rematch?" She wasn't actually upset about getting her arse comprehensively kicked, was she? He meant, he could she how she would be, he would be, if he'd been down there in the Arena — well, he wouldn't have been stupid enough to volunteer for this Tournament in the first place, or to get up again after the first time Cæciné had thrown him into a tree, if he were Black — but she'd known what she was getting into, he was pretty sure, and he...hadn't gotten the impression that she really minded physical pain, put it that way...

"I said she should want a rematch, because she got cock-blocked at the end—" Draco felt his face grow warm, embarrassed by Black's wanton vulgarity, even in private. "—and I broke her wand, and that should be more than enough reason to at least talk to me, if only to demand satisfaction, but she won't, and she burnt my bloody letter, the absolute twat, and at this rate, her weekend will already be full by the time I finally corner her! For that matter, my weekend might be full by the time I finally corner her, I can't just keep putting off making plans in the hopes that we'll both have the same afternoon free." So...she was trying to...ask Cæciné out? Why would she...? Well, obviously she was insane, but— "And I don't understand why she wouldn't just— You're a normal person, how is this a bad idea?"

Well, you see, Black, you're obviously insane, which is not attractive to people who aren't also insane. "Er...aren't you still dating Granger?"

"What does Maïa have to do with anything? I mean, yes, but—"

"Maybe Cæciné just doesn't want to get in the middle of your relationship?" he hazarded, wondering if it would be pressing his luck to go back to the help Black and maybe she'll stop Rowle from killing me plan. Probably.

Black just stared at him for two long seconds. "I think I've lost the plot." Draco had to physically bite his tongue to keep from saying Everyone knows you've lost the plot, Black. "How would it be getting in the middle of our relationship to be my duelling partner? I mean, yes, Maïa doesn't like her, which is weird, because she's perfect, but Maïa doesn't duel, much less with me, so...?"

"Duelling partner?" he repeated. That...did admittedly make more sense than Black attempting to start something romantic with Cæciné...sort of. If only because Black and romantic didn't belong in the same sentence, really. Though honestly, he could see Black getting more invested in a relationship with a regular duelling partner than...whatever she and Granger were doing. They weren't what he would call affectionate — they still acted pretty much the same as last year, with the addition of Black occasionally kissing Granger in public — and Black certainly seemed more passionate about Cæciné right now than he'd ever seen her about Granger.

"Yes, duelling partner. What did you think?" she asked. She didn't give him a chance to answer, which was probably good, because he thought he'd pretty clearly just implied that he'd thought she was trying to ask Cæciné out on a date, and since she wasn't, he'd feel like an idiot saying it explicitly. "I need her. She's exactly what I've been looking for — that was the best fight I've ever been in, and I'd have a damn hard time believing it wasn't good for her, too — obviously the only thing to do here is be regular duelling partners, and either she doesn't realise this, which is literally impossible, or there's some other factor I'm just not seeing, because she thinks it's a bad idea, Black, piss off and that's total dragonshite, because there is no way in which this could possibly be a bad idea. Like, you've read the Epic of Gilgamesh, right?" She didn't give him a chance to answer that one, either, which was also probably good because he didn't want to admit that he hadn't. Mother had told him the story when he was small, but he hadn't actually read it. "Of course you have. She's my Enkidu, like that perfect! Except she won't talk to me, even to tell me why it's supposedly such a bad idea, and it's driving me insane!"

"I noticed," he muttered under his breath, quietly enough he didn't think she would hear, caught up in her own mad ranting as she was.

She did, though. "Oh, piss off, no one asked you!"

She had, actually, asked him why "this" would be a bad idea, not five minutes ago. "Has it occurred to you that Cæciné might also think you're trying to ask her out, and doesn't want to be courted by a crazy person?"

Black froze again, with that same, I have never seen you before in my life expression. "You...might not be completely useless, after all. I mean, it's more likely that she wouldn't want to begin a courtship because that would be the most star-crossed thing Snape has ever heard of—" What? "—but you might be onto something. So, I just need to get Gabrielle to make it clear that I'm not trying to court her or even get in her knickers, I just want to try to kill her, yes? Yes," she decided, with a little nod one in particular. "That sounds like a plan."

"Does that mean that you'll talk to Rowle for me?" Draco asked, deciding that he had to try, even if it was pressing his luck.

"Oh, piss off."


"Not you. No, wait, yes, also you." She snapped her fingers to cast a tempus charm, which was both slightly terrifying and very cool. "I'm late for Runes. Get the fuck out of my office, Malfoy."

She didn't have to tell him twice. He was halfway to the door before she told him once. Though he didn't make it very far — just out of the Apprentices' Wing — before he stopped to lean against a wall, the cool stone and tingling magic of the wards at his back grounding him in a way he sorely needed.

Think on the bright side, Draco, he told himself, trying to will his heart to crawl back down out of his throat and stop beating so bloody quickly. She might not be willing to call off Rowle, le Parc, and Bletchley, but absolutely nothing they can do to you will be worse than getting dragged into the Shadows, at least, and she might have a point about them not killing you if they weren't willing to kill her— He'd felt a lot closer to death scrambling in the Dark than he had nearly tumbling down the stairs last night. —and if this really is all she's planning on doing to me, I can at least stop worrying about whatever else she might have in store for me. And Mother probably will have some idea of how to deal with those idiots hexing me for something I didn't even do. I should go write to her. Yes. Good plan, Draco.

He had just barely managed to recover his composure and straighten his robes — thrown into disarray by that horrible jaunt into the Dark and subsequent falling into Black' chair? Why did Black have an office? Had she just...decided to colonise Éanna's office? Should he tell someone? No, probably not, if she found out, which she would if anyone actually tried to do anything about it, she'd be even more annoyed with him... — when Lavender rounded the corner ahead of him with Red Patil, obviously on their way to speak to one of the apprentices themselves.

He nodded to them as they approached, murmuring a polite, "Miss Brown, Miss Patil."

"Mister Malfoy," Lavender nodded back, though Patil just looked at him like he was behaving oddly and said, "Hi?"

They had moved perhaps two steps past him, and he had turned to return downstairs when he quite abruptly changed his mind. "Miss Brown?"

"Yes?" she said, an expectant lilt to the word.

"Would you care to—" His cheeks grew warm as his voice cracked again (he hated this). But he couldn't just not ask now that he'd started. He cleared his throat to have another go of it. "Would you care to attend the Yule Ball with me?" His face grew even warmer as he heard his own words, so much so that he was beginning to feel a bit lightheaded. The Yule Ball? You idiot! That's moving much too quickly, what were you thinking? Hogsmeade! You were supposed to say Hogsmeade!

At least he wasn't the only one blushing, though it probably looked better on Lavender than it did on him. "I— That is, yes. I would, yes."

"Really?" he said, half uncertain that he could possibly have heard her correctly, because he thought she'd said yes, half because he hadn't thought of what he might say after she responded. He hadn't thought at all, he'd just had a half-conscious insight that compared to being dragged under the Dark, even asking Lavender out wasn't nearly as terrifying, and then– then he'd just done it, before he could lose his nerve.

She nodded, smiling at his abject consternation. (Lavender Brown had a lovely smile.) Patil giggled.

"Er. What now?" he asked, very smoothly.

"Ah...Parvati and I need to speak to Miss Parr at the moment, but...maybe we could talk about it more this Saturday, in Hogsmeade?"

"Yes! Um. I mean, that sounds good. I' you in the Entrance Hall after breakfast, then?"

She nodded, seemingly much less flustered than Draco by his sudden bout of insanity, though equally at a loss as to what else there was to say at the moment or how to take her leave.

Patil rescued them, tugging at Lavender's arm. "Come on, Lav. We need to speak to Miss Parr, remember?"

"Um. Yes. Right. Ah. I'll see you later, Draco."

"Of course. Have a good day, both of you," he managed, with a slightly deeper nod. As soon as he made it around the corner at the end of the corridor, he collapsed against the wall again, loosening his tie a bit as well.

Now he just had to figure out what he was going to tell Mother...

Draco: Now, Mother, please don't be angry, but I've asked Lavender Brown to attend the Yule Ball with me.

Narcissa: You've WHAT?!

Draco: It's not as star-crossed as Black asking out Caecine! And I can't take it back *NOW*!

More likely:

Draco: *says nothing*

Narcissa: *knowing full well through gossip networks that Draco is taking Lavender* Have you decided yet who you wish to escort to the Yule Ball?

Draco: A group of other young men in my year who don't wish to give a false impression about their intentions toward our female classmates have decided to attend together. I thought I might join them.

Narcissa: *On the one hand, he's attempting to deceive me. On the other, at least he's getting better at it. Making it clear that the Brown girl is unacceptable however clearly didn't work, so what the hell do I do now?* That might be for the best, dear. Though I imagine Pansy will be heartbroken not to arrive on your arm.

Draco: Well, that's just too bad. I don't fancy Pansy, and that's *exactly* why it would be a good idea to go with the lads. If I were to take *her*, she'd probably expect a betrothal letter on her birthday!

Narcissa (later): [Dear Sirius, I realise that we have had our differences in the past, but I have come to the realisation that I require your assistance with a matter of some delicacy. As you are the only person I know who was a rebellious little shite in your youth, I find myself in the most awkward position of begging your advice on a matter to do with my son. For the sake of our alliance, if you do not wish to help me, I would you simply tell me to go to hell. If you intentionally give me bad advice and in so doing damage my relationship with Draco, I will never forgive you. Here is the problem: He is taking Lavender Brown to the bloody Yule Ball, and lying to me about it!]