March cycled on, the chilly weather giving way reluctantly to warmer days and sunshine to melt away the frost. Aurora had only two weeks to make use of the better weather for flying practice, however, as at the beginning of the second week Professor Snape informed them at breakfast — sneering at her, as usual — that the Quidditch Pitch would now be required for planting.
"Of what?" Graham asked, wrinkling his nose. "They're not gonna make the champions do a herbology test, are they?"
"If they were," Snape said, lip curling, "Montague, I am quite sure that even Ludo Bagman would see the sense in commandeering one of the school greenhouses, rather than an entire Quidditch Pitch."
Graham's cheeks flushed red, and Snape gave only a curt nod before sweeping away. Cassius snorted and clapped him on the shoulder. "Brutal one, mate."
"I don't think that was a favourable comparison, Graham, I'll be honest."
"Piss off, the both of you. What do you think they're doing with it?"
Aurora shrugged. "A non-forbidden forest? Rather pointless, but it might be easier to spectate than the actual one. Plus, centaurs."
Cassius winced. "That could work."
Graham rolled his eyes. "Well, it's ridiculous. I mean, we've only just started getting back our decent conditions."
"I mean, I think they've already shown they don't give a toss about Quidditch, to be fair, mate."
"We should get Viktor Krum on board," Aurora suggested drily, glancing down the table to where the Durmstrang champion sat alone, looking particularly sullen. "Perhaps the press would even pick it up."
"Yeah, cause we'd get you to speak to the press, right enough."
"That was something called a joke, Montague."
"So was that, Black."
Aurora rolled her eyes and Graham stuck out his tongue, and Cassius laughed, his shoulder brushing warmly against hers as he did so. It only took a second for her to laugh too then, and Graham followed suit, and for a second it was like there was a bubble around the three of them that just felt... Nice. Natural and warm, something grown organically and nurtured, their little Quidditch bubble, and odd a thought as it was, Aurora liked it.
"Guess we'll just have to really put in the work over summer then, eh?" Cassius said, grinning. "I'm sure we could find a time to meet and practice."
"Can't," Graham said, "I'm doing that stupid Ministry internship my dad's gotten me in my grandfather's office. I can't get out of it — he's standing for re-election."
Cassius pulled a face, as did Aurora. It had slipped her mind recently, but the elected part of the Legislative Assembly was due an election this summer. Campaigning wouldn't start until the assembly dissolved in late June, but from what she remembered Arcturus saying during the last election five years ago, it was a chaotic nightmare of epic proportions. She didn't have to do anything — actually, she wasn't really supposed to say anything on the election so as not to influence it, though that had not stopped countless lords and ministers from doing so in the past — but no doubt more paperwork would come across her desk than usual.
"Then we'll break you out of the Ministry, won't we?" Cassius suggested, to an eye-roll from Graham. "I'm sure Aurora and I could pull it off between us."
"I'd be offended if you thought we couldn't," Aurora replied, and Graham smirked over at her.
"That'd be another great headline, right enough. Is this a new direction you're going in?"
"Just you wait, Montague. I'll force you to play Quidditch with us if it's the last thing I do."
"I think that's meant to be Graham's line, actually," Cassius said, and they both laughed.
"More of a Marcus Flint, I'd say," he said, tilting his head, "but I'll give you it."
The warning bell rang for first period and they all groaned. Aurora downed her glass of orange juice and grabbed an extra slice of toast in a napkin. "What do you two have to go to?"
"Free period," Graham said smugly.
Cassius rolled his eyes and replied, "Double Potions."
"Oh, joy of joys."
"You're with Binns, right? You've got an extra book in your bag."
"Regrettably." She shrugged and stood up. "I figure I might as well make more use of my time, since he consistently fails to tell us anything that isn't in the textbook." Glancing down the table, Aurora spotted Daphne and Millicent waving her over and grinned, waving her back. "The girls are hailing me, I'd better go. See you at lunch?"
Graham, again, rolled his eyes, but Cassius grinned and, before Aurora could process it, had leaned in and pressed a quick, chaste kiss to her cheek. It was warm but unexpected and she could feel her cheeks burning as she looked back at him, caught off guard and feeling suddenly exposed in the middle of the hall. There was a second of silence before he cleared his throat. "Yeah," Cassius said quickly, "see — see you at lunch."
"Yeah," Aurora squeaked out; a reaction which only made her more horrifically embarrassed. "Er, thanks."
Cringing, she hurried over to Daphne and Millie, both of whom looked greatly intrigued by what they had just witnessed.
"Oh, darling," Daphne cried as Aurora reached them, "you're as red as a Skrewt's blast-end."
She cackled, throwing herbhead back as she drew Aurora into her side, and Millicent grinned across at her. "Merlin, you are. What did he say?"
"Nothing. Just — just a kiss."
"But you're so red!"
"It's not adorable. I wasn't expecting it, is all! And it's really warm in here anyway."
"It's bloody freezing, actually."
"No it's not, Millie, thank you very much."
Millie squinted, with a slight smirk. "Kind of bloody freezing."
"Oh, Merlin, I hate you both."
"Oh, wait til we tell Pansy. She'll be sorry she missed you like this, she and Lucille are doing something in the library."
"At this time?"
"I think they're panicked about that Arithmancy homework. Anyway, Draco looks like he wants to either laugh you into hell or fight Warrington for whatever's made you blush so much."
"I'm not even blushing that much, I just — I have a rosy complexion."
"Aurora, if anyone has ever described you as rosy in your life I'll eat my hat."
"Merlin, I can't catch a break with you two this morning, can I?"
Millicent giggled as they came to the doors of the hall, veering off towards the main staircase. "It's to make up for the blissful hour of silence in History later."
"I wouldn't really say it's blissful when you snore so loudly, Millie," Aurora pointed out, to a gasp of false offence, "when I'm trying to read."
"In her defense, no one else is every trying to read."
"Theo does sometimes."
"Theo's a nerd," Daphne said, and rolled her eyes. "And he usually just reads homework at the last minute."
Aurora tutted. "Disgraceful."
"Well, we cant all be swots like you."
"Theo definitely could," Millie countered.
"Theo is a bigger swot than I am," Aurora said, offended, "and I will not hear a word otherwise."
"She's got a point," said Theo's voice, appearing stealthily on Aurora's right. "Unfortunately, Aurora, I am your only competition. Within Slytherin, anyway."
"Morning to you too," Aurora acknowledged, eyebrows raised, "and yes, but Slytherin is the only house that really counts, isn't it?"
Millie snorted unpexctedly and turned to them, a glint in her eye. "I suppose Hermione Granger won't fancy giving you too much competition now anyway."
Confused, Aurora turned to stare at her, mind slowly trying to catch up to what had just been said. "What do you mean? Granger'd fight either of us to the death for the highest grade."
"Didn't you see her this morning?" Daphne asked in a conspiratorial tone.
"Or were you too busy with Warrington?"
Theodore made a sound as if to tut and said, "I didn't see it either — just get to the point, Daph."
Looking rather put out, and giving Theo an unusually sharp look, "Hermione Granger got sent a bunch of letters this morning, and then ran out. It looked like her face was swelling up or something, and her hands, and she was crying."
"What? But who would do that?"
"I suspect it had something to do with that article. You know, the one last week about her and Potter, by Rita Skeeter."
"I don't read Rita Skeeter," Aurora reminded Daphne irritably, unlinking their arms with an annoying souring feeling in her chest. "What did she say about Granger?"
"What didn't she say, more like," Millie said under her breath, "it said she and Potter were in some secret relationship but she was stringing him and Krum both along, and that she was, I don't know, thinking herself too clever for this place. It basically made her out like some kind of freakishly nerdy seductress, which is ridiculous, but there you go. Oh, and Skeeter said some stuff about Potter, that he's still traumatised and grieving his parents, that he's on some desperate search for a father figure—" her insides twisted uncomfortably "—but he's trying to be comforted by Granger, who'se apparently only after his money — but to be honest I don't know how rich Potter even actually is — and yeah."
"There were also some anonymous sources," Daphne breezed, making Aurora feel even sicker, "mainly testifying either to her always following behind Potter like his lapdog, or to her really not being pretty enough to get anyone without a love potion—"
"That's a rather unfair accusation—"
"—or her general, well, Grangerness." Daphne made a vague gesture and pulled a face that had Aurora pulling further away from her. "Anyway, it wasn't very complimentary about her having more brains than beauty."
"Well, I'm sure no one with any brains would believe whatever Rita Skeeter has to say," Aurora said, perhaps more scathingly than was necessary, as Daphne's cheeks lit pink. "And personally, I wouldn't say that Skeeter has either brains or beauty." Scowling, she swept on just ahead of them.
"I'm only saying this all to explain," Daphne said hastily, "I'm not agreeing with Skeeter's... Existence." She furrowed her brow. "It is only Hermione Granger, though."
"I know," Aurora said lightly, "I'm just saying, there are far more pressing journalistic issues than whether someone is smarter or prettier. Personally I don't see why someone can't be both, but Rita Skeeter must have some sort of complex about it." She gave a loud sigh and turned back over her shoulder, seeing Daphne's annoyance coupled with Millie's bashfulness and Theo's look of shy sympathy.
Daphne shrugged and said, "It's Witch Weekly. And I'm only answering your question. I'm sure Granger will be fine, really."
Still, even though Aurora didn't feel she could say anything more to Daphne, there was a sense of guilt in her chest, a semblance of pity that went out to Hermione Granger. Understanding, she supposed, what it was to be on the wrong side of Rita Skeeter's venomous green quill. Any gratitude she had felt at having the attention pulled from her recently diminished when she considered the context of Skeeter's accusations, that she had painted Granger — a girl who, from all Aurora knew of her, simply wanted to keep her head down, so well and school, and whom occasionally got drawn into ridiculous plots by Harry Potter — as some seductress, as a terrible person simply for entertaining the attentions of a famous boy, had used her intelligence to bring down her beauty. That angered her in a most unexpected way, the suggestion that a woman could not be both, the suggestion that a witch was at fault for having romantic pursuits, though perhaps it was because Aurora knew there was nothing romantic between Potter and Hermione, perhaps it was because she knew Granger's character too well to think so lowly of her.
The way Skeeter treated her was still wrong. The way she treated both of them was, and the frustration over that hummed through her all the way to History class.
"I'm sorry about Daphne," Theo said when they sat down together at the front, "I'll talk to her."
"There's no need. She's entitled to her opinion."
"I personally think Skeeter's awful."
A smile ghosted her lips. "I know you do, Nott. Haven't I always said you're the most intelligent thinker in Slytherin? Besides myself, of course."
He raised his eyebrows, though she sensed a low flush to his cheeks. "I think she's well out of order. I'll see if I can nab a copy of Witch Weekly from Daph if you want to see exactly what was written."
"I'll get one from Pansy," she said, waving a dismissive hand and taking out her quill and parchment. "It's what I used to do."
At that, Theo gave only a short, forced laugh, and when Binns came through the wall they fell into their usual silence. But Aurora could not focus on taking notes and reading as she normally did. Instead, frustration burned beneath her skin, irritation and the desire to read that article, to know what Skeeter had said and where she got her sources from, and, for some reason, an urge to see Hermione Granger and see that she was alright. Granger had a thick skin, but she always got the sense that there was insecurity there, too, which had revealed itself last year, and Rita Skeeter had a knack for finding the parts of a person they least wanted the world to see. It was something she had felt too often to let go now.
She was the first out of the classroom when the bell rang, swiftly followed by an alarmed-looking Theo, but when they arrived at the edge of the Forbidden Forest, Hermione Granger was nowhere to be seen among the cluster of Gryffindors. She stopped for a second, double-checking. "Sweet Merlin," Theo said, halting just behind her, "you don't half have a brisk walk at times, Black."
"I didn't ask you to follow me, Nott."
"Well, I sensed it would be rude not to considering we're going the same place, and you left in quite a worrying rush. I wanted to see if you're alright."
"Sorry," she said unapologetically. "Course I'm alright, Nott, are you alright?"
"Why wouldn't I be alright?"
"Exactly. Splendid." Locking eyes with Harry Potter across the yard, "I have to speak to Potter, I'll see you in a minute."
"Lucky Draco isn't around to see this," he muttered sarcastically, just loud enough for her to hear as she hurried off.
Aurora turned around, half-grinning, half-smirking, catching his eye. "Lucky I left class before anyone else woke up!"
Then she turned, and stride forward towards Potter. Parvati Patil and Lavender Brown swept out of the way as she passed, both glaring fiercely, and she rolled her eyes, smirking lowly as she came to stand before Potter and Weasley.
"Morning, boys," she said briskly, "where's Hermione?"
"Why d'you want to know?" Weasley asked, suspicious.
"Because I heard she was upset and hurt this morning and in light of Rita Skeeter's article, I want to make sure she's alright." She turned her gaze on Potter, having a feeling he would not be quite as hostile as his counterpart. "Well?"
"She's in the Hospital Wing," Potter said lowly, gaze flickering up behind her head, "those letters she got had Bubotuber pus in them." A shiver went through Aurora at the thought. If she didn't have all her post vetted, that could have been her. "And no, she's not alright." He narrowed his eyes. "Why do you want to know?"
"Because," Aurora said, feeling no need to beat about the bush, "I know how it feels. And I think — and think Granger may agree — Skeeter needs to be stopped."
"Listen," Potter said, stepping closer, "be careful what you say. Hermione reckons Skeeter's got some way of listening in on the castle."
That was not as much of a shock to Aurora as it should have been. She had gotten Draco and the boys to speak earlier in the year, but it was possible she had been skulking around since, especially with this new article. Still, she thought, any journalist could get anywhere if they were determined enough. "I wouldn't be surprised," she told him softly, "you be careful, too, Potter. If you've captured her attention... She'll be building to something, mark my words. You have to figure out how you want her to spin it."
"Yeah." He winced. "I kind of already mouthed off last time I saw her in Hogsmeade."
"Of course you did."
"I couldn't help it, she was there and taunting Hermione and anyone would have done the same!"
"No, you'd have just given her your blank look until she got the message and pissed off, but it still wouldn't have made her like you."
He had a point, Aurora thought, annoyed, and pursed her lips. "Very well," she said, glancing over her shoulder as she heard her housemates approaching, "when you next see Granger, tell her I hope she's feeling better, won't you?" She fiddled with the leather strap of her book satchel. "And, er, you be careful of Skeeter too. There's enough going on around here without you worrying about her, too."
She hurried back to Theo by going behind the cluster of Gryffindors, but not without already hearing Draco call down, "Where's your girlfriend, Potter?" and Vincent, Greg, and Pansy all laugh.
Aurora pursed her lips, but it was Pansy's voice that caught her. "You haven't split up with her, have you? Is that what had her so upset at breakfast?"
It gave her pause, caught her off guard. Pansy hadn't been at breakfast — presumably she had heard about it from the boys, or Daphne or Millicent — but where exactly had she been? She hadn't expected Pansy to comment, not in the context, not when she knew Aurora's opinion on the matter. But then, Aurora wasn't with them. Maybe she hadn't seen her. If so, that thought sat uncomfortably in her stomach.
Rejoining Theo, he gave her a questioning look. "All is well," she lied with an over-enthusiastic smile, and hailed Robin and Gwen over.
"You and Potter had a heart-to-heart?"
"We like to always start Mondays off with one. It's good for the soul."
"Hagrid hasn't brought some new freaks here, has he?" Robin asked when he and Gwen joined them, glaring over at the crates by the hut.
"There can't be anything worse than Skrewts," Theo said with a shrug.
"There definitely can," Gwen countered. "For example, dragons."
Aurora winced at the memory of Barty Crouch being caught off-guard during the First Task. "I think you may be incorrect there, Nott," she said, and he tutted, moving forward, so that they followed.
It turned out there were nifflers in the crate — small black furry creatures which were especially good at finding shiny jewels and coins. Professor Hagrid paired each of them up with a niffler of their own to find as many leprechaun gold coins as they could. Aurora had immediately set all her jewellery in her most tightly buttoned pocket, having seen one niffler attempt to snatch Pansy's watch clean off her wrist.
Aurora's niffler was painfully unco-operative, though. By the time Hermione Granger showed up, almost the end of the lesson, she had given up and the creature had found only two measly coins, and was now attempting to chase after Apollo Jones' niffler instead, which seemed rather scared of this advance.
Once they'd caught sight of Granger, Pansy and Draco and immediately sought Aurora out. "Have you seen her?" Pansy asked, sounding both scandalised and enthralled. "What do you think happened?"
"Nothing to bother any of us, I'm sure."
"She looks wretched," Draco said gleefully.
"Mhm." Aurora glared after her niffler. It was now trying to eat a daisy, and kept sneezing.
"Do you know anything about it?"
"No," she lied, clapping her hands to call her niffler back to her. Nearby, Potter looked over his shoulder with a frown. "I'm sure it's nothing. Probably some Potions experiment went wrong."
Before her friends could say more, Hagrid was calling them all back to count up their coins. Miraculously, Aurora's niffler wasn't the worst. Neville Longbottom's had failed to find a single coin, which amused everyone in the class greatly. At the end of class, Draco and Pansy tried to hang back and eavesdrop on Granger and the boys talking to Hagrid, but Aurora left them to it, quite done with it for one day. Still, at lunch she managed to persuade Pansy to part with last week's copy of Witch Weekly, and read it through. It was even worse than she had imagined, for both Granger and Potter, and she came away quite incensed. Worst was that it seemed Rita Skeeter did still have sources within the castle — anonymous, but students nevertheless — and she dreaded to think what more might be said, what sort of rumours were going around, including about herself.
It seemed nowhere was quite safe now. She clung to her secrets even tighter and wished for the holidays to come quickly, so that she might escape the suddenly oppressive feeling that the castle had gathered around her being.
Aurora was sat cross-legged on the edge of her bed, clutching her cursed ring in one hand, with her ladyship ring in the other. She had hoped they might react to one another — a very feeble hope, though a hope nonetheless — but there was nothing, and so she was left staring at two rings, twinkling quite innocently up at her. From around her neck, Julius the snake hissed, "Thisss isss enthrallling."
"Don't start getting an attitude now," she muttered in response.
"I only learn from you, mistressss," Julius replied, and when she glanced down she swore she could see the little bastard smirking.
"Well, don't. I'm a terrible example, clearly."
"Yesss," Julius agreed, and now he was definitely smirking. "Of manners and of cursecraft."
"Alright, now you're just being unnecessarily rude."
Aurora dropped her family ring onto the bedspread and leaned over to read back over her books. So far, nothing had worked to allow her to unlock the curse inside, or even to let it breathe somewhat so that it didn't continue to build and build the way it did, with this murky smoke lingering beneath the onyx surface and misting over the gold band. Yet something Callidora had said had been picking at her mind almost obsessively over the last few weeks. The suggestion that there was something that was setting her apart from the rest of the family, burned at the forefront of her mind. All she could think of was her blood status, but her father had been right. How would any magical object really be able to recognise such a construct as blood purity — unless it had been created with that intention?
Callidora's father's journal was enlightening, too. He too had been named Arcturus — her own great-grandfather was the third lord to have borne the name, but it was frequent among the rest of the family tree — and his writing had a regal script to it, as he kept a meticulous account of all the jewellery and talismans that had passed through family hands, right down to the beads his daughters had shared at Christmas. The ring section was extensive, of course, and had taken her some time to puzzle through until she found a few notations which might have been intended to mean lapis nocte. Only one suggested an actual enchantment upon the item, and this was the one she was working off.
Because there was one other thing that seemed to set her apart from the rest of her family. Her father had mentioned Death before, but only in passing. No one else had ever shown any hint of personal connection with him.
So, Aurora clutched the ring tightly and closed her eyes, trying to trace back her magic to all the times that she had seen Death, when he had appeared to her unexpectedly, unwelcome. Now, she invited him in. Cold splintered through her chest, and the ring burned into the tight skin of the palm of her hand. She didn't know any enchantments or incantations — for who would create such things and allow access to a fifteen year old? — but she did know the feeling of his presence, of his approach that always prickled the hair at the back of her neck, of that sense of foreboding that accompanied him, as sure as the deep cloak around his neck. She let herself sink into that feeling, to the memory of the sting of loss and the numbing of grief, as the pain from the ring slowly faded into familiarity. Still, nothing.
The dorm door banged open and she sat up with a shock, looking up to glare at Gwen, who had skipped inside.
"What?" Gwen asked at her expression. "Am I breaking up a family snake party again?"
"I'm trying to summon Death," Aurora said in a flat voice, and Gwen laughed.
"Yeah, okay, my bad." She sighed, but didn't think there was any adequate time to expand. "Cassius is looking for you, by the way. He wants to 'hang out'."
Aurora tried not to flush. "I'm busy," she said regretfully, and Gwen rolled her eyes.
"Ah yes, summoning death. Come on, what are you doing that's more important than Cassius? Have some fun!"
"I'll go later," she promised, "if you see him just say I'm swamped with homework."
Gwen rolled her eyes and plucked a lipstick from her bedside table, quickly applying it. "Well, I'm going out with Robin. He's organised a picnic by the lake."
Aurora tried not to laugh. "How romantic for Robin."
"It is, actually," Gwen said with a hopeful little sigh, "it's awfully sweet of him, he never does things like this. I think he's making up for Valentine's Day."
Considering Valentine's Day had ended with mud in Gwen's hair from slipping when Robin tried to prank a group of fifth-years, and a significant lack of anything that Aurora would consider a 'date', she thought he had better be. "Well, have fun," she told Gwen, "don't do anything I wouldn't do."
"That's just about anything at this rate," Gwen retaliated, and Aurora stick her middle finger up at her. Julius hissed.
"Tell Oliphant I hate him."
"He hates you, too!" Gwen blew a kiss as she breezed out of the room, shutting the door behind her. Aurora let out a loud groan of frustration and leaned back against her pillow to stare at the ceiling.
Maybe she should just go and find Cassius, she thought, annoyed. She wasn't getting anywhere here. But if she kept thinking like that then surely she never would get anywhere.
No, she thought, sitting back up and pursing her lips and pushing those other thoughts away. She had to try again. Death would come to her; he had to.
She tightened her grip on the ring and closed her eyes again, and wished, prayed, for answers. There was a cold breeze picked up in her room, but nothing came alongside it, no new presence like she had anticipated. When the cold died down she opened her eyes, and there was nothing.
"That is not how it works," Julius taunted in a sing-song voice.
"Well then how does it work?"
"My child, I have no idea," he sang, "but most certainly not by closing your eyes and wishing."
"I'm not wishing, I'm manifesting."
"Not very well." Julius laughed. "Death doesn't come just because you want him to. You should have realised this by now, child."
"I don't have much else to go on. I may as well try everything I can. Unless you have any more secrets you want to unveil for me?"
"I know nothing," Julius admitted, "you're the most fun we've had in two centuries, Lady Black. I don't care what you do, just try not to die."
"And I'd suggest you let go of that ring for a moment, I can feel the tension all the way in your shoulders."
Sighing, Aurora obliged and set the cursed ring to the side, instead slipping her own ring back onto her finger. More reading, it seemed, as she drew the book of talismans back towards her alongside her geology textbook. Yet again, more reading.