A/N: Well this story has been kicking my butt. I want to say that I am hugely flattered by all the people who keep adding this to their Favs or Alerts and especially those who review. I am sorry about the time between updates and if these next chapters feel a bit like filler. With luck and work it'll get better soon.
"Classes start tomorrow."
"Oh don't remind me, Liana!" her twin groaned, ducking around the boys coming in as they darted into the hallway.
Vince grimaced. "She didn't need to remind me either," he muttered, rubbing his head.
Greg snorted, then lifted an eyebrow. "Well, well. Look who's alive and kicking." He nodded across the room.
Vince followed his gaze in time to see Blaise, looking much the worse for wear which meant he had to be sober, approaching Alex and Tania. He hesitated for a second then took up a position by Alex's side, hovering attentively.
Greg frowned. "Did he ever come back last night?"
"Move, boys," a sharp female voice ordered, a slim hand applying pressure to a shoulder each.
They turned, then obediently parted at Pansy's glare. Sniffing she flounced through. Grinning wickedly Vince took a swipe at her backside as she passed. A tiny squeak escaped before she turned and offered then both a rude hand gesture.
"Now, now boys. Let's behave ourselves," Draco drawled from the stairs to the boys' dorms.
Pansy included him in her gesture. "Control your idiots, before the things Tara did to the French give me ideas. I know how you hate people breaking your things."
Draco glanced past her to his cronies. He laughed, once. "Somebody broke those two a long time ago, Pansy. There's not much left to damage."
She scoffed and retreated to her dorm. Rolling his eyes Draco leaned against the wall as his dormmates joined him.
"You wound me, Draco," Vince complained.
"I know," the blonde replied, his silver-grey eyes picking out the new and improved Blaise. "But you bleed so pretty."
They fell into a comfortable silence until the blonde murmured, "I wonder who he got into a fight with."
"Considering how drunk he was," Greg scoffed, amused, "probably a wall."
"A wall with nails then."
Alex moved to stand up and Blaise all but leapt to help her with her chair. Draco snorted. "Well, so long as our resident goodie-goods are distracted would you gentlemen care to assist me with something?"
They looked over at him.
"I've got a couple of ideas about Moody."
Greg lifted his brows in interest. "Hmm. Do you?"
Draco laughed. "Can't let Alex have all the fun, can I?"
"Oh blast it!" Alex glared down at her quill, the tip of which had just snapped off, right in the middle of the elegant down curve of her Y.
"Repairo," a soft tenor murmured instantly, an extra sweep of his wand rounding the splattered ink back into the pen.
"Very neat, thank you," Alex said, looking up at her foster brother with a pointed smile. "But if you wanted to do me a favor you could sit down." She pointed at the perfectly empty chair to her right. "Hover if you must but don't lurk."
Moving gingerly, an act that had more to do with his hangover than anything she'd done to him, Blaise slowly lowered himself into the chair. Alex couldn't quite manage the smile in the face of his obedience. For days after he snapped out of a slump he'd be overly submissive. In this case it might take longer. But any way around it Alex hated it. Yes, she adored being in charge... but not when everyone just let her. And to be completely honest, with herself at least, she hated being the only person willing to take charge. It meant she was the only hope, there was no safety net.
Taking her eyes from Blaise she glanced at her other companion. Tania had a weird diagram made of string pinned to a piece of parchment in her notebook and was staring at it from different angles in silence. Shaking her head Alex bent back over her letter. She'd gotten a letter from Cassandra de Nore over break with Christmas greetings and a summary of the goings on in the large French clan. And while they were only related through Alex's great-great-great-something Grandfather, and thus they weren't Bellmontes, they were about the only blood relations Alex had. She never saw them much, maybe once a year, but Cass, one of the girls around her own age, had always made a point of keeping her filled in.
She grinned as she thought of the other girl, a quick wit with a vicious tongue and she didn't hesitate to put in the details of the revenge they'd taken against the French students. Cass would appreciate it.
"You misspelled jacasser," (1) Blaise murmured, pointing. "It has two S's."
"Blaise," she said lightly, wondering if Snape would get mad if she stabbed him in the eye with her quill, "I would really love some pastries and tea."
He winced. "Sorry." Then obediently took himself off to the kitchens.
Alex groaned faintly as she fixed the misspelled word. She really hated when Blaise lost his nerve to offend her.
She looked up to see Tania staring after Blaise's departing back.
The other girl frowned. "What happened to him?"
Alex almost did a happy dance. Unprompted conversation! YES! Instead she sighed. "He was being kind of an idiot and he took offense when I mentioned it to him." She shrugged. "We got into a little fight."
Wide brown eyes flew from the portrait hole to Alex's face. "Are you hurt?" Tania gasped, looking slightly horrified.
"I think I broke a nail," she tried, waving her free hand at the other girl, going for innocent.
Tania blinked exactly once, then calmly shut her book and set it on the table. She pulled one of her legs up onto the seat of her chair and rest her arms atop of her knee. "Why wouldn't he heal himself?"
The unspoken "Like you did." hung in the air. Alex replaced her quill in its holder. She shrugged. "He doesn't like to. He says it helps him get a better grip on reality."
A thin line appeared in the center of Tania's forehead. "Why do you hit him?"
And I'm going to translate that into "Why do you let him hit you?", but I'll answer both.
She dragged a strand of hair from behind her ear and pulled on it idly. "This may sound strange to you, but Blaise sometimes has thoughts and memories that he can't shake himself free from. It takes getting him very mad, with a dose of physical pain tossed in, to help him snap out of it. The easiest way to help him, that I've found, is to pick a fight and then let it turn into a duel. But it never gets out of control. He's too out of it to be really dangerous and I know what I'm doing from the start.
Liar, liar, liar! a voice in the back of her head taunted viciously. Alex stuffed down the desire to rub her neck defensively.
"Mmm," Tania replied noncommittally. After one last uncertain glance at the door she pulled her book closer and opened it again.
This was hell. Absolute, mind-melting hell. Blaise sat beside Alex, his guilt keeping him glued to his seat even though he knew she'd forgiven him. Merlin, but he'd never hurt her that bad before! Even if Snape hadn't bitten his head off he'd have felt this bad. It was a hundred times worse knowing that another man knew what he'd done.
But worse than it all was the knowledge that Tania wouldn't look at him or be alone with him. He stared across the room at the tiny figure hunched over a book next to her brother and swallowed hard. Alex would let him pay her back for his failure in the only coin he had but Tania...
He was hit with the desire to scoop her up in his arms, cradle her against his chest and head for the hills where no one, least of all her damn brother, would ever be able to find them. Then he would spend the rest of his life as her willing slave until maybe, someday she might forgive him. He wanted her to smile again, like she had during that last dance. He'd never seen her smile before that, nothing more than a shadow of happiness flitting across her face. It had absolutely shocked him, but now that he knew what was hidden under all that hair he was determined to dig it up again.
If only she'd give him a chance to abase himself before her and beg her forgiveness. An old concept, from the Dark Ages, of a knight swearing himself into the service of a lady he'd wronged was very, very appealing right now.
Blaise looked again, as Hunter leaned over to talk to one of his friends, and spotted Tania sneaking resolutely away toward the portrait. He glanced around but no one else seemed to notice. Blaise leaned in toward Alex. "I'm going for a walk," he murmured.
She nodded, a hint of relief in her eyes as he climbed to his feet. Blaise nearly smirked. Oh if she thought he was giving up this early in the repayment game she was in for a nasty surprise. He was going to hover until Valentine's. But first he has someone else to hover over.
The hallway was silent and deserted when he got out the door and Blaise paused. But turning left only took you to the Great Hall, while right led off to a lot more interesting places. He went right, his soft boots nearly silent on the stone. With his longer strides, and the fact that Tania was clearly sneaking while he wasn't bothering to, it only took him a minute to catch sight of her again. Instead of stopping her then and there he let her continue. As soon as he found a good spot to stop and talk without it looking like he was cornering her he would.
A chill filtered through the air as they walked, her flitting along the edges, him slipping silently behind, that eventually clued him into the fact that they were nearing the outer edges of the castle. Up ahead Tania stopped in front of a simple wooden door and stared at it darkly, her hands on her hips.
"Why are you following me?" she asked the scarred wood, her voice a mix of hesitant exasperation.
Blaise froze, then ran his hands through his hair and grimaced. The move pulled at his scabs and he sent bad thoughts toward Alex's finger nails. A second later regret flooded him and he winced. "I guess I'm not as good at the sneaking as I thought."
Tania traced an ancient mark just to the right of her nose. "The terms 'stampede' and 'oxen' come to mind."
He sniffed and tossed hair he didn't have. "Do not condescend me, just because you're a master of the art form." He took another step toward her, stopping about three feet away. "I was greatly impressed by your escape just now. Even Mama-Hen Hunter didn't notice a thing."
"I..." a slightly strained silence fell.
Blaise crossed his arms loosely over his ribcage and waited. A glimmer of light clued him into the fact that she was watching him as covertly as possible out of the corner of her eye. Okay, someone was going to have to say something in the next ten seconds of things were going to get awkward. He began looking for something that wasn't completely idiotic, and found there wasn't much to work with.
"I was going for a walk!" Tania burst out, as if the words were being forced out of her.
He glanced up and for a second found himself looking her full in the face. She was pale and her eyes were huge as they searched his face for clues to his state of mind. Blaise felt himself relax a little and put a smile on his face, his real one for once and he was surprised at how tentative it was. "May I join you?" he heard himself ask and almost held his breath as he waited for her answer.
She pursed her lips and nodded once, firmly. Turning she fumbled with the metal latch and eased out the door. Trying not to leap forward, Blaise grabbed the edge and almost lost it when he realized how much the wind really wanted to slam it shut again. He tried to imagine how the tiny girl in front of him had managed to open it in the first place. Even as he slipped out it nearly caught the edge of his robes.
Outside was a patch of stone, four feet square then a steep, short flight of stairs all covered with whirling snow. The white powder, hard edged and icy blasted around their heads. He looked down at Tania.
"Are you sure about this?"
She shook her head, holding her hair down with her right hand. "It'll be better up above. The stairs trap the wind."
Resolutely she grabbed the railing with her free hand and started upward. Blaise quickly followed, standing next to her, but one stair lower, just in case. However he needn't have bothered. She made it up without so much as faltering and Blaise mentally smacked himself for underestimating her… especially as she was once again proven right. Up in the open air there wasn't much wind at all, just a whole lot of dark, icy air. Tania glanced around then turned left and headed out. Wondering at her idea of a walk Blaise followed her.
The snow was more crunchy ice than powder, dehydrated by the cold, and easily part way up his shins. Tania was several steps ahead, resolutely pushing her way through snow that was, to her, nearly knee high.
Why, why, WHY is this girl going for a walk in the middle of winter, in the middle of the night, OUTSIDE in the part of the castle where they don't clear the snow?! Blaise-you-idiot, why must you always get caught up by the strange ones?!
Wisely Blaise chose not to answer himself. It was a stupid question anyway. The strange ones were more fun. Or at least that's what he always tried to tell himself. But by Merlin he was getting snow in his boots!
"Now, while, as a gentleman, I should wander around forever until you decide to talk to me again I'm not going to," he said, making an effort to catch up with her.
She glanced back at him and for a second Blaise could swear she was laughing. But all she said was, "It only drifts near the door."
What? But he couldn't even finish the thought because half a step later the snow had cleared out to a bare few inches that crunched under his feet. Why that little... he wrinkled his nose at her back. She was laughing at me!
Blaise shook his head and dug his hands deeper into his pockets. "Now, as I was saying," he continued as if nothing had happened. "I know I talked to, and got talked at by, Alex. And I know you did. And since we both know Alex has a monumental sized mouth when she isn't trying to help people I think we can assume that we know some things about the other person right now."
Tania snorted, then flashed him a blatantly too-bright smile. "Well, I know you hate pears."
Blaise ignored her and looked up at the blanket of stars. It felt like thorns, tearing at his throat but it came anyway. "My parents hit me," he whispered at the heavens. A bitter laugh escaped his lips. "Every day of my life and twice on Sundays."
He looked down and found the space beside him empty. Turning he found Tania two steps back, frozen. The expression in her eyes was completely unreadable. She didn't seem to be breathing.
He opened his mouth, but had two false starts before he managed to continue. "They called me things I will never live down and gave me scars I have to hide before I go swimming or use the boys' baths. When I look in the mirror I see the same person you do. I feel that quiet horror that this is who I am? This creature?" Blaise found himself reaching a hand for hers and aborted the motion before it became obvious. He stepped forward, just once, instead. "I know how much it takes to wake up in the morning and simply be alive. How could I ever despise you... when we're exactly the same?"
Tania looked up at him, her brown eyes liquid with relief, a horrified, shared pain and briefly, so briefly, hope. She blinked rapidly then stepped forward and took his hand in both of hers.
Blaise didn't even realize he'd been holding his breath until it escaped him in a rush. He shifted so that he held one of her hands in each of his and added in complete seriousness, "If you ask me to, I will give you his head on a silver platter at breakfast tomorrow."
"I-I-I-I..." Tania pulled her hands free and covered her face, shaking her head violently. "Oh god!" she wailed in a cracked voice. "You don't hate me!"
Sobs shook her thin frame and Blaise stared in horror.
Good one, Blaise-you-idiot. You go to cheer up the girl and send her into hysterics instead. Clearly you are loosing your touch.
He shook off his emotional turmoil in favor of helping. His hands dove into a half dozen pockets in his robes and pants and eventually came up with a handkerchief. Taking her wrist gently, he peeled her hand back from her face, slipped in his handkerchief and slid it back into place. Her fingers wrapped around it and, from what he could tell, put it to good use, but the crying barely slowed.
Oh, oh, oh SHIT! Where is Alex when you need her?! Alex! Now THERE is a nice sensible woman! She doesn't cry if you hack off a limb with a blunt ax! Oh SHIT!
A voice in the back of his head whispered a comment about putting snow down the back of her shirt, but Blaise ruthlessly quashed that idea. He wasn't quite that stupid.
Alright old boy. Get ahold of yourself. Think like Alex if you can't actually have her. Channel the Inner Bellmonte! When I am gushing like a two year old Alex does...What?
"Well, she normally calls me names and gives me a hug," he muttered under his breath. Merlin, he was an idiot some times. Reaching out he took hold of Tania's elbows, drawing her in and wrapping his arms around her, slowly in case she decided to bolt.
Bolting, it would seem, was not in her plans. As soon as her forehead brushed his shirt Tania buried her face in it, grabbing his robes with all her might and holding on. Blaise pulled her tighter, stopping just short of crushing her.
"Shhh, honey," he whispered into her hair. "It's all okay."
(1) French for scream