I don't believe this. I really don't believe this.
Dumbledore is dead; Snape killed him, apparently on You-Know-Who's orders. Nobody ever thought Death Eaters would get into the castle, or that Snape was a double-agent, but they did and he is. And get this – Draco was the one who helped the Death Eaters into Hogwarts. Then he and Snape disappeared, and now nobody knows where they are.
Dumbledore's funeral was held at Hogwarts; he apparently always wanted to be buried in the school grounds. It was held by the lake, on a warm, sunny day, and it would have seemed almost beautiful if it wasn't for the circumstances surrounding it. I was in such a state of shock that day that I didn't take much in. I sat between Lydia and Pansy, both of whom were quietly solemn beside me. Pansy didn't say much to me, though she and Millicent talked in furious whispers after the funeral service. Lydia talked at length about what she'd heard from some of the younger Slytherins; apparently, there's talk of closing the school for good. But she never mentioned Jeff, or asked why I hadn't told her about him cheating with Pansy. In fact, we barely said anything on that level at all; it was mostly a distant conversation, as though we'd just met for the first time.
Anyway, when I got back to Kensington Manor, it was to find George, Izzy and Nelson in varying degrees of panic. Being purebloods, and relatively well-known throughout the wizarding world, George and Izzy knew they were in danger. With my Muggle grandmother, we were a prime target if You-Know-Who got wind of it. Nelson was – predictably – worried mainly for his own safety, though he expressed concern over me, too, which was very … paternal of him.
My grandma, though anxious, didn't really see the threat that now hung over our world. I don't think she really understands that the Killing Curse is a lot worse than anything made by Muggles, even though I've already tried to explain it to her.
So, when I got back to the Manor, things were definitely much more tense than when I'd left at the beginning of my sixth year. George was busy having security spells fixed to the doors and windows. Izzy and my grandma were making lists of all the things we might need in the next few weeks. I'm sitting in the living room, trying to concentrate on a book, without much success. The past couple of weeks have been so surreal and unbelievable that it renders the ordinary things quite mundane.
Later that day, just before dinner, an owl tapped on the window of my bedroom. I wasn't expecting any post; I'd sent a letter to Lydia just yesterday, so there was no way she could have replied that fast. Nevertheless, I opened my window and let the owl in.
It stuck out a leg; fastened to it was a small, slip of parchment, though it looked like it could barely hold a sentence. I was wrong about that; it actually held two very small ones.
The owl had alighted on the balcony outside my window, and it stood there patiently, as though waiting for an answer. Curiously, I unfolded the parchment and read what was written on it.
Meet me outside Flourish & Blott's, Thursday, 2 'o' clock. DM.
I'd recognise that elegant scrawl anywhere; how many times have I sat and watched Draco write essays and notes and sign his name on things? I checked the letter again, and yes, there was that little flourish on the 'D', and the ampersand had a definite curl to it. It was, without doubt, written by Draco's hand.
I should have known something like this would happen. It was only a matter of time really; after all, with things left so badly between us, one of us had to crack first. I actually thought it would be me, and I can't decide whether I'm glad that I didn't, or not.
I didn't reply to the owl straight away as Izzy shouted me down for dinner just then. And besides, I have no reason to go into Diagon Alley these days as Hogwarts looks likely to be closed in September, so there'd be a load of questions about why I wanted to go there on Thursday, and it would cause more trouble than it was worth, quite honestly. So, I went down to the dining room, where George, Izzy, my grandma and Nelson were already seated, waiting to start eating. I slipped into my usual chair, and dinner began.
At first, I concentrated more on the meal than on the conversation going on around me. After all, it was only more of Nelson's escapades in South Africa, which thrilling as they always are, they're hardly believable.
When Izzy mentioned Diagon Alley, however, I glanced up quickly.
"I know the wizarding world is up in arms, George," she said impatiently, "but we need to stock up on some things now, in case we can't get them later."
George grudgingly admitted that she was right, though he didn't seem happy about it. "In that case, we'll all go," he said, and Izzy was wise enough to take the compromise.
There was a pause, in which the only sounds to be heard were that of cutlery clinking gently against plates. If Izzy had a trip to Diagon Alley organised, then there was no way I'd be able to meet Draco. Unless ... unless I can convince Izzy to go on Thursday instead, and that's hardly likely, right?
"What - what day are you going to Diagon Alley?" I asked casually, slicing a piece of beef in half on my plate.
Izzy gave me a curious look, as did my grandmother, but I pretended I hadn't noticed.
"I'm not sure," Izzy said eventually. "Sometime in the next couple of days, maybe? Perhaps Thursday ..."
She trailed off as I dropped my fork on my plate with a loud clatter. I picked it up hastily and took a nervous drink from my water goblet, avoiding everyone's eyes. There was another silence then, to clarify, I said:
"So, Thursday, then?"
"Yes." Izzy gave me a more concerned look. "Are you alright, Blaise?"
She must've noticed my relieved expression, and I smiled reassuringly, though it felt oddly disembodied, like I was an outside spectator, watching the scene in front of me.
"Yeah," I heard myself say calmly. "I'm just fine."
We used the Floo to get to Diagon Alley. The minute we got there, however, I could see George and Izzy were having second thoughts. My grandmother had elected to stay at home, and Nelson had gone off to see some friend somewhere.
The streets were almost completely empty. Discarded rubbish was strewn across the cobbled pathways, fluttering in the faint breeze. There were only a handful of people out in the open, and they moved about quickly, trying not to draw attention to themselves, and keeping their eyes strictly on the ground. Most of the shop windows bore signs that said, "Closed until further notice," and the ones that were still open looked as though they didn't intend on remaining so for much longer. All in all, it was an extremely depressing sight to see the once-crowded, lively Diagon Alley so ... silent and dead.
"Hurry up and get what you need," George said to Izzy and I. "Then we can be out of here as soon as possible."
I'd wondered how I was supposed to go to Flourish and Blott's without arousing any suspicion and without George or Izzy tagging along with me; now it seemed that, as long as I stayed within shouting distance, I could do what I pleased, if I did it quickly enough.
So, while Izzy was in the shop that sold various magical instruments, I slipped across the road and around the back of Flourish and Blott's. There was already somebody there, though; a boy about my age was leaning against the wall, smoking a cigarette. I hesitated – for all I knew, he could've been a psycho killer – and then I strode forward, coming to a stop a few feet away from the boy.
I glanced at him curiously, but either he didn't notice, or he was ignoring me. Several minutes went by in total silence, except for the chirping of birds; I coughed once or twice just to make some noise. Eventually, I saw the boy move out the corner of my eye; he seemed to be looking over at me.
"D'you have the time?" he asked, taking a draw of his cigarette.
"Sorry, no," I replied. "I think it must be about two 'o' clock, though," I added helpfully.
"Cheers." The silence returned as the boy went back to being absorbed in his cigarette. Then:
"You waiting for someone? he said casually. He scrubbed a strand of brown hair out of his eyes, then turned his attention back to me.
"Yeah," I said, but didn't elaborate.
"Boyfriend? Mates?" the boy asked interestedly. He smirked, "Girlfriend?"
I scowled and faced him, about to tell him to mind his own business, when I noticed two things that made me stop.
The first was that the boy had grey eyes. Really familiar grey eyes, actually, and I stared at them, puzzled.
The second thing was the boy's hair; it was slowly lengthening and getting lighter, until it finally settled on his jaw-line and had turned an arresting shade of ash blond.
There was a second's pause, and then I punched him hard on the arm. Almost laughing, Draco winced slightly.
"What was that for?" he asked, rubbing the spot where my fist had connected.
I ignored this, instead focusing on the cigarette in his hand, which, by this point, had burnt almost to the brown filter bit. He saw me staring at it and sheepishly stubbed it out against the wall.
"Since when do you smoke?" I asked, raising an eyebrow.
"I … picked it up over the past few weeks," Draco said nonchalantly, though a faint frown creased his forehead.
And that was it. As soon as he said that, I remembered why I was meeting him in the alley behind Flourish and Blott's, and why I wouldn't be returning to Hogwarts in September. Draco seemed to realise the effect his words had, and the smirk dropped from his face. There was a long silence as I cast about for a neutral topic of conversation; needless to say, these were few and far between. I eventually settled for asking how he was, and he seemed relieved that I was the one who had spoken first.
"I'm alright," he said quietly. "You?"
I really didn't know what else to say, after that. It's almost funny really; after everything Draco and I have been through, you'd think we'd have more to say to each other. Actually, it's not that we can't hold a conversation, it's just that we're trying to avoid all the sensitive subjects that will bring reality crashing back into focus. I don't think we're ready to have that discussion just yet.
Even though I'm supposed to be pissed off with him for not telling me about the Dark Mark and everything, all I can think about is how much I want to kiss him. Pathetic, isn't it? I should be worried about why Draco needed to see me, I should be asking him what he's been doing since he fled from Hogwarts, and I should be wondering what he's going to do next. But I'm not. I couldn't care less about any of those things as long as I'm close enough to touch him. It's selfish, yes, but what else is new?
I made a decision right then and there, and before I could back out of it, I reached for the collar of Draco's robes, pulled him forwards and put on the best smirk I could muster. Maybe it's the shock, or the fact that I haven't – so far – berated him for joining up with You-Know-Who, or maybe he just wanted this as much as I did, but Draco didn't offer up much resistance.
I took a deep breath and said softly, "I really, really miss you."
I could see him fighting a very relieved smile. "So you should," he murmured, laughter apparent in his eyes even though his face was blank. "God, I miss you too," he added, turning serious.
He stared at me for a long time after that, as though memorising my face, which had me worried for a minute until I thought to push the notion out of my head, impulsively pressing my lips to his.
And, oh God, I've missed this, this feeling of complete bliss that starts the moment Draco's mouth lands on mine, and doesn't end until a few hours later. It's nothing poetic, nothing glamorous; it's not even that romantic, really.
But it's everything. And that's the way it should be.
I met up with Izzy and George outside the boarded up Magical Menagerie. I was so sure my face was flushed and my hair a complete bird's nest, but if it was, neither George nor Izzy mentioned it.
When we got back to the manor, Nelson had arrived back before us, and my grandma had prepared a quick lunch; then we sat in the living room for a while, not knowing what else to do now that it was no longer safe to go about our own business.
I thought about Draco constantly, and Lydia almost more than that; I was worried about the former, and hadn't heard from the latter at all. I almost want Lydia to send me a Howler full of shrieks about how terrible a best friend I am, and how I've betrayed her beyond belief, but I know that if I do get one, it would mean that she hasn't forgiven me, and probably never will. And if that happens, I think it'll mean the end of our friendship.
That's it. I need to see her, maybe give her an explanation, an apology, whatever she wants, otherwise I'm going to be stuck in this unforgiving limbo for the rest of my life. I can't stand not knowing if we're still friends or not, and Lydia won't be the first to break the silence; she's stubborn, same as me, but I'm the one in the wrong … I'm the who's going to have to swallow her pride.
I informed my grandma, Izzy, George and Nelson the next day, and though they all had identical looks of anxiety on their faces, they wished me good luck, and even managed to get the Floo network opened for a few hours, which is no mean feat these days. George and Izzy have some great contacts at the Ministry of Magic.
I'd already sent Lydia an owl telling her to expect me within the week, and though I never did get a reply to that letter, I threw caution to the winds and decided that, just this once, it didn't matter that I was right or wrong, but only that I made an attempt.
I've only ever Flooed once before, and that was a few years ago, when George and Izzy took me to a party a friend of theirs was hosting. Somehow, I'd forgotten the awful spinning sensation, and the nausea, though how I managed that I don't know, so jumping into the warm green flames now seemed a monumentally bad idea, and I almost jumped back out again. But this is something I have to do, otherwise I'll never get any peace. And if that sounds selfish to you, I don't give a damn.
When I staggered out of the fireplace at Lydia's end, I had to take several deep breaths before I could even begin to formulate a plan in my mind. I was saved the trouble of having to wander around Lydia's house aimlessly by the arrival of her mother in the room where the Floo is kept.
Ilsa Gray was a tallish woman, her dark hair swept out of her face into a delicate knot on the back of her head. She carried herself in much the same way as Lydia, and I could immediately see the similarities between mother and daughter; they have the same long, thin nose and blue-grey eyes. In fact, the only difference between the two of them that I can see is that Lydia has auburn hair and looks somewhat more approachable than her mother.
"Blaise," Mrs Gray said pleasantly, and I wondered if she knew that Lydia and I hadn't spoken in almost a two months. "Looking for Lydia?"
"Yes, Mrs Gray," I replied politely. "Can you just let her know I'm here, please?"
Mrs Gray smiled and told me to call her by her first name, and then she led me out of the Floo room, through the living room and into the hall. When we came to a set of stairs, Mrs Gray – sorry, Ilsa – led me straight up them, along the landing, eventually stopping at the door furthermost from the staircase.
She knocked lightly on the door. "Lydia, darling?" she said.
Lydia's voice, though slightly muffled nevertheless came through the door. "Yeah?"
"Blaise is here to see you," Ilsa told her.
There was complete silence on the other side of the door. Lydia's mother glanced at me, a frown creasing her forehead. Eventually, after what seemed like an age, Lydia told me to come in, and I did so. Ilsa gave what looked to me like an encouraging smile, but I may have been imagining things, so I pretended I hadn't seen it and closed the door behind me.
I turned around to find Lydia staring at me, her expression shifting from confusion to anger to relief and back again, and if I can still read her face so easily, it means our friendship still has a chance.
She gestured for me to sit down and I did, not knowing what to say to break this awful silence hanging in the air. Turned out I didn't have to.
"What do you want, Blaise?" she asked, her tone almost weary.
I don't know what I thought I was doing, coming here to see her. It was clear from her voice that she wasn't interested in anything I had to say, and who can blame her? Still, I'm here now, I may as well try to salvage what's left of our friendship.
"It's just … well I – you see …" Try as I might, though, I stammered incoherently and knew Lydia's patience was beginning to wane. I wanted to say something to explain why I did what I did, excuse the fact that I kept something from her, apologise profusely for my short-sightedness; yet my mind's a blank and I can't seem to get the words out.
I stammered a couple of sentences out again, until even Lydia had had enough, and she waved a hand vaguely at the door.
"I think you should go," she said quietly, not looking at me. "If you can't –"
"I'm sorry!" I blurted out, and she finally raised her eyes to meet mine. "I should've told you about … about what happened. I only wanted to keep you from getting hurt, and I didn't think you'd believe me even if I told you … but that's no excuse," I added, seeing her frown. "I have no excuse."
There was another long silence, only this time it was because it was Lydia's turn to be speechless. She stared at me incredulously for what seemed like hours but was probably only a couple of minutes, and then she stood up and started pacing her room.
"I don't care about excuses," she said suddenly, whirling around to face me. "Or apologies, either. I just want to know why everyone else had to find out before me, why Malfoy had to know before me, why you let Pansy humiliate me in front of our whole house!" Her eyes were bright with tears for a moment, then she blinked several times and they disappeared. "Come on, Blaise, you always have all the answers." Her tone was almost mocking, I was sure of it.
"I just told you," I snapped, irritated that she didn't look like she was ever going to forgive me. "I was trying to stop you from getting hurt. You're my best friend, I wasn't about to let Pansy and that bastard upset you!"
"Yeah, but now I look like a complete prat!" she shouted. "All because you didn't want to hurt me!"
I stood up so quickly I sent my chair skidding backwards.
"Would you have believed me if I had?" I said, my voice low with anger. Lydia hesitated, opening and closing her mouth like a goldfish, and in that instant, I knew what was wrong with her.
I sighed heavily and dropped into my seat. "It's not your fault, you know."
"What are you talking about?"
"This," I said, gesturing vaguely at her. "Your anger, your whole argument, whatever … you think this is somehow all your fault, right?"
"Blaise, when the hell did you become a psychologist?" Her sneer, when it came, contained surprisingly little venom or conviction. "That's absolutely ridiculous. What makes you think something so – so …"
"Am I right?"
Halfway through her feverish pacing, Lydia stopped as abruptly as though she'd hit an invisible wall. Then her face crumpled and she turned and threw herself on her bed. For a few minutes all I could hear was her harsh sobbing, and then she rolled over, blinking back tears, and looked at me.
"Of course you're right," she said, with a watery smile. "You're always bloody right.
And how could it not be my fault?" she added very, very softly. "Pansy was only able to get to Jeff because we weren't –"
"Pansy was able to get to Jeff because he put up very little resistance," I interrupted sharply. "You had nothing to do with it. It was a completely insane plan, anyway; she was trying to get Draco back through you."
Lydia's eyes widened. "She was? But that's … that's –"
"Completely insane, yeah."
"So Pansy could have used anyone, anyone at all? And she used me and Jeff?"
"To be honest, I think Jeff was pretty willing to be used, but yes, that's what she did." I shrugged and then said, "And when that didn't work, she just went straight for me, to get Draco back that way. Didn't work," I added, somewhat smugly.
Lydia looked like she was about to laugh, but then her expression fell, and she said, "But it's still my fault because I kissed George … I tempted fate and …"
"Don't tell me you believe that fate and meant-to-be crap? Look, you may be responsible for the thing with George, but that doesn't mean you should beat yourself up because Jeff turned out to be a complete wanker."
She agreed fervently with that bit, and then we had a long laugh listing all the incredibly dumb things that Jeff had done or said, and by the time I realised it was getting dark and that I should be going back home, she looked considerably more cheerful than when I'd arrived.
As I was about to leave, Lydia suddenly said, "Oh, what about you and Malfoy? I meant to ask you earlier …"
I laughed, just because it was nice not to have to worry so much about her and Draco, and because I hadn't felt this light and hopeful in weeks.
"He's a Death Eater, and I'm a half-blood," I said. "We're perfect."