"Remind me again why I agreed to this?" Rose gathered up the front of her dress robes to avoid tripping over the hem as she ascended the staircase leading to the ballroom. A couple in matching robes trimmed with peacock's-tail feathers swept past; when the ballroom doors opened to admit them, Rose could hear the buzz of conversations and a few notes from a band warming up.

"Because, dear cousin, I needed a date to help me fend off all the birds, and you needed something to get you out of your flat so you could take a holiday from brooding for a few hours."

"'Fend off all the birds'?" she hooted, quirking an amused grin at James. "Aren't we the strutting rooster tonight." Her smile faded. "Anyway, I have not been brooding."

"Right." He drew out the word, turning one syllable into several. "Have you forgotten which family you were born into? Even Louis has noticed that your joie de vivre has gone au revoir since you showed Philip the door."

"Has he really? Louis, the lord of La-La Land, whose head is so far up in the clouds he forgets what House he belongs to? Who wouldn't see a dragon before him even after it set his hair on fire?" James nodded. "Have I truly been that bad?" Another nod. "Oh dear," she said sadly, pausing near the top of the staircase to blink back the stinging tears of regret that had just sprung to her eyes.

James, who'd been waiting on the landing, bouncing on the balls of his feet, hurried down to her level to throw an arm across her shoulders and give her a squeeze. "Aw, love, no one's blaming you for it. Who could? After all, you'd been moony-eyed over that knob Manchester since your Sorting, and then to break things off with him for good a month before your wedding? Of course you're going to be a bit of a Moaning Myrtle for a while! Anyone with half your heart would be!"

He grasped her shoulders and turned her towards him, looking deeply into her eyes. "But it's been three months now, and I really miss my favorite cousin. I miss her swearing like a goblin at Quidditch referees whenever they make bad calls, I miss the way she can out-argue nearly everyone in our family, I miss the way she never takes any cheek, not even from Uncle Charlie, and I miss hanging out with her at the Leaky Cauldron on weekends. If I have to spend one more Friday with no one to get pissed with but Fred or Lucy or my pinhead of a brother, I'll go spare." He leaned close. "Please, Myrtle, let me have Rose back."

"You poor dear," Rose said with a small smile, rolling her eyes at James' theatrics. "To imagine the suffering you've endured on my account."

"Indeed," he said, his lips curving upwards. "I hope you appreciate what torment it's been."

"Thank goodness I have you to enlighten me."

His grin broadened. "Well, someone has to. Merlin knows, everyone else is afraid you'll zap them with a Jungle Rot Jinx." He released Rose's shoulders and held out his arm, crooked at the elbow, for her to take. "So, whaddya say, cousin? Shall we go in there and show everyone that not even a broken heart can extinguish the Weasley flame?"

Unable to help herself, Rose snorted with laughter. "James, you are too much, do you know that? No wonder women are helpless to throw themselves at you." She let him lead her up the remaining steps to the ballroom entrance, where an elf in a garish waistcoat and spats stood sentry, checking invitations as the guests arrived.

James sighed with mock exaggeration as he handed the elf his invitation. "I'm a martyr to my own sex appeal, Rose. It's a curse, but someone has to bear the burden."

It felt good to laugh and to joke with James, Rose thought as they entered the ballroom. As much as it pained her, she had to admit he had a point: ever since she'd called off her wedding to Philip Manchester three months ago, she'd become almost hermit-like, tucking herself away in the sanctity and solitude of her flat and avoiding contact with others as much as possible. She'd even stopped attending family dinners because she just couldn't cope with the exuberance and energy that all her aunts and uncles and cousins brought to the table. Thankfully, while they'd expressed their concern, Mum and Dad had respected her need for time and space to get over Philip and kept their distance. Dad and Uncle George had even allowed her to do the joke shop's bookkeeping from home, sending her each day's receipts by owl post, though she still had to meet with them twice a month so they could review and reconcile all the accounts. Apart from them, her only regular contact for the past several weeks had been with James and Nana Granger.

She hadn't felt lonely at the time, Rose mused, but despite her initial reluctance to accompany James tonight she had to admit that it felt good to be out of her flat, rather than curled up in her pajamas with a novel and a cup of tea her only companions, listening to the patter of rain against her window and the distant sounds of traffic, her thoughts inadvertently turning to Philip. The dress robes that Aunt Ginny had ordered for her (no doubt in collusion with James to get Rose to agree to come) and her new haircut, which she'd got on a whim yesterday afternoon, helped further boost her spirits.

Best of all, James had done some checking this afternoon and confirmed that Philip and his new girlfriend were in the States, so there was no chance of an awkward reunion.

James had taken Rose's hand in his and was half-dragging her across the ballroom, to where her Uncle Harry and Aunt Ginny and a few other people she presumed to be Ministry officials were gathered, all of them dressed to the nines. "I thought it best to let Dad and Mum see you right off," he explained, "so they can spread the word that Myrtle's got free of her toilet, and then you can go home early if you wish." He squeezed her hand. "Any time you're ready to leave, just let me know."

"Thanks, James, but I think I'm okay for a while."

He smiled. "Good." Then, calling out to the group, he announced, "Look who I rescued from solitary confinement," pulling Rose beside him and wrapping his arm around her waist. "I had to slay a troll and kiss a frog to do it, but she's free now."

"I'll get you for that," Rose muttered through clenched teeth as she smiled at her aunt and uncle.

"It's good to see you, Rose," Uncle Harry said, giving her a warm smile as Aunt Ginny hugged her.

"Well, your son parked himself on my sofa and refused to budge until I agreed to come. This seemed less costly than feeding him for the next eight decades, never mind the smell." She bent down to give her aunt a kiss on the cheek. "Thank you for the dress robes; I love the color."

"I thought that shade would look good on you. You look so lovely, Rose. Doesn't she, Harry?"

Rose felt her cheeks grow warm as her uncle eyed her appraisingly before giving a nod of approval. "Very beautiful."

"Thanks, Uncle Harry." She gave him a grateful smile, feeling increasingly confident about coming here tonight. In the company of people who cared about her, she knew she could drop her guard and still be shielded from making too much a fool of herself.

"I won't be at all surprised if you attract the attention of a few admirers tonight," Aunt Ginny said, her brown eyes sparkling mischievously. "In fact, I can name several eligible wizards already here eager for an introduction."

On the other hand... "Is that why James was so insistent on my coming, so you could play matchmaker?" Rose said with exasperation that was partly in jest, partly genuine. "Honestly, Aunt Ginny, you're as bad as Grandmum Weasley."

"Worse," James said hoarsely in her ear. Rose giggled.

Just then a tall, slender young man, his pale blond hair carefully swept back from his narrow face, came near and addressed himself to her uncle. As the two men exchanged words with an air that suggested an extended acquaintance, Rose turned to her cousin and murmured, "Who is that with Uncle Harry? He looks familiar. Do I know him?"

James looked in the direction she indicated. "Who, him? You ought to. It's Scorpius Malfoy."

She gasped. "It's been so long, I scarcely recognized him! What on earth is he doing here? He seems very familiar with Uncle Harry."

James gave her an amused look. "You ihave/i been out of touch, cousin."

"What do you mean?"

To Rose's abject horror, James called out, "Oi, Malfoy! How long have you been Dad's assistant?"

"James!" she hissed as the person in question turned to look at them, then excused himself from her uncle to approach. "I swear..." She tried to hide her face, with its flaming cheeks, behind James' broad back.

"Nearly three years," was Scorpius' answer. "Since I completed Auror training. But you know that," he added, clearly puzzled.

James laughed. "Of course I do; we trained up together. My cousin, however--" He nimbly stepped aside, ruining Rose's sorry attempt at camouflage. "--fritters away her life with her nose in a ledger, tallying up assets and debits even in her dreams, and consequently tends not to notice the lives the rest of us lead." Rose squeaked with embarrassment when James grabbed her hand and forced her to come forward. "You remember my cousin Rose Weasley, don't you, Scorpius?"

He regarded her coolly. "How could I forget? We were in the same year at Hogwarts. You used to trounce me in Transfiguration on a regular basis."

"I seem to recall you doing the same to me in Potions," she managed to get out. "With great enthusiasm, too."

The corner of his mouth twitched. "I suppose I did." He extended his hand to her. "It's a pleasure to see you again, Rose. It's been a long time."

Gripping his hand firmly, she looked up into his eyes as she'd been taught to do, and found his gaze, like the skin of his palm against hers, unexpectedly warm. Discomfited by the surge of humidifying self-consciousness it sparked, she withdrew her hand with a murmur and surreptitiously wiped it against her robe.

"Oh, blast," James muttered.

"What?"

"Priscilla Montgomery just walked in. And she's alone."

"Oh, boy," Scorpius breathed.

Rose gave them both a puzzled frown. "So?"

James ducked down behind her, tugging at Scorpius' arm until he was standing beside her; standing shoulder-to-shoulder, they presented a wall around which James darted furtive looks before crouching back down. "So? So if that man-eater sees me, I'm lost. She'll sink her claws in me and never let go." Unimpressed with her cousin's childish antics, Rose rolled her eyes and let out a "tuh" of disapproval. When she looked over her shoulder to give him a piece of her mind, he cried out, "Don't let her see me back here!"

At that she turned to face him. "James Sirius Potter, since when do you hide from women?"

"Bloody hell, Rose, you've done it now - she's headed this way!" He gave Scorpius a panicked look. "Keep my cousin company, will you? See that she has a good time tonight!"

"Don't you dare abandon me, you miserable git!" Before she could stop him, though, James had fled, leaving Rose staring at Scorpius with utter bewilderment. "Do you have any idea what that was all about?" she asked him.

He nodded slightly, seemingly exasperated. "I'll explain later - here she comes."

A shapely young witch with hair styled to within an inch of its life, her dress robes cut to an almost obscenely tight fit, sashayed -- Rose could think of no other word to describe her movement -- up to them, bringing a miasma of perfume in her wake. "Score, doll," she purred, her voice gratingly coy and kittenish, "I could have sworn I saw Jamie standing here just a moment ago."

Her eyes wide with amusement, Rose mouthed "Score? Jamie?" as Scorpius cleared his throat. "Erm, he was, but he got called away on business. Urgent business. Auror, er, business. Most urgent." Rose hid a laugh behind her hand, though his irritated frown only made her want to laugh even more.

"Oh, dear." If the witch's lower lip had poked out any further, she could have used it as a drinks tray. "He won't be gone long, will he? I had such hopes of spending the night with him. I even bought these robes just for the occasion." She gave a coquettish little shimmying giggle then that brought on a coughing fit in Scorpius.

Coming to Scorpius' rescue with a firm slap to his back, Rose dissembled smoothly, "James said he might be gone the rest of the evening. You know how it is with these Aurors - always running off at the slightest pretext. If I see him, though, I promise to let him know you were looking for him."

The witch barely batted her fake eyelashes in Rose's direction before she leaned against Scorpius. "Tell him that it's most urgent I find him," she breathed in his ear, her chest pressing against his arm with each emphasized aspiration.

"Erm, sure, Priscilla. I'll see that he gets your message." Rose thought if any more blood rose to his head it might explode, which would bring the evening to a rather gruesomely unfortunate end - a shame, since she was really beginning to enjoy herself.

The witch simpered. "Ta, baby," she said, wiggling her fingers in farewell before wiggling the rest of herself away.

Once she was out of earshot, Rose turned to Scorpius, one eyebrow cocked, her hands on her hips, laughter bubbling just beneath the surface. "What on earth was that all about, baby?"

He cleared his throat loudly. "She's, er, she's what's known as - well, she's the sort of witch who fancies Aurors."

Rose's eyebrows shot up. "Ah, I think I get the picture. A camp follower, of sorts?" He considered this before nodding his agreement. "How on earth did she wrangle an invitation here? This hardly seems the sort of gathering where her sort would be welcome."

"Priscilla's a very resourceful and determined witch," he remarked dryly, his composure back in place.

"So I see." Then something occurred to Rose, and she grinned at the thought. "I wonder if she knows she has no hope of success with my cousin?"

Scorpius eyed her shrewdly before responding, "For her it's all about the hunt. The greater the challenge--"

"The greater the victory." She clucked her tongue as she studied him. "So am I to take it that you were an... easy conquest?"

"Merlin, no!" He seemed scandalized by the very idea.

"Mm-hm."

He must have realized that any retort would only have dug an even deeper hole, so he wisely chose not to rise to her bait. "At any rate, she's caught the scent of blood now. I doubt she'll come back this way again."

"Unless James seeks refuge with my aunt and uncle."

"He won't."

"You seem rather sure of yourself. How do you know he won't?"

"Because your uncle believes that any Auror who can't handle a situation like this on his own ought to reconsider his choice of profession."

Rose let out a peal of laughter that carried across the ballroom. Several heads turned in her direction; flushing at the unwanted attention, she reflexively pressed her hand up against her mouth and turned away. As soon as she felt like the color in her face had returned to normal, she said in a low voice, "Good for Uncle Harry. James is always going on about how women can't keep their hands off him, so it's high time his boasting came back to bite him in the arse."

"Don't you think you're being a little hard on him?"

"Me? Are you kidding? Wait 'til his sister finds out." At Scorpius' puzzled frown she explained, "Taking the mickey out of each other is how we show affection in my family. Well, to each other. We give outsiders a grace period before breaking them in - lull them into a false sense of security, then just when they're starting to relax and feel at ease: wham."

Scorpius' eyes narrowed. "Why, then, do I get the feeling you've decided to skip over the grace period and jump straight to having a go at me?"

"I don't know. Are you--" She glanced in the direction James had fled. "--campaigning for a seat at family dinners?"

His nostrils flared and his eyes widened as he caught her meaning. "No, no. No. Potter and me - no. We're colleagues, that's all."

She grinned. "You know, Scorpius, for an Auror, you're terribly transparent."

He sniffed. "For a bookkeeper, you're disturbingly opaque."

"That's got nothing to do - Wait." She frowned at him. "How did you know I was a bookkeeper?"

With an elegant flick of each wrist, he adjusted his cuffs. "Potter said you've always got your nose in a ledger when he introduced us. And, I might point out, I am your uncle's assistant. I pick up things about people."

Feeling strangely violated, Rose folded her arms over her chest. "You 'pick up things'? What sort of 'things'?"

He opened his mouth as if to reply, then closed it, pursing his lips and staring off into the distance. After a moment or two he turned to her and asked, "I'm feeling thirsty. Would you like something to drink?"

Rose looked in the direction he indicated, towards what appeared to be a fully-stocked bar, then back at him. "I'll come with you," she said decisively. "After you've bought me a drink, you can tell me what other sort of 'things' about me you've picked up from working with my uncle."

"You're not going to let that go, are you?"

"Not on your life."

He sighed. "All right, then, c'mon."

A sensation of prickly heat ran up and down Rose's spine when Scorpius pressed his hand at the small of her back to guide her across the ballroom, and she shivered involuntarily. "Are you cold?" he asked, looking at her with concern. "I can fetch my cloak--"

"No, I'm fine. Just a passing chill."

He didn't seem convinced, but let the matter drop and turned to the waiting bartender. "Single Firewhisky for me, and... What will you have?" he asked Rose.

She pursed her lips as she considered her options. Normally, under the circumstances, she'd get gillywater, but until three months ago, "normally" had meant she'd be with Philip. Come to think of it, Philip had always ordered for her, assuming, as he had so often done, that he knew what she wanted better than she did. She actually thought gillywater tasted rather like fish entrails. "I'll have the same," she finally said.

Scorpius nodded. "Two single Firewhiskys, then." He leaned against the bar, facing her, while Rose hoisted herself up on a nearby stool. "So."

"So?"

"I haven't seen you for several years. What have you been up to since Hogwarts?"

Her elbow propped on the bar, Rose rested her chin in her hand. "Why do I get the feeling you already know the answer to that question and are testing me to find out what I'll say?"

"I might know a few of the highlights," he said with studied nonchalance. "It is the business of the Auror Department to keep tabs on people of interest."

"'People of interest'? Merlin's pajamas, your life must be frightfully dull if I qualify as a person of interest. Why don't you enlighten me, then. What have I been up to since Hogwarts?"

Their drinks had arrived, so he took a moment to sip at his before answering. "Perhaps I should tell you what I've been up to instead, and you can judge if my life is frightfully dull or not."

"Wait," Rose said, "let me guess." She closed her eyes and pretended to be in deep thought, fingertips pressed to her temples. "You underwent Auror training, after which you were assigned to be my uncle's assistant, which is where you've been for nearly three years, keeping tabs on not-very-interesting people of interest, avoiding the predatory advances of over-sexed, under-dressed tarts, and leading a frightfully dull existence." She opened her eyes. "How close was I?"

His mouth twitched. "Full marks. You've got great potential as a Seer, if you ever decide to give up bookkeeping."

"Or maybe," she said mischievously, enjoying how easy he was to tease, "I 'pick up things' too. Your boss is my uncle, after all."

He seemed pleased by this. "Maybe so." He beckoned the bartender over for a refill. "Actually, you were wrong on one count. I wasn't assigned to your uncle: he requested me."

"Really?" He nodded. "Why?" At the look on Scorpius' face she hurriedly added, "I don't mean to imply anything. I'm just curious why Uncle Harry chose you in particular to be his assistant."

"Maybe I was the most qualified. I did earn the highest marks of my entering class."

"Oh, I doubt that." Realizing her blunder, Rose hid her embarrassment by taking a drink. "I mean," she gasped as the Firewhisky left scorch marks all the way down her esophagus, "I'm quite sure you're more than qualified. You wouldn't have lasted this long in the position if you weren't. Uncle Harry doesn't suffer fools gladly."

She paused to fan herself and collect her thoughts. "It's simply that he doesn't take such a personal interest on a whim. He chose you to be his assistant for a reason. He can't help himself; it's the crusader in him. My mum, who knows a thing or two about crusading herself, calls it his 'saving-people thing.'" She laughed lightly. "I hope he doesn't work you too hard. I know how obsessive these crusading types can get at times."

He raised one shoulder, then lowered it. "It's not too bad. It's challenging, which I'm glad of - no two days are ever the same."

"Long hours, I imagine."

He'd turned to face the bar now, showing her his sharply-featured profile as he ran the tip of his finger around the rim of his glass. "I'm probably as frightfully dull as you claim. There aren't many opportunities for a life outside work," he admitted. "Especially working with your uncle. I love being an Auror, but... you could say I'm married to my job."

"I can appreciate what that's like." At his questioning look she explained, "Dad and Uncle George's business is so successful, you could say I'm carrying on quite the torrid romance with my job."

"And you claim I'm frightfully dull."

"Well, it's not as though I ever claimed I wasn't, merely that you'd have to be to find me even remotely interesting." She raised her glass to him in a toast, earning a nod and a fleeting smile that made her heart seem to skip a beat.

His next comment, coming as it did on the heels of her unusually bleak self-description, blindsided her. "I was sorry to learn about what happened between you and that Manchester bloke last summer. What he did was unconscionable."

Her stomach twisted as though she'd just been stabbed. Fighting to keep her voice firm and even, Rose said, "Something else you 'picked up' while you were 'keeping tabs' on me?"

"Rose--"

She slid off her stool, but a wave of dizziness brought on by the Firewhisky made her teeter slightly. His hand reached out as if to steady her, but she jerked back. "What a pleasure it is to find out that the most painfully intimate details of my life are a favored topic of water cooler gossip," she threw over her shoulder as she marched away. "Your lot must've found it most entertaining."

"Rose, wait!" He caught up with her right outside the ballroom, seizing her by the arm and pulling her around to face him. He had the decency to look ashamed, but she wasn't taken in by it. "Don't go."

She struggled to break free, but he held fast, his grip strong but not painfully so. "Let go of me!"

"Only if you let me explain. And apologize. Please?"

Despite everything, Rose found her anger diminishing as she looked into Scorpius' dark blue eyes, seeing regret and concern and something else there that made her breath catch in her chest and her insides feel as though they had been coated in warm honey. Slowly she relaxed her combative stance.

Scorpius released her to comb his fingers nervously through his hair, wrecking the careful, conservative style so that several thick strands came loose to hang in his eyes. "First, I'm sorry. It was appallingly gauche of me to blurt out what I did without any warning. I'd been wanting to say something, to come clean, but it seemed the more we talked, the harder it became to find the right moment."

"You always were rather blunt at school, as I recall. Blunt almost to the point of cruelty."

He winced. "I wasn't trying to be cruel. It was a lapse in judgment brought on by my own impatience, that's all. I truly am sorry for causing you any distress and making you think your private life had been put on display."

Her arms folded across her chest, she gave a sharp nod. "Right. That was your apology. Now you owe me an explanation: what do you think you know about what happened between me and Philip? And why do you even care?"

Scorpius wouldn't look directly at her, choosing instead to find something of great interest over her shoulder. "I know more than you'd like for me to know," he finally said. When she gestured for him to continue, he added, "I know he was shamelessly unfaithful." He glanced at her, then redirected his gaze and took a breath. "And that the final straw was when you came home to find him with someone in your bed."

Her vision blurred as realization struck. "How - How do you--? Oh, God!" she moaned with sickening realization, pressing the heels of her hands against her eyes. "When you said you were keeping tabs, I didn't think you really meant it! How long have you been spying on me?"

"No!" As though he feared she'd run again, he reached out to grasp her shoulder, but she slapped his hand away. "It's not like that at all."

"Then what is it like?" Shame and humiliation had made her voice shrill, so she lowered it to a harsh, tearful whisper. "How else could you have learned something I never even told my own mother?"

"Look, I admit I stuck my nose where it probably didn't belong--" She gave a derisive scoff. "--but you've not been under long-term surveillance or anything of the sort."

"How is that supposed to make me feel any better? Was invading my privacy something you did to take the edge off your frightfully dull existence? What did I ever do to you to deserve this anyway, Malfoy?" She deliberately emphasized his family name, knowing that in some circles it bore the weight of an epithet. "I bet you and your mates had a right laugh at my expense."

His hands, hanging by his sides, opened and closed. When he spoke, his voice was strained, his jaw lines taut and trembling. "After you broke off your engagement and became such a recluse, your father got worried. He came to your uncle and asked him to try to find out if Manchester had done anything to hurt you. I had a hunch, so I volunteered to look into it - on my own time, of course. That's all it was."

"How chivalrous of you," Rose said, her voice dripping with sarcasm. "My knight in dented armor."

He made a noise of exasperation. "Would you quit finding bad intentions where there are none? I did it off the clock so I wouldn't have to report on what I found! I told no one, Rose. Not a soul." She gaped at him. "Even now, I'm the only person who knows the truth about what happened. Well, except for you and that toss--"

"But what about my dad and Uncle Harry? What did you tell them?"

Her undisguised astonishment must have encouraged him, because he took a step towards her, his hands extended as if in supplication. "Simply that I'd found nothing to indicate Manchester had done you any harm, and that you just needed time to get over a broken heart. I didn't think it would do anyone any good if they knew the whole story - you least of all. You must believe me," he pleaded.

She was confused beyond all imagining. "You did all that - for me?" He dared to lift his gaze to her face and nodded. "But why? Why should it matter to you?"

"He was such a bastard when we were in school, and I suspected that he'd only grown worse with time." After licking his lips he continued, "He was in my House, Rose. I saw a side to him that you would have denied even - even if he'd made you smear your face in it, because you were always too besotted to see the truth about what he really was. I couldn't - I didn't--" He shoved his hands in his pockets. "It doesn't matter. You're well shot of him, and that's what matters."

"No."

"No?"

"You've violated my privacy in the most painfully invasive way imaginable, Scorpius. You don't get to decide what does and doesn't matter."

His eyebrows drew together. "I don't understand. Aren't you relieved to be free of him?"

"No, you're right about that. I am relieved. I feel more free now than I can remember feeling since I was a little girl. But that's not the point." He eyed her warily. "What concerns me now is what you were about to say after you said I was too besotted to see the truth about Philip. You said, 'I couldn't, I didn't,' then left off. I want to hear the rest of that sentence. After all you've done, after all you've already said, you owe me the complete truth."

He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly through his nose, his gaze far away. "You deserved so much better than him, Rose."

After everything that had gone before, his answer made her feel more bitter than anything else. "Really? Better than Philip? Like who? Surely not iyou/i."

Color flooded his face. "As a matter of fact, yes. Why not me?"

"You?" She laughed humorlessly. "Are you joking? At school you had your nose so high in the air it was a miracle you didn't get nosebleeds on a daily basis! Even if I had fancied you, you wouldn't have given me the time of day!"

Scorpius drew himself up to his full height. "Look who's talking, Madam my-family-is-better-than-everyone-else's! You swanned around that castle like you were Queen bloody Mab!"

"I did not!" Teeth clenched, jaw jutting forward, she shot back, "At least I don't go around stalking unsuspecting people, prying into their private lives for my own amusement."

"I--" he began, before stopping to swipe his hand over his face, its high color fading rapidly. "Why won't you believe me?" he asked plaintively. "There was nothing amusing about what I did. Nothing would have made me happier than to discover my hunch about Manchester had been wrong and that he'd done nothing to hurt you. I've never hated being right more than I did then."

The heat in his voice and the look on his face dispelled the bitterness she'd been feeling, leaving in its wake a jumble of emotions she couldn't identify. This time, when he laid his hands on her shoulders, Rose didn't try to break contact. "You've never hated being right in your life," she said, her voice tremulous. "You revel in it."

"Rose, I cannot take pleasure in anything that hurts you. Do you understand what I'm trying to say?"

As she looked deeply into Scorpius' eyes, searching for answers to questions she dared not voice, Rose felt as if she were floating and drowning at the same time, uncertain if she should call out for help or surrender herself to whatever had her in its grasp and hope for the best. Eyes that color shouldn't be so warm and expressive, she thought petulantly. It wasn't fair, the way he seemed to be able to look through her, past the joking and the teasing -- and oh, Merlin's pants, she hadn't done it on purpose, but the flirting -- and locate the most carefully-guarded fragile and tender parts of her soul, the parts that were still raw with convalescence.

Did she understand what Scorpius was saying? She thought she did, and if so.... When she'd agreed to accompany James tonight, she'd not been expecting this. How could she have done?

She couldn't remember a time when she'd looked at another wizard the way she'd always looked at Philip. Other wizards were always friends, or colleagues, or uncles and cousins; Philip had been her only lover, first and, as she had once believed, always. As recently as three months ago, she'd never imagined loving any wizard but him, never thought she'd grow old with anyone else. But he'd betrayed her, over and over and over.

Now that she'd put him and the pain he'd inflicted behind her, she was confronted with the possibility of starting afresh with someone new, someone wholly unexpected. Rose felt as if she was thirteen all over again, her heart pounding in her chest, her cheeks burning with bashfulness, uncertain whether the wiser choice would be to take the risk or take flight.

Choosing the latter, for better or for worse, Rose gathered up her robes as she had on her way in and ran down the steps as quickly as she could. Behind her she could hear Scorpius' footsteps and his voice calling her name. Ignoring their startled exclamations, she pushed her way through a crowd of people gathered around the entrance and escaped into the refreshing night air, hoping it would clear her head so she could think things through and make sense of the chaos of feelings that threatened to overwhelm her.

Of course, as her stupid luck would have it, she'd forgotten about the rain, and she found herself caught outdoors with her cloak inside and Scorpius at the door, blocking her re-entry, his expression fearsome in its intensity. Confused and distraught, torn between desire and fear, on the verge of tears, she turned on him and stamped her foot. "This is your fault!" she cried as the rain plastered her hair to her cheeks and soaked her dress robes.

He stared at her for what seemed to be the longest moment in history. Then, without breaking eye contact, he took his wand out and came toward her; his long legs covered the distance between them in a few strides. Rose, despite her instinct to flee once again, remained rooted to the spot.

Standing before her, he gave his wand a flourish and charmed an umbrella to appear. "Hold this," he said thickly, thrusting it at her.

Unable or unwilling to refuse, Rose did as she was told, holding the umbrella so it covered both of them. Meanwhile, he removed his outer robe, leaving him in his shirt and trousers, and reached around her to drape it over her shoulders.

Her chin was trembling -- whether from cold or anticipation, she couldn't say -- as she raised it to meet his smoldering gaze. "Thank you," she whispered.

His hands were so warm and soft and strong as they cupped her face, but they were nothing compared to the feeling of his lips against hers, firm yet pliant, his breath escaping his nose to caress her cheek, his heart beating rapidly beneath the hand she'd pressed against his chest, her fingers clutching at his shirt to draw him closer, her arm sliding up to wrap around his neck as she stood on her toes for better access...

Scorpius was the first to break the kiss, lowering his hands to her waist and pulling back. Rose opened her eyes to see him looking down at her with an unfathomable expression. "You're shivering," he said.

"I'm soaked through."

He smiled gently. "That too." His hand reached up and smoothed her wet hair from her face, then he leaned down to place a kiss in the middle of her forehead. "Let's get you home and into some dry clothes before you catch a chill."

Rose rested her head against his chest, drawing warmth and comfort from him. "And then?"

"And then?" She felt his muscles tenses and bunch as he prepared for Disapparition and tightened her grip around his waist. "And then... we'll see."

This was written for the Rose/Scorpius fic and art exchange on LiveJournal; the recipient had requested a fic that showed Rose and Scorpius as adults, without delving into any interfamilial tension. Thanks to Katieay for being such a fabulous beta and dear friend. I'd also like to thank birdseyeview for pre-beta-ing an early draft of this.