...perfected by Callinicus according to contemporary principles adapted from the original Alexandrian experiments in the use of sulphites for incendiary -- "May I speak to you, Mr. Corner?"

The voice startled Michael, but he managed to swallow the very undignified yelp that had almost burst out, quickly tapping Military Magic of the Ancient World with the wand tucked surreptitiously into his cuff. Taking a deep breath, he managed to compose the alarm into annoyance, fixing Blaise Zabini with a profoundly uninviting scowl as he leaned forward on one arm casually over the now-innocuous tome of Philosophers, Alchemists, and Sorcerers (A-F). "I see little point in refusing permission when you have already assumed the liberty."

Zabini took the unissued invitation to sit down, leaning in closely and pitching his voice low. Michael knew that it was necessary to avoid the wrath of Madame Pince, but there was still a sense of intimacy he resented from the Slytherin who had so recently Cruciated his best friend, and it wasn't helped at all by the smug little twist to the other youth's mouth that said he was perfectly aware of the boundaries of Michael's personal space. And that he was in them. "You have a problem with civility?"

Michael returned a cryonic smile of his own, his tone so flawlessly pleasant that it could be guaranteed to offend. "Civility in theory is well enough, but the trouble with theories is that they prove so often theoretical."

The dusky head inclined slightly, and Zabini's shoulders seemed to tense a fraction beneath the impeccable lines of his robes. "Then perhaps we should stick to practicalities."

"In which we have practically nothing in common."

"Excepting perhaps convictions," Zabini replied immediately, as if the rejoinder had been expected.

"If you have had one, I envy you." Michael said evenly, turning back to the book and running his finger lazily over the entry for Enki. "Judicial proceedings have been notably absent of late in my experience."

At the edge of his vision, he could see Zabini's eyes narrow for an instant, but his words remained as unctuous as ever, almost to the point where Michael could believe he hadn't reacted at all. "But would not have changed the outcome. I was referring to convictions of principle."

Michael still did not look up. "Why, do you want to borrow one?"

"I have my own."

"I'm shocked."

There was a moment's silence, his fingertip drifting down to Fulcanelli before Zabini spoke again, the pretention of pleasantry abandoned, if not the surface implacability...or repellently implicit superiority. "Step down from your ivory tower, Mr. Corner, and your blood is as pure as mine. Your unfortunate encounter with Professor Belsen was completely unnecessary."

Now he did look up, but only to arch a single eyebrow in mild offense that the Slytherin would bring up the subject of his all-too-recent and all-too-public torture. "I suppose you would think so, Mr. Zabini. For your information, my motivations were primarily common decency, although you might not be familiar with it...common decency having that plebian element of the common."

Zabini raised one hand casually, scattering his fingers in a dismissive gesture. "Decency, like all virtues, is theory as much as civility."

"As is your assumption."

"Your father was known to consider us separate from --"

"In lieu of my convictions," Michael cut in smoothly, "perhaps you might be interested in borrowing my dictionary. I will make sure to mark the definition of separation for you, so that you may compare it to the definition of subjugation."

"Itself different from the definition of supplantation, which is where find ourselves now." He was good, at least better than Michael had expected, and although his retort was immediate, the smile that sliced across it was double-edged with a degree of genuine enjoyment for their little controversion.

"Funny, I thought this was a library."

"Perhaps you should pay more attention to history and less to your masochistic extracurricular activities."

"History has not been kind to tyrants."

"History is written by the victors."

"Then perhaps I should consider a future career as an author."

Zabini chuckled in quiet mockery. "You truly believe you have any kind of future at this rate? I would think that you might have learned something recently about keeping your nose clean."

"I find that easier to do when I keep it away from where you have it."

"Better my nose than your head." Zabini snapped, then paused, collecting himself to strychnine-sweet assurance again. "I have connections, Mr. Corner, and given that brilliance breeds forgiveness almost as easily as beauty, I have no doubts –"

"Then I'm happy to supply you one," Michael said, leaning back in the hard wooden chair to cross his arms firmly. "No."

The other wizard made a half-decent appearance of being genuinely hurt by the rejection. "The offer hasn't even been made."

"You needn't trouble yourself. Your Crysopoeian Charm is a bit too much of a Midas Touch for my tastes."

"Which I had thought were only regrettable in friends and clothing," Zabini sneered.

"I happily defer you the latter;" Michael gave his own cloyingly generous smile. "Your gifts for framing nearly excuse the artist."

There was no overt reaction, but a deep mahogany flush colored the sculpted cheekbones. "A pity they don't teach art appreciation here."

"Almost as much a pity as my inability to continue this conversation." Michael stood, gathering up his notes, ink, and Coding Quill and bundling them quickly but neatly into his bag. "But I'm still not feeling my best, and there's only so much I'm willing to inflict on my delicate digestion today." He slung the strap over his shoulder, bowing slightly. "Good afternoon, Mr. Zabini."

"In theory, Mr. Corner."

Zabini did not follow him, nor did Michael look back, but he did not need to, and as soon as he had rounded the edge of the first row of tall, overstuffed stacks, his pace quickened to just shy of a jog, and he closed his eyes, reaching out with his mind as he trusted to his long-ingrained knowledge of the library to guide him to the doors. Seal our trunks, Terry.

There was barely a pause, then his best friend's voice sounded in the back of his head. What's going on?

I wasn't in the mood for apple, and I think the serpent may not appreciate my picky eating habits.

Our cue to exeunt stage left, I believe.

Preferably before the big fight scene.

Would you mind if I left a small note of farewell?

Michael felt himself smile as he opened his eyes, pushing open the doors and taking a moment to scan the corridor for unwelcome observers before breaking into a sprint for the stairs. There was no telling how much time they had now, and if the other seventh-years were any indication, it was probably very little indeed. Better if there was a gift attached.

After this year's exquisite hospitality, how could there not be?

Sign the card from both of us and meet me at the Room?

My pleasure.

THE END