Disclaimer: I do not own Harry Potter.

The Fine Art of Poisoning
By Silver Sailor Ganymede

Blaise Zabini is eight years old when he witnesses his first murder.

His mother remarried only two weeks previously, something Blaise hasn't yet come to terms with. His stepfather insists on being called father; he has absolutely no regard for the fact that Blaise already has a father. Well, had a father; Blaise's father is dead, of course, but that makes the current situation worse rather than better if anything at all.

His first stepfather's name is Donald McKinley. He is an old man with greying hair and a portly frame. Blaise thinks that he is ancient and ugly and cannot see what his young, beautiful mother could possibly want from a man like this. If he were nice then Blaise might have understood it, but McKinley is horrible in every single way. He forces Blaise to call him 'father' and tells him not to speak unless spoken to and is just generally unpleasant. His mother tries to laugh it off, tells him that it is just his stepfather's generation, it isn't anything personal: but then McKinley hexes him for knocking over a bottle of wine at dinner and even Blaise's mother can't excuse his behaviour anymore.

Then one morning at breakfast, Donald McKinley is no more. One moment the man is alive, the next he is slumped over the table, the blood freezing in his veins. His eyes pop out impossibly far, staring but unseeing, his face even more warped and grotesque than it had been before.

Poison. Blaise knows that it has to be poison because that has long been the best way for suffering wives like his mother to get rid of their cruel husbands. Of course he doesn't say anything; he does not want to get his mother into trouble, and they have inherited a large amount of money from his stepfather, so things could have been far worse. They could have been destitute again; they could have been left with nothing, just like before. His mother weeps for the cameras but in private she laughs.

Two weeks later, Magdalena McKinley once again becomes Magdalena Zabini, and Blaise is glad to have his mother back.

Seven months later his mother is married again. The papers are saying that it must be grief from losing her last husband that has caused his mother to run to the arms of another man, and honestly Blaise can believe it. No matter that they have money and a beautiful home now, Blaise has never seen his mother so agitated as she has been in the past few months.

Blaise's second stepfather is much nicer than his first. Henning Rekdal has shining blue eyes and a smile as golden as his hair. He is nice to Blaise and buys him sweets for no apparent reason, something that annoys his mother greatly. Blaise wonders whether this is what it's like to have a real father, someone who actually cares about him, but unfortunately this does not last long.

It is only two months later that Blaise finds his second stepfather dead on the front steps of the manor with his arms slit wide open and his eyes staring blankly at the sky. The demise of his first stepfather had been almost amusing because he had deserved it, but this one didn't deserve to die. The white marble of the front steps has turned black from all the blood and Blaise feels the tears rising in his eyes. Why do good people die sooner than bad ones?

The papers say that this is unsurprising, that Rekdal had suffered in the war with Gridelwald and had never quite got over the horror of what he had experienced. Blaise knows otherwise though; his mother's laughter in the night is enough to tell him that it wasn't a suicide.

This time it takes much longer for Magdalena Rekdal to become Magdalena Zabini again. Blaise doesn't care; he just wants his nice, second stepfather back.

Blaise is nine years old when his mother marries his third stepfather. Jean-Marie Legard is not unpleasant in the same way that his first stepfather was, but after Henning Rekdal the man is a bitter disappointment. Legard is easily fifty years older than his mother, frail and snow-haired but with a quick wit and sharp sense of humour. Not, of course, that Blaise cares about these things. He wants a father who can actually be a father to him, not one who sits in front of the fireplace in an armchair and just gets older and frailer by the second.

Legard's health is so bad that no one is entirely surprised when he dies. Shocked, yes, but not surprised; the shock comes from the fact that he keels over in the middle of the parlour one day in front of that evening's dinner guests. Everyone thinks that he has died of natural causes and there is nothing more in the paper this time than a simple obituary, but again Blaise's mother's hysterics tell him otherwise. Jean-Marie Legard was slowly but surely poisoned over the course of the year.

So Magdalena Legard becomes Magdalena Zabini again, but this time all Blaise can think about is how long it will take for his mother to poison him too. She evidently hates men after all.

Blaise is eleven years old and on his way to Hogwarts. His mother had sent him off with a shower of kisses and a bag full of sweets and he almost felt sad that he had to leave. It almost felt like she was going to miss him. Almost.

He has been sitting in a compartment with another boy who's obviously a first year for the past hour, but they haven't said a word to each other yet. Blaise is bored. He wants someone to talk to but his travelling companion has his head in a book. That's when he has an idea and pretends to spill his sweets all over the floor.

"I hate this stupid bloody contraption," he spits out, diving onto the floor and scrambling around to get his sweets back. "Stupid, stupid muggle thing!"

His plan has worked. The other boy finally looks up from his book and Blaise continues to stuff pieces of Drooble's Best Blowing Gum back into his pockets.

"What stupid bloody contraption?" the boy asks, looking almost glad to have been interrupted.

"This thing. This taim or whatever it's called," Blaise replies as he sits himself down on the seat again.

"Train," the boy corrects him.

Blaise stares at him in horror as an awful thought strikes him.

"Oh Merlin, you're not a mudblood… are you?"

The boy glares straight back at him, causing Blaise to feel relieved. If he really were a mudblood then he wouldn't know what a mudblood is, would he?

"Of course I'm not a mudblood," the boy snaps. "I'm Theodore Nott. And you are?"

"Blaise Zabini," Blaise replies, a relieved smirk appearing on his face. How awful it would have been, to have been stuck in a compartment with a mudblood for almost an hour without even realising it! "I've heard of you."

"Likewise," Theodore says.

"Do you think you'll be in Slytherin?" Blaise asks, yanking a chocolate frog out of his bag and beginning to much on it. "Chocolate frog?"

"No thank you," Theodore replies, looking faintly horrified by the prospect of eating chocolate. Blaise makes up his mind that the boy is very strange. "And of course I'll be in Slytherin. So will you, I trust?"

"Certainly," Blaise nods, continuing to eat his chocolate.

Theodore smiles at him – at least as close to a smile as Blaise has yet seen from him. Blaise grins in return; this year is off to a very good start.

Blaise likes coffee. Well, it's less that he likes coffee and more that he needs it to wake up in the morning. He had always liked it before, but sleeping in the same room as four other boys has ruined his sleeping pattern – especially considering the fact that both Crabbe and Goyle snore very loudly.

"You're eleven years old," Theodore snaps at him one morning. "You shouldn't be addicted to coffee already."

"You're one to talk!" Blaise splutters out. "You're drinking it as well."

"But I'm twelve, not eleven, and I'm not addicted."

"Neither am I!"

"Well you're rotting your teeth," Theodore replies, eyeing the cup of coffee in front of Blaise, which just happens to be covered in whipped cream and chocolate sprinkles among other things.


"Just try some normal coffee if you're in such desperate need of caffeine. Your teeth will thank you in the future," Theodore drawls, pushing a cup towards Blaise. It is full of the inky, black liquid that his mother always used to insist on drinking at breakfast, and which Blaise refuses to believe is coffee. He decides to try it anyway, just to stop Theodore glaring at him.

Blaise takes a small sip before feeling like he's swallowed three shots of firewhisky without breathing. He's feels the blood rush out of his face, his lip curls up in disgust, and it seems like he's a matter of seconds away from vomiting.

"How. Can. You. Drink. That. Stuff?" Blaise gasps out at last between gulps of his over-sweetened coffee. "It's vile. It's hideous. It's disgusting. It's… it's… it's not fit for human consumption! It's so bitter."

Theodore rolls his eyes. "Not all of us put ten sugars in our coffee, Zabini."

That inky rubbish Theodore's been drinking isn't coffee. It can't be. He won't believe it. It's always the tea that's poisoned.

Blaise's first year passes without much event (except for being cheated out of the House Cup by Gryffindor, which annoys him greatly), his summer was fine (no more dead stepfathers) and his second year has got off to a relatively decent start as well. The only annoying this is Draco Malfoy, who has gone from being a pompous brat to being constantly on edge. He thinks he's masking it well, but anyone who bothers to look for more than a few seconds will know that he's not. Frankly Blaise thinks he preferred it when Draco was being a prat; at least then he wasn't so jumpy.

Theodore has noticed this, too, but neither of them can figure out what's getting to Draco. It obviously won't be anything to do with his family; Draco is always bragging about his parents' loving relationship when Blaise is in earshot, probably because it's the best way he can think of to annoy him.

Blaise and Theodore decide that Draco's odd demeanour can't have anything to do with his grades either. He is getting exactly the same results as he did last year, with the exception of his putting in enough work to actually pass Herbology well this time (unlike Blaise himself, who is point blank refusing to do anything that would result in him getting mud under his nails). At first they think that it might be something to do with Herbology, as Draco goes ashen when Professor Sprout announces that they will be working with mandrakes – but they later decide that he must simply have a fear of mandrakes, as he shows no such horror when they have to work with venomous tentacula or mumbling moon mushrooms.

Finally they reach the conclusion that Draco's odd behaviour might have something to do with Quidditch. Draco has always been the most Quidditch-obsessed of their year. Crabbe and Goyle pretend to be as obsessed as Draco is just to stay in his good books: Blaise will watch the occasional Quidditch game but doesn't have much liking for the sport: and Theodore, frankly, has better things to do with his time than watch men chasing after balls on broomsticks. The Quidditch theory falls through as well, though, when Draco is picked as Slytherin's new seeker. Theodore seems somewhat unsurprised but Blaise is more than a little annoyed. He usually knows everyone's business so not knowing what's going on is frustrating beyond belief. He tells Theodore this and is told that he's simply being melodramatic; he can't know everything all the time.

They finally get their answer on Hallowe'en, just when Blaise had managed to convince himself that whatever Draco is up to, it obviously isn't anything important. The squib caretaker's cat is found petrified, the words 'Enemies of the heir, beware' daubed on the wall in blood above her.

"You'll be next, mudbloods!" Draco calls out, leaving a stunned silence. Those who know what 'mudblood' means either snigger in approval or begin muttering, disgusted. Blaise rolls his eyes, wondering why the word still holds so much credit. Everyone knows there's not really sure a thing as a pureblood – most of the people who say they do only say that in order to save themselves getting hassle from the likes of Draco Malfoy.

His mother's marriage to one Lucian Rose is announced in the Daily Prophet that morning. Blaise isn't surprised to see the article on the front page; she had told him a couple of weeks ago that he was to have another stepfather. No, the thing that surprises him is the fact that the papers are saying that this is his mother's fourth husband. Not her fifth – her fourth. Blaise can't understand it. First there had been his father, then McKinley, then Rekdal, then Legard and now Rose. That's five husbands, not four. Five.

In the end he decides to ask Theodore about it later that evening when they're sitting in the common room, seeing as Theodore always knows everything about everyone. Theodore is reading a book, as usual, and Blaise is staring at the ceiling and trying not to have to listen to Pansy Parkinson and Daphne Greengrass screeching about the fact that Gilderoy Lockheart is their Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher: it's November now and the fact still doesn't seem to have sunk in. Stupid girls.


"What is it?" Theodore sighs, glaring at Blaise over the edge of a copy of what Blaise now realises is an NEWT-level Arithmancy textbook. He shudders, wondering why his friend is so strange as to read Arithmancy textbooks for fun.

"Did you see the Prophet this morning?"

"No," Theodore replies. "The Daily Prophet is a load of rubbish. It's a mixture of middle aged women's gossip and government propaganda."

Blaise sighs. He should have guessed Theodore would come out with something like that. It's just so… Theodore.

"I assume you're referring to the news of your mother's latest marriage," Theodore continues. Blaise nods. "Why do you feel the need to discuss this with me, Zabini? It's your mother, not mine."

Blaise glares at him. "It said she was marrying her fourth husband, only I think that they might have made a misprint."

"It's not a misprint." Theodore cuts him off. Then he raises an eyebrow, looking faintly surprised and faintly amused. Well, as surprised or amused as it's ever possible for him to look, which isn't very. "Do you mean to tell me that you were unaware of the fact that your parents were never married?"

Blaise gazes at Theodore in shock. He can't believe what he's just heard, nor the fact that it seems to be common knowledge to everyone who isn't him. Even though he saw the articles about his previous stepfathers' marriages to his mother, he'd never actually bothered to read them, and now he is sincerely wishing he had. How could he not have known this? How could it have just slipped his mother's mind to tell him? Then again he doesn't even know his father's name, just that he had been a pureblood and that he had disappeared when Blaise was barely a month old.

How could he not have known?

Blaise has never felt so uncomfortable in his life. Even though they have only just finished dinner, his latest stepfather has already closeted himself away in his study, leaving Blaise alone with his mother. He hates being in the same room as her right now, hates it, but he can't bring himself to move. It's warm in there and the chair is comfortable… and he wants answers.

"Why didn't you tell me that you were never married to my father?"

His mother looks up at him lazily, her eyes glittering and catlike in the light of the fire.

"I assumed you knew."

"How could I have known when you never bothered to tell me?"

His voice even sounds bitter to his own ears. He flinches at his tone of voice, wishing that he'd just kept his mouth shut.

"Well it's not exactly a secret," she replies.

"I found that out when I realised that everyone else knew."

"Then what in Hecate's name are you worrying for?" she snaps.

"I don't like the fact that everyone else seems to know more about my life than I do."

His mother becomes almost unbearable to live with after he confronts her. She had been terrifying enough before, but now she ignores him entirely and in a way that's even worse. Relief finally comes halfway through January, just before the start of the spring term, when he convinces Theodore to come and stay for a few days. Blaise had smiled upon seeing him, Theodore had attempted to smile back, and now they are sitting on the floor of Blaise's parlour. Blaise is kneeling in front of the fireplace, where a fire was burning brightly and emitting smoke that is causing Theodore's eyes to water, throwing logs onto the flames every so often.

"What exactly are you doing to the fire?" Theodore asks.

"Stoking it," Blaise replies. "You know, trying to keep it lit. This room is creepy when the fire goes out."

"And why would that be?"

"Third stepfather died in here," Blaise says nonchalantly. "About three metres away from where you're sitting, actually. Just keeled over one day in front of the dinner guests. It took us nearly ten minutes to realise that the old bastard was actually dead."

He turns round and sees that Theodore has gone completely white. Blaise doesn't know why he's worried; someone only died in there, it's not like anything particularly gruesome happened, and besides, it had been years ago.

"What's wrong, Theo? You look like you've just seen a Thestral fly past the window."

"Shut up, Zabini," Theodore snaps, looking closer to being scared than Blaise has ever seen him before. "Put another log on the fire; I think it's about to go out."

Blaise doesn't understand why he's so scared. What's so frightening about death?

"Well of course I'm going to marry Draco. Who else would I marry?"

Blaise glares at Pansy. She and Daphne have been discussing marriage with a couple of older girls for the past half hour and it's beginning to annoy him beyond belief. They seem to think that marriage is all roses and parties and romance and babies; Blaise knows otherwise.

"What about you, Zabini?" Pansy asks him. "Who do you think you'll marry?"

"I won't," he says curtly.

"How can you not marry? You have to carry on your bloodline!" Pansy shrieks.

"I'd rather stay alive, thanks," Blaise mutters in reply.

If marriage is all roses and parties and romance and babies then the roses are wilted, the parties glamorous games, the romance a forgery and the babies stillborn.

Blaise knows that there's something wrong as soon as the train draws to a halt. The Hogwarts Express may be a useless, muggle contraption, but it's powered by magic rather than coal, and magical appliances just don't break down like that.

Then the lights flicker out and there is ice on the windows, and Blaise begins to feel as though he has lost a part of his soul. He feels chilled, empty, like he will never feel warmth or happiness again.

Images start to flash before his eyes, memories that he had forced himself to forget, things that he never should have seen – things that no child ever should have seen. His first stepfather's death: one moment the man was alive, the next he was slumped over the table, the blood freezing in his veins. Poison. His mother had wept for the cameras but in private she had laughed.

The second stepfather was worse because there had been blood, lots of blood. Blaise had been the one who'd found him, sprawled out on the front steps with his arms slit wide open. The white marble of the front steps had turned black. Again his mother had wept in public – again she had laughed in private.

The third too had been poisoned, this time slowly but surely. The man had become progressively ill through the months, then one day he keeled over in the middle of the parlour in front of that evening's dinner guests. No one thought anything of it; they thought that he had died of natural causes, but again Blaise's mother's hysterics had told him otherwise.

And the fourth… What will happen to the fourth? The fact that he doesn't know almost disturbs him more than what has already happened to the other three. Blaise doesn't like not knowing, and now he feels as though he will never know. He will never know anything again.

They are all dead, and she's going to kill him too, he just knows it.

The images begin to subside as suddenly as they appeared, and Blaise becomes aware of the fact that he has been screaming his throat raw. He coughs and splutters and sinks down into his seat, shivering. The cold has subsided somewhat.

He looks up at his fellow Slytherins, noticing that they too have been affected. Of course – Dementors. What would Dementors be doing on the Hogwarts Express? There's no other explanation though; that's the only thing that could have caused Draco to go ashen, Vincent to weep and Greg to shiver all over.

That's when Blaise hears laughter again and feels his insides turn to ice. The Dementors have not disappeared at all. Then he realises that the laughter has a different timbre to his mother's, even more hysterical if anything. Theodore is practically screaming with laughter, his head buried in his hands. The dead expression in his eyes terrifies Blaise as much as anything he just saw: he knows now what he'll see when next exposed to the Dementors.

Blaise is sitting by the lake. He couldn't stand being inside any longer, stuck with the questioning glances of the other Slytherins, so he fled outside to sit with the moonlight in the chill autumn night.

He still doesn't feel calm.

Blaise wonders what possessed Professor Lupin to think that the day's Defence Against the Dark Arts lesson even remotely resembled a good idea. For the Gryffindors and the Hufflepuffs and the Ravenclaws maybe it was, but not for them. Slytherins can't allow themselves to show their weaknesses, can't let anyone find their faults in case they get destroyed from the inside out because of them. Lupin was obviously a Gryffindor; the man might know his dark creatures but he knows nothing of people.

And what a strange thing it is that he's afraid of, isn't it? Zabini the coward is afraid of a woman, afraid of anything beautiful. They don't know what beautiful women are capable of. They don't know what his mother's capable of. They don't know what she's already done; they say they know but they don't believe it. Such is the nature of rumour.

He buries his head in his hands and cries for the fact that beauty itself terrifies him. How can he live a life where only hideous things don't scare him?

Blaise's mother has lost another husband; this one didn't last long. They said he used a muggle weapon to blow his own heart to bits. Depressive, the papers say; insane, the papers say; poor unfortunate Magdalena Zabini, the papers say. Blaise knows the papers are wrong. They always are.

Blaise isn't crying because he is sad for his mother. Magdalena Zabini's public mourning periods often last for months, yes, but Theodore is willing to bet that her private ones last for a few minutes, if that.

Blaise isn't crying because he's lost a father figure. Most of the time he doesn't even know his mother's remarried until the man in question is dead.

Blaise is crying because he is sorry for his dead stepfathers and scared for any more that might eventually appear. He has lost count of how many men his mother has killed.

Not even six months have passed when Blaise finds out that his mother is getting married for a fifth time. This time she doesn't even bother with the courtesy of a letter to tell him; he doesn't know anything about it until he chances to glance quickly at the paper that Crabbe has left lying on the table. There it is in black and white, an announcement of the marriage of Magdalena Zabini to one Karim al-Hafiz. He is another older man, the owner of one of the most powerful trading companies in the Middle East.

Blaise feels sick upon reading this. Suddenly he can't bring himself to stay in the Great Hall. The sounds of living, breathing people all around him are disturbing. How many of them will die horrific deaths, he wonders? Blaise quickly drains his second cup of coffee and practically runs out of the hall, trying not to be sick as he goes. How long will it be before this next man is slaughtered, a goose that is killed for its golden eggs? And what will happen to him? Will his death be even worse than the last?

Blaise collapses by one of the old greenhouses, far away from where anyone would think to find him. It is abandoned: the plants overgrown and out of order. It looks like part of the forest has somehow been placed in a glass house. He breathes in the smell of the plants then leans against the cold, glass panes of the greenhouse, trying to calm himself down.

If he doesn't calm down then the glass will shatter. Perhaps a shard will fly in his direction and kill him. He thinks it would be easier to die now than to have to wait for his mother to murder anyone else. How long will it be before he is himself a target?


Blaise looks up to find that Theodore has somehow found him. At least it's Theodore, who is perhaps the only person with enough sense not to make Blaise feel even worse.

Theodore stares at the sky. Blaise rips up the nearest flower and begins to shred its petals.

"This is her fifth husband, you know," Blaise says eventually, his voice so quiet that Theodore almost doesn't hear him. "Her fifth. And she didn't even bother to inform me that she was getting married." He yanks up another flower and continues. "I'm never going to get married. Not even to preserve the purity of my bloodline or anything. I won't. I refuse. I won't."

"Why, because you're afraid you'll end up murdering numerous wives in the same way your mother's killed all her husbands?" Theodore drawls. Blaise snorts derisively.


"Or maybe you're afraid you'll end up poisoned by some femme fatale like the men your mother's killed?"

Blaise shakes his head in despair. "I don't want to end up like her, Theo. I can't."

"Can't you?" Theodore asks quietly.

"No," Blaise replies.

Blaise isn't sure exactly when he realises that Terry Boot is pretty, but he only realises he's been doing it when he notices that he's suddenly failing Arithmancy.

Yes, the Ravenclaw is pretty; there's no other word for it – he's not handsome, he's pretty. He has hair that's nearly as blonde as Malfoy's (though not so white as to make him look like a ghost – more gold, more warm, not like Malfoy's) and almost-colourless eyelashes to match, which only makes his eyes stand out. Funny how even apparently unremarkable brown eyes can appear so amazing sometimes.

Blaise sits at the back of the room on one side, Terry at the front of the room on the other, which gives Blaise a perfect view of the boy. Blonde suits him so much better than it suits Draco. Draco just looks like a ghost, but on the Ravenclaw the effect is entirely different. He looks alive, warm, everything Blaise isn't used to.

Blaise tells himself that he isn't doing anything wrong by spending his Arithmancy lessons gazing at Terry Boot; after all, Blaise only noticed the boy because he was staring at him first.

"Theo, do you ever wonder what life would be like if we hadn't been born with magic?"

Theodore and Blaise are lying in the shade of a willow tree by the banks of the Great Lake. They have been enjoying the silence for the past half hour or so, and Blaise's question comes completely out of the blue.

"Don't be stupid, Zabini. Of course I don't," Theodore replies. "And if you have been then all those Muggle Studies classes are really affecting your brain."

Blaise shrugs. "It's not Muggle Studies that's made me think that. It's just something I've always wondered. Maybe if I'd been a muggle I'd have a stable family."

Blaise knows that Theodore understands what he's thinking. If Blaise's mother had been a muggle she would never have been able to get away with murdering so many of her husbands. If Blaise's mother had been a muggle then maybe he would have had a normal life.

"What would you have been if you were a muggle?" Theodore asks, seeming resigned to the fact that Blaise is simply quite mad and therefore should be humoured.

"I would have been an actor," Blaise replies. "And you would have been a politician."

Theodore raises an eyebrow. "You are a strange one, Zabini."

"I know," Blaise sighs. "I've always thought that life wouldn't be much different without magic. Just a bit more stable – and happier."

"Do you wish you'd been born a squib then?" Theodore asks.

Blaise shakes his head. "Of course not. If I'd been born without magic then I'd never have met you."

While that's true, Blaise knows he's not telling the whole truth. Had he been a squib then he never would have lived to see a full day, let alone meet Theodore.

When Blaise invites Theodore to stay with him again over the summer, he expects his friend will be as sullen and sulky as ever. Theodore can be a pain sometimes, but Blaise doesn't think he would want him any other way. He wouldn't be Theodore if he weren't a pain in the neck sometimes.

That is why he feels almost ill when Theodore turns into a simpering sycophant just like everyone else who comes into contact with his mother. Theodore has always been the loner who has no time for doing what other people tell him to, and that's why Blaise much prefers his company to any other Slytherin's. Now, however, it's all 'Yes, ma'am. No, ma'am. Anything for you, ma'am' and Blaise cannot stand it.

"Why are you acting like such a sycophant, Theo?" Blaise finally shouts at Theodore that evening when he couldn't stand it any longer. "It's almost like you want to be the next one to marry her or something!"

"I'm just being polite to your mother, Blaise," Theodore replies, laughing. "I'd rather be sickeningly well-mannered than end up poisoned at breakfast, thank you very much."

Suddenly Blaise remembers that Theodore is a Slytherin. Of course he's perfectly capable of flattery when he feels his own neck might be on the line.

Sometimes Blaise can't help but wonder how Draco can be in Slytherin yet still be such a complete and utter idiot. Yes, that bloody Gryffindor Potter has become the fourth Triwizard champion even though he's underage and Triwizard Tournaments only have three champions, but why does Draco care? It's certainly not favouritism on the school's part; the tournament's likely to get Potter killed. Why does Draco care? No self-respecting Slytherin would want to go through such pointless tasks.

"It's ridiculous how Potter gets absolutely everything for nothing," Draco is hissing. As always when he is in these moods, Draco reminds Blaise of an angry ferret. If anything it makes him amusing to watch, and Blaise can't help but snigger.

"What are you laughing at now, Zabini?"

"Well, the amount of time you spend ranting about Potter, Malfoy, I wouldn't be surprised if you're in love with him or something," Blaise drawls.

Draco goes scarlet. "If anyone's likely to love Potter then it's you, seeing as you're defending the golden Gryffindor now. Why couldn't father have convinced them to hold it at Durmstrang? I should have gone there, you know; it has a much better curriculum."

"It's good for some things, I suppose," Blaise replies.

"And how would you know, Zabini?"

"My mother and her sister both went there, that's how."

His aunt, Giselle Devereux-Zabini, ensnared her husband with amortentia. His own mother has been responsible for the deaths of all her husbands so far except the one still somehow living. These things are open secrets among the right circles, so Draco has the tact to finally shut up about Potter and rant about Durmstrang instead.

For once Blaise's background has come in useful.

Professor Moody doesn't seem like an Auror. Perhaps it is the fact that he has already assaulted a student for no reason whatsoever; perhaps it is the fact that he looks like the result of a half-failed attempt at necromancy, Blaise isn't sure. Moody has an air about him that Blaise doesn't like. He is too astute, too Slytherin, too different from those Gryffindor fools of Aurors that appear in his house every time a body is found. Blaise doesn't like it one bit.

The Slytherins are only a few minutes into their first Defence Against the Dark Arts lesson of the year, and already Blaise wants to leave. He is sitting at the back of the room with Theodore, but he has already caught the man's oversized, electric blue fake eye boring into them more than once. In fact he is glaring at the all with one of the most venomous expressions Blaise has ever seen; all of them except, it seems, for Tracey and Millicent, who are the only ones without dark connections. Stupid lucky half-bloods, always staying out of trouble themselves whilst ruining other people's chances.

Moody has started to rant about the importance of constant vigilance. Blaise catches the hint of 'be constantly vigilant because I will kill dark scum like you when I get the chance. Keep your eyes open and keep your life.'

"You will pay attention rather than painting your nails while I'm talking, Miss Parkinson," Moody shouts, causing Pansy to start and get a line of acid green nail paint down her hand. Evidently that hideous eye can see through solid objects. How unsurprising. Blaise wonders how Pansy could have failed to guess this.

"Now, I've had a letter from Professor Lupin telling me about every single one of his classes. Apparently your year has a good knowledge of dark creatures but knows absolutely nothing else." His lip curls up into a sneer as he surveys each and every one of them. "Then again, I'd be surprised if you didn't all have at least some knowledge of dark magic."

This is said in far more venomous tones than Blaise is used to from Aurors, but perhaps that is because Blaise is used to being consoled by them. Now he is simply being condemned; Moody looks as though he would have no problem with killing each and every one of them there and then. His hatred would be more disturbing if it weren't so obvious.

"Now, let's not waste any more time," Moody says. "We're going to be learning about curses. By all accounts you've had very little formal instruction on them." Moody's use of the word 'formal' has evidently annoyed Theodore, who seems to be concentrating all his willpower into keeping his magic under control so his inkpot doesn't shatter. "I've got one year to teach you fools that dark magic isn't the amusing plaything you want it to be. The Dark Arts require subtlety and power, two things you all evidently lack."

Malfoy apparently has even less control over his magic than Theodore. His inkwell explodes, spattering glass and green ink all over the room. Moody smiles icily at him; Malfoy has just proved to be true the last thing he was saying: he disappears all the mess with a flick of his wand, leaving Malfoy scarlet with frustration.

"Now, what do we know about curses?" Moody hisses. "Obviously you all know that they come in all sorts of different forms. According to the ministry of magic I'm supposed to teach counter-curses and nothing else until sixth year, but it'll be to late by then. How will you ever be able to hold your own in a duel if you can't identify the dark curses your opponent's throwing at you until it's too late? Now, luckily for us Professor Dumbledore thinks more of your nerves than the ministry, and I think he's right. You're old enough to cope with how cruel wizards can be to their own kind by now I'm sure." Again there is the implication that they are Slytherins, the cruellest of all children, so obviously they will have a much better idea of the workings of the human mind than the average Hufflepuff, Gryffindor or Ravenclaw. Well, Blaise supposes, he's probably right on this count at least. "Now, who can tell me what curses are most heavily punished by wizarding law?"

Nobody answers. No one so much as moves. None of them want to be the one to be singled out by this mad professor of theirs as a youthful practitioner of the dark arts.

"You, Malfoy!" Moody barks out suddenly, making everyone jump. "Lucius Malfoy's son, aren't you?"

Malfoy nods, his lips pursed together in an expression of disgust that he usually reserves for mudbloods and muggles.

"Name one of the curses and tell me what it does."

"The Cruciatus curse," he says at last. "It inflicts pain."

"Inflicts pain?" Moody says. It looks as though his eyes are about to pop out of his head with rage. "It doesn't just inflict pain, boy. It is a form of torture. If you can inflict the Cruciatus properly then you don't just cause someone pain; you can drive them over the edge of sanity into madness." He stops and smiles that cruel smile of his at Malfoy again, and Theodore can't help but feel sorry for him. "That was a favourite of your Aunt Bellatrix's, once. She was one of the Dark Lord's most loyal followers and now she's rotting away in Azkaban."

Malfoy his gone paler than Blaise has ever seen him before. It seems as though he's gone into shock. That's when he realises that Malfoy didn't even know he had an aunt, let alone one who's rotting away in Azkaban even now for her part in the war. In a way it's not a surprise; Malfoy has always been very sheltered. Then again Blaise didn't even know that himself. For all Malfoy's talk, he never would have expected that the boy's family were that dark.

Moody, meanwhile, has taken a glass jar out of his desk draw. Inside it are three large, black spiders. Moody reaches in a places one on the desk, then waves his wand at it, causing it to become the size of a baby acromantula.

Blaise notices that Crabbe's face has completely drained of colour. He looks as though he doesn't even want to be in the room, but he knows he'll lose face if he shows quite how terrified he is.

Moody raises his wand and hisses one word. "Crucio."

Blaise finds the reverential way in which the professor says this rather curious; it is as though he is speaking to a beloved friend, not as though he is inflicting pain on a helpless creature. Casting the cruciatus properly requires a truly sadistic streak, and he doubts that even his mother could cast it well. She maybe cruel but she only dabbles in death, not torture.

The spider's legs have bent in on themselves, completely distorting its shape. It is thrashing about wildly, twitching from side to side as though by doing that it could escape from the pain it is in. If the spider were a human, it would have screamed its throat raw by now.

Moody raises his wand again and releases the curse, but the spider is still twitching horribly. Humans usually shake uncontrollably for days after being released from the vice like grip of the Cruciatus, at least according to some of the books he has read.

"Zabini," Moody shouts, causing Blaise to jump as his heart threatens to snap his ribs. Why does Moody have to call on him? "Name me another."

"Umm, the Imperius curse" Blaise stutters out at last, staring intently at his desk and not daring to look Moody in the eye. "It controls people's thoughts and actions. Basically turns them into living Inferi."

Moody is smiling that strange smile again, only this time at him instead of Malfoy. Blaise suddenly wants to be sick. "Yes, you would know about that, wouldn't you, Zabini," he drawls. "With a mother like yours I'm sure you've seen it used many a time."

"Leave my mother out of this," Blaise snaps back, angry. So what if he's probably right? He still has no right to say such things. "Of course she's never used the Imperius curse. Do you think she's stupid enough to risk going to Azkaban for life?"

"Then why do all of her husbands die suddenly and leave her lots of money?" Moody snarls.

"She's just been unlucky, that's all," Blaise replies with a shrug, wishing Moody would shut up.

"No, Zabini," Moody replies. "This is what your mother has done to every single one of her husbands." He points his wand at another of the spiders and says, "Imperio."

The spider begins to walk on its hind legs then begins to spin a perfectly stable web in thin air, something that would normally have been impossible. It would be fascinating if it weren't so horrifying.

"Absolute control," Moody says. "During the last war, a lot of people were controlled in just this way. This made it especially difficult to figure out who had actually been followers of the Dark Lord and who hadn't been in control of their own actions at the time. Of course this meant that a lot of Death Eaters escaped Azkaban." His gaze lingers on Theodore and Draco particularly. Draco blushes and sinks down in his chair; Theodore glares definitely back, looking as though he's on the verge of cruciating the man.

"Nott," Moody says eventually when he realises that he isn't going to win this bizarre staring contest. "Name the last curse."

"Avada Kedavra," Theodore replies. "The killing curse."

They all know what is going to happen next but none of them can tear their eyes away. Moody shouts the incantation and Blaise can hear the hatred in his voice. He wants that spider to die: if the intention isn't there than the curse won't work. There is a flash of green light and the spider lies dead on the desk, just like that. Blaise realises why his mother never bothers to use this curse on her men; she has always had a theatrical flare, which would have been completely killed by the frankly dull after-effects of the killing curse.

"Not so glamorous as you'd thought, were they," Moody says, sounding for all the world like a bully taunting a young child. "Now remember this - using any single one of these curses on another human being is enough to land you in Azkaban for life."

There is the unspoken sentiment in his eyes that that is exactly where each and every one of them belongs.

Blaise generally doesn't mind balls. Social events are very important for climbing ones way up the ladder of society, and things like the Yule Ball were good practice. Unfortunately half the girls in the school seemed to have decided that he would be the perfect opportunity to profess their undying love for him, and frankly it was getting more than a little annoying.

Finally he decides to tell Theodore that they're going to go to the Yule Ball together (Theodore, of course, needs more practice at charming people to get his own way), and luckily for him Theodore doesn't protest, simply rolls his eyes and decides to go along with it.

This is how Blaise has found himself sitting at a table in the corner of the great hall with Theodore, drinking pumpkin juice that some seventh year Gryffindors spiked with muggle alcohol earlier in the evening. Theodore takes a single sip of his drink before grimacing and refusing to drink anymore of it, but Blaise finds it rather pleasant. Muggle alcohol, unfortunately, isn't very strong – which is why Blaise is glad that he's managed to sneak in a bottle of firewhisky.

"This is a waste of time," Blaise mutters, echoing Theodore's thoughts exactly.

"You were the one who insisted we come in the first place," Theodore replies curtly.

Blaise takes another sip of his spiked punch and grins. "It's all about keeping up appearances, my dear friend. No one cares what you're really like so long as you act like they'd expect you to. Are you going to drink that?"

Theodore shakes his head and Blaise downs his drink as well.

"Fancy a walk around the grounds, Theo?"

"About as much as I want to drink more of that horrible alcoholic pumpkin juice."

Blaise sighs. "I'll take that as a no, shall I?"


Blaise gets to his feet, deciding that if Theodore wants to sit there and sulk all night then he can stay there on his own. Blaise intends to have some fun, and he's going to have a lot more fun if he leaves the highly garish and frankly boring surroundings of the hall and goes into the gardens where he can drink in peace.

There is a light dusting of snow on the ground, which strikes Blaise as rather odd. He lives much further south so when he goes back for Christmas there is almost never snow – it just rains.

He wraps his cloak more tightly around himself and makes his way around the grounds to somewhere that looks vaguely secluded. Blaise wants to drink in peace rather than having a bunch of rather annoying fifth years harassing him for his precious firewhisky.

Blaise sits down on a bench in the middle of one of the gardens, which is deserted for now. The best place to hide is in plain sight, right? He yanks the cap of the firewhisky, drops it on the floor and swears. He decides the cap can stay where it is. Stupid design; whoever would put a cap on a bottle of firewhisky instead of corking it? He bets it was a mudblood; they always have the stupidest ideas.

It feels like it's about to snow again soon. Blaise decides that it would probably be a good idea to cast a warming charm, which he does, then he conjures up a jar of fire to give himself a bit of light in case the looming snow-clouds decide to hide the Moon. It would be just his luck to get attacked in the middle of the grounds during a party, wouldn't it? Maybe he should have forced Theodore to come outside with him; he really can't stand being alone.

That's why he jumps and pulls his wand out when he hears someone call his name. Blaise relaxes slightly upon seeing that it's only Terry Boot, a Ravenclaw who's in his Arithmancy class, the Ravenclaw who he's spent the best part of the last six months staring at and then pretending not to notice.

He nearly drops his wand upon realising just how blurry the world's gone, then sits back down on the stone bench, narrowly avoiding smashing his precious bottle of firewhisky in the process. That would have been a disaster.

"Sorry about that," Blaise replies and sits down. "I didn't know it was you."

Terry smiles in reply. To any other Ravenclaw the remark would have seemed odd (after all, Blaise doesn't think he's exchanged words with a Ravenclaw in his life), but he and Terry have spent at least the last six months staring at each other across an Arithmancy classroom then pretending not to as soon as they think the other may have noticed something. Blaise is a Slytherin; he notices far more than Terry Boot would give him credit for.

"It's rather dull in there, isn't it?" Blaise sighs as Terry decides to sit down next to him.

Terry nods. "I only came because Su dragged me here."

Blaise raises an eyebrow. Su Li is in his Ancient Runes class and is quite possibly one of the most reserved people he's ever met in his life. Whoever would have thought she'd be fond of the glitz and glamour of formal dances?

"I only came because Theodore dragged me," Blaise replies with a laugh. It's a lie, of course (he's the one who dragged Theodore there, not the other way round), but there's no reason that Terry would have to know that.

Terry smiles. "It's nice out here."

Blaise nods and picks up the bottle of firewhisky that's been resting at his feet. "Drink?"

"I shouldn't."

"It'll make the night more interesting," Blaise says. "Alcohol always does."

"That's not necessarily true," Terry says with a frown. He takes the drink anyway.

Blaise smirks. "You are such a Ravenclaw."

"And you're more like a Gryffindor. I thought they'd be the only ones who'd smuggle something alcoholic into a party like this."

Blaise shakes his head. "No. The Gryffindors are just the ones who get caught doing it."

Terry laughs. "I bet the Weasley twins have smuggled something in this evening."

"I don't know," Blaise replies. "I'll be the seventh years who spiked the punch have been caught by now."

"How do you know they spiked the punch?"

"I've been drinking it all night."

"Oh," Terry replies. "What with?"

Blaise shrugs. "Some kind of muggle alcohol, apparently. It wasn't too bad whatever it was."

He goes to pass the bottle of firewhisky back to Terry and notices that the Ravenclaw is looking at him again – that same look he's been noticing for the past few months now. It's even more obvious now that they're not on opposite sides of a room. Blaise smirks. Terry bites his lip and looks at his feet.

"What is it?"


"Seriously, what is it?" Blaise asks again, laughing this time. "I don't bite, honest."

The firewhisky has obviously given Terry the courage to say something he's been wanting to get off his chest for a long time. "I rather like you, Zabini," he mumbles at the floor, scuffling his feet around in the snow.

Blaise smirks upon realising that, as ever, his suspicions have been correct; so Terry Boot's stares were exactly what he suspected. And the boy is pretty, blond and shy and rather sweet and everything that Blaise prefers; he does not want to fall into the arms of a black widow like his mother, so people like Terry are exactly what he needs. He decides to sieze the chance while it's still there.

It's only a chaste kiss on the lips, but it's enough to turn Terry the most wonderful shade of scarlet. Blaise grins and decides that this wasn't so terrible a night after all. He decides he'll be stealing more kisses from the Ravenclaw before the night is over; he has most of a bottle of firewhisky left after all.

Afterwards they act like nothing his happened. Blaise doesn't let anyone know – why should he? How could he? Purebloods are so terribly old fashioned, though it would probably be the best way to give Draco Malfoy a heart attack. Anyway, he's not about to say anything. It's nobody else's business.

He just wishes Terry would pay him some attention. It's a week after the event and even the glances across the Arithmancy classroom have stopped. Blaise hadn't realised how much he enjoyed those stares until he is forced to get through class without them, forced to pretend to really be paying attention, forced to go through an entire lesson without Theodore kicking him under the table for not realising that Professor Vector had asked him a question.

Blaise walks out of the classroom in a sulk when it's time for them to go to dinner, wondering why he'd ever been so stupid as to assume that Terry Boot could possibly be the one to save him from ending up insane like his mother. He begins to wander

He catches sight of Terry out of the corner of his eye (no one else in that class has such wonderfully blond hair), walking to dinner with some of the other Ravenclaws. They are talking, obviously deep in conversation about what they have just learnt (do Ravenclaws ever consider anything else? Blaise wouldn't have thought so before the night of the Yule Ball). Then the others look away, lost in their conversation: then Terry smiles at Blaise and he knows that the Ravenclaw hasn't forgotten at all.

Blaise smiles back.

Blaise's life had been all thunderstorms before – frightening and dark, the anger of gods raining down upon their enemies. Now, however, it is all sunshine – the sunlight of spring reflected of impossibly golden hair and equally golden smiles.

Blaise has Terry now and for the first time in his entire life, he almost feels at peace. Almost.

Only 'almost' because he always knew that it was going to end. Everything good always comes to an end; everything bad continues on forever and ever. One day they are happy, the next Terry has left him, left him for good, left him because he is terrified of what other people would think were they to know about them.

Blaise leaves Terry crying in the gardens. His sunshine has gone out; the storms have returned in full force, determined to destroy anything in their path.

That is how Blaise ends up in the Hog's Head, determined to drink himself into unconsciousness so he doesn't have to think about anything else. He's not wearing his school uniform but robes of a deep red; just because he's a Slytherin does not mean he's going to limit himself to Slytherin colours. Besides, they'll probably assume he's an ex-Gryffindor if he turns up wearing red, which will mean they'll find it harder to catch him – no, of course, that that's going to happen. He's always looked a few years older than he actually is. He's not going to get caught.

The pub stinks of goats and the floor is covered in sawdust. It strikes Blaise as more than a little off, but it's a dodgy pub in the middle of nowhere, what else was he expecting? He sits himself by the window and stares out at the rain; stupid spring rain, drowning everything it sees. He wants the winter snow back.

Blaise catches sight of a shock of blond hair out of the corner of his eye and thinks, for a strange, mad moment that Terry is there with him. Then he realises that it isn't Terry who's sitting with him but Zacharias Smith, a Hufflepuff who Blaise is quite sure is in his Herbology class. Blaise notes that the boy is drinking firewhisky just like he is and wonders whether he should really have been in Hufflepuff. Everything about his manner just says 'Gryffindor'.

"Hope you don't mind me sitting here, Zabini," Zacharias says. "Everywhere else is full."

Which is true, but they hardly know each other so why sit here instead of somewhere else? Blaise just shrugs; he's not in the mood for a conversation. He just wants a strong drink and some peace.

He doesn't get peace though; he gets a long conversation about Quidditch a rant about Gryffindors. Zacharias chokes and splutters on his firewhisky, which Blaise finds quite amusing. The more he drinks, the more the other boy begins to resemble Terry; they're both blond haired and brown eyed and they're of a very similar build.

"Split a bottle of firewhisky?" Zacharias asks.

"Yes," Blaise replies without even thinking about it.

They're out far past curfew anyway, so what does it matter? The more they drink, the more chance Blaise might have of forgetting about what's happened to him – and Zacharias Smith is blond enough and he is drunk enough for the boy to make a rather good substitute for Terry Boot.

The whole affair begins because of firewhisky again. Later Blaise finds himself wondering whether he'll ever be able to be close to anyone whilst sober. He doubts it very much.

"I'm finishing this, Zabini. I'm not going to do it any more."

Zacharias is staring at him furiously, speaking in angry but hushed tones so no one comes across them. They have been doing this for the past two months, but now Blaise has the feeling that the other boy actually, finally means what he's saying.

"Suit yourself, Smith," Blaise says with a shrug. If Zacharias wants to leave, let him. It's not as though Blaise will have lost anything.

"I don't even like men," Zacharias mutters, more to himself than to Blaise. "I don't know why I got involved with you. It's stupid and it's wrong and I'm not going to continue it."

"Like I said, suit yourself," Blaise replies with a yawn, bored of the whole situation already. "You'll be back eventually."

Zacharias sneers at him. "What do you mean by that?"

"You can run away from me all you want," Blaise drawls in reply. "But you can't run away from yourself. You'll either end up in my arms or another man's at some point in your life, you know."

"Don't pretend you know me."

"I'm not. I just know human nature," Blaise says. "Run all you want. It'll find you again eventually."

"Not everyone's… like you, Zabini."

"That's a pity," Blaise sighs, looking genuinely upset on Zacharias' behalf. "If you were more like me then you'd actually be at peace with yourself."

Zacharias laughs bitterly. "If you actually believe that then you're an even worse liar than I thought you were."

Blaise can't bring himself to feel sorry for losing someone whom he was never even on first-name terms with. Zacharias never mattered at all, not really.

Pansy Parkinson is an annoying little girl. She has been sitting on a couch in the common room for the past three hours, forcing herself to stay awake until her precious Draco returned. It wouldn't be so irritating, Blaise supposes, if she weren't making pining noises that make her sound like a kicked Crup.

Maybe she'll stop the stupid whining noises if he speaks to her?

"You shouldn't worry about Draco, you know," Blaise drawls. "He's probably just disappeared somewhere to fuck a Ravenclaw or something."

"Don't say such horrid things, Zabini!" Pansy snarls. "Draco wouldn't do that. Ravenclaw indeed…"

"He's a man. We do things like that."

"No, Zabini, you do," Pansy replies icily. "My Draco is nothing like you. He actually has manners."

"You have no sense of humour," Blaise yawns. "I'm only joking."

"No you're not!" Pansy shrieks.

"If you don't think I'm joking then you obviously think I'm telling the truth," Blaise replies. Pansy goes pale, obviously worried, and Blaise can't help but laugh.

"Stop making such stupid jokes!" she finds herself shrieking, all her nervousness brought to the surface by Blaise's idiotic attitude. "Just because you're in love with the whole world, that doesn't mean Draco is. He loves me. Me!"

"No offence, Pansy, but who would want you when he has the whole world at his fingertips?" Blaise drawls.

Pansy starts to cry. Blaise feels oddly satisfied with the situation.

Knockturn Alley is full of interesting bars. It's a good place to escape to because his mother will never think of looking for him there. He's still only sixteen but no one around here will care; they have much more important things on their minds than whether someone has accidentally given alcohol to a boy who's a few months shy of seventeen.

The Shrieking Skull is in the dankest, darkest part of the Alley. That's why Blaise loves it so much. The inhabitants were certainly the sort of people whom his mother would have privately approved of but publicly claimed to despise. A shady-looking man is arguing with a group of goblins, a mound of what is obviously stolen gold littering the table between them. A large number of deathly-pale men and women lounge across the sofas towards the other end of the pub, the red drinks in their hands and the occasional flash of an overly large canine betraying the fact that they are certainly not human.

It is a far cry from the dead atmosphere of his home – it is alive and buzzing with fear and tension. Blaise cannot think of anywhere he would rather be. On top of that it provides the cloak of anonymity he craves; he can do anything he wants here, anything at all, and no one will chastise him for it. The people who frequent Knockturn Alley bars tend to have no morals at all: Blaise knows this because he is one of them now.

The women there are certainly different from the stuck-up, pampered girl-children his mother loves to keep the company of. Their robes are torn and their faces painted, the rouge on their lips smeared and their bodies tainted with the smell of dead roses and old wine. Normally they only smile at Blaise, but this evening it is different. One of the women comes and sits with him, a feral smile on her face that's akin to how Zacharias used to look when he'd had far too much to drink. The woman's dark hair is long, its curls tangled, her eyes unnaturally blue.

"You look bored," she purrs, then takes hold of his wrist and leads him away from the crowded main room of the inn.

Blaise finishes the glass of firewhisky in his hand before discarding the glass. Maybe if he drinks enough he won't remember what he's about to do.

Susan Bones is beautiful. She has startlingly red hair: not carrot-coloured like a Weasley's; dark red, auburn, and eyes that are a stormy grey – darker than Malfoy's, almost black in some light.

Her looks belie her temperament. Susan Bones is not stormy or fiery at all; she is sugary sweet and caring and happy. She blushes more than even Terry ever did (though Blaise tries not to think about the Ravenclaw. He still feels pained after all this time, idiotic as it seems).

Susan Bones is beautiful and lovely and calm and safe… but Blaise soon decides he doesn't want that. Not all Hufflepuffs are like Zacharias Smith. This one was easy to ensnare, too easy. Blaise is bored already, and there are few things he despises more than boredom.

"I've spent years waiting for you and now you want to leave me. I won't let you!"

Well this is certainly unexpected. Despite her flaming red hair, Susan Bones has never been one to display a particularly fiery temperament – and yet here she is, screaming at him that she wasn't going to let him break up with her. Wonderful. He should have known that Hufflepuffs would be persistent, shouldn't he?

"You won't win a duel against me, you know."

Susan's cheeks flush scarlet. Blaise is used to seeing her go that colour, but never before because of anger.

"I have been in love with you since our first year, Blaise Zabini, and now you think you can just get rid of me for no reason? You are a heartless bastard. You're just like your mother, using people for your own benefit with no regard for what you've done to them."

Blaise shrugs, wishing that she'd just go away. "I'm a Slytherin, my dear. That's what we do."

"And to think I was in love with you," she whispers then laughs bitterly.

She turns her back on him and walks away.

For a moment, just a fleeting second, Blaise feels that he has actually lost something.

"Why does Su Li keep staring at me?" Theodore mutters to Blaise one evening at dinner. "She's been glaring at me all evening and I'm starting to find it rather unnerving."

Blaise spits out the pumpkin juice he had been drinking, much to the disgust of the people around him, then starts to snigger. Is Theodore really as oblivious as he's making himself look?

"I seem to have missed the joke," Theodore snaps. "Would you care to explain what's so funny?"

"Su Li is not glaring at you, you son of a troll!" Blaise chokes out at last, still not quite believing what's happening. "The girl's got a crush on you."

"You're a terrible liar, Zabini."

"I am not!" Blaise says, affronted. "I'm a brilliant liar, thank you very much. And anyway, I'm not lying. I know for a fact that she likes you because she told Lisa and then Lisa told me."

That was also the time when Lisa had told him that he was an insufferable cad whom she never wanted anything to do with ever again in her life, but of course there's no reason Theodore needs to know that.

"Are you absolutely sure?" Theodore asks sceptically.

"Of course I'm sure" Blaise replies, feeling more than a little exasperated. "I don't see why you look so annoyed; the girl's absolutely gorgeous. Any normal man would have asked her out by now. I sure would have."

"I hate to have to remind you of this, but you're not exactly a 'normal man', are you?"

That's when Blaise decides to empty the nearest jug of pumpkin juice over Theodore's head. It serves him right and Blaise manages to ruin Pansy Parkinson's brand new robes, which is always a well-deserved bonus.

Blaise has been trying to talk to Su Li for weeks. Unfortunately for him, his attempts at catching the pretty Ravenclaw after Ancient Runes or have usually failed, sometimes because he doesn't bother to show up in the first place, sometimes because she just escapes before he can say anything to her at all.

When he finally manages to catch her in the corridor, she doesn't blush and stutter when he speaks to her, just glares definitely at him. She is a Ravenclaw but is nothing like Terry – just like Zacharias and Susan were both Hufflepuffs but nothing alike, and he and Crabbe, for example, are both Slytherins and are nothing alike. Blaise wonders what the point of the Sorting Hat is – it's only really the Gryffindors that strike him as being exactly the same.

"What is it?" Su asks.

"You're beautiful," he says. "That's what. You're beautiful and you won't so much as look at me."

She shakes her head. "I know what you want. The answer is no."

"But I…"

"I'm terribly sorry, Zabini, but I'm not interested."

Blaise stares at her in shock. "Excuse me?"

"I'm. Not. Interested," Su says slowly, sounding as though she's attempting to explain magic to a small child. "I know exactly what you're like."

"No you don't."

"Yes I do. I know exactly what happened with you and Terry and I'm not going to let that happen to me." She quiet and calm while she speaks and Blaise can't handle it. How can anyone be so calm? He suddenly hates her for it.

"Whatever. There's no point wasting my time on a bloodtraitor like you anyway, Li."

He leaves but can't help feeling angry – more at himself than at her, and he feels impossibly stupid for it.

We are sorry to announce the death of Aloysius Morgenstern, sixth husband of Magdalena Zabini

Blaise doesn't quite understand the paper when he first reads it. What are they talking about, sixth husband of Magdalena Zabini? She has only been through five husbands and Aloysius Morgenstern was not one of them.

It dawns on him that this time she has gone one step too far. She has married and murdered without even bothering to let him know. Not knowing about the wedding until after the fact he could just about stand, but not bothering to tell him at all? What else has she been hiding from him?

Blaise decides he's gone past caring. Let her do what she likes. Let her do whatever she likes so long as he doesn't end up dead through her stupid schemes one day. It's unimportant; it doesn't matter. Not really.

"She's lost it. She's actually, completely, finally lost it," Blaise groans at last. He and Theodore are sitting by the abandoned greenhouses again, just like they usually do when they need some privacy.

"I'm assuming you saw the Daily Prophet then," Theodore drawls. He doesn't need to say that; the offending article is scrunched up in Blaise's fist.

"Yes, I saw the article detailing my poor mother's loss of her sixth husband after only two weeks of marriage." Blaise puts his head in his hands, tumbling off the branch he had been sitting on and sprawling out in the damp grass. He breathes in the scent, not caring to move. "She's finally gone completely crazy. Mad. Insane. Does she honestly think she'll get away with it this time? I mean even the Prophet has started speculating that she's killed them."

"The Prophet likes scandals," Theodore replies. "No one's going to convict her just because of what they've said."

"That's not what worries me, Theo. I'm starting to think that my mother might actually want to get caught."

"Do you really care though?"

"No. I need a drink, damn it."

He goes to the Hog's Head and drinks until he cannot see properly; it always makes him feel better, at least for a short time.

The next morning Blaise almost regrets having drunk so much when he is sprawled on a bathroom floor with Theodore glaring at him, disgusted.

"Merlin's sparkly purple hat, I feel sick," Blaise moans, resting against the cold porcelain of the sink in the hopes that his head might just stop hurting.

"Don't say I didn't warn you," Theodore sighs.

"But I feel so queasy," Blaise mutters, then closes his mouth quickly because he is quite certain that he's about to throw up again.

"You have absolutely no sympathy from me," Theodore replies. "Just be grateful I dragged you in here before you threw up all over that Hufflepuff kid's shoes."

"Under normal circumstances that would have been funny, but I feel too ill to care right now," Blaise says as soon as he thinks his stomach has settled enough that he can open his mouth without any danger.

"Like I said, it's your own fault."

"But you must have felt like this at least once," Blaise says. "Everyone does this at least once." Even the cold, seemingly-emotionless Theodore must have done something to this effect before, surely?

The look Theodore gives him suggests otherwise.

"No, actually. I'm happy to say that I have no idea how you're feeling," Theodore says curtly. "Because what you have is a hangover, and I don't drink. I don't need to."

"You don't have any feelings," Blaise hisses. "You'll never know what my life is like. Fuck it, I hate women. I hate men."

"You're a regulation misanthrope, Zabini."

Blaise gets up just in time to vomit in the nearest sink, much to Theodore's disgust.

He goes back to the pub again that night.

Blaise never usually wears rings. They are annoying and get in the way of his spellwork, but in this particular case he thought it fitting. The fact that he never usually wears a ring is what brings it to Theodore's attention.

"Where did you get that thing from?" Theodore asks that evening at dinner. Blaise knows he's been trying to figure out where Blaise got it from all day, but know he's realised that he's never going to know unless he asks.

"It was my mother's last wedding ring," Blaise replies nonchalantly as he spoons extra sugar onto his cake.

"Her wedding ring?" Theodore looks absolutely aghast.

"Yes. She's had so many that she'll never even notice it's gone."

"Zabini, would you care to explain to me exactly why half the school seems to be under the impression that we're sleeping together?"

Blaise looks up at Theodore, genuinely confused. "I have no idea what you mean."

"Well Daphne told me that you recently assured some Ravenclaws that you and I are, shall we say, involved," Theodore snarls. He looks genuinely angry and Blaise knows that whatever he's supposedly done now, it's landed him in rather a lot of trouble. "And if that's the case then why was I not aware of it?"

Suddenly he understands what it is that's annoyed Theodore so much. "Oh bloody hell."

"I take it you know what you did then."

"I didn't mean it like that," Blaise groans, utterly astonished at how stupid people could be sometimes. "I told Mandy Brocklehurst and Eloise Midgen that I was seeing you over the holidays – and they obviously totally misread the 'seeing' bit. And then of course the rumour mill got hold of it and turned it into complete dragon dung, which isn't surprising considering that Ravenclaws are terrible gossips."

"So you're telling me that half the school now thinks that I'm a homosexual because some idiotic Ravenclaw girls misunderstood an off-hand comment you made?" Theodore practically howls.

"Yes. Circe's tits, Theo, you need to learn not to overreact."

"And you, Zabini, evidently need to become acquainted with the subtle art of thinking before you speak!"

Blaise starts to sulk as Theodore storms off in a huff. Stupid Theodore Nott needs to get a sense of humour.

Pansy Parkinson is sulking again. She and her precious Draco have been arguing for what must be the hundredth time within a month – well, perhaps that's a slight exaggeration, but to Blaise it certainly feels like it. After all, he's always the one who has to put up with Draco's ranting at the ceiling, the walls and Crabbe and Goyle whilst he and Theodore are attempting to get some sleep.

That's when he notices that Pansy is staring straight at him, looking at him as though he were a rather curious piece of artwork. He looks straight back at her and decides to get up. Even a conversation with Pansy will be more interesting than trying to force himself to write this Charms essay in preparation for tomorrow morning. She jumps as he starts coming towards her. He can't help but laugh.

"Boyfriend buggered off in a huff again?" Blaise says as he sits down. It's not a question. "You shouldn't rely on Draco for anything, you know – except for getting drunk off half a glass' worth of firewhisky, but I guess I oughtn't have told you that."

"Shut up, Zabini," she says sulkily, looking rather like a pug. Now he can see where the Gryffindors came up with that nickname for her.

"Oh, trust you to enjoy melodrama," Blaise sighs, resisting the urge to roll his eyes.

Pansy looks absolutely infuriated. "You're one to talk, Zabini!" she growls, growing more pug-like by the second. "You attract more stupid melodrama than anyone else in the school!"

"The difference, Pansy, is that I never take things seriously. You, on the other hand…"

It's a lie, of course, but she doesn't need to know that.

Pansy glares defiantly at him and Blaise decides to have a little fun with the situation. He laughs, then reaches out suddenly, tracing a finger across her lips and starting just as intently at her as she was at him earlier. He smiles what he knows is his most charming smile, the expression slightly predatory, slightly feral and more than enough to make Pansy turn scarlet.

"Good luck waiting for all the drama to restart," Blaise drawls at last. "But trust me – there's no chance that Draco is going to be back tonight."

Blaise's seventeenth birthday isn't a cause for celebration. Theodore buys him a book, Malfoy some new dress robes and Crabbe and Goyle a huge selection of sweets, but Blaise doesn't pay any attention to these gifts other than to say thank you. He doesn't see why these things are necessary; there's nothing to celebrate.

His childhood is over. He is a man now, a responsible adult. He has to be responsible, has to behave, has to act grown up – has to drink a mixture of firewhisky and dreamless sleep potion in the hopes that he won't wake up again, has to end up taking a thousand different antidotes when he realises that he doesn't actually want to die.

He is a man now, not a boy, and if his mother wants to kill him because of it, let her try. His childhood is over and he is no longer the defenceless little child he was. He won't let her kill him. He won't.

It is nearly one-o-clock in the morning. Blaise is sitting in the common room; he has been unable to sleep since he took that tainted dreamless sleep on his birthday. It's probably messed up his sleeping pattern for the rest of his life. No wonder they say you should never exceed the prescribed dose of the stuff.

Pansy looks impossibly sulky. She's waiting for Draco to come back again. Blaise wonders when the girl is going to learn that Draco doesn't love her, that he has far more important things to be worrying about now than Pansy. Blaise can't help but laugh at the absurdity of the situation. Pansy flinches then seems to decide to go back to pretending that Blaise isn't there.

"Are you alright, Pansy-flower?" Blaise says at last when her sulky attitude actually begins to get on his nerves. He has moved closer to her, perching himself on the edge of the sofa she's sitting on. The firelight flickers and Blaise realises, finally, that Pansy isn't pug-like at all – her constantly sour expression just makes it seem that way. She is actually rather attractive, with eyes like coal and hair like ink and skin like milk. Lilies mixed with black roses.

"Don't call me that."

"Why ever not?" Blaise asks. "You are a flower. A beautiful, delicate flower."

He smiles his most charming smile. She glares at him – pug again rather than flower. Or maybe not: he can't bring himself to see her as ugly now. She's just misguided, pining after Draco even though he hates her.

"Shut up, Zabini."

"Fine. You win."

Then he kisses her – because she is beautiful and he doesn't understand how it's taken him so long to realise it. She is dark and mysterious and Blaise has realised that, really, he knows almost nothing about her. He can't stand puzzles; he wants to know everything.

"Feel like taking up my offer this time, Pansy-flower?" Blaise says with a grin. "Trust me, no one need ever know."

This time she doesn't refuse.

"Zabini, do you have any idea what's wrong with Pansy?"

Blaise shrugs in reply. "I have no idea what you're talking about, Draco."

"She's been acting strangely recently," Draco replies. "And I want to know why."

Blaise doesn't bother remarking that Draco's the one who has really been acting strangely of late. Everyone who has bothered to look (or bothered to ask Theodore, who seems to know what everyone's up to all the time so long as it's important) knows what's wrong with Draco, and everyone with any sense is staying as far out of his way as possible.

Draco sighs. "I hate women."

Blaise shrugs. "No you don't. You're just jealous that she might be playing the same games you are."

"Shut up, Zabini."

"You're only saying that because you know I'm right."

Blaise isn't used to having to comfort crying girls. Making them cry is easy enough, but having to try to calm them down is an entirely different manner. Not, of course, that anything will be able to calm Pansy down tonight.

She isn't the only one to have been affected. Daphne is staring blankly off into space. Crabbe and Goyle look more than a little terrified. Tracey Davis is clinging onto Millicent Bulstrode's arm and looks like she's on the verge of tears. In fact only Theodore seems totally impassive, but then again Theodore always does; anything else would just be too much for Blaise to handle. He'll probably end up crying himself if Theodore looks worried.

"He's going to kill him," Pansy is shrieking. "The Dark Lord's going to kill Draco. He failed. How could he fail? He's going to die."

She has been sobbing things to this effect for the past hour and Blaise has so far been completely unable to shut her up. It's starting to annoy him.

"That's what you're so worried about?" Tracey Davis' voice makes Blaise jump; the girl rarely speaks to anyone other than Theodore and Millicent, so for her to address them all is more than a little strange. "The fact that Draco was stupid enough to get himself into a position where he'd have to kill someone."

"It's not his fault. He's just following ord…"

"You're just worried about the fate of a little boy who was too stupid to tell the difference between right and wrong," Tracey hisses in reply. "The rest of us had worse things to worry about, you know."

"Such as what?"

"Such as the fact that our entire world's just come to an end."

One look into Tracey's eyes is enough to convince Blaise that she is telling the truth. Nothing is ever going to be the same now that Dumbledore is dead and there is no one in the world that the Dark Lord fears.

Pansy gets up and runs out of the common room. Tracey sneers at her fleeing form, obviously glad to see her gone.

"Good riddance," she mutters under her breath, just loud enough for Blaise to hear.

"Someone should follow Pansy," Theodore says, glaring pointedly at Blaise.

"Alright. I'll go and check that she doesn't cause any more chaos," Blaise sighs, realising exactly why he has never bothered trying to comfort anyone before. It's so much hassle trying to help people.

Luckily it doesn't take him very long to find Pansy. She is sitting on the floor a short distance away from the common room, still sobbing hysterically. Blaise looks at her, disgusted. Anyone would think that she'd just seen her Draco die – and everyone knows that the Dark Lord still has too many uses for the Malfoys to kill their only son, the scion of a perfectly pure bloodline.

"Pansy, are you alright?" he says. At least if he says something and she ignores him then he can claim to have made an effort, can't he?

She looks up at him. The hysteria in his eyes reminds Blaise too much of his mother; it's chilling, he can't stand it. That's when he realises that Pansy is mad, completely mad, and while she isn't as dangerous as his mother, he still can't risk remaining so close to her. He won't let someone else's stupidity make him a target while there's a war on.

He leaves. She continues to cry.

The castle feels different. Blaise notices it as soon as the Thestral-drawn carriages pass through the gates. The energy surrounding the place is much darker than it ever was when Dumbledore was alive; now the whole place feels dead, just like his own home.

"Seven years, Theo," Blaise whispers to Theodore as the castle comes ever closer to them. "Seven. This is our seventh year here. Our final year."

"What's your point?" Theodore asks, seemingly completely oblivious to how negative the atmosphere around Hogwarts has become.

"This is our final year at Hogwarts," Blaise repeats.

"I can tell there's something wrong, Zabini. What is it?"

Blaise bites his lip. "It's just, well… it's not exactly like I'd thought it would be, you know?"

Theodore nods in reply. He doesn't need to say anything; they both know that nothing is ever going to be the same again, not now that the Dark Lord has the power he has so long desired.

Only a week of the school year has passed so far, and already the Slytherins are beginning to realise that the Dark Lord's regime is nothing like they had expected it would be. They had anticipated that impossible favours and glory would be bestowed upon all purebloods, and above all Slytherin purebloods, but that is not the case.

The Slytherins are simply the least punished because they are not stupid enough to speak out. The Gryffindors have had it worst, of course, with five of them already having been subjected to the Cruciatus Curse, but the Hufflepuffs and Ravenclaws have not escaped unharmed either. Only Slytherins have not suffered yet, and this is only because they are self-preserving above all; why ruin your chances by speaking your mind? It is more important to survive this war than to die a martyr, not that the Gryffindors will ever have enough sense to realise that.

Malfoy seems to have had more time adjusting to the new regime than anyone else, even the few remaining half-bloods. Whereas before sixth year Malfoy saw himself as the Prince of Slytherin, fully aware and totally unashamed of his own arrogance, now he has practically become a ghost. His family has fallen out of favour and he worries constantly for their lives as well as his own.

Goyle remains as loyal to Malfoy as he was before – so much so, in fact, that Theodore asks Blaise at one point whether he thinks that the boy shouldn't have been a Hufflepuff. Only Hufflepuffs are that blindly, foolishly and astonishingly loyal without any thought about how their loyalty to the damned will affect them.

Crabbe, on the other hand, is a true Slytherin: the most vindictive, power-hungry type of all. He has taken charge of cruciating the students who so much as appear to oppose the Dark Lord's rule –because that's what it is. They may be saying the Pius Thicknesse is running the Ministry, but he's simply imperiused and everyone knows it. The Dark Lord is the one with the real power now.

Blaise has always been good at Defence Against the Dark Arts. It has been his best subject since his first year, the one thing he can count on getting straight Os in. That is why he is more than a little surprised when Professor Carrow tells him to come to his office later that evening; it's not a detention but it feels almost like one. Whatever does Carrow want with him?

When he gets there, not only Amycus Carrow is there but his horrible little sister is as well. Muggle Studies has been very different since Alecto Carrow started teaching it; fewer diagrams of fellytones and demonstrations of how ekelticity might work, more pictures of how monstrous muggles are and explanations of what their filthy blood does to society. When Blaise first saw the pictures, he couldn't help but wonder whether the Carrows were assuming that all muggles were just as hideous as they were and couldn't help but snigger at the thought; luckily, as a Slytherin, they assumed he was thinking the exact opposite of what he actually was.

Blaise sits down in a chair opposite the Carrows. Amycus offers him tea but Blaise politely shakes his head, claiming to have eaten rather too much at dinner.

(He can't drink tea. Tea is always poisoned. Tea is what stepfathers number one and died by, and possibly more as well, but at least he didn't see them die.)

"I'll be honest with you, Blaise my boy," Amycus grunts at last. "You're a brilliant wizard, one of the most outstanding examples of a Slytherin we have. Blood's pure through and through."

To which Blaise says absolutely nothing; he doesn't know where this conversation is headed.

"The Dark Lord though, see, he's wondering now," Amycus continues. "He wants to know why you haven't joined us yet."

Blaise feels his blood freeze and wonders whether they slipped him poison in some other way.

"I…" he begins, but he doesn't know what else to say and the words die in his throat.

"I told you he wouldn't join us," Alecto snaps at her brother. "Just like his coward of a father. Just like Karkaroff, he was. Ran off into the night because he had no guts whatsoever, but they caught up with him in the end."

Blaise finds himself speaking before he's even truly understood what he's just heard. "But… my mother… what about…"

"She didn't kill your father, boy," Amycus Carrow guffaws. "Salazar's blood, no. The women was madly in love with him."

"Of course she was. Else why would she have been seeing him when half are world knew full well he was engaged to marry a muggle." Alecto looks disgusted. "Filthy creatures. Warp perfectly decent people's minds. Your father was a good man but then that muggle slut ensnared him and took him away from you and your mother. That's what they do, boy. And she turned him into a coward, and you're not a muggle loving coward like your father, are you?"

"No," Blaise says, unable to stop the feeling of absolute terror that's rising in his chest.

"Then will you join us?" Amycus asks. There is a fury in his eyes that tells Blaise he will die where he sits if the answer is anything other than what they want to hear.

"Yes," Blaise replies.

Later that night Blaise wakes up screaming and crying as he realises the magnitude, the utter stupidity, of what he has just agreed to do.

He doesn't want to die.

There's no great ceremony when they mark him, just a gathering of a handful of Death Eaters on top of the astronomy tower where Dumbledore fell. Severus Snape, the Carrows, the Lestranges – all high ranked members of the Dark Lord's circle, all unmasked as they wait proudly for their Lord's arrival.

The sky is cloudy, the smell of rain is threatening and the nights are bitterly cold. Blaise tries not to shiver, tries not to show any sign of weakness at all; if the Death Eaters sense any kind of weakness in him then he will be dead before the Dark Lord even arrives.

He does not realise that the Dark Lord has finally come until he notices that the Death Eaters have fallen prostrate on the floor. Amycus Carrow reaches up, gabs Blaise's neck and pulls him down onto the hard stone. Blaise curses as his lip begins to bleed.

"Begin, Snape. I do not have all night."

The Dark Lord's voice is surprisingly high and sounds more like a snake's hiss than a human's voice. Blaise forces himself to look at him then looks away immediately; he doesn't want to consider what he might see if he looks straight into those blood red eyes.

Snape hands him a vial of what can only be potion (red as the Dark Lord's eyes and swirling around like blood) and glares at him expectantly, but Blaise cannot bring himself to drink it. There is a part of his mind that screams to him that this is poison: that he's going to do if he drinks it. That's why there are so few Death Eaters, because the initiation ceremony kills most of them off. He did this to escape death, not throw himself into its arms. He doesn't want to die.

But the Death Eaters are staring and so is the Dark Lord, his eyes burning like those of a creature dragged from Hell to earth by a necromancer to cause chaos. Those eyes are blazing red and might possibly be the most terrifying thing that Blaise has ever seen. Suddenly he realises why necromancy is universally banned.

He drinks.

He wants to scream but the sound won't come out. He is trapped within himself, fire racing through his blood, acid melting skin and bone, reshaping the body as the mind falls apart. He can see death in front of him – his stepfathers' deaths, all of the ones he saw die, and the second is the worst because there was blood, so much blood, blood the colour of the potion that is slowly killing him.

Any barriers he has broken up around himself around the years have now been smashed to pieces. The Dark Lord can see into his mind, can see every single part of him. Every fear, every weakness, any hint of disloyalty. The Dark Lord knows all; no wonder there isn't a man alive who does not fear him.

The he feels claws digging into his left forearm as the fire turns to ice; shards of ice and glass piercing through his skin, freezing his blood, stopping his heart. He still can't scream but the pain is unbearable, blinding. He cannot hear, he cannot see, he cannot speak; he can only feel. His soul is being sucked out along with his lifeblood, he is sure of it.

And it is over. Blaise finds himself sprawled on the floor in tears, sobbing like he hasn't allowed himself to cry in years. Someone (most likely Bellatrix Lestrange if even some of the things he has heard about her are true) is screeching with laughter.

Blaise is hauled to his feet. The Carrows take hold of him because he cannot stand on his own. All his strength is gone.

The Dark Lord is smiling, which makes him even more sinister than before. He leans over and whispers to Blaise, "Now you will never die."

For a moment Blaise actually believes him.

None of the others know that he's joined the Dark Lord, and Blaise intends to keep it that way for as long as possible. If Theodore knew that what he'd done, he'd probably disown him completely. Theodore is one of the few things that has been constant throughout Hogwarts (throughout Blaise's entire life, in fact), and Blaise doesn't want to lose him just because he's tried to keep himself alive.

Theodore wouldn't understand. If he'd refused the Carrows' offer, they'd have killed him where he sat.

The dungeons are cold and dark, but as far as Blaise is concerned they are the most comforting place in the castle. The dungeons have not changed in the past year; they have always been dank and lifeless. Not like the rest of the castle: the rest of the castle used to be alive but now it too is dead.

He and Theodore come down here sometimes when they feel as though they cannot cope. They don't let anyone else know, of course, and they don't let each other consciously know either: one of them just has to head off in this direction and the other will automatically follow. That's what they get for having been together almost every day for seven years.

"I'm afraid, you know."

It takes Blaise a moment to realise what Theodore has said. Theodore, afraid? Theodore has never been afraid of anything.

"So am I," Blaise replies. "I just want this all to be over."

Except that's a lie. He doesn't want it to be over; instead he's half wishing he could go back in time and refuse to meet Amycus Carrow in his office, that he had never been dragged into the Dark Lord's ranks, that he had never found out that his father hadn't been murdered by his mother (thinking that had been far easier to understand, somehow).

"No, you don't understand. I'm afraid of what will happen when this is over," Theodore mutters.

Only Blaise understands this perfectly, it's just that Theodore can never find out. Never.

" Why would you be afraid of the war's end?" Blaise stops himself there, hoping that he hasn't given anything away. Theodore can't know.

"Because I've become so used to war that I've forgotten what peace feels like," Theodore replies.

Blaise can't sympathise with that. He doesn't think he ever knew what peace was like in the first place.

It is less than a week later when Blaise first sees Theodore completely break down and realises that the war is having a horrific effect on all their lives. Theodore is curled up on his bed, his face covered by his arms. He is shaking uncontrollably; it's as though he's just been subjected to a particularly violent cruciatus.

"What's wrong with you, Theodore?" Blaise asks.

Theodore jumps and stares at Blaise. He looks genuinely terrified for a moment

"There's nothing wrong."

"I know there is," Blaise replies. He goes silent for a minute, then says, "It's the war, isn't it? It's getting to you as well."

"Carrow made me torture a child," he chokes out at last. "A half-blood, yes, but still a child. They're the ones who aren't human!" He stops, staring at Blaise and wondering whether his friend will betray him for his words.

Blaise doesn't respond for a while. Instead he is glad that so far his duties as a Death Eater have required him to do absolutely nothing. The Dark Lord has so much support that the young, such as him, are required only to stay in the background and ensure that the Dark Lord will always have people to continue his fight.

At last he forces himself to reply to Theodore's statement.

"You're right. They may have stolen our magic, but…"

"You don't actually believe that, do you?" Theodore asks. "I've researched it, and I hate to say it but the Dark Lord is wrong. He's completely wrong. There's no way to steal magic from someone. And yes, Blaise, I know what you are and you can kill me for saying it, but I'm not going to pretend to believe their lies any longer. What's the worst they could do to me now?"

I know what you are.

Blaise feels sick.

I know what you are.

"How long have you known?"

"A long time," Theodore replies. "Probably before you even did it, Zabini. Everything in your life is about self preservation, isn't it?"

"You mean cowardice," Blaise says at last.

Theodore doesn't contradict him because they both know that he's right.

Blaise flees before the final battle. He hears rumours that Harry Potter is going to be back soon, that the castle will be stormed and either he or the Dark Lord will die soon, and even though they are just rumours, Blaise doesn't want to risk being caught in the middle of it.

He is a Death Eater so they will expect him to fight, they will expect him to slaughter all those who oppose the Dark Lord, they will expect him to raise his wand and condemn himself once the battle is over. He would rather flee now without blood on his hands; the only person he wants to die is the one who really deserves it, the one whom he's being forced to run back to now.

It takes his mother two days to realise he's back, and news of the Dark Lord's downfall has reached them before she has the chance to hand him over to the Death Eaters in order to save herself.

There is no air of celebration in the Zabini household the day the Dark Lord is defeated. Blaise could almost have sworn that his mother hadn't even realised that they'd been at war, that they'd just lived through the darkest days they will ever see.

Certainly the darkest days she will ever see.

They don't drink champagne to celebrate the Dark Lord's downfall. Their store of champagne has been drunk dry by the throngs of Death Eaters who came in and out of the house whilst the Dark Lord was in power. Besides, there is nothing for Blaise to celebrate; if they ever find out about his past, he will be headed straight to Azkaban with all the other Death Eaters. It doesn't matter that he didn't commit any crimes during the war, it is enough that he has that hideous mark on his arm for the rest of his life, the mark of a man who sold his soul because of his fear of death.

The champagne is gone so Blaise insists on making tea instead; he wants his head to be clear as he witnesses the only world he's ever known crumble around him. He wants to see its destruction, which has been a long time in coming. He deserves to see his fear die before it finally kills him.

"To new beginnings, mother dearest," Blaise says, toasting the air. He vanishes the mixture from his cup before it touches his lips, but his mother drinks hers down in one.

"To new beginnings," she says. She smiles.

The tea is sweet, strawberries and raspberries and strychnine. Magdalena doesn't even realise that she has fallen for the same trick that she's used against others in the past; too many killings have made her complacent, made her forget that she too is merely mortal.

When she dies the smile no longer lingers on her lips, and Blaise finally feels his fear of death die. She cannot kill him now. She cannot kill anyone now. The worst he has to fear is Azkaban, and Blaise is quite sure that he can survive that. After surviving Magdalena Zabini, he knows he can survive anything.

Blaise Zabini is eighteen years old when he commits his first murder.