{A/N} Title credit to TVXQ. I know, it's been a terribly long time since my previous update, but no, I have not forgotten about this fiction (unlikely to happen, really). It's just been a difficult chapter to write in between school, hence the sluggish process.

& a HUGE thanks goes out to all my readers — thanks for sticking with the story & it's erratic writing ;) Enjoy.

Chapter 10

The sound of faint rustling reached his ears.

Irritated, Harry snapped his eyes open, all thoughts of remaining in bed forgotten now that he was wide awake. Though, on a second thought, it was way past the morning and he had better things to do than remain obstinately in bed, regardless of how tempting it seemed. Pushing himself into a sitting position on the bed, his attention immediately fell onto the intruder at the corner of his room.

"Well?" he drawled, covering his surprise at the silent entry.

Kreacher's ears were flattened at the sides of his face. Two large and dull grey eyes glared up at him – the feeling was mutual, Harry assured himself – before the elf fell into a series of disgruntled mutterings. Harry almost rolled his eyes until he realized that it was an elf he was engaging in a glaring contest with, and he promptly decided against it.

"Kreacher," he started again, voice cutting through the breezy morning air sharply. "Is there a reason for your being in my room up in the morning?" The lingering thought of the elf coming to his room as he pleased left unpleasant shivers down his back and he quickly made a mental note to improve the wards he had around his bed room.


Although he could've commanded the elf to obey and answer him at once, Harry didn't quite fancy the idea of binding and compelling the elves against their wills for small matters. Despite what Sirius had always proclaimed and complained about Kreacher, elfish magic were extraordinarily different and he would rather not risk the chance – no matter how slight – of having rebelling elves on his hands.

"A letter has arrived for master, sir…" Kreacher answered now, his voice sounding the tiniest bit excited. Shuffling his feet, he moved forward to stand beside Harry's bed, a large, expensive looking envelope clutched amongst his hands reverently. Curious, Harry casted an offhand glance down at the seal of the envelope and found the Malfoy crest staring up at him.

He snorted, having discovered the reason for Kreacher's reverence to the letter. The Malfoys were notoriously dark purebloods after all, and on very close terms with Kreacher's favourite mistress, Sirius's mother.

Reaching his hand out, Harry's fingers closed around the edge of the letter. For a moment, Kreacher's grip on the letter tightened almost impeccably, as if a show of defiance, before the elf grumbled sullenly and the envelope slipped from his grasp.

Tucking the letter well out of sight, Harry fixed Kreacher with a stern glance.

"You may leave," he said to Kreacher, whose both eyes were still fixed greedily on his hands.

With another glare, the elf was gone, as silent as he had come.

Now alone in the room, Harry raised an eyebrow at the heavy-looking envelope, wondering whatever for Malfoy was contacting him. He should have probably been opening the envelope to see its contents, but he would much rather save that to later. Whatever was the reason for Draco's calling of him couldn't be good, he reasoned; no news was good news, and ergo he needed all his energy before facing that innocent-looking parchment.

Though, it had been four days since he had last seen Draco at Sirius's funeral. It was a quiet affair, one that he had no wish to blow out of proportion, as per Sirius's wishes from one of their sillier conversations back then. Simple and not overly elaborate… it was something that his godfather had wanted. The man's burial was at Godric's Hollow where the ancestors of the Potter family lay and not with the rest of his estranged Black family members over at Whesteria Court.

Harry did not know how Draco got wind of the news, but just as the funeral was coming to a close, the Malfoys had appeared: Draco, his father and mother. Narcissa Malfoy was somber and polite enough to him, paying her last greetings to her cousin before she made herself scarce, disappearing. Lucius on the other hand, he couldn't fathom why the elder Malfoy had turned up, having not been well acquainted with Sirius. Throughout the most of the funeral, he had been shooting Harry suspicious and calculative glances, leaving him slightly unsettled.

No good could come out from attracting the attention of Lucius Malfoy, Harry decided.

And Draco. Harry was sure that the boy had the best of the intentions, but he couldn't seem to find it within himself to reciprocate. Draco was subtle and sensitive to his emotions, all too aware of the tension in the air, but it only seemed to Harry that the differences between them both had been further highlighted in the funeral. The ever-present gap had increased ten-fold, especially when the Draco was picture-perfect with the senior Malfoys flanking his sides, like a strange aristocratic family.

Sighing, Harry shook his head to clear the last images of Sirius's funeral from his mind. He dressed quickly and simply, pulling on a black robe before making his way down the steps and into the dining room. He had left Draco's letter back at his bedroom, in the drawer underneath of his table, promising himself that he would get back to that later, but first he needed his breakfast…

Which – as he stood before the dining table – on a second thought, didn't seem that appetizing.

"What is that?" He wondered aloud, settling down into the stiff-backed chair and picking up a fork. He poked warily at the yellow goo wedged between two slices of toast. "Kreacher?" he raised his voice higher and the elf immediately came scuttling from the kitchen.

"What is this?" Harry gestured at the yellow between his toasts, slightly suspicious of the ingredients that Kreacher had used for his breakfast.

Kreacher mumbled something unintelligently.

"Eggs?" Harry echoed skeptically, poking at them when another thought came to him horrifyingly. "What type of eggs, Kreacher?"

"Hippogriffs, sir…" the elf murmured almost gleefully.

Feeling slightly sick, Harry gave the toast a last distasteful glare before dismissing Kreacher with another wave of his hand.

Thoughts of breakfast completely forgotten, he waited till Kreacher was well out of his sight before vanishing the food. Staring blankly into the air as the minutes ticked by, he marveled at just how silent the Blank Manor was. No laughter, no chattering, no buzzing… nothing, save for the steady ticks from the old clock hanging on the wall right opposite him. The atmosphere seemed to be especially dreary with the snooty portraits that hung on the various walls and now it only served to remind him of how he was the only wizard alive in the house.

It was a startling contrast to that of Hogwarts, where the castle had been positively thrumming with life.

At last, pushing himself out of his seat, Harry wandered back up to his bedroom now that the niggling curiosity of Draco's envelope had finally hit him.

Casting a locking charm at the door of his room, he pulled open the drawer and traced his hands over the exquisite paper before flipping it open to reveal Draco's elaborate, cursive handwriting. Frowning, he lay comfortably on the bed, holding the letter high up against the light and began reading through it.

The letter started out with the customary pureblood greetings which wished him for his great health and fortune that he skipped, eyes scrolling down to somewhere near the middle of the parchment. Once again, he noted that Draco had offered his condolences which he skimmed through, before he finally neared the end of the parchment and reached the main point of the letter.

"… and I would appreciate it if you would show up."

Raising an eyebrow, Harry mused, surveying the letter carefully before setting it aside. It seemed that the Malfoys were hosting another of their overly-dressy balls over the holidays and he was invited, having been granted Lord of the esteemed House Potter and Black. The ball was set to be a week from now, and to be held at the Malfoy Manor starting in the evenings.

"Please send notice of your absence."

The words glared up at him from the parchment. Typical of Malfoys to word it this way, though he acknowledged that probably almost everyone turned up to their balls when invited, and only those who did not saw fit to inform the hosts.

Shaking his head, Harry rolled over the bed and dug around the drawer for a spare bit of parchment. He finally pulled it out and though it was slightly yellowed at the edges, he supposed it would do. Not as expensive or in tiptop condition, but paper nonetheless. Dipping his quill into the pot of ink, Harry held it above the parchment, scratching down a line or two of greetings when he paused, leaning back.

There was no doubt that many of the high-end politicians would be attending Malfoy's ball. These were politicians that were from the British Ministry of Magic, the Wizengamort, the European Wizards Association and even from other international countries out of Europe. That was the extent of the influence of the Malfoys and this was a ball that supposedly connected the higher-classes of the wizarding community, much like it was with the muggles. While he wasn't interested in politics, preferring to dabble in magical theory and all, he now held the seats of the Black and Potter house, which automatically gave him his own share of influence and power. Whether he liked the politics was out of his choice now that he would have to participate in those court sessions.

And the Malfoy ball would give him a chance to familiarize himself with the political situation. Maybe… his thoughts trailed off, a wicked idea entering his mind. Maybe the Dark Lord would be attending the ball as well, disguised, seeing that there were so many esteemed witches and wizards attending this high-end event. He made no question about the existence of the Dark Lord; even if the Ministry of Magic was denying otherwise, the strange, periodic incidences reported in the Daily Prophet was clue enough. That, and the deepening frown that seemed to be etched into Dumbledore's wizened face as the days went by.

But attending the ball would also mean a chance for him to seek out potential suspects working for the Dark Lord. There was Riddle, the man had admitted as much – though there was something suspicious that Harry couldn't put his fingers on – but perhaps Draco was also entangled in the fray. The last anyone heard, the Malfoys did have dealings with various Dark Lords in the past. And while they were not followers of Grindlewald, they had met definitely and were acquaintances at the very least.

Now, the idea of the ball didn't seem so appalling. Changing his script midway, he decided to follow through with his reply and gave a positive affirmation of his presence at the ball.

He lay back on the bed, head resting on the pillow as he stared at the ceiling in a daze.

Well, there were always those albino peacocks to admire if things went disastrously wrong, Harry thought wryly to himself…

Pinching the bridge of his nose, Harry sighed heavily, looking down at the heavy robes hanging off his arms in distaste whilst the bloody tailor started poking around him, trying to take his measurements again. Why there couldn't be some sort of standardization, he wouldn't know.

"Now, if you would just allow me to, sir…"

Resisting the urge to snarl at the delighted assistant, Harry hissed, "Why, don't you?" before wrenching his hand away from hers. The woman glanced up at him with large, confused eyes before she brightened, the magical measuring tape within her left hand twirling around in a random fashion.

"Just another one," she said brightly, ignoring his protests as the measuring tapes set into actions, looping themselves over his arms and shoulders almost painfully. He glared at the offending tape as it set about to do its business, numbers automatically appearing in what appeared to be his sheet of paper.

"And there you go."

At last, the tapes were withdrawn, giving him space to breathe. Harry immediately took a large step back from the overly-eager assistant, retreating to the front of the shop where the manager greeted him professionally. There, he heard the best news of the day: the robes would be ready for collection in a couple of hours, which gave him the time to do whatever he wished around the Alleys.

Even as he settled the bill, he was chanting in his head the reasons for which he deigned to purchase a set of expensive robes. All for the Malfoy ball, he reminded himself once more. None of the robes he owned were passable for such a prestigious event – having previously preferred to immerse himself in the comfort of Hogwarts and the libraries at the Black Manor –, and he highly doubted if he would be granted an entrance – invite or not – otherwise.

Finally bidding goodbye to the manager, he was greeted with the fresh air of Diagon Alley. He watched the swarms of people mingle about the streets, cheerful smiles on their faces as they chattered, their arms with bags of merchandise. The little children were by their mother's sides, pointing excitedly at the array of products that lined the wizarding stores. Older children were looking down at Knockturn Alley wistfully, curiosity written all over their faces while their mothers barked at them to stay close.

Speaking of which…

He quickly set down a fast pace down the direction to Knockturn Alley. He had a couple of hours to kill now that the robes were being made, and there was nowhere in Diagon Alley that he needed to go, or more specifically, hadn't gone before. However, Knockturn Alley was something different. He had only been there once in his fifth year, and it had been a brief visit seeing that Sirius was on his back. Nevertheless, he had caught sight and found himself intrigued by the darker magic well hidden in that mysterious Alley.

There were many books, artifacts and even exotic pets in the Alley; surely he would be sufficiently occupied during his time there.

Dodging two hideous witches, he strode purposefully down the walkway, looking as though he was headed to a specific destination. Given the grim air surrounding Knockturn alley, people didn't just walk in there for window shopping like they did in other Alleys; the tight security checks from the Ministry of Magic was enough to scrape those plans sufficiently.

As Harry rounded off the corner, his eyes caught sight of a small shop well hidden by its neighbor's towering structure. The shop looked to be incredibly old with an antique feel, seeing that it appeared as though it barely managed to keep itself upright. The signboard was horribly crooked and chipped at the edges, the dim light from behind the glass panes casting a faint, eerie glow. Despite the shop's unpleasant exterior, Harry felt an odd pull and it was with apprehension and trepidation that he found himself cautiously pulling open the oak door.

As expected, the shop was dingy and dim on the inside, but thankfully more spacious than it had appeared. But that wasn't what made his heart skip – lining against the walls and in crooked columns were rows after rows of books. The books were of various sizes and states of condition; all were stacked haphazardly on the shelves, painfully waiting to be read.

A quick glance around the shop told Harry that it was empty, though there was a slight shuffling from the back, where he assumed that it was where the shop owner was currently. Pleased with the silence and solitude, he started browsing around the books, slightly surprised at its wide variety.

There were books of various forms of magic – dark magic, light magic, elfish magic, vampiric magic, faerie magic and even stories of the merfolk. Some of the books didn't look to be any of the old international languages either; Harry had already come across two books with squiggly writings that moved. Frustrated by his lack of knowledge on the languages of magical creatures, he had moved on, glowing emerald eyes seeking the next book eagerly.

Towards the left end of the shop, he found a small bookshelf dedicated to notorious wizards and witches of the past, which mercifully, was sorted by the century. Towards the bottom of the shelf were six books on Grindelwald's reign, each book looking thicker than the previous one. Reaching out, he flipped open one of them and was curious to note that it was quite different from the version at Hogwart's. For one, there was much more detail, including the squeamish bits. For another, the book gave a two-sided view, including Grindelwald's ideals instead of merely focusing on the war casualties.

Twirling the book around his hand, Harry mused, debating if he should purchase the book; he quickly decided against it, remembering that there were plenty of books on Grindelwald collected by Walburga back at the Black Manor. As he placed the book back on the shelf, his hand knocked against another, causing it to topple over with a small thud. Wrinkling his nose in distaste, he found himself reaching downwards to pick the book up.

His eyes widened slightly at the cover of the book.

Merlin, it was a book on Merlin. Merlin, who was perhaps one of the greatest ancient wizards, having created so much magic and discovered even more. Merlin, who happened to be his current wizard of fixation ever since he was introduced to him by Riddle.

His inner self rejoiced, eager fingers flipping the book open, eyes hungrily scanning through the contents page before he started reading somewhere from the middle. Its contents were slightly similar to the book that Riddle had previously lent him, but it had branched off on certain more controversial forms of magic that the other book had glossed over.

Standing beside the shelf, he was deeply immersed in the contents of the book for several minutes before loud shuffling resounded from his far right. Eyebrows crinkling in slight annoyance, Harry closed the book shut with a snap and turned to face the offender, who was none other than the owner.

The short and stout man was in his late fifties – or at least he appeared to be – and he was giving him a strange, wary look.

"Wha yer doin' here, lad?" he said in a gruff tone, shuffling forward as he wrung his hands on a dirty cloth atop the counter. Small, silt-like eyes were observing him carefully.

Motioning to the book in his hands, Harry moved forward, taking a couple of large strides towards the owner of the little shop. Sliding the book across the counter, he raised his eyes, before smoothly asking for the price.

The man wrinkled in his nose, one hand reaching over his head to smooth his hair before eyeing him. "Yer ain't nothin' on me, lad. Wha are yer doin' here?" he barked, before he snorted derisively, jerking a finger towards the window. "Yer should be outtahere, playin' Qudditch."

"The price of the book," Harry repeated, taking out his bag of galleons.

The owner stared at him for a long time, his previous rambling cut short as he appeared to be deciding if he was worthy enough to purchase a book from his store. Greed seemed to win eventually for the eyes narrowed and he spoke quickly.

"Fif'een galleons," he said in a low rumble.

Harry counted the galleons and slid them across the counter, where the owner inspected them carefully. After a short while, he nodded briskly, before waving a hand and signaling for him to leave the shop at once.

Sneering, he turned and strode purposefully towards the door when it was pushed open from the outside, a soft tinkling of bells sounding from above. He had no time to react for the occupant stepped in, lazy eyes immediately alert as they fell upon him.

"Harry!" Lord Denr exclaimed, surprise evident on his face, just as the owner moved forward to put a gnarled hand onto Lord Denr's shoulder in welcome.

"M'dear, dear boy," he grinned. "Wha' bring yer here aft'r sucha long time?"

"Rodrick," Lord Denr greeted amicably, attention to the owner. "Here to pick up a couple of books, and then I'll be off," he answered good-naturedly, his blue eyes benign. "Got a couple of errands to run later." His gaze fell onto Harry. "I see you've met Mr. Potter here?"

Slit-eyes rounded on him in distaste. "Aye," Rodrick mumbled. "Nothin' important, that lad."

"Nonsense," Lord Denr proclaimed, before his hand landed on Harry's shoulder, immediately cutting off his escape route. "In fact, Harry and I have got a little catching up to do. You don't mind, do you?"

Still slightly disorientated by this bizarre encounter, Harry found himself curious as to Lord Denr's obvious acquaintance with the dingy shop owner in Knockturn Alley. That man was a marvelous friend of Dumbledore's after all; with his sea-blue robes and innocent blue eyes, he looked out of place in such a dim setting.

Curiosity won and he nodded in response, watching in slight impatience as Lord Denr and the owner haggled over the prices. In a short while, they swept out of the store. Harry breathed deeply as a wave of fresh air washed over him, a startling change from the musky scent of the bookshop.

"You don't mind if we retreat to Diagon Alley, do you?" Lord Denr asked, a brief glance in his direction.

Harry shrugged and stepped forward, leading the way to Diagon Alley. Although slightly amused by his lead, Denr followed, before striding forward to be walking aside him. He did not make an attempt at small talk, for which Harry was grateful of. One thing that irked him the most were the constant attempts of various witches and wizards trying to strike a conversation with him as though it would dissipate the awkward silence… For his part, he was comfortable with the silence, if not slightly amused by his partner's fidgetiness.

Climbing up the steps leading to Diagon Alley, he was greeted with the hustle and bustle – the life – of the wizarding population. Before Denr could suggest any place for their little catching up, he turned left, heading off to an obscure café.

Sliding into one of the booths, Harry cocked his head to the side, a wicked grin blossoming on his face as his mind raced through his questions. Judging from the look at Denr's face, he wagered that the man was equally as puzzled at his appearance in Knockturn Alley.

"Shall we?"

"Harry?" an incredulous voice sounded from behind him.

Turning, Harry allowed his eyes to fall on the familiar blond who was hovering near the stairs of the grand Malfoy Manor. Draco stood there, a wine glass clasped in his left hand while he slowly unfolded himself from the gaggle of wizards Harry recognized from Hogwarts. As Draco made his way over, Harry spied a few other pureblood witches that were watching the Malfoy Heir surreptitiously from the corner of their eyes.

"Draco," Harry greeted, attempting a half smile as Draco neared him. His robes shifted uncomfortably as he moved and it was causing him quite a bit of irritation.

Draco's eyes were alight with excitement as he waved his right arm around in a regal gesture. "I didn't expect you to be here," he said, unceremoniously tossing his glass over to one of the passing house elves and pulling at his arm, leading him to some place more private.

"Perhaps, but I had been so sure that I had replied your letter," he replied, following Draco as they rounded the corner of the Malfoy ballroom and out into the corridors. Behind them, the wide oak doors swung shut softly, the soft dancing music fading along with the chatters.

Draco laughed, before swinging an arm over his back in a casual manner. "I know," he beamed, his words slightly slurred and his posture somewhat lax now that they were hidden under a small alcove, free from curious eyes. "I just didn't think you would really come. You know, you're exactly like him. Never appearing."


Another laugh. "Yeah," Draco said blissfully, closing his eyes, seemingly lost in his own world of thoughts. There was a long pause as Harry stared off at the large Malfoy garden that seemed to stretch on forever. Neither of them spoke for a while, until a loud giggle broke the silence from somewhere above.

"Like him," Draco repeated before he shook his head slightly, strands of platinum blond hair falling past his eyes. He seemed to regain his senses after this, for he made an attempt at playing the perfect host.

"So… how was your holidays? Must have been dreadfully boring for you to appear at the likes of these occasions," Draco said now, gesturing towards the direction of the ballroom. "Never did peg you down as one of those socialites," his tone was light and teasing.

"Clearly," Harry said, wrinkling his nose in distaste. "But no, I'm afraid you'll be disappointed because some form of socializing has to be in order. I'm delaying it as much as I can –"

"By gracing me with your presence –"

"But I'll have to make my way back inside in a little while more to greet those charming Ministers… oh the Canadians. The last I heard, they were on odd ends with the British Ministers, what with the mess that the bumbling fool Fudge created."

"Not anymore, but along with the Canadians are some of the other Ministers as well. Father thinks that it'll do me good to be inside with those old men and discuss the intricate details of European politics, but I'd beg to differ. Besides, Daphne's the lucky one, off in Sweden for another of her shopping trips."

Harry stared incredulously at Draco who quickly caught on and backed up his hands defensively. "I meant lucky that she isn't stuck here with all those pompous Ministers. How could I have implied it a joy to be shopping around for hours at the famous Diamorre Alley? But…" Draco shifted slightly, his hand clasped together as he pondered, a faraway expression crossing his face. "Enough of me. What has it been like on your end? After you know… the funeral."

"Perfectly fine and dreadfully dull," Harry said, a little quickly and Draco raised his eye brows carefully.

"Well," Draco said, and there was a second's pause. "That's not what I heard," he continued loftily. At Harry's puzzled look, he grinned. "The other day at Diagon Alley? You were there with Lord Denr, weren't you? Blaise thought he had seen you with him right at the back of the café and he would have very nearly missed the both of you if not for the pure chance of luck."

Harry laughed lightly, tilting his head back. "Why, I suppose you could say that we were having a little get-together of sorts." His laughter subsided as he fixed Draco with a piercing glance, glowing green eyes becoming thoughtful. "Nothing like you would imagine, Lord Denr."

"Underneath the whole Dumbledore's good aide there's actually another personality?" Draco hummed skeptically as he twirled his wand between his fingers. "Couldn't imagine anything past his enchanting stories of being homeschooled…"

"You jest." Harry mocked, sighing as he took his eyes off the grounds and turned away, to lean back on the railings. "But… the man isn't quite Dumbledore's; he's nothing like what you would have imagined. Far too rebellious."

"That must have been obvious, coming from a man who skipped his Hogwart's schooling because of his mother's say so," Draco bit out, huffing slightly.

Harry eyed him with new interest, eyes raking his form as though seeing him in a new light. "Got quite the tongue now, haven't you?"

Draco grinned, his eyes lighting up as he rubbed his hands in an almost-gleeful manner, the previous stoic posture seeming to dissolve quickly now that they were in private. "You have no idea," he shrugged, examining his nails like the conceited pureblood he was once more. "Gave father quite the scare when I showed him up the other day."

"Lucius would have been proud," Harry said lightly, thinking about the elder Malfoy with a sharp tongue that rivaled any politician's.

"You wouldn't imagine," Draco agreed. "Past the shock and anger – during which I was almost certain I was going to be hauled back to those etiquette classes – he changed his bloody mind and decided that it was fine time that I discovered my inner Malfoy."

"How dreadfully exciting, self discovery that is," Harry said dryly.

"Why, you little –" Draco mocked glared before he wrinkled his nose slightly and small chuckle escaped his sculptured lips.

Harry looked at the blond, a faint trace of smile playing at the edges of his lips. It felt different… wonderful even, standing away from the ballroom and feeling the breeze on his hair whilst he talked about anything. It was nothing too heavy like the politics and just plain conversation. Strangely enough, he found that he didn't mind it – for now, in small doses, at least –; it was nothing like the torture that it was with others. He could actually relax, and for once, his thoughts ran free from their restricting boundaries.

More minutes ticked by; Harry remained at the little alcove, his mind enjoying its breather, when Draco spoke heavily, a hint of regret tinting his words.

"You know…" the blond began, shifting, as he broke the peaceful silence. "We should probably head back in." There was a pause and then a sigh. "Father would have noticed my absence and well, the old geezers are waiting for you."

"And I thank you humbly for reminding me."

Draco arched his eyebrows in an arrogant manner before he stretched, heading back to the direction of the ballroom. With a last lingering glance at the little alcove that had been his sanctuary for the past few minutes, Harry pushed himself up and off the railings, making to follow the Malfoy heir. As they neared the ballroom, trickles of laughter and music seeped through the corridors, reminding them of what lay behind those depressing twin doors.

Chancing a last glance at Harry, Draco waved his wand, the door swinging open and they were instantly blinded by the sea of gold that was the lavish ballroom. Nothing had changed from his brief visit previously; the bright lightings were all over, with golden and silver cutlery aligning the sides of the rooms along with exotic-looking foreign food. By now, the crowd had largely broken up into little groups that were standing closely together, absorbed in their own conversations. Though, there were still a small number of people in the middle of the room, dancing along with the music. Harry caught the eye of one young wild, dancing pureblood heiress who grinned seductively at him; he cringed internally, before turning away to see an old man clasp Draco's hand in evident worry.

"Young master Malfoy!" the man exclaimed, one hand over his heart in a rather dramatic gesture. "I had been looking for you for ages, but never mind that now. Your father has requested your presence since ten minutes ago, and oh, it's dreadfully urgent. He's waiting for you up in his study now."

Draco shared an uncertain glance with Harry, ignoring the anxious butler. "Father's looking for me?" he murmured, sounding a tiny bit nervous. "He's never asked for me before–"

"–Because you've never escaped his eye," the butler finished irately, his impatience winning out.

Cold, mercury eyes snapped towards the impudent man and said butler cowered sufficiently, apologizing for his manner.

"Well, I suppose I would better head to father's study to see what he requires from my presence." He nodded to Harry, jerking a thumb over to the refreshments table. "Maybe you could help yourself…"

Harry snorted at Draco's suggestion; evidently, the blond had thought of him as socially handicap, stiff and awkward enough to rival Severus Snape. But while Harry didn't enjoy the company of most people in the least, it didn't equate to that he was shy or nervous… or awkward. A dry chuckle escaped his lips. "You go on," he motioned towards the butler dancing on his toes behind them both.

With that, the relieved butler quickly led Draco away from the crowd, disappearing behind a cluster of foreign-looking potted plants. Harry observed the crowd of witches in their extravagant gowns parting like the red sea in favor of looking at the Malfoy heir, while Draco was doing a poor job at masking his irritation at being called away so suddenly.

Chuckling lightly, Harry turned away, to see a slightly stooped man peering up at him. Gold-framed glasses rested on the bridge of the man's nose and narrowed grey eyes were staring at him in a haughty manner. Instinctively, he took a step backwards, a little ruffled at his personal space being invaded.

He recognized the man to be the heir of a rich pureblood family recently moved to France a second later.

"Evening," Harry said in disdain, feeling slightly amused by the way the man was staring at him – in an attempt to intimidate him, he surmised. Not that the attempt was working well, judging by the way Harry towered over the incredibly short man.

"Who are you," the man asked, not rudely, but bluntly. Dull eyes squinted in his direction, before taking in his smooth, expensive robes. "Never seen you around and Lord knows I have been here for ages…" he slurred towards the end.

The waft of alcohol coming from the man's breath was more than enough to put Harry off.

"Wouldn't you like to know?" Offering a wan smile, he pushed past the dazed man to disappear quickly into the crowd which closed behind him. From behind, he heard the sound of collision as the man, when attempting to follow him, had knocked into one of the waiters who were carrying a tray full of Ogden's whisky.

Bored already, and slightly disconcerted with the disastrous first attempt at conversation with a drunken heir, Harry quietly observed the way that witches and wizards mingled. There was a lot of pretentious titters, excessive hand gesturing and falsified smiles amongst the witches; the men were looking more serious, each with a mask of sheer indifference and poise as they traded the latest politics and statuses of their fortune. Dreading the moment when he would have to be up there amongst the throng of people, he savored the current peace around him, just as a gaggle of pureblood witches made their way across him, their loud voices trailing in the air behind them.

"Oh, but that's highly untrue. The British Ministry's never been better, Lucrieta." The tall statuesque blond –evidently, the leader of the group – snapped in irritation to the petite dark-haired girl standing beside her. With an exaggerated wave of her manicured fingers, she continued haughtily, "Whilst I don't know what's going on in your Ministry, daddy has quite very well assured me that the Department of Mysteries is merely up to their latest … gigs, you know. Those no-good rumours would subside soon enough, and we'll see." She shrugged in full confidence, before giggling girlishly, lowering her voice to a loud whisper. "But that's not up to us to discuss. You know what these ballroom parties are for… I heard that Draco Malfoy's just went over that way…and they say that the Hogwart's dueling champion is here tonight, though I have never seen him before…"

"Harry Potter?"

Spinning around, Harry's eyes fell upon a middle-aged man standing a little distance away from him, a wineglass clasped tightly in his hands. When their eyes met, the wizard's face immediately lit up in joy as he murmured a quick word to his companions before striding over to where Harry stood.

"Harry, Harry Potter?" the man repeated, eyes staring at his face intently as he beamed. Large, callous hands reached out to grasp his limp ones as the man introduced himself. "Mercutio McKinnon here, and very pleased to meet you. Why, the last time I saw you was when you were a mere baby, boy."

Seeing Harry's puzzled look, McKinnon explained generously with a wave of his hand, "I was friends with your father from Hogwarts and later, co-workers in the Ministry of Magic. Lily was one of my great friends too, even though I was in Ravenclaw and your parents in Gryffindor." His eyes stared over his head, faraway. "She had quite the Gryffindor spirit, what with all her optimism and wit." He chuckled, then paused to scrutinize Harry before announcing suddenly, "You have her eyes. That's how I recognized you at first… you can imagine how I felt, seeing the heir to the Potter family after so many years."

"Someone has to make an appearance, don't they?"

A rich laughter from McKinnon. "You're quite right, Harry. And make appearances you have; why, I remember seeing in the Prophet your recent victory in Hogwart's Dueling Competition. Great job you did there, your parents would be mighty proud of you, but I suppose you'll need all the luck you can get when you face those lads from Beauxbatons and Durmstrang." McKinnon stopped to sip from his wineglass, before continuing. "But I suppose this is your first ball alone?"

At Harry's stiff nod, McKinnon grasped him by the elbow and steered him over to the crowd that he had been mingling with earlier.

"All good company," he winked at Harry's appalled expression. In a whisper, he continued, "You would be surprised by the number of people who suddenly remembered about the Potters with your publicized victory at Hogwarts. Many of them have been waiting for your presence, eager to catch a glimpse of how you have turned out after so long."

Smiling, McKinnon came to a halt in front of the crowd of curious witches and wizards as he patiently introduced Harry to them.

Introductions were quickly exchanged, with a few lingering eyes on Harry in approval – no doubt remembering about the Dueling Competition –, before the crowd went back to their topic of conversation. They were discussing about the politics between the British Ministry and the Egyptians with a fair bit of agitation as the conversation carried on. One witch in particular –French, from her accent – was quite assertive in her opinions. Apparently, the Ministry of Magic had been in bit of disagreement with the Egyptian inventors down in the South, causing much mayhem in the department she worked in.

After several more minutes, the crowd started to look bored in discussing the latest astronomy discoveries of the Egyptian wizards and broke off in twos and threes, before merging with other crowds. McKinnon had long disappeared under the pretext of getting more firewhisky, leaving Harry quite alone with the French witch.

"Mr. Potter," the witch greeted cordially, turning her attention on him now that he was the only one left in the group. "Quite a charming young man, I see." She leaned in closer and Harry inhaled a faint whiff of her sweet perfume. "Now, what are your views about the British policies regarding the work on the Egyptians?"

Harry stared at her, slightly disbelievingly that she was still harping on the issue. From the corner of his eye, he caught sight of McKinnon mingling with another couple of wizards; upon meeting his eye contact, the elderly wizard merely shrugged and offered a helpless smile, as though in support of him.

Harry gritted his teeth and faced the French witch, musing in his head on how best to divert his attention. Before he could decide on how best to shatter her wineglass non-verbally, he was interrupted by a familiar voice from behind.

"Harry," Draco said urgently, one hand on his arm, pulling him away. All too willingly, Harry complied, allowing his feet to lead him in Draco's direction, ignoring the indignant splutters of the witch from behind.

As they rounded off the corner, Draco continued in a whisper, "I know that you're not yet ready and I understand that you don't have any idea of what's going on, but please, I implore for you to keep your calm later on when you're facing him. It's hard enough to tell you what's going on – even I myself have yet to wrap my mind around this – but he has called for you and I'm instructed to –"

"Wait," Harry interrupted, staring at Draco straight in the eye. "Start from the beginning, slowly." He glanced at his surroundings and found himself to be back at the corridors leading away from the ballroom, only this time, they seemed to be heading to a fixed destination. "Where are you leading me to?"

"Father's study," Draco said dismissively, a hand reaching out to push the strands of blonde hair out of his face. "He's expecting you there, immediately."

They started walking at a brisk pace again, when a question struck him. "Lucius is expecting me?" Harry asked, disbelievingly. As far as he had remembered, he had no… dealings with the elder Malfoy. Not yet, in the very least.

A look of surprise crossed Draco's face and he slowed momentarily. "What?" he said, distracted. "No, of course not. Father," Draco emphasized, "is not expecting you. You're heading to his study, but…"

"Someone else is waiting for me?" Harry finished, wary now, stubbornly refusing to move.

Draco sighed heavily, irritated grey eyes on him. "Look, I know you're confused but I can't say anything. I don't know what to say… and I don't…" At Harry's skeptical look, he deflated slightly, before raising both his arms in mock defeat. "Fine," he said, eyeing Harry grumpily. "You… you do know of the impending war between the British Ministry of Magic and the Dark Lord, don't you?"

Harry stared incredulously at him. "While whoever is masterminding this is playing a clever game by controlling the situation from behind the scenes, it doesn't take a genius to figure out."

"Good, at least you've got some clue on this mess…" Draco muttered. "Well, this Dark Lord… he is kind of, I mean, he is on close terms with my family."

"Why, isn't that obvious?" Harry snapped.

Draco glared at him. "Yes, but this only happened because there was a sudden change of plans and it wasn't supposed to be this way initially but –"

"Quit rambling Draco, and tell me the main point," Harry snapped at the unusually jumpy blond who looked appropriately abashed at once.

Draco took a deep breath, eyes staring fixatedly at the portraits decorating the wall. "He's here."

"He's what?" Harry echoed.

"The Dark Lord is here. At the celebration."

Harry's footsteps slowed to another stop. Turning, his eyes surveyed Draco's tense posture as he said carefully, "And this affects me how so?"

Frustrated eyes turned towards him and he could clearly see the pressure and fear within them. Draco exhaled loudly; angrily. "I do not know," he snapped furiously at his own lack of knowledge. "I never…" he trailed off and bit his lip, drawing blood as he shook his head. "The Dark Lord was not supposed to be at the ball, but his plans were changed the last minute. He was the one who sent for me just previously and he has requested for your presence."

"But…" Harry began, lost for words momentarily. His mind was racing as it speedily took in all the information, processing and piecing them together, analyzing them, then trying to make sense of all of Draco's words to tie the loose ends together. Flashes of memories from the Sorting Hat, Dumbledore's offer to join the Order of the Phoenix and his talk with Draco about the impending war raged mercilessly within his mind… The Dark Lord was something Harry knew about; he knew of the Dark Lord's interest in him through the Sorting Hat, Dumbledore and Draco once more, but he never expected it to come as early as it had…

The Dark Lord was waiting for him in Lucius's study, now.

The words struck him heavily and for the first time in years, Harry swallowed, feeling a trickle of fear and excitement washing through him –

Before it disappeared almost immediately. His thudding heart slowed to a tranquil pace as he revised his options and considered the situation. Perhaps… perhaps this was the change, the turning point that he had been waiting for, he mused. He did not know, could not tell if this was a change for the better or for the worse, but change nonetheless. Change, in his life that had steadily became duller as the days went by. With a Dark Lord in play in his life, things would change. He would have to step up in his game if he wanted to retain his own sense of control, something he prided himself in.

Even amidst his curiosity and excitement, he felt a vehement resolve to remain true to himself. Dark Lord or not, it was his life to control.

"He's waiting for me, why?" he wondered aloud and Draco shot him another frustrated glare, pointedly reminding him of his own apparent lack of knowledge.

More possibilities ran through Harry's head… the Dark Lord had picked this time for a reason. Was it for him to swear his allegiance? After the conclusion of the Hogwart's Dueling Competition, it was not surprising for the Dark Lord's attention to fall on him once more – if it was even averted at all –, given the hype he had garnered all over the media within the wizarding community.

Slightly dazed and wrapped up in his own thoughts and a one-sided conversation in his mind, Harry followed Draco, his feet moving automatically after the blond. They walked in silence, neither of them speaking, but the silence was comfortable, save for the high tension within themselves that only grew as they approached the feared, mysterious man. As they rounded off to the East Wing of the manor where the Malfoy family resided, Harry found himself gaining curiosity as to the identity of the Dark Lord. Surely the man wouldn't be using glamour charms and the likes? From what he had read about Grindelwald, the man was as frank as Dark Lords came, once they actively sought for the support of an individual.

The meeting would be frank and brutally transparent. Cruel, even…

All the nerves in Harry were tingling in anticipation…

The ominous silence grew and Draco's footsteps slowed with each step that brought them closer to Lucius's study. Despite him being the one who would meet the Dark Lord, Draco seemed almost as nervous; his complexion was pale, although he hid his the most of his emotions behind the stoic mask that all Malfoys seemed to be born with.

Abruptly, Draco halted in his step. Harry stopped next to him, wary eyes tracing the oak door at the end of the hallway. Even from here, he could sense, could feel darkness… a wave of power and magic. It was like a cloud of heavily oppressing air surrounding him, threatening to envelop him if he were not sharp enough.

"I…" Draco began, his voice low. He jerked a thumb over to the innocent-looking door, his voice dropping into a whisper. "He's in there."

Eyeing the blond once last time, Harry gave a curt nod in return, clearing his mind off all the overwhelming emotions and forcing himself to remain alert. He moved automatically towards the door, even as Draco headed the opposite direction. Long fingers brushed upon the cool metal of the door knob, pausing slightly. Feeling slightly juvenile, Harry raised his hand and knocked the door sharply, before receiving an answering knock.

This was it.

Fingers clenching around the handle, he clasped it tightly, opening the door in a full swing. The sudden blare of light that greeted him was enough to blind his vision momentarily, leaving him blinking foolishly as his vision slowly adjusted and the small, careless details of the room were immediately absorbed by his overactive mind. The room was expectedly large and grad, with expensive shelves lining the walls, countless precious books sitting atop them. At the far end of the room was Lucius's writing desk, no doubt, but it was the figure behind the desk that struck the chords of apprehension deep within Harry.

The Dark Lord's back was turned to him, but there was a sense, a touch of familiarity he couldn't place his fingers on… He knew the man… But who? Harry felt his fingers clench in frustration. So near, yet so far.

He had not taken more than three steps into the room when the door swung shut behind him with a click of finality, its ominous sound reverberating through the room.

There was a chuckle as the Dark Lord shifted, before turning; amused eyes met Harry's, a small smirk playing at the edges of the man's lips.

"Evening, Harry," the Dark Lord purred.

All traces of dignity forgotten, Harry gasped. "You–!"

Facing him was none other than Tom Riddle, his bloody Professor.