A/N: Here it is, a sparkling new chapter for a new year. For Draco fans, a fun treat for you today. As promised we have the rest of the gala, and also something many people have been wondering about in reviews for a while. Hope it doesn't disappoint! As always, all recognizable characters and plotlines belong to their respective authors.
The Serpentine Subterfuge:
Just as Rigel had gotten her wits together after overhearing that unsettling conversation, the peaceful solitude of the balcony was broken. One of the doors to her balcony opened, spilling eerie mer-music and two easily recognizable Slytherins out into the night.
"You see?" Aldon Rosier was saying to his companion, "I told you Mother opened seven of the ballroom balconies, not six."
"As always, the world bows to your superior understanding of it," Rookwood drawled.
Rosier snorted a laugh, then seemed to pause. Their silhouettes were hard to see, being backlit by the ballroom light, but it looked like Rosier was peering intently at Rookwood from where she sat against the stone railing looking up at them. "Are you patronizing me?"
"Would I dare?" Rookwood asked mildly.
"I think you are," Rosier laughed a bit, "If you're already being sardonically patient with me, perhaps I should refrain from the refreshment table for a bit."
"That would be wise," Rookwood agreed. He turned to look at Rigel, still sitting on the ground, and Rosier followed suit.
"Ah-ha! There's our wayward charge," Rosier came forward, and Rigel noticed his steps seemed to be a tad unsteady, "Thought it was suspicious that one of the opened balconies was darkened and closed. I said to myself, 'who is the most suspicious person at the party? For that is bound to be the same person who closed up the balcony' and I answered myself—'Why, Rigel Black, of course!' And lo and behold, here you are. Am I not terribly clever?"
Meanwhile Rookwood had closed the doors to the ballroom again and moved to re-light the lamp. Rigel was still trying to process the fact that Aldon Rosier believed her to be the most suspicious person at Riddle's gala.
Rosier crouched down in front of her and wagged a finger admonishingly, "Didn't I tell you not to wander too far, little imp? I told you Rookwood and I would find you. Didn't you think we'd find you?"
Rigel looked questioningly from Rosier to Rookwood, who had an air of resignation about him. "Don't pay him any mind, Black. Aldon has had too much punch."
"Punch?" Rigel lifted a brow, "Has someone spiked it?" She dearly hoped it hadn't been Sirius.
Rookwood shook his head, "Impossible. If someone can slip alcohol into the refreshments, what's to stop them from slipping in poison? No, the punch was intended to be alcoholic."
Rigel blinked, "Pansy was drinking the punch."
"She was drinking from the children's bowl," Rookwood said, glancing at Rosier, who had given up crouching and was sitting cross-legged in front of Rigel, mostly just staring at her curiously, "Aldon was not."
"Is it true you propositioned Edmund tonight?" Aldon asked out of nowhere.
Rigel glanced awkwardly away from the two upperclassmen, "Just a misunderstanding, Rosier."
"Don't call me that," Rosier said absently, adding, "You should have come to me, you know. Edmund is such a tease, but I wouldn't have left you out here in the cold."
Rigel quite honestly couldn't think of anything to say to that.
"I think you've said enough, Aldon," Rookwood said, stepping forward to haul Rosier to his feet.
Rosier leaned against Rookwood tiredly, "Don't be cross with me, Edmund, you know I hate that. Didn't I tell you I was sorry about Alice? She only danced with me to make you jealous, old boy, even I could see—"
"That's enough, Aldon," Rookwood said, sighing, "What am I going to do with you?"
"I don't care," Rosier said morosely, "Only don't be cross with me, Ed."
He leaned up and gave Rookwood a smacking kiss to his cheek.
"There," Rosier said, "Now you can't be—"
Rosier suddenly slumped and Rookwood shifted his weight to balance the two of them easily. Rigel scrambled up, but Rookwood waved her off and set Rosier gently down on the balcony floor. "No need for alarm," he told her, "Just a mild sleeping charm. It will wear off in half an hour or so I expect."
Rigel noticed then that Rookwood's wand was in his hand as he used the other to pluck Aldon's handkerchief from his pocket. Rookwood first used the handkerchief to wipe off his cheek where Rosier had kissed him, then transfigured it into a pillow and placed it under his friend's head. She wondered briefly how he'd gotten around the underage magic restriction, but supposed that the Rosier's, like the Black's, warded their home in a way that contained the Trace.
"Watch him, won't you?" he asked her, standing up and brushing his dress robes off.
Rigel looked from Rookwood to Rosier, "I'm not sure that's a good idea."
"You owe me for explaining to Pansy why she'd be dancing the third set with me, Black," Rookwood pointed out, "Just stay here until he wakes up, and don't let him back into the ballroom unless he's sober. His mother will be displeased to notice him missing, but even more displeased were he to embarrass himself."
"I do owe you a favor," Rigel acknowledged, "But I am somewhat concerned about what this will look like once you leave."
Rookwood gazed at her patiently, "I doubt anyone would think that about a boy your age."
Rigel frowned, "I don't think age has much to do with it, if you've got a wand."
"A wand—?" Rookwood broke off with an uncomfortable cough, "I fear we are once again on very different pages, Black."
Rigel frowned, "I just don't think people will find it terribly implausible that a Black attacked the son of his host on a secluded balcony. My family history doesn't lend itself well to…protestations of innocence."
Rookwood blinked, as though he hadn't considered that at all, "I'm sure they won't think you attacked Aldon," he said with amusement, "But if they do, I will set them straight. In any case, it is unlikely that anyone will venture out here before the dancing ends, and by then Aldon should be awake enough to explain."
"All right," Rigel said, reclaiming her semi-comfortable seat against the balcony railing. There were runes for heat carved into the stone every several feet, so it wasn't really any hardship to remain out on the balcony for a little while longer. At least she now had a real reason to miss more of the dancing.
The night was quiet, and it was easy to turn her mind to other things in the peace. After about twenty minutes, though, loud voices began to carry over from the next balcony over. There was a good fifteen feet between the balconies, and the ballroom was circular, so it wasn't a straight line of sight from one balcony to the other. Rigel's balcony was downwind of the balcony next to it, though, so the voices carried rather clearly to where she sat.
She didn't recognize either of the voices, but could tell that one of them was male and the other female.
"Unhand me this instant, Rodolphus," the woman's voice said, "I am going back inside."
"No, Bella," a man answered. His voice was deep, but not calm or rumbling like Rookwood's was. This man's voice was rough, and harsh. "I think you'd better cool your head right here for a while."
The woman scoffed loudly, "I do not have time for this. How dare you presume to—"
"Presume?" the man laughed, and it was a bitter sound, "Is it now presumptuous for a husband to prevent his wife from making a bloody fool of herself in front of all and sundry?"
"The only fool here is you, if you think you can tell me what to do!" the woman snapped back.
Rigel now had a pretty good idea of who the two were, and was feeling a bit uncomfortable about overhearing a domestic dispute between one of Archie's cousins and her husband. The only Rodolphus she knew of was Rodolphus Lestrange, and she only knew of him because he was married to Bellatrix Lestrange nee Black. Archie had made her at least attempt to memorize the last three branches of his family tree, and several of the most recent names had stuck by default.
"You will listen to me, woman, or so help me I will apparate us both home this instant," Rodolphus growled at his wife.
"What is your problem, Rodolphus?" Bellatrix hissed, "You pull me away from a conversation with Lord Riddle himself to what—complain that your wife isn't paying you enough attention?" There was a pause in which Rigel wondered idly if her magic would stop up her ears if she asked it to, even though she really shouldn't use magic outside of school, wards or no wards. "Is that it, Ruddy? Are you jealous tonight?"
"Hardly," Lestrange said shortly, "How could I be jealous of a man who doesn't even want you?"
"Don't be that way, darling," Bellatrix said lowly, her voice barely carrying now over the wind, "I'll make it up to you…you know I always do…"
There were a few moments of silence in which Rigel tried not to imagine what was happening just one balcony over. This night had really been a shock to the sensibilities, and she was starting to wonder if maybe Lily had had a point about not wanting Archie to attend.
"No, Bella, stop this now," Lestrange said, his voice even more rough than before, "You will not win your way so easily this time. I tell you, this must stop."
"You don't really want me to stop," Bellatrix's voice said seductively.
"Bella," Rodolphus said, breaking off with a low groan.
"That's it," Bellatrix said, coaxingly.
And then there were no more words, only vague and uncomfortable noises that caused Rigel to flush with embarrassment on their behalf. She sat in the dark and just prayed to Merlin that no one discovered her. The only thing more embarrassing than being stuck listening to other people trysting would have to be being caught listening to other people trysting.
Just then a low groan cut through the other, more distant groans coming from the next balcony. Rosier twitched on the ground next to her and let out another groan, slightly louder. Cursing silently, Rigel leaned over and covered his mouth with her hand.
"Mmh?" Rosier blearily opened his eyes and froze. He peered at her, his gaze sharpening rapidly as it adjusted to the lamplight.
"It's Rigel Black," Rigel whispered, leaning over, "You are on one of the balconies at your family's mansion. Rookwood left you out here to…sleep off your state of mind."
"Hmph?" Rosier grunted questioningly, pointedly looking down to where her hand covered his mouth.
Rigel smothered a smile at what a ridiculous night this was turning out to be, "In the next balcony over, my…cousin Bellatrix and her husband are…indisposed. I'd rather they not notice us here."
Rosier's eyes widened and he sat up, pushing away her hand with a grin, "Oh, mother will have a fit when she hears," he said cheerfully.
"Shh," Rigel said, frowning.
Rosier gave her an impatient look, "Oh, desist, Black. We are downwind…obviously." Indeed the moans coming from the balcony next to them were becoming more and more difficult to ignore. "Besides," he produced his wand with a flourish. "We are wizards, in case you've forgotten."
"Underage wizards," Rigel pointed out. She was subsequently ignored.
Rosier cast an area-effect charm that caused a thin, silvery barrier not unlike a shimmering bubble to float into existence in a five-foot radius around them. The noises from the next balcony stopped immediately, as did all of the cricket sounds and rustling noises from the garden below them, and the faint, haunting melodies from the ballroom as well.
Rosier stretched out his legs and leaned against the stone railing next to her, "So, Rookwood dumped me into your jurisdiction, did he?" he laughed, "I can't believe he endured that kiss for a full two seconds before Somnium-ing me. That's a good half-second longer than last time."
"Last time?" Rigel asked before she could stop herself. Purebloods were even weirder than she thought.
Rosier just grinned cat-like at her, "It's something of a tradition at this point. I get sloshed after a ridiculously small amount of liquor, Rookwood puts up with me until I become overly friendly, and then I'm out like a light until my mind returns to itself. He's really getting quite good at the Sleeping Hex, you know—barely felt a thing that time."
Rigel made a non-commental noise to show she was listening but didn't really want to talk about it.
"Oh, I've made you uncomfortable, haven't I?" Rosier said, smiling unapologetically, "Was it when I asked you if you'd made a pass at Edmund, or when I made a veiled one at you shortly thereafter?"
Rigel grimaced, and glanced away from him.
"Ah, the second, then?" Rosier went on, voice laced with condescension, "My apologies for making designs on your virtue, Mr. Black. Sometimes my facetiousness runs away with my good sense after a drop or two."
"If you know, then why do you keep drinking?" Rigel asked, turning back to look questioningly at him, "Especially at a party like this?"
"One day when you grow up and hate your family, too, you will drink at their parties and impertinent little whelps like you will ask you why," Rosier drawled, picking up the transfigured pillow from the floor and placing it behind his neck fastidiously.
"I could never hate my family," Rigel said, frowning.
"You say that now," Rosier said, snorting, "Just wait until your adolescent hormones inform you otherwise. There comes a day when you see your family for what they really are, and there isn't a person on Earth who wouldn't be in that moment…disappointed."
"I don't know…" Rigel said slowly, "If I don't hate them by now, I don't think I ever will. People don't grow worse over time, really, and I haven't been living with my eyes closed for twelve years. I've never been one to see people as better than they really are, even if I care for them. I know my family, Rosier, and I accept their shortcomings."
"You accept them, but you don't like them," Rosier said shrewdly, "Deep down you resent them, just a little. I'm not saying it's a bad thing. It's natural, and inevitable. You're lucky, if what you say is true, because you're the kind that became accustomed to your family's imperfections over time. For others, it hits all at once, in an instant of shattering clarity, and after that it's almost impossible to summon the kind of 'acceptance' you describe."
"They seem very nice," Rigel offered weakly.
"Don't they?" Rosier looked down and examined his fingernails, "Funny. When I first met you, I thought you seemed very ordinary. I guess we'd both be wrong, wouldn't we?"
"I wouldn't know if I was wrong," Rigel said, "But I don't think you were. I am ordinary."
"And I suppose extraordinary things simply happen around you without your impetus," Rosier laughed quietly.
"Pretty much," Rigel sighed, "Don't hate your family, Rosier. I know it's presumptuous of me to say so, but…my father has spent his whole life hating his family. He met his own brother tonight for the first time since Mum's death, and they barely knew what to say to one another. It's satisfying, hate, but it doesn't really help anything."
"Neither does pretending to love when the feeling is gone," Rosier said, peering sideways at her, "Is that what you do, Rigel Black? Pretend?"
Rigel shrugged a bit helplessly, "I wouldn't know how, Rosier. Acting was never really my strong suit."
"Irony must be thick in the air tonight," was all he said in reply. "And don't call me that."
"It bothers you," Rigel said, raising an eyebrow, "That's the second time you've said that to me tonight."
"Yes," Rosier exhaled sharply, "It does. My friends call me Aldon."
"We're not really friends," Rigel said.
"Ouch," Rosier laughed, "How unflinchingly honest you are, Rigel."
"My last name doesn't really bother me," Rigel said, "Feel free to use it."
"You become awfully prickly once you think someone's getting too close," Rosier said mildly, "I wonder, did you make it this difficult for Pansy and Draco?"
Rigel vaguely recalled periods in which she flatly ignored her now-friends in the vain hope that they would just go away and lose interest in her, "I think I was worse, actually. Perhaps I should apologize."
"Don't," Rosier said dismissively, "That would belittle the prize they won in outlasting you. In any case, you should never apologize for the past. Only do things differently in the future."
They sat in silence, each thinking thoughts the other probably couldn't imagine.
"Do you think they're…you know, done?" She motioned toward the next balcony with her hand after a few minutes.
Rosier took his wand out again and cancelled the noise-canceling spell. They couldn't hear anything at all, and Rigel smiled a bit with relief.
"I think the music has stopped, too," Rigel said.
"So?" Rosier said.
"That means the dancing is done," Rigel said, standing up, "So it is safe to venture indoors once more."
Rosier laughed, "Am I to understand that the only reason you agreed to be my sitter was because you are afraid of being asked to dance?"
"You make me sound like a girl," Rigel said, playing the part of a scowling boy.
"You are acting like a girl, Rigel," Rosier informed her cheerfully, "How about this, though," he added, standing up as well, "I will protect you from the hordes of ravenous female hormones in exchange for you not leaving me in my moment of vulnerability."
Rigel felt compelled to point out, "I've already traded a favor with Rookwood for doing that."
Rosier shook his head with amused exasperation, "Then be grateful that I offered to help you at all."
"Thank you, Rosier," she said, somewhat sarcastically. At the look he shot her, she amended her words quickly, "Aldon, I mean."
Aldon Rosier smiled his strange little smile at her and swept open the balcony doors with a flourish, "You are most welcome, Rigel Black, most welcome indeed."
The lights in the ballroom were so much brighter than she remembered. People were once again making use of the full space to mill about it, having been standing in rather close quarters while the dancers took up a good third of the floor. Aldon made a beeline through the crowd, and Rigel simply followed him. She was operating under the assumption that since Rosier was a good head taller than she was, he would be better equipped to find people in a crowd, and that anyone he knew well enough to seek out she had at least a moderately good chance of recognizing as well.
That was how she ended up standing shoulder to shoulder with Rookwood, Selwyn, Pucey, and Bole. No one raised an eyebrow at her presence, so she could only assume that by now everyone knew of Sirius Black's unusual presence at the New Year Gala. They talked of Quidditch for a while before the conversation turned to OWL's and which tests required more studying for than others. Rigel absorbed the information without really being very interested in it, though she did note with a tad bit of self-satisfaction that the two most common practicals for the Potion OWL seemed to be the Strengthening Solution and the Invigoration Draught. The first was almost as difficult as Snowhit, and the second she had been brewing for Krait for months.
As talk moved to idle gossip, a young man with a beautifully angled face and a haughty expression joined their group with an elegant nod to Rosier, whose answering nod was just a hair too stiff to be welcoming. The newcomer was pale, with jet-black hair and eyes an icy blue.
"Quite an affair, Rosier," he said, gesturing with his eyes alone at the rest of the room. He held a long-stemmed glass of champagne in one hand and kept the other at his side, hidden from view by his robe sleeve. Usually, it was considered impolite to allow your hands to be hidden within your sleeves at a social event, as your host might assume you were holding your wand out of sight, but the newcomer's expression made Rigel think he simply didn't care what anyone thought of him.
"How kind of you to say so, Lestrange," Rosier said blandly, "You know Edmund, of course, and Alice. I believe you know Lucian as well."
"Rookwood," the haughty boy nodded shortly, "Selwyn, Bole."
"This is Adrian Pucey, a fourth-year in Slytherin House," Rosier went on, "And this is Rigel Black, second-year, also in Slytherin House. Adrian, Rigel, this is Caelum Lestrange, sixth-year at Durmstrang."
"I've met your older brother, Pucey," Lestrange inclined his head to the proper degree, "He's got a good head on his shoulders."
"He'll be pleased you've remembered him," Pucey demurred, not quite looking Lestrange in the eye.
Then Lestrange set his icy gaze on her, and she thought she could well understand why the Lestrange Heir was already a name spoken very carefully in some circles. Sirius had once described him as a 'nasty piece of work,' though he'd also called him a 'pathetic little mama's boy' so Rigel hadn't taken his description too seriously at the time.
"Well met at last, Cousin," Lestrange said, voice dripping with irony. Both he and Rigel knew very well that Sirius and Bellatrix hated each other with a burning depth that most other people could only guess at. This was one of the many reasons he and Archie had never met before. "I greatly admire your uncle, Regulus, and your father…well, I suppose it really isn't your fault."
Rigel felt Rosier, who was standing next to her, tense slightly, but the only sign she gave that the barb hit home was a careful blanking of her features. "It says much of your generosity that you are able to let go the sins of the father in the case of the son, Lestrange. I can only attempt to afford you the same courtesy."
Now Lestrange's was the face to go blank with hidden ire. Rigel saw Bole frowning at her from the corner of her eye, and she faintly heard Pucey's quick intake of breath at her remark, but she was not about to apologize for defending her family's honor. She would never openly insult Lestrange, of course, but veiled contempt she could give as well as she received. If he was going to slight her father without the slightest provocation, she could without guilt make the same insinuation about his own.
"A Slytherin, you say?" Lestrange glanced at Rosier with exaggerated disbelief, "No, I think not. Nothing but brash lion meat under all that shiny snakeskin, is there, Black?"
Rigel tilted her head, as though considering the question, "Interesting hypothesis, Lestrange. Do you mean to suggest that the Sorting Hat may be placing people in Slytherin who don't belong there, or did you mean to infer that I personally was able to dupe one of the oldest magical artifacts of our time? If the first, I would be interested to know who else you suspect of having been improperly sorted into Salazar's noble house. If the second, I'm afraid you flatter me beyond my worth, Cousin."
Lestrange stared at her for a moment, in which she offered him her best innocent smile, "Well, Lestrange? Do you think Rookwood belongs in Slytherin? He's awfully smart, though, so perhaps he should have been a Ravenclaw."
Rookwood shifted uncomfortably next to her, but said nothing. Rigel knew she should stop, but something about Lestrange made her skin want to curl.
"What about Selwyn?" Rigel pressed, "Do you think she's a true Slytherin?"
"Watch it, Black," Selwyn said, kohl-rimmed eyes flashing in annoyance.
"Do you imagine you have trapped me by asking such questions?" Lestrange sneered at her in a way that should have made him look ugly, but didn't, "You only prove my point. A boy like you has no place in the House of Snakes."
"I suppose you would know," Rigel said unconcernedly. A slightly ironic tilt to her mouth was all it took to give voice to the unspoken, oh wait, no, you wouldn't. Because you don't even attend Hogwarts, much less know anything about the House of Slytherin. She was being petty, admittedly, but her uncle Sirius had come there tonight in good faith, genuinely excited to catch up with old acquaintances, and it would only take one jerk like Lestrange to ruin it for him.
"Oh, very good," Lestrange said patronizingly, stepping forward so that he was now inside the loose circle their group had formed. Less distance meant he could look down on her more effectively, and speak more quietly, with a lesser chance of being overheard, "I suppose your daddy had time to teach you a few tricks after all, in between kissing up to that mudblood-loving fool Dumbledore and being a general disgrace to the name of his forefathers. What's wrong, Black? Nothing to say? Maybe even you realize that your father is beyond defense."
"Was I supposed to be insulted?" Rigel gazed up unflinchingly into Lestrange's cold countenance, "If you knew anything at all about Sirius Black, you'd know that he couldn't give two knuts about Light and Dark politics, and he would only consider your second remark the highest of compliments. In fact, I shall be sure to pass it along."
"Well pass this along, too," Lestrange hissed, stepping forward once again. He was now close enough that she could feel faint drops of spittle on her forehead when he spoke, "You tell the bloodtraitor that if he thinks he can make nice in our ballrooms and then go home and fuck his filthy werewolf whore and laugh with his bloodtraitor boyfriend and that mudblood bitch…well, some of us would savor the chance to correct his thinking."
Rigel didn't hear Rosier's quietly forceful admonishment or see Bole subtly restrain Pucey from stepping in. All she could hear were the words werewolf whore and mudblood bitch echoing like gunshots in her head, all she could see was Caelum Lestrange's smug, conceited face, and all she could feel was that condescending jerk's stupid, pureblooded spit on her face.
Get him away from me, she screamed internally.
Her magic answered her call faster than she could comprehend, much less regret. It was coursing through her body once moment, and the next it was expelled forcefully from her chest. Lestrange, who was at that point mere inches in front of her, caught the full brunt of it. The magic slammed into his torso and the only thing more satisfying than seeing him literally scoot backwards on his heels a good five feet was seeing the expression of complete shock on his face as it happened. The magic didn't knock him down, it didn't break a rib or cause tiny cuts to appear all over his body. He looked no worse for wear at all, and not even a single drop of champagne had spilled from his glass. The magic did no more or less than shoot him back to the exact same spot he had occupied when he first walked up to their circle, and that, more than anything, satisfied Rigel. It made exactly the right point, without leaving him anything to put up a fuss about and get she and Sirius thrown out for.
There was a moment of complete silence, as the other five stared between Rigel and Lestrange, obviously at a loss for what to do. They couldn't defend Rigel's actions without seeming to sympathize with bloodtraitors, even though Lestrange had definitely crossed an invisible line when he descended into open mudslinging and poorly veiled threats. They also couldn't support Lestrange without looking like just as much of an ass as he did, even if any of them had been inclined to support Lestrange. Judging by the carefully controlled anger on more than one face, Rigel wouldn't bet that Lestrange had made any lasting friendships that night by his words to her.
Rigel was the first to break the silence, or perhaps she was the only one who could, "Excuse me, friends, but I must go and seek out Draco before he accuses me of avoiding him. Good evening."
She turned and walked away without glancing back, weaving through the crowd quickly to escape the eyes that followed her departure wordlessly.
She was still extremely upset about what Lestrange had said, but the further she moved away from the situation, the less she was inclined to dwell on it. It had been ugly and unnecessary, yes, but it was dealt with, so it was time to let it go as best she could. After all, if she did nothing but brood over all the petty, cruel people in the world she wouldn't have time to sleep.
Rigel left the ballroom and followed a house elf to what was being used as the gentleman's restroom that night. She wet Archie's handkerchief in the sink and began wiping her face as thoroughly as she could without rubbing it raw. She may have been in the process of forgetting Lestrange's words, but she'd be damned if she was going to walk around with his slimy DNA on her skin all night.
There came a knock at the door, just two polite raps, and Rigel quickly patted her face dry before opening the door with a murmured apology.
"Hello again, Nephew."
Rigel looked up into the face of Regulus Black, and bowed slightly, "Uncle. I trust your evening has been pleasant?"
"Diverting, at least," Regulus said. He gazed at her for a moment, then said, "Were you crying, boy?"
Rigel blinked, startled, then realized what her red and freshly scrubbed face, coupled with the fact that she was locked in the bathroom, must look like to the other man. "No, Uncle," she said, mouth tilting wryly, "I was unfortunate enough to come into contact with a substance of questionable sanitary value, and merely sought to remove it before danger of infection set in."
"Pray tell, what sort of substance could you have possibly encountered at Rosier Mansion that would cause you hygienic apprehension?" Regulus asked with a lifted brow.
"Saliva," Rigel said sardonically, "From the mouth of an unwashed Lestrange. Not that there's anything wrong with Lestrange's," she added belatedly, having forgotten who she was talking to in light of her disgust at the entire situation, "I'm sure not all of them are…well."
She peered up at Regulus to see if he was offended by her less than complementary words about a pureblooded family he probably mingled with often. She nearly flinched at the look of cold anger upon his visage. This was a man much more frightening than Caelum Lestrange.
"And how, exactly, did Lestrange spit end up on the face of the Black Heir?" Regulus demanded. His grey eyes looked like storm clouds, his face pinched with ire.
Rigel backtracked quickly, "It does not matter, Uncle. I have taken care of it."
"You?" Regulus sneered.
Rigel simply nodded, "Yes, me. We have settled our differences, and the only thing remaining was for me to prevent the onset of rabies. As you can see, that has been accomplished as well, so the matter is concluded to my satisfaction."
"And to your father's?" Regulus countered coldly.
"Sirius does not need to know of this incident," Rigel said, just as coldly, "I do not like to trouble my father needlessly."
"When the Family Heir allows himself to be spat upon," Regulus hissed, "It is past time for the Family Head to be troubled."
"I can only assume you think so low of me because you do not know me, Uncle," Rigel said sharply, her mood still a little rough from the last half-hour of her evening, "But let me assure you that when I tell you I have handled something—it is handled."
Regulus drew himself up and looked down at her with detached calculation, "So you may claim," he said eventually, "But know that if I hear it whispered among my colleagues that the Black Heir is weak, I will not stand idly by. The House of Black cannot afford another weak Family Head, and if I think for a moment that you are…unfit for the responsibility, I will see to it that it is never yours to bear."
"I await your judgment then, Uncle," Rigel said, bowing once more, "Please excuse me."
She ventured back into the ballroom, weary beyond belief at the night that was somehow still not over. Perhaps it had been a mistake to come here. Perhaps she had been a fool.
She caught sight of platinum blonde hair through a gap in the crowd, and felt her spirits lift. The night was not finished yet, and she had to find her friends once more.
She pursued the flash of blonde hair through the crowd, until she came face-to-face with its owner. It was Mrs. Malfoy, and she smiled down at Rigel with serenity that was like a balm on her agitated nerves.
"Rigel! We've hardly seen you all night," Narcissa said. She touched Rigel's shoulder lightly and said, "Come this way. Lucius and Draco are with Mr. Riddle's party."
Rigel was not at all sure she wanted to see Riddle again that night, but it would be both churlish and revealing to break away from Mrs. Malfoy now. So she allowed the elegant lady to guide her through the crowd, until they came to the very center of the ballroom, where a large group of people stood conversing. The group was so large in fact that there seemed to be several conversations going on inside of it, with different people participating to varying degrees in each.
Mr. Riddle stood between Mr. Malfoy and Mr. Parkinson. Beside Mr. Parkinson was a woman Rigel recognized easily from the Black family tapestry as Bellatrix Lestrange. She was beautiful in a wild, untamed sort of way, but Rigel privately thought Narcissa to be the fairer of the two sisters. Next to Mrs. Lestrange stood two men who must have been brothers, both incredibly tall and muscular, with dark, watchful countenances. They would be Rodolphus and Rabastan Lestrange, Rigel presumed. Next to the Lestrange brothers stood Lord and Lady Rosier. There were many others in the group she didn't recognize, as well.
Mrs. Malfoy stepped into place between her husband and her son, who stood at Mr. Malfoy's right hand. Draco turned to make room for his mother and smiled when he spotted Rigel following behind her.
"There you are! Pansy is monstrously cross with you," Draco informed her slyly, motioning her to come and stand between him and a heavy-set wizard she could only vaguely remember meeting before. Either Crabbe or Goyle senior, she thought.
"I shall find a suitably degrading way to beg her forgiveness," Rigel said, smiling a bit, "Having a pleasant time, Draco?"
"I suppose," Draco said, "Nothing terribly exciting has happened, but now that you're here, I expect that will change rather abruptly."
Rigel put a hand to her heart in mock vexation, "It's as though you want strange things to happen around me, Draco. Haven't I told you they aren't my—"
"Mother," an unusually strident voice cut across all the lighthearted conversation in the immediate vicinity. Several heads turned watch as the Lestrange Heir grasped at his mother's elbow insistently. Bellatrix Lestrange turned her head slowly, having been in the middle of a conversation with Mr. Parkinson when her son interrupted. She gazed at the pale, haughty-faced boy for a good ten seconds in silence before saying, "Yes, Caelum? What is so important that you must discuss it with me now?" Her eyes flicked sharply toward the other people in the group, several of whom were making no pretense of ignoring the interaction.
Caelum Lestrange glanced around the circle dismissively, not appearing to even notice the dangerous looks he was being given for his impertinence, "The most monstrously unforgivable thing has—" the boy broke off and did a double-take, whirling his head to stare—straight at Rigel, "You."
"Good evening, Lestrange," Rigel said, a polite smile on her face.
The boy's eyes narrowed and his pale face flushed an unhealthy puce, and then he whirled away and disappeared into the crowd without any explanation whatsoever.
There was an awkward moment of silence as many of the adults turned questioning faces toward Rigel, and Draco muttered under his breath, "Not your fault? Yeah, right."
"Well, well, what have we here?" Bellatrix Lestrange was eyeing Rigel like a venomous spider might eye an unfamiliar species of fruit fly it had caught in its web. "Little Sirius' whelp, aren't you?"
Rigel bowed deeply, "Good evening, Lady Lestrange. I am indeed Rigel Black. It is a pleasure to meet you."
A twisted smile made its way onto Bellatrix's doll-like face, "Charmed, I'm sure. Do tell me what you have done to my son, child. I admit I have yet to devise such an efficient way of getting rid of him."
Rigel thought that was a perfectly awful thing to say about your own child, no matter how much of a jerk he was, but she simply blinked once and said, "I'm afraid I don't know, my Lady. We have only met briefly before this moment."
"Let me know when you figure it out, then," Bellatrix said, that creepy smile still playing about her mouth.
Rigel inclined her head, and was grateful when Mrs. Lestrange dismissed her to resume her conversation with Mr. Parkinson.
Most of the others picked back up on their own conversations, and if it weren't for Riddle's curious gaze and Draco's knowing smirk, she could almost pretend the brief scene hadn't occurred.
Mr. Malfoy's face was unreadable as he said, "Draco, why don't you and Rigel go and look for your friend, Miss Parkinson? I doubt you shall truly enjoy your New Year's Eve at my side."
Draco nodded respectfully, "Yes, father. Let's go, Rigel."
Rigel was more than happy to escape, and gave Mr. Malfoy mental thanks for enabling her retreat. They soon found Pansy talking to Blaise and standing with her mother, who was engaged in a lively discussion with Lady Zabini.
"Draco," Pansy smiled, welcoming him over with a fond pat on the elbow, "We thought you'd be embroiled in politics with your father all evening, didn't we, Blaise?"
"Indeed," Blaise said, smiling wryly, "Hello again, Rigel."
"Hello Blaise," Rigel said, "Hi Pansy."
Pansy sniffed and looked in another direction.
"Pansy, goddess of my heart, pearl of the morning," Rigel tried. Pansy still gazed resolutely away from her. Mrs. Parkinson paused in her conversation with Mrs. Zabini to listen with growing amusement. "Pansy, talk to me, please? I'm sorry to have left so pure a flower in the midst of her blossoming springtime to the protection of another, but you must understand I would never have abandoned you if the situation were not of the utmost necessity."
"Situation?" Pansy prompted, examining her silk gloves with an air of disinterest.
"Yes," Rigel said, casting about for ideas, "A quest was entrusted to me by one you hold in high esteem. I knew that to turn him down would be to let you down as well, and so I was caught in a most ignoble predicament, with shame on either side of my choice. That is why I sent friend Rookwood in my stead, that the un-chivalrous behavior on my part might at least be lessened to a tolerable degree."
"Edmund has mentioned this 'quest' to me," Pansy said, sniffing, "And in my understanding it was given to you after you already decided to stand me up. You promised me the third dance, Rigel. Promised."
"So I did, Pan," Rigel said, dropping pretense with a sigh, "But you must admit that promise was extracted from me under duress."
"I hardly consider your father's mere presence to be 'duress,'" Pansy said, pursing her lips but at least deigning to look at Rigel at last.
"You would if you knew him," Rigel assured her, "Can't you just allow me to make it up to you, Pan? Please?"
Pansy tilted her head consideringly, "I suppose you could grant me two dances at the next ball…" At Rigel's poorly suppressed look of unease Pansy burst into laughter, "I'm kidding, Rigel, do you believe me to be so unperceptive? Truly I wasn't even very cross. I rather expected you to duck out from how reluctant you were to agree to the dance, and sending Edmund in your place was very thoughtful."
Rigel blinked, and then smiled in relief, "I admit you had me going, Pansy."
Pansy smiled winsomely at her, "Of course I did, Rigel. I'm a woman."
At that, Mrs. Parkinson and Mrs. Zabini both could contain their amusement no longer. Rose Parkinson dissolved into her light, bell-like laughter and Mrs. Zabini chuckled softly in her smooth, naturally seductive voice.
The three pureblooded females in the group shared a conspiratorial look, and both Draco and Blaise looked like they were fighting the temptation to back away slowly.
"And how is your winter break, Rigel?" Rose Parkinson asked eventually.
Rigel smiled easily, "Quite productive, Lady Parkinson."
"So in Rigel-speak," Draco translated helpfully, "That means he's been brewing at least six potions a day."
"Six! How the youth today exaggerates," Mrs. Zabini said, smiling. Draco glanced at Rigel wryly, but didn't contradict the beautiful older lady. If Rigel had to describe Mrs. Zabini, she would have to say that she was every inch as beautiful as Bellatrix Lestrange, and gave off the same dangerous air with the way she held herself, but there was something sharp in Bellatrix Lestrange that was soft in Lady Zabini.
Rigel chatted with Blaise, Pansy, and Draco for a little while, but soon after Sirius found her.
"There you are, sport," Sirius clapped a hand on Rigel's shoulder and smiled around at the others, "Sorry to pull you away, but it's twenty-five till midnight."
Rigel nodded her understanding, "It was good seeing you all. Good evening, Lady Parkinson, Lady Zabini. Bye Draco, Pansy, Blaise. See you in school."
"You're leaving?" Draco said with slight dismay, "The party doesn't end until one."
"Yes," Rigel said. It was tradition for the Black's to be with the Potter's on the stroke of midnight, "I had a wonderful time, though. Good night."
Her friends said their farewells, and she and Sirius quickly made their way toward the ballroom doors. The exit apparition point was in a different room than the entering apparition point, just off the hallway where the guest restrooms were located, so they didn't have to climb the ridiculously long staircase again.
Sirius said he'd already made their excuses to Lord and Lady Rosier, thanked them for their hospitality, etc, so all that was left to do was go. Before they reached the apparition room, however, a voice from behind them in the hallway called them back.
"Wait, Lord Black," It was Aldon Rosier hurrying toward them, "My apologies, but may I speak to Rigel for a short moment before you leave."
Sirius turned questioning eyes on Rigel, who nodded slightly. Her uncle checked his watch, then said, "Five minutes." He went on ahead.
"What is it, Aldon?" Rigel asked.
Rosier smiled briefly, then his face grew serious, "Listen, Lestrange is an ass. I'm sorry that happened in my family's ballroom."
"I've already forgotten it," Rigel said.
"Well, he hasn't," Rosier said, "Guys like Lestrange are more than willing to hold a grudge for even the pettiest of perceived slights, and you showed him up proper, in a way he can't even prove since it was obvious you didn't even have your wand out."
Rigel opened her mouth, but Rosier shook his head, "I don't want to know how you did it, or if someone else did it for you. What matters is that Lestrange looked like a fool, and he knows it. Just…be careful, all right? Try to avoid him from now on, and watch your back around any of his relatives."
Rigel nodded, "Thank you for the warning. I will be careful."
"Sure you will," Aldon smiled ruefully, something like worry clouding his eerie golden eyes, "Happy New Year, Rigel."
Rigel smiled back, no trace of concern revealed on her own face despite all that had happened since eight o-clock that evening. Truly, the night had seemed like a lifetime, "And to you, Aldon."
She gave one last nod, then turned and hurried after Sirius. They still had fifteen minutes, but she wanted to have a moment to switch back with Archie before the clock struck twelve.
The rest of winter break passed too slowly for Harry. She had finished her homework ages ago, it seemed, and even all her extracurricular studies couldn't keep her occupied for long. It was therefore with relief that she stowed away her green contacts and boarded the train as Rigel Black almost two weeks after the start of the New Year.
About an hour out from London, however, Rigel began feeling strange. She developed a mild headache, which was nothing unusual for her—except that she hadn't been reading in dim lighting that day. She thought perhaps she was dehydrated, and bought a water off the trolley, but the headache persisted.
A short time after that, she felt herself growing unaccountably fatigued. Rigel's eyelids began to droop, and before she knew it she had fallen asleep in her seat, head pillowed on the armrest between her chair and Draco's.
Draco looked down at the head of short black curls resting innocently on his armrest and wondered if anyone else realized how completely incongruous Rigel Black's appearance was with his true nature.
Rigel Black was, to be blunt, fragile-looking. Elegant features ran in many pureblooded lines, but Rigel's face was just plain delicate. Before Rigel had joined the Quidditch team, Draco would have guessed that his pale skin was a result of the obnoxious amount of time Rigel spent cooped up in the dungeon brewing. Now, however, he knew that Rigel simply didn't tan. Ever. Somehow, he could spend hours in the sun flying and return indoors just as ghost-like as he'd left.
His almost sickly appearance when compared with the other boys in their year, however, didn't have anything to do Rigel Black's ability, mental or physical. He kept up easily in Flint's training sessions and had his own exercise regimen on top of that (one which Draco meant to attend more than a couple of times a week, but never seemed to wake up in time for). He was also, quite possibly, the smartest person Draco knew.
Well, that wasn't quite true, Draco corrected himself as he turned his gaze from the top of Rigel's head to the train window. It wasn't that Rigel was smarter than Draco was, exactly. In class Rigel learned at the same pace he and Pansy did, and while neither he nor Pansy were what you'd call mediocre in the intelligence department, they weren't geniuses either. Draco was pretty sure Rigel didn't only pretend to learn slowly to make himself more ordinary-seeming (though he was sure Rigel did other things to achieve that effect), so that meant Rigel wasn't inherently smarter than other people.
He just apparently lacked the ability to not do five things at once.
Draco didn't think he'd ever seen Rigel listen to a lecture without also reading a different book under his desk. The exception to this rule was McGonagall's class, because McGonagall wouldn't allow it, and Snape's, because Rigel loved Snape's classes. Still, he had taken a peek at Rigel's notes during Transfiguration once or twice, and always they looked more like an essay for another class than notes usually did.
If someone had told him how much Rigel could learn over the course of a month without telling him anything else about the boy, Draco would have probably assumed he had access to a time-turner. Once you actually paid attention to what Rigel did with his time, however, it became clear that if Rigel had access to a time-turner, he'd have graduated Hogwarts already and be halfway to solving Merlinian Arithmancy. He was just that alarmingly efficient.
So his short stature and delicate features were little indication of the strength of Rigel's character, and yet…Draco sometimes couldn't entirely look past them. Like now, with Rigel having fallen asleep without warning and seemingly without even realizing it. He looked the picture of vulnerability. Before meeting Rigel Black, Draco would have said he was the type to be unmoved by displays of weakness, but somehow fragility wasn't a weakness in Rigel—it was a deception.
One Draco himself was not entirely above falling for, he admitted quietly to himself. How often had he and Pansy attempted to shield Rigel, to protect him and defend him from those who meant him harm, only to discover that while Rigel would allow them to help if he felt like it, he didn't need them to. He could apparently handle his enemies just as well without them.
And wasn't that odd? Rigel had more enemies than Draco did, and Draco was the son of Lucius Malfoy, one of the most feared—and therefore one of the most easily hated—men in Wizarding Britain. Like that night at Lord Riddle's gala. Draco had asked around discretely (via letter-writing, which he absolutely detested), but no one knew what would make Lestrange react so peculiarly to Rigel's simply greeting the boy. Eventually Adrian Pucey had admitted to witnessing something that might explain the scene Draco described, but he wouldn't say what for fear of upsetting—not Lestrange—but Rigel.
Draco could only shake his head in complete bemusement when his father had asked him later what Rigel's history with Lestrange was. Lucius Malfoy had not been happy with his son's ignorance, but Draco wasn't exactly tickled with his father right then either, so he would put off reporting to him until he really felt like it.
Draco scowled at the sprawling English countryside as thoughts of his father slowly replaced thoughts of his friend. Lucius was doing that patently annoying thing again where he handed out vaguely cryptic and purposely maddening hints of something he wouldn't explain, and then expected Draco to do something with them.
The only thing Draco had figured out from his father's mostly-indecipherable advice thus far was that Lucius knew something vital about the strange attacks on Longbottom and that Ravenclaw girl. He hadn't said why, or even how, but when Draco brought up his concern, he had said that Draco had nothing to worry about.
The utter confidence with which his father had spoken sent chills up Draco's spine even now. No one could be sure about something like that unless they were the ones behind it, but if his father was behind it he wouldn't be asking Draco so many questions about what was going on. That meant that either A: Lucius was pretending to confidence for his son's sake, or B: someone in whom Lucius had complete confidence was behind the attacks.
If the former, Draco was worried. If a Malfoy had to fake confidence in something, things could not be at all going the way they were supposed to go. If the latter, Draco was, frankly, worried. That sounded a little too much like the Sleeping Sickness for Draco's comfort, considering he'd almost died because of that sickness. In fact, he had almost died less than a week after his father had sounded supremely confident in the interview he gave to the Prophet.
Draco scowled even harder at the countryside. All in all, the situation was not looking good.
"If you burn a hole through the glass by glaring at it, I hope you'll take responsibility for what the wind will do to my hair," Pansy said from her seat facing him. She was between Millicent, who was reading her Charms textbook, and Blaise, who was having a conversation with Theo about Latin-based vs. Rune-based magic.
Draco changed his expression to one of fond amusement as he turned his gaze from the window to his other best friend—and wasn't that a strange thought? Best friends with a girl. "I could easily take such responsibility," he said teasingly, "But I'm not sure how that would help your hair."
Pansy laughed, and the world suddenly didn't seem as ugly as it had from the disgruntled corner of his thoughts. "Fair point. I shall have to distract you from your unhappy thoughts, then, if my appearance is to be saved from certain ruin."
"Your presence alone is diversion enough," Draco said, quirking a smile at her. Pansy truly was a gem. Patient and kind, she was sure to be the social catch of their year when she matured. Draco knew his parents were already looking subtly for signs of a prospective match, and honestly…it wouldn't be bad, he thought. They were already friends, and even if some part of him felt that that was all they'd ever be, it was still more than a lot of people had in a marriage. She was smart, and bound to be pretty if the pictures he'd seen of her grandmother, whose coloring she took after, were anything to judge by. Pureblooded girls weren't exactly thick on the ground in their generation, and Draco sincerely believed he could do a lot worse than Pansy Parkinson as a wife.
"Draco? Are you quite done zoning out?" Pansy gazed at him with amusement, and Draco felt a bit sheepish for how far his thoughts had carried him. He didn't need to worry about stuff like that for several years at least.
Shaking himself out of the inane mental trench he seemed to have been digging, Draco concentrated on the present. The future could always wait.
"Diversion enough indeed," Pansy said, her eyes bright with secret laughter, "What a fibber you are, Drake."
"Drake?" Draco raised an eyebrow, "That one's new."
"Well," Pansy said, cheeks turning the slightest bit pink, "We all seem to have different nicknames for one another, but I didn't have a different one for you."
"Do we?" Draco said, surprised.
"You haven't noticed? Boys," Pansy said, as though that one word were explanation enough, "You call me 'Pans' sometimes, but Rigel just calls me 'Pan.' You call Rigel 'Rye' sometimes, and he occasionally calls you 'Dray.' So now I'm calling you 'Drake.'"
Draco smiled softly, "I like it. What will you call Rigel, though?"
"I'm not sure," Pansy frowned, "'Rye' is really the only good nickname for Rigel, and I don't want to do a variation on Arcturus, because he really doesn't seem to like his first name much."
"His father uses it," Draco pointed out, "Though sometimes Rigel refers to his father by his first name as well, so maybe it's an inside joke."
"Yes, isn't that odd?" Pansy remarked. "Actually there's something…odd about Rigel's entire relationship with his father, don't you think?"
Draco leaned over to get a look at Rigel's face, to make sure it was still relaxed with genuine sleep before answering, "I agree. Some of the things Black says don't really make sense. At least not in relation to the Rigel we know. It's like…"
"It's like he's trying to be an entire different person when he's with his father," Blaise interjected. His expression was that of someone explaining something obvious.
Draco frowned, a bit put out that Blaise thought he knew Rigel better than they did, "You weren't even there when we met his father at the station."
"I observed Rigel with his father at the gala," Blaise said easily, "What interaction I witnessed was brief, but rather obvious. Besides that, there's he and his father's correspondence. His father writes as though Rigel is a completely different person than he is, and Rigel responds as if he's the imaginary person his father thinks he is."
"You read his mail?" Draco scowled.
"Why would either of them do that?" Pansy asked, looking perplexed, "Is it some kind of code?"
"I suspected that at first, but after seeing them at the gala it became clear to me that it was a regular facet of their relationship," Blaise said. His voice was detached, almost clinical, but there was something concerned in his eyes as he spoke that made Draco think Blaise probably cared more about other people than he liked to let on.
Blaise seemed to visibly hesitate before going on to say, carefully, "It also seemed to me that…only one of them was aware that anything about the situation was odd."
Millicent, who had stopped reading her book some time ago to listen in, looked completely shocked, "You think…you think that Rigel's father believes him to be something he is not…and that Rigel completely supports and even actively encourages this mistaken belief? That is…beyond absurd. No one can pretend to be something they aren't for their entire life."
"Well, there's another alternative," Blaise said, looking grim, "But you aren't going to like it."
He was looking at Draco in particular as he said it, so Draco steeled himself not to react as he asked, "What is that?"
"The other alternative is that it isn't Sirius Black who Rigel is lying to about who he is," Blaise said, almost apologetically.
The notion was an obvious one, but that didn't stop it from hitting Draco like a punch to the gut (not that he'd ever been punched in the gut, but some things one can imagine without experiencing them). Still… "I don't believe that," Draco said firmly.
"Neither do I," Pansy said flatly.
Blaise inclined his head, "Nor I. Personally I think that Rigel's father is the one being lied to, but I felt compelled to list all the possibilities, for completeness' sake."
Sometimes Draco wished Blaise paid a little less homage to 'completeness' and more to general sensibilities, but many things, like Rigel's selective obliviousness and Blaise's exacting need for correctness, were beyond his ability to wish away.
"So…either way that leaves us with Rigel being an incredibly long-term liar for no apparent reason," Theo said, worrying his bottom lip with his teeth, "I mean, why would he do that to his own father? It's kind of…cold. I just never pictured Rigel like that."
"You think Rigel is lying to his father to manipulate or hurt him?" Blaise shook his head slowly, "No, it is entirely the other way around."
"What do you mean?" Pansy prompted, "Please explain if you are going to say things like that, Blaise."
"Yes, of course," Blaise inclined his head gracefully, "I was merely collecting my thoughts. We know that the person Rigel is with us is not the person he is with his father. Let us compare the two. We see Rigel as someone rather low-key in his day-to-day existence. He studies more than most people would consider reasonable, he enjoys potions more than any of us will probably ever understand, and he rarely expresses himself openly or without considerable prompting by others. Yes?"
They all nodded with more or less general agreement.
"Draco and Pansy have observed his interactions with his father more closely than I have," Blaise said, "But I admit to glancing over his letters when he opens them at the breakfast table, and to occasionally distracting him while he writes his replies so that I can skim over those as well—"
"Blaise! That's a bit much even for us," Millicent protested with exasperation.
"—and I have discovered several things about the person Rigel pretends to be for his father's benefit," Blaise went on, ignoring the slightly censorious looks he was getting from the four of them, "That boy is cheerful, engaging, and impertinent. That boy enjoys playing pranks and openly teasing his friends and family. That boy is always upbeat and rarely complains about anything. He is more interested in discussing Quidditch than academics, and even when he is being serious, that boy is more earnest than he is careful."
The second-years exchanged looks that were worried, bewildered, and surprised.
"That boy sounds a lot like how my mother described Sirius Black as a child," Pansy said slowly.
Draco nodded as he came to the same conclusion, "James Potter, too. It sounds just like how Mother described the Marauders when they were in school."
Theo spoke up as well, "Actually, that made-up kid kind of sounds like what I expected the Black Heir to be like. Before I met him, I mean, and before he was sorted into Slytherin, obviously. I thought he would be a happy-go-lucky prankster, or else an amateur smooth-talker like his father."
"He was sort of like that, the very first night," Pansy said, eyes distant as she tried to remember their first feast together, "I remember thinking he was a lot like his father, only now I don't think that about Rigel at all."
"Maybe he was still so used to pretending that he hadn't relaxed yet," Millicent said. She paused, then added, "This is the strangest conversation I've ever had about someone behind their back."
Draco felt a tiny stab of guilt at those words, but he ignored them. Rigel wouldn't actually care that they were talking about him behind his back. Draco could almost picture the expression of amusement Rigel would wear as he listened to them all try to figure him out, even, but it still felt a little tiny bit rude to be dissecting his life like this. Ah, well. Secrets were meant to be ferreted out, after all, and besides that they were friends. They just wanted to know, not blackmail him or anything.
"Back to what you said earlier, though," Pansy said, looking at Blaise, "You implied that Rigel is pretending for his father's sake, is that right? You think that we're not the only ones who expected Sirius Black's son to be happy and mischievous and all of that, don't you, Blaise? You think Sirius Black expected those things from his son, too, and Rigel goes through these elaborate motions so that he doesn't disappoint him."
Blaise inclined his head slowly, "That is one possible theory, yes."
"But parents don't want their children to lie to them," Millicent protested, "They want them to be happy."
"Black thinks his son is happy," Blaise said, shrugging.
"Who says Rigel isn't happy?" Draco demanded.
"Yes, who says I'm not happy?"
Draco's head jerked down to see Rigel slowly pushing up from the armrest. No one spoke as their friend rubbed one hand across his eyes and covered his mouth with the other as a small yawn escaped him. Rigel sat up in his seat and turned his head to look at them all. His cheeks were flushed from sleep, and his eyes were still a bit tired-looking, but his voice was calm and even as he said, "I am, you know. I'm very happy."
"Rigel," Pansy started, an apology clear in her voice and facial expression.
Rigel waved a hand negligently at her, "It's okay, Pan, I don't care. I only heard a little of it anyway, but you all should know that it's not a question of whether I'm happy or not, but rather a question of what makes my dad happy. I'm happy either way, so pretending to be the son he wants doesn't hurt me at all and pleases him a great deal. Win-win."
Draco was not at all sure that was true. How could such a thing not hurt Rigel? If your father thought you were something you weren't, then he'd be proud of something that didn't exist. Every interaction, every gesture of approval and affection would be meaningless. Draco couldn't think of anything that would be more painful than willingly diverting his own father's love onto something else, something that wasn't even real. And yet, Rigel didn't even see anything wrong with it.
Most of the time, Rigel's inside didn't seem to mesh with his outside at all, but at moments like this, everything about Rigel seemed as fragile as fairy glass. His world just didn't make sense to Draco. Rigel's life was so completely unstable. His actions contradicted with his other actions, and adding in his words only made things even worse.
In summation, his own life had made significantly more sense before he met Rigel Black, but on the other hand…
He watched Rigel easily distract Millicent with a question about the Herbology assignment that Draco thought it highly unlikely Rigel hadn't already completed.
On the other hand, life had been significantly less interesting then, too.
By the time Rigel got off the train, she really wasn't feeling well. Her headache had disappeared for a while after her nap, but had come back with a vengeance during the last half-hour of the trip. Her muscles were aching in her back and thighs, and her stomach was cramping something fierce. She was worried she might have caught some kind of bug over break—she had been in contact with Merlin-knows-how-many people between her frequent trips through Diagon and Knockturn alley and the New Year's Eve party.
All she wanted to do was sleep, but she was pretty sure you couldn't skip the Welcoming Feast just because you wanted to.
So she sat at the Slytherin table with her year-mates, trying not to concentrate on how the noise was making her headache progress quickly toward migraine-status.
"Are you all right, Rigel?" Pansy said at one point, leaning in to speak quietly to her, "I'm really sorry you had to listen to us talking about you like that. It wasn't very discrete of us, with you being right there. Are you cross?"
Rigel summoned a smile for Pansy, "No, Pan, I'm not upset with you. I just have a bit of a headache."
Pansy's relief was instantly replaced by concern, "Do you want me to fetch a headache potion from Madam Pomphrey?"
Rigel gave her an amused look.
Pansy sent her an exasperated one back, "I know, I know, you're perfectly capable of brewing your own headache potion, but surely you don't want to have to brew one while having a headache?"
Rigel smiled, "Thanks, Pansy, but I've got a few already made in my kit. I'll take one when we get back to the common room."
Pansy patted her arm gently, "Very well, then. If you need anything, though, please ask."
"It's really not that bad," Rigel said reassuringly. When Pansy turned to answer a question Theo asked her from her left side, Rigel rubbed at her temple agitatedly. She drank as much water as her cramping stomach would allow, then, when she felt that she had surely stayed long enough to be polite, she excused herself as discretely as possible.
Draco stood along with her.
"You don't have to, Draco," she said distractedly, "Enjoy the feast."
Draco took her elbow, as though he knew she was feeling worse than she acted, and walked with her slowly to the doors, "You're not supposed to go wandering alone, remember? None of us are. It's only the fifth time I've told you that. You never listen."
"I'm listening right now," Rigel said tiredly as they took the steps down to the dungeons.
"Then you never remember listening when the time comes to actually act on the information you were supposed to be hearing," Draco said, no small amount of annoyance coloring his voice, "I know you told Pansy you have a headache, but you've been flushed since you woke up on the train. And you were holding your stomach earlier under the table where you thought no one would see. What's wrong?"
Rigel had to laugh a bit at that, "You are too observant for your own good, Dray."
"I am exactly as observant as I need to be to stay ahead of your ridiculous pretenses," Draco said, "Many of which appear to be all too automatic for you at this point, if I may say so."
"I'd rather you just think it," Rigel said. She paused to yawn, "But I suppose it would be a feat beyond my meager capabilities to actively prevent Draco Malfoy from speaking his mind, so, sure. Go ahead and say so."
"Ha," Draco said, "That was so funny I almost forgot that you never answered my question. Oh, wait, no I didn't. What's wrong, Rigel?"
Rigel grimaced, "I'm not sure. My stomach hurts, my muscles ache, I have a headache, and I'm more tired than I should be considering I've done nothing but sit on a train all day on more than seven hours of sleep."
"So you're sick?" Draco made Rigel stop for a moment so he could put his hand on her forehead, "You're a bit warm, but it could just be because you're tired. We should go to the Hospital Wing."
"You know I hate Healers," Rigel said, starting toward the common room again.
"I don't think you hate anything," Draco said.
"You know I really dislike going to see Healers," Rigel corrected herself with a sigh.
"So you've said," Draco glanced at her sidelong, "But so far no reasoning that makes any sense has been offered to back that statement up."
"Hmm," Rigel said disinterestedly.
"If it gets worse, I'm getting Snape," Draco said firmly.
"Sure," Rigel said, smiling her thanks at her blonde friend, "It's probably nothing, though. I hardly ever get sick, and it doesn't last long when I do."
"So in other words your immune system is way overdue for a reality check," Draco drawled.
Rigel just shook her head.
They arrived at the common room entrance and stopped.
Draco looked at Rigel and Rigel looked at Draco.
"Well, damn," Draco said, "We really thought this one through."
Rigel laughed a bit. They really were idiots, walking all the way down there without knowing the new term's password.
"Hey, Draco," Rigel said casually, "Do you want to know a secret?"
Draco stared at her for a beat, "I can't believe you just said that. We're Slytherins, Rigel. I suppose tomorrow you'll ask a Ravenclaw if he wants to read a book."
"Is that a yes?" Rigel said, smiling slyly.
"For Salazar's sake, you'd better tell me," Draco huffed, "Or I shall decry you to all and sundry as a complete tease."
Rigel laughed softly, "Okay, but don't tell anyone. Besides Pansy, I mean."
"Given," Draco agreed quickly.
Rigel turned to the common room wall and twisted her thoughts in the way she had grown accustomed to doing around her uncle's pets. "Open," she hissed quietly.
The wall slid open at once, and Draco sucked in a surprised breath beside her. He hurried her into the common room and checked it for occupants before turning and saying softly, "There's a secondary password for the common room in Parseltongue? That's brilliant, Rigel! How did you figure it out? Wait," Draco made a face, "It's not something obvious, like 'Salazar,' is it?"
"Worse," Rigel said, chuckling softly, "It's 'open.'"
Draco snorted incredulously, "You're joking. I guess it wouldn't matter, since no one else would even understand but…really? That's so…"
"I know," Rigel said, still smiling, "I could barely believe it when Pucey's snake told me. Maybe Slytherin figured it was so obvious none of his descendants would think of it. A double-bluff, of a sort."
"Maybe," Draco tossed a glance at Salazar Slytherin's portrait, but he wasn't there at the moment, "Either way, that is seriously cool. How long have you been able to do that?"
Rigel shrugged, "Pucey's snake told me in November, but this is the first time I've used it."
Draco's face was alight with pleased satisfaction, "Thank you, Rigel. For telling me one of your secrets."
"It was either that or stand outside and wait for a prefect," Rigel joked. Her smile faded a bit and she added, "Most of the time I don't really mean to keep secrets from you, Draco. I just forget I have them, until something like this reminds me."
Draco looked resigned, "I'm not going to ask how you can forget about a secret that is that useful, because…it's you. So tonight I'm just glad you told me."
Rigel huffed once more with amusement, and then started toward their dormitory, "Well, I'm for bed."
"You napped on the train," Draco said, a frown creeping back onto his face.
"I'm just a little tired, Draco," Rigel said, opening the door and making a beeline for her bed, "It's nothing to worry about."
"Say what you want, Rigel," Draco said, sitting on his trunk to unlace his shoes, "I'm going to keep an eye on you anyway."
That, Rigel reflected as she kicked off her own shoes and curled up on top of her comforter, seemed to be a rather common theme in their friendship.
Rigel woke several times that night, and each time she tried to drink as much water as she could stomach to get her stubborn migraine, which had persisted despite the headache potion, to go away. Finally, at about three in the morning, her bladder rebelled and Rigel had no choice but to give into its demands, prying her aching muscles from her soft bed and moving as quietly as she could to the bathroom she and Draco usually shared, Theo and Blaise having claimed the other for their own.
She locked the door automatically behind her, undid Archie's belt with practiced ease, and froze, staring in part-disbelief, part-horror at the rust-colored stain on her undergarments. Taking a deep breath, Rigel shucked the pants entirely off and sat down on the toilet the think while she relieved her bladder. She noted that it didn't hurt to do so, and felt considerably relieved. No pain removed most of the more terrible medical possibilities she'd read about in Archie's Healer textbooks.
Well, she couldn't say no pain, Rigel thought disgruntledly, after all her lower abdominals were still cramping something—
She gave into self-disgust and smacked herself smartly on the forehead. "I am such an idiot," she whispered to herself. Really, how silly could she be? She had known this would happen since she was nine. Lily believed in early instruction, and had given her daughter several books on the subject of female adolescence. Menstruation was one of the things that had stood out the most under 'mandatory pubescent experiences,' but somehow Rigel hadn't thought it would be so…sudden. She knew what it felt like to bleed from a cut or scrape, so she'd somehow expected it to feel like that. But it hadn't. She now knew that the cramps had been the warning, but she hadn't felt the actual blood leaving her at all.
That was actually kind of scary, she thought uneasily. What if she bled to death in her sleep without noticing? Rigel sighed, shaking the ridiculous thought aside. Every girl in the world went through the exact same thing, and she rather doubted many of them bled to death in their sleep. Someone would have said something, surely.
Well, now that she knew what it was, she just had to…deal with it. Rigel wished she had been better prepared for this. She knew there was a potion witches took that stopped the cramps, but she didn't have any ready-made in her kit. She also didn't have the recipe, for that matter. There were also liners that girls could wear in their undergarments that acted like selective vanishing charms when they came into contact with…that sort of fluid. Obviously she didn't have any of those, either.
She started rolling up a wad of toilet paper with a sigh. It looked like she would be handling this the old fashioned way for the foreseeable future.
She crept back into bed several minutes later, having wrapped the ruined pair of boxers up in a ball and buried them deep in the waste bin. The house elves would be emptying it in a few hours, so she wasn't worried about any evidence being left over.
Just as she was settling in, Draco's voice came softly from the bed next to hers.
"Yes," Rigel whispered back.
"Were you…you know, ill?"
Rigel frowned in confusion, then realized he was asking if she'd been throwing up in the toilet. Rigel supposed she had been in there a suspiciously long time.
"Yes," she said, "I think it was just something I ate, because I feel much better now."
"Oh," Draco said, yawning, "Good. Night."
"Night," Rigel returned. Her muscles still ached and she still felt more tired than she thought she ought to feel, but it was with relief that she fell asleep once more. Knowing what the problem was always brought you halfway to addressing it.
The students didn't have classes the next day, a merciful chance for all the procrastinators to finish their break assignments and an opportunity for the rest of them to get back into the academic mindset before being thrown into classes once more. Not wanting to go to the Library when it was so crowded, Rigel decided to walk down to the gamekeeper's hut and ask Mr. Hagrid about the recent movements of the forest creatures. Archie would be proud of her, Rigel thought, for being proactive in finding out what was going on.
A small part of her brain reminded Rigel that she wasn't supposed to let herself get caught up in big, secretive events this year. She was supposed to spend time with her friends and leave all the grown-up stuff, like inexplicable pandemics or random petrifactions, to the actual grown-ups.
She defended herself by pointing out that all she wanted to do was ask the gamekeeper a few questions. She wasn't going to go gallivanting through the woods chasing crazy and possibly dangerous leads without supervision. Really, it wasn't a big deal.
The sun was high overhead when she knocked on the gamekeeper's door. She recognized the sound of a large dog barking—Fang, she remembered—and then the gamekeeper's ruddy face peeked out at her, "Why, Mr. Black! Hello, hello. Back, Fang. Sorry, he's just happy for company, that's all."
Rigel smiled in a friendly way, "That's all right, Mr. Hagrid."
"Just Hagrid," the gamekeeper said gruffly.
"Well, Hagrid," Rigel said, "I'm sorry to drop in unannounced like this, but I was wondering if you could answer a question for me?"
Hagrid's face was wary, but he came outside and sat down on his stoop anyway, "What, er, sort of a question?"
"It's about the creatures that live in the forest," Rigel said, sitting down next to him, "I figured you'd be the closest thing to an expert on the Forbidden Forest."
Hagrid seemed to perk a bit at the word 'expert' and cleared his throat, "Well, I suppose I do know a thing or two. What's yer question?"
"I was wondering if you'd noticed any of the forest's inhabitants doing anything odd lately?" Rigel said, "I mean, have animals usually found in certain parts moved to other parts, or disappeared completely? Or perhaps you've found some suspicious remains lying about—"
"Hold up, what's all this?" Hagrid peered down at her with a furrowed brow, "What're you so interested in the critters for?"
"I'm doing research on what's been petrifying students," Rigel admitted, seeing no harm in being honest. It wasn't against the school rules to look for clues, after all, and Hagrid didn't seem a likely candidate for the person at Hogwarts supposedly reporting to Mr. Riddle. "I was thinking it might be some kind of animal, but anything with the power to petrify things must be a predator, and usually if one wants to figure out where the predator is, all one has to do is look at where the prey are moving away from."
Hagrid's face turned very white, and he shook his head quickly, "I don't know nothing about anything. Don't ask about—just don't ask."
Rigel looked up at the big man with concern, "Are you all right? I didn't mean to upset you, Mr. Hagrid."
Hagrid put a large hand to his head, "Just bad memories, young Mr. Black. Never mind, never you mind."
"Memories?" Rigel's interest was piqued, "What do you mean?"
Hagrid flushed purple, "Nothin, I didn't mean nothin."
Rigel gazed at the older man for a moment, slowly turning the word 'memories' over in her head, "Hagrid…has something like this happened before? Does it remind you of something similar, something you found in the forest, maybe? Because some of the things that might be petrifying students are very long lived, so if you can tell me where and when you remember something similar to the petrifaction, it might help identify it."
"It's not the same," Hagrid muttered, "It's nothing to do with the chamber. Merlin, please, not again."
Rigel inhaled sharply, "The Chamber of Secrets? Is that the chamber you mean?" Hagrid looked alarmed and Rigel shamelessly pulled out her best look—wide eyes brimming with hopeful expectation, "Please, Mr. Hagrid. I think you're right; that Chamber is definitely connected."
After Rigel had overheard the phrase at the gala, she had done some digging, but all she could find were vague myths about a hidden chamber somewhere within Hogwarts itself, build by Slytherin. There was nothing about petrifying kids in the myths at all. Maybe Hagrid knew what the connection was.
Hagrid looked extremely uncomfortable, "You shouldn't be asking such questions, Mr. Black. Look, yer a good lad. Helped me with Fang's stomach aches and all, but you don't want ter get mixed up in this mess."
"Please, Mr. Hagrid," Rigel said, "I know it must be difficult for you, but it's important that we all do our best to figure out what's hurting those kids. We all have to be very brave, and put our information and skills together, or evil will triumph unchallenged." She thought that might have been laying it on a bit too thick, but Hagrid looked at her consideringly.
"I reckon…you might be right," the gamekeeper said slowly, looking over toward the forest. "It's just…you have to understand, it wasn't me."
Rigel blinked, "I…didn't imagine it was you hurting students, Hagrid. Really, I just thought you would know the most about the forest."
"I'm glad you think that," Hagrid said, his voice heavy with something old and weighty, "Only that wasn't what a lot of people thought, the last time a couple of kids turned up petrified."
Rigel barely suppressed a glint of triumph. Hagrid did know something important. She listened carefully, then with growing alarm as Hagrid told her the story of why he was expelled from Hogwarts, and all he knew of the circumstances regarding the opening of the Chamber of Secrets.
"All told there were eight students petrified before it stopped," Hagrid said.
"But they were all fine in the end, right?" Rigel said, "I mean, once the petrifaction was cured."
Hagrid shook his head slowly, "Seven were all right, after a bit of mandrake draught, but the last one…oh, kid, the last one wasn't just petrified. She was…she was…"
Rigel put a hand on Hagrid's elbow, "I understand. I'm sorry."
"Nice girl, she was," Hagrid said, pulling out a handkerchief and blowing his nose before continuing, "After they found poor Myrtle, they had to do something. When Riddle found my Aragog in that cupboard, well, I suppose it was only natural that they assumed I…" Hagrid broke off, blowing his nose again, "Only I didn't, you have to see, I wouldn't have. Never. I told 'em to ask her, ask Myrtle if she ever saw me when it happened…but she was too distraught, crying and carrying on. They couldn't get a coherent testimony, so they just…"
"That's awful, Hagrid," Rigel said, meaning it, "A giant spider couldn't have petrified…wait, did you say Riddle found Aragog? As in Lord Riddle the SOW party leader?" Rigel found that to be a rather difficult coincidence to swallow.
Something indecipherable crossed Hagrid's face, "Yeah. He was just a kid then, too. A prefect, an' all. He found Aragog on one of his patrols. I don't care fer the likes of that party much, but it weren't really Riddle's fault what they assumed. Bad timing, I guess."
He said this with the blank intonation of someone who had been telling themselves such a thing for many years, either using the statement to comfort themselves or else trying to convince themselves of it.
"So, then," she said carefully, trying not to be insensitive but needing to know, "Do you think it's the same thing that it was last time?"
Hagrid shrugged a bit, "Not sure. The petrifactions look the same…but fifty years ago the ones attacked were all muggleborns. It was before they were banned from attending, you know. There weren't any explosions, neither. And…back then there were messages. Terrible things, written up in blood on the wall. Another one every two or three attacks, always going on about mental pureblood stuff. Slytherin's old propaganda, mixed in with twisted threats and things. Ruddy awful, those were. This time…it's too different to say for sure."
Hagrid sounded a bit hopeful as he said it, but Rigel's stomach sank. There had been a message like that, twisted and puritanical, only it had never been seen by more than four people. So the two incidents, fifty years apart, were somehow directly related. And she also now knew that the threat included and underlined by the killings of Mrs. Norris and her kittens was not idle at all. Whoever had done this had killed before the same way.
It made Rigel angry, to think of some poor young girl named Myrtle being killed for no other reason than the blood she bore. What kind of a world did they live in that someone thought an accident of birth worth killing over? She had always thought it unfair that muggleborns and halfbloods like her didn't get the same opportunities as purebloods, and she had often considered it annoying that she had to go through so much extra effort just to reach the same heights, but never before had she been outraged on behalf of muggleborns and halfbloods.
How dare they think they could get away with this? Rigel would not, could not, let it happen again, even if this time it would be a pureblood with whom the same sick point was hammered home. Her face set into a determined scowl. She was going to figure out what was doing this, and she was going to make it stop and then she was going to make it regret ever starting.
Her magic stirred restlessly within her as her emotions roiled and churned, but with no outlet it could only burn in her gut like a torch, fueling her purpose with its heat and strength.
She said goodbye to Hagrid and thanked him profusely for his help. He gave her a few more half-hearted admonishments about getting involved in things she oughtn't, which Rigel solemnly ignored.
Rigel stopped at Snape's office on her way back to the common room, intending to pick up that month's list of potions approved for brewing. Before she could ask for it, though, Snape pinned her with a serious look and said, "Mr. Malfoy believes you are ill."
Rigel mentally rolled her eyes at her friend. He really was too dependent on authority sometimes.
"I felt a bit sour last night," Rigel said, "But luckily it passed. I am completely healthy today."
Snape studied her under lowered brows, "As you appear to be neither ill nor lying, I am inclined to ignore Mr. Malfoy's assessment—this time. Do not neglect your health."
"Yes, sir," Rigel said.
"Now, I imagine you are here for this," Snape pulled a piece of parchment from his desk.
"How embarrassingly predictable of me," Rigel said, grinning as she stepped forward to take the list eagerly. She looked at it, then blinked. There was only one thing written on it.
Rigel felt herself smile irrepressibly. It was nothing she hadn't made before, but still, "This is an NEWT potion."
"It is only considered such because of the tedium involved in both time and preparation," Snape said dismissively, "In actuality it is less magically draining than many fourth-year potions, due to the preparation being drawn out over the course of a month."
"Thank you," Rigel said, still smiling without conscious effort.
"It is not a gift, but a test," Snape said firmly, though he looked thoroughly amused at her reaction, "Do not disappoint me."
"I won't," Rigel said, "How many batches can I—"
"One," Snape said.
"One?" Rigel blinked, deflating a bit. She wasn't worried about leaving room for error, but she hadn't brewed only one potion at a time since…actually, she couldn't remember when she had last brewed just one cauldron of something, let alone one potion for an entire month.
"Make it perfect," Snape suggested.
"Yes, sir," Rigel said, frowning a bit at how bored she was going to be until February.
Snape made an exasperated noise, "You impertinent child, stop pouting. You will only be working on one potion in your personal time this month because you will be assisting me in your free time as well."
"Assisting?" Rigel could feel her smile coming back and repressed it with effort, "What kind of work will I be assisting with, sir?"
Snape leveled a look at her that made it clear he could see the smile straining at the corner of her mouth and was not at all impressed by her attempts to dissuade it, "My work, Mr. Black. I am in the midst of several experimental and therefore delicate and dangerous projects, and if you do anything other than exactly what I tell you to do, you will wish you were allowed to make one potion a month when I am done locking up your laboratory. Is that clear?"
"Very," Rigel said, "Thank you, Professor Snape. I'm so honored that you'd include me in—"
"You will stop that this instant, Mr. Black," Snape snapped irritably, "I detest flattery of any kind. All I require from you is an extra pair of hands this month. If you perform adequately…I shall consider allowing you to assist with other projects in the future."
Rigel could only nod. She could scarcely believe she was going to see Potion Master Snape's personal projects first-hand. "What time?" she asked.
"Every afternoon between your last class and dinner," Snape said, "With an additional three hours after dinner on the evenings you do not have Quidditch practice. Too much?"
"Definitely not," Rigel said, grinning.
"Get out of my sight," Snape snorted, "Your happiness sickens me."
"I look forward to working with you as well, sir," Rigel said cheerfully as she made her way out.
"Cheeky brat," Snape tossed out after her.
[end of chapter ten].
A/N: I tried to end on an up-note, since parts of this chapter were mildly not-happy. I think I overused the italics function in several places, but I had a lot of fun writing this one. ^^. I loved the last round of reviews—so many of you are thinking outside the box and forcing me to re-think and round-out my plot line. Thanks :). For those who think this second book is running annoyingly close to the original HP plot line…it totally is. There are some crucial differences, but from Harry's POV things look a lot the same until the last few chapters. In any case, I promise to try making the climax interesting and engaging for those readers who have read HPCS more times than they care to admit.