Aria did not return to the Slytherin common room that night. She spent the entire night in the Forbidden Forest, running around in her wolf form. Whenever she was feeling stressed or anxious, it proved to be a great escape from her troubles. It was the first time that she ever felt anything close to actual fear. She could not bring herself to even look at Draco for the next two days. During their classes on Thursday and Friday, she sat with Hermione, knowing that if she made the tiniest bit of eye contact with Draco, he would attempt to bring up their conversation from Halloween night. After each class, he followed after her, hoping to get her alone, but she blended into the crowd, keeping Hermione with her. The other Slytherins believed that Draco's antics at the Halloween party caused the rift between them. Both Hermione and Raina, who were far more observant, assumed that this fight was much different. Aria refused to discuss what happened after the party, claiming that Draco got on her nerves for the last time.
To keep her distracted from his confession, she put all of her focus into quidditch. With the first match drawing closer, the entire school was thrown into a frenzy. The match between Gryffindor and Slytherin was highly anticipated and the drive to win for both houses was so great that Snape and McGonagall did not give out homework, a rare occurrence for them. Snape booked the pitch as much as possible, preventing the Gryffindor team from getting much practice. Besides training extremely hard during practices, the tension between the two houses led to fights in the corridors. Snape turned a blind eye to Slytherins hexing Gryffindors, passing off Alicia's rapidly growing eyebrows on an incorrectly cast hair-thickening charm despite multiple eyewitnesses confirming that Miles hexed her in the library. The older Slytherins pushed for Aria to join in their heckling and insults but she was not going to sink to their level. She made Graham promise that he would ignore the suggestions to cheat by his fellow seventh years and play fairly during the match. While the Slytherins teased members of the Gryffindor team at every opportunity, she comforted Ron, their main target. He was visibly affected by every taunt, being the newest addition to the team.
Aria was practicing Sebastien's spell in the empty room in the dungeons. Raina sat in a chair, watching her in case the spell went horribly wrong. She was practicing the spell with a black cat that belonged to one of the seventh year girls. Since it was very early in the morning, Raina was able to get the girl to consent to leaving the room with the cat for a couple hours, lying that it looked like it wanted to take a walk around the grounds. The girl, too sleepy to comprehend a single word, agreed to the request. Aria licked the back of her hand and brushed it against her cheek. Raina laughed, picking up the cat.
"That's an effect of using the spell for a long time. You did great. You even did it nonverbally…but I don't think that a cat will be around your aunt's house and you can't just hide it under your shirt."
"Sebastien said it's harder when you move past animals."
"Hey, we've got an entire month to figure it out. The more we practice, the better. We can start after this dumb match."
"Does Graham know you hate quidditch?"
"I don't hate it. I just—it looks boring. The only enjoyable part is everyone fighting over who is going to win."
"Well hopefully it's Slytherin. If I was playing seeker, I could easily get the snitch before Harry but with—since I'm not, it's up to…other people."
They headed back to the common room together. Aria needed to change for practice before the match. Graham was adamant about winning against Gryffindor by a large margin of points.
"Other people? You can't even say his name? What's going on with you two?"
"I'm just done with him. After the party…"
"He's a guy, Aria. I think he's jealous of"
Aria interrupted her. "He's not jealous of anything. He doesn't like me like that, Raina. I don't know why you think you've got some magical matchmaker ability. You're completely wrong."
After getting changed into a pair of black sweatpants, a dark green sweater, and black fingerless gloves, she hurried down to the quidditch pitch. The rest of the team was getting their brooms from the Slytherin locker room. As she tied her hair up in a ponytail, Draco held out her broom to her. She grabbed it, staring at her sneakers, and walked out of the room, behind Adrian and Goyle. Draco poked her back with his broom handle.
"You're still giving me the silent treatment? Can we just talk after the match? You can't keep avoiding me. At least nod your head or—Aria, what do you want? Do you want me to lie to you that I was drunk that night and what I said to you meant nothing? Maybe a coward like Potter would do that but not me. We have to talk."
"Draco, Aria, what are you two doing? Get on your brooms already!" shouted Graham, hovering many feet above them.
Aria kicked off on her broom and flew up beside him. He looked between her and Draco suspiciously before starting the practice. For the next hour, they practiced many different tactics. His most prominent worry was that Draco would not find the snitch before Harry. In past experiences, Draco failed each time, never able to beat him. In case history repeated itself, he wanted to score as many points as possible early on in the match. With twenty minutes until the match, they returned to the locker room. Graham passed out vials of pepperup potion to energize them. He continued to discuss plays with the team, drawing on a blackboard. Instead of listening to Graham, Draco threw paper balls at Aria's back to get her attention. She ignored him, keeping her eyes on the blackboard while her nails dug into the wooden bench. As the thirtieth paper ball zoomed towards her, she flicked her wrist, casting a nonverbal spell to send it flying back into his face. The impact made him nearly fall off of the bench.
Hearing the Gryffindors in their own locker room, she left to talk to Harry and Ron. She waved at Angelina, Alicia, and Katie, who were already heading to the pitch and wished her good luck. Ron was sitting on the floor, looking like a nervous wreck. His face was pale grey and he held his stomach. He seemed prepared to make himself sick to get out of playing in the match. Fred covered his chest with his hands.
"Aria, you can't just come in here. What if we were indecent?"
"Are you afraid that I'm going to find out the carpet doesn't match the drapes? I knew you dye your hair," she joked.
"Glad you're not wearing one of those badges," he whispered, his eyes flickering to Ron.
"Every Slytherin is wearing one. Ron hasn't seen them yet," said George.
"Aria!" she heard.
"I better go before Graham thinks I'm telling you about our plays."
Wishing them good luck, she hugged Harry and Ron. She assured Ron that he would be a great keeper though she warned that she would not go easy on him because they were friends. Leaving the locker room, she saw Graham. He led her over to the Slytherin side of the pitch. As they reached the rest of the team, Adrian handed her a silver, crown-shaped badge. Weasley Is Our King was etched into the badge in dark letters. She glared at him, chucking the badge into a trash bin.
"I'm not wearing that. It's not funny."
"He's their weak link, Aria. It's called strategy."
"It's called being a git."
"This is why we didn't tell you when we were making them badges or writing the song. They're not your friends when we're playing against them. You're supposed to be rooting for Slytherin."
"I do want Slytherin to win, you—what song?"
Not answering her question, Graham pushed her onto the pitch. Three-quarters of the stands were filled with people waving red and gold flags. She was not surprised that Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff decided to support Gryffindor in the match. From the Slytherin stands, the silver badges glittered in the sunlight, all bearing the same message. Madam Hooch ordered Graham and Angelina to shake hands. Mounting their brooms, they waited for Madam Hooch to release the quaffle, bludgers, and snitch from the box. She noticed that Draco looked fiercely determined. He was gripping his broom handle tightly. Once the snitch was released, all fourteen players rose into the air and the fierce match began with Angelina grabbing the quaffle. Lee, as always, provided amusing commentary, making McGonagall shout at him for not talking about the match.
Angelina streaked down the pitch, avoiding Graham and the bludgers. The Slytherins sang loudly, their voices ringing over Lee's. Aria listened to the words, angry that it targeted Ron. If he had very little hope before the match, any confidence in himself was now shattered. She stayed close to Katie, blocking her.
"Weasley was born a bin, he always lets the quaffle in, Weasley will make sure we win. Weasley is our king."
Miles caught the quaffle before it passed through the left hoop. He tossed it to Aria and she zoomed down the pitch with Graham and Adrian. She dodged the bludgers sent by George as she neared the three hoops.
"And Aria dodges another bludger sent by Fred Weasley. She's one of the only nice Slytherins, a rare sight. The rest tend to be huge prats who—"
"Jordan!" said McGonagall.
"She's a great player. She was the seeker in her third year and now she's taken Warrington's place as chaser. Athletic, smart, beautiful, funny, can hang with the guys…it would be hard to find another girl like her."
"JORDAN! THIS IS A QUIDDITCH MATCH, NOT A DATING SERVICE!"
As his commentary shifted to Ron, Aria's competitiveness took over and she threw the quaffle at the central hoop. Ron dived wildly but was too late. The quaffle had soared through the hoop, gaining Slytherin ten points. All of the Slytherins cheered excitedly, along with a sole cheer from Hermione in the Gryffindor stands. The singing from the Slytherins became louder as time went on and the team scored more points. Draco and Harry circled the pitch, searching for the snitch. Ron's nerves got the best of him and he struggled to play well, letting in more goals. Within half an hour, the score was forty to ten, Slytherin. Adrian gained possession of the quaffle after Katie dropped it from being hit by a bludger. Aria prepared herself for one of Graham's new plays, hovering near the bottom of the hoops. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Harry and Draco diving down to the ground near the Slytherin side of the pitch. The snitch was fluttering below them. They were neck and neck, each trying to move past the other, but Harry was able to grab it first. The Gryffindors cheered for their win while Harry held up the snitch. Crabbe hit a bludger towards him, smacking him in the back. Harry was knocked off of his broom.
Worried, Aria flew down to the ground and ran over to him. He groaned as she helped him up, grabbing his hand. The rest of the Gryffindor team landed on the ground near them.
He rubbed his back. "Yea, I'll live."
"It was that thug Crabbe. He whacked a bludger at you when he saw you had the snitch," said Angelina, angrily.
Aria hugged him. "Forget him. You guys won. You should be happy."
"And you should be upset." he replied.
"I think we both knew that you were getting that snitch first. If I was playing, it would be a very different story."
"Oh, would it? You'd still lose."
"Yea right, Potter. I'd catch that snitch way before you."
"We'll have to settle that sometime."
Aria heard Draco scoff behind her. He flew down to the ground with Goyle, looking furious. His eyes on Harry, he sneered, remarking that Ron was an awful keeper. Aria held Harry's arm, whispering that he should ignore Draco. She had been around him enough to know that losing brought out an ugly side to him. It was even worse that he lost to Harry, his rival. She turned Harry towards the rest of the Gryffindor team, who were celebrating their win. Graham, Adrian, and Miles stood near the Slytherin side of the pitch, whispering to each other and throwing nasty looks at the team. Draco egged Harry on, mentioning the song about Ron and how they wanted to write some lyrics about Mrs. Weasley but could not think of rhymes for fat and ugly. Madam Hooch was busy reprimanding Crabbe. Aria and Harry held onto George while Angelina was pleading with Fred to ignore Draco's taunts.
"You like the Weasleys, don't you, Potter? Spend holidays there and everything, don't you? Can't see how you stand the stink, but I suppose when you've been dragged up by muggles, even the Weasleys' hovel smells okay."
Blaise and Theodore joined him. Aria waited for either of them to take Draco back to the castle but they remained silent.
"Or maybe you can remember what your mother's house stank like, Potter, and Weasley's pigsty reminds you of it."
She was caught off guard by Harry letting of George. Both of them charged towards Draco, throwing punches in every direction. Girls screamed from the crowd around them and George let out a stream of curses, directed at Draco. Aria cast a shield charm, separating all three. George was sporting a swollen lip and Harry's face was covered in scratches. Draco laid on the ground, holding his bloody nose.
"Let us at him, Aria." said George, snarling.
"No. You don't need to fight. Just ignore him, George. He's upset that we lost and he's taking it out on you."
Madam Hooch stormed over to them. Too busy with Crabbe, she had not heard the argument before the fight and assumed that Harry and George attacked Draco, unprovoked. She ordered them to go to McGonagall's office for their punishment. As they walked towards the castle, Draco stood up, wiping the blood from his nose. There was a small bruise on the side of his jaw. Aria glared at him, placing her hands on her hips.
"Don't give me that look. It's not my fault that Potter and the Weasel twins are sensitive."
"Sensitive? You insulted their mothers. How would you react if I said something about yours? Trust me, I've got a lot to say."
"Oh, now you're talking to me? Maybe I should get in more fights then. At least it would get you to stop avoiding me like a plague."
She stepped towards him. "This is the last time I'm speaking to you. I am done. We're not friends. We're not even acquaintances. We are just two people who happen to be in the same house."
"You want me to believe that you're a better person but then you do stupid shit like this. I always said that you were better than your father but I was wrong. You're exactly like him and I don't want to be friends with someone like that."
Finding Raina, she left the pitch and headed down to the dungeons. Her anger towards Draco was so great that she could not concentrate on the spell. She seemed to be doing worse than this morning. Raina told her to take a short break and conjured a box of cauldron cakes. Aria ripped the packaging around the cake with her teeth.
"You're not concentrating. You should go talk to Draco."
"He is the last person I want to see right now, Raina."
"Tell me what's going on. Don't lie that all this tension is about Owen. Ever since Halloween, it's been weird between you two. I'm not going to believe that you were so angry with him because he insulted Harry either."
"Can we focus on the spell? It's more important."
"You can't even focus on it, Aria. Tell me what's wrong."
She sighed. "After the party, I was annoyed and he stayed down in the common room with me. He said some things…"
"He told you that he likes you?"
"No, he just—it was—it doesn't matter. He didn't mean it. He just wants to use me as a distraction from his break up with Pansy."
"He didn't mean it or you're just making yourself think that? I think you're so scared of feeling that way towards another guy that you're pushing him away. Just because your first boyfriend was a disaster, it doesn't mean all of your relationships will be that way. Trust me, the first guy I dated was awful but I was thirteen. We're teenagers. We're allowed to make mistakes."
"Your boyfriend didn't try to hand you over to Voldemort. I bet he didn't lie to you the entire relationship, saying how much he cared about you when it was really all an act. No offense, Raina, but you can't compare what happened to me and Ben with a guy who just used you to get to his real crush."
"Maybe not but I know what you're feeling. You think you can't get a second chance. Ben didn't ruin you, Aria. He's just a cautionary tale in your past to remind you that you can't let a guy do that to you again. I'm not saying that Draco is Prince Charming but I see how you two look at each other. All these years, you've built up these huge walls to keep out pain but it's also going to keep out love. Why would you let one idiot like Ben destroy what you could have with someone else?"
Not wanting to talk about her feelings, Aria left the dungeons. She walked out to the Forbidden Forest, sitting by herself in a large clearing. The hours passed by quickly and without realizing it, she had stayed in the same clearing until dusk. Umbridge was leaving Hagrid's hut, trudging through the snow, and returning to the castle. Aria wiped at her eyes and stepped out of the forest. Ethan was leaning against a tree.
"You know, it's dangerous to be out alone at night. There are some scary creatures, especially beyond those trees."
"What do you want?"
"I came to deliver a message from my mother."
"Aria?" she heard.
Draco was at her side, taking out his wand. He pointed it at Ethan.
"I'm so frightened. The little fifth year is going to hurt me," he said, sarcastically.
"Get away from her."
"Relax, I'm just a messenger," he said, handing a note to Aria.
He smirked at Draco. "I see that things are working out for the two of you. Just remember that you'll need to repay him for breaking apart that agreement. I don't think it will be a little favor."
"Oh, does she not know? I have to say that I'm a little disappointed in you, Aria. I thought you were one of the smarter girls in our family but you're just like any other girl. You get dumber around a handsome face. Honestly, he expected as much. I'll leave you two lovebirds alone. Make sure you read that note."
Ethan kissed the side of her head and walked down the path to Hogsmeade. Aria turned towards Draco. He was staring at the snow, his face very pale. Before he could run, she grabbed his shirt collar.
"After this conversation, we're not talking again. What did Ethan mean? Who broke the agreement between your family and Pansy's?"
"A—Aria, it's nothing."
"You're a terrible liar."
"The Dark Lord. After a little fight we had, Pansy went home and cried about it to her father. The Dark Lord was there with my father and he overheard the conversation. He told our fathers to tear up the agreement."
"I knew it." she hissed.
"As if you could ever be genuine, you prat. You were tricking me."
"No, I—Aria, that's not true. He did break it up because he knew that I had feelings for you."
"Stop lying. You don't have any feelings for me. This is all part of some trap. Well, you can tell him yourself that I'm not some ditzy girl who can be sweet talked by a guy. This is a really pathetic plan. I mean, they already tried that with Ben. I was right to end our friendship. You've been working against me the entire time. I bet you have been telling your father everything. All of our little conversations, who I'm friends with…tell him that you're a terrible actor. You can stop acting like you care now."
Over the following two weeks, Aria's anger was directed at both Draco and Raina. She felt foolish to think that Draco had been honest towards her. His little confession on Halloween had been a trick. He was being used to manipulate Aria to make her vulnerable. Her aunt's message urged her to consider Voldemort's offer. She was also assured that they would be alone at the manor that night. If Aria refused, Voldemort would give her a few days before he continued his efforts to capture her. When Aria returned to the castle after Ethan's visit, she bumped into Raina and Graham in the common room and told them about the truth behind Draco and Pansy's break up. Graham, siding with Aria that it was a trap, was willing to fight Draco himself and put him in the hospital wing. Raina was more reluctant to believe Ethan's story, thinking that Draco was not helping the death eaters. Aria refused her help with Sebastien's spell, frustrated that her own friend believed Draco over her. In private, Raina suggested that Aria was so adamant to push aside Draco's apparent feelings that she would believe any story that portrayed him in a bad light. Needing time away from the Slytherins, she hung around with Hermione, who was attempting to help Hagrid with his lessons.
Hagrid had returned on the night of the quidditch match, covered in cuts and bruises. His mission over the summer was to meet with giants and convince them to help the Order. The mission had been a failure after some mishaps but Aria was just thankful that Hagrid made it out of the mountains in one piece. Whenever she asked about his injuries, his answers were very vague. She poured some of her blood into a cup to heal him but with each visit, the injuries remained and seemed to get worse. Hagrid was not receptive to their safe lesson plans, only telling them that his first lesson would be a great surprise. At night, Aria struggled to sleep, hearing anguished yells from the forest. She did not recognize the sounds but they came from a very large creature that enjoyed ripping up trees.
Aria was standing outside Hagrid's cabin with Harry, Ron, and Hermione. All three were shivering from the cold. Ron asked her to sniff around the cabin for any sign of what creature Hagrid planned for their lesson. Harry kept an eye out for Umbridge, dreading her upcoming inspection of Hagrid. If Trelawney's inspection was any indication, Umbridge would not go easy on him, especially with him being a half-giant. Hagrid emerged from the forest, carrying a dead cow over his shoulder. His bruises were now tinged with green and yellow and his cuts looked fresh.
"I thought you've been healing him with your blood." whispered Ron.
"I give him a cup every night. Those cuts are new."
"Then what's attacking him?"
"No idea but I don't think it's a unicorn."
The rest of the class arrived at the cabin, already apprehensive at the sight of the cow. Most of the students did not celebrate Hagrid's return, preferring Grubbly-Plank as a teacher. Hearing that the lesson would be inside the forest only worsened their fears. He wanted the class to see the creatures in their natural habitat. Draco questioned Hagrid's claim that he managed to train the creatures.
"Course they're trained," said Hagrid, scowling.
"So what happened to your face, then?"
"He works with magical creatures. He's got an excuse. What's yours, rat face?" replied Aria, viciously.
Harry and Ron sniggered into their sleeves. Aria followed Hagrid into the forest, walking beside him.
"Where are you getting those bruises? Is it that new creature in the forest?"
"What new creature?" he asked, sounding slightly anxious.
"I hear it every night. It's really loud. No one else does…it's just my enhanced hearing. Have you seen it?"
"No new creatures, Aria. It's jus' some wolves or the centaurs. I wouldn' worry abou' it."
They stopped at a clearing where the trees stood closely together, blocking out the sun and there was no snow on the ground. Hagrid dropped the cow on the ground and turned towards the class, smiling. Most of them were peering around their surroundings, afraid that something would jump through the trees. He explained that the creatures would be attracted by the cow's scent. Aria scrunched her nose at the rotting smell. She listened as Hagrid let out an odd shriek that echoed through the trees. Daphne was clinging to Blaise, hiding behind him. While everyone else looked around with frightened expressions, Aria spotted a pair of white, shining eyes between two trees. A large, skeletal, winged horse emerged from the trees. It stepped towards the dead cow, swishing its long tail, and began to tear at the flesh with its pointed fangs. Harry, Neville, and Theodore were also staring at the horse. The rest of the class glanced around the clearing, confused. Minutes later, a second horse arrived.
"Put yer hands up. Who can see 'em?" asked Hagrid.
Aria raised her hand. He nodded, looking at her and Harry.
"Yea…I knew you two would be able ter see 'em. You too, Neville? An' –"
"Excuse me but what exactly are supposed to be seeing?" asked Draco, rudely.
When Hagrid pointed at the cow on the ground, several people panicked and gasped. The horses were called thestrals. A herd at Hogwarts had been trained to pull the carriages. Aria understood why not every person could see the horses. When she was younger, she read that thestrals could only be seen by people who witnessed death. She thought the thestrals had a haunting beauty. A baby had stumbled out from the trees, rubbing its head against Aria's leg. She pet the top of its head, smiling, and conjured a piece of meat. The thestral ate out of her hand. She rolled her eyes when Parvati told Hagrid that Trelawney believed thestrals to be unlucky and an omen of misfortune. Hagrid merely chuckled, calling it superstition. Hermione was given ten points for Gryffindor after she explained how people could see thestrals.
The lesson was interrupted by the arrival of Umbridge. It did not take long for her to embarrass Hagrid. When he told her about the lesson on thestrals, she acted as if it was difficult to understand him. He flapped his wings like a bird to make the lesson clearer to her.
"Has…to…resort…to…crude…sign..language." she muttered, writing on her clipboard.
"Well...anyway…what was I sayin'?" he asked, flustered.
"Appears…to have…poor…short term…memory."
Hermione's face was turning red with suppressed rage. Aria glared at the Slytherin girls, who were giggling into their hands. Hagrid introduced one of the thestrals as Tenebrus, the first thestral born in the forest. Umbridge brought up how the Ministry classified thestrals as dangerous. He defended the thestrals, saying that they could attack if provoked but it was similar to a dog's response. Umbridge wrote on her clipboard that he showed signs of pleasure at the idea of violence. Hermione was shaking in anger as Umbridge loudly told Hagrid that she would be asking the students questions during the rest of the lesson. Umbridge was acting like he could not understand basic words.
Hagrid struggled with the lesson, overhearing Umbridge's rude questions. She was only speaking to the Slytherins, who told her that he was hard to understand because he grunted most of the time, and did not reprimand them when they interrupted him with insults. Aria contained her anger by playing with the young thestral. She was now speaking to Neville.
"Who did you see die?" she asked, sounding indifferent.
"He doesn't have to answer that," said Aria.
Umbridge looked at her. "You can see them as well, Collins?"
"You shouldn't sound surprised, professor. I did see my mother die…you remember her, right? The woman that idiot Ministry officials like yourself refused to get justice for all those years ago and instead of blaming the actual people at fault, you blamed her. You really have no right to judge how Hagrid speaks either. To be honest, I can barely understand you. I haven't learned frog language yet so all I hear is ribbit, ribbit, ribbit…" she replied.
"I'd watch your tongue, young lady."
"If you insist, professor."
Aria stuck out her tongue and crossed her eyes to look at it. The guys sniggered quietly. Umbridge's eyes narrowed in disapproval. While she continued to ask Neville about the thestrals, a strange scent filled Aria's nose. She growled, glancing around the clearing. Draco kicked the back of her leg.
"Hey, tone down the growling. Umbridge is right there. What's wrong with your eyes? Aria, I don't have a shifter handbook with a little color wheel that tells me what each color means. Why are they a really bright blue?"
Using her enhanced speed, she vanished from the clearing. She shifted into her wolf form and sniffed the ground. Tracking the strange scent, she stopped at a large oak tree. She placed her front paws on the trunk and emitted a series of high-pitched barks. The top branches of the tree rustled. A stunning spell struck her back. She turned around, seeing Draco, Blaise, and Theodore. Draco put his wand in his pocket. Blaise and Theodore had mixed expressions of fear and confusion.
"Have you lost your mind? Umbridge could hear you. Shift back now."
Aria picked up a rock with her mouth and tossed it into the air. Smacking it with her tail, she sent it towards Draco. He ducked before it hit his chest.
"Really? Aria, this isn't funny. If anyone else sees you like this, they'll call the Ministry. Umbridge might just kill you herself. Change back."
"That's—Aria? When did this happen?" asked Blaise.
She knocked into the tree multiple times. The tree tore in half and a man was thrown to the ground. Shifting back, she walked over to the man. He was very muscular and in his late thirties with tousled dark brown hair. As he stood up, holding his side, he towered over all four students. His clothing was tattered and dirty.
"Oy, no need to attack me. That was a bad fall."
He lifted his shirt, revealing a deep gash. The wound healed within a minute.
"You're definitely Aaron's daughter. You pack quite the punch for such a little thing."
"You know my dad?"
"Of course I do. I was two years above him at Hogwarts. I helped him when he was still learning to control his transformations. I helped with his werewolf friend too. I haven't seen him since the night he was taken to Azkaban. Name's Andrew."
"What are you doing here?"
"Looking for Dumbledore. I've been on the run for fifteen years. The night the aurors came for Aaron, they tried to take me too. They had suspicions that he was a shifter…thanks to your aunt. Lucky for him that they know barely anything about how the transformations work. They thought I was one too so I apparated and I've been hiding ever since. I came back after I heard he was released."
"It's been months since then."
"Well, the Ministry spotted me and I had to go into hiding again. If I knew Umbridge was here, I would've gone somewhere else. I need you to sneak us into the castle so I can see Dumbledore."
"Us?" asked Blaise.
"I came with a small group of shifters from Brazil. Death eaters went after them, trying to persuade them to join You Know Who. I helped them escape and Elyse tipped off the Ministry about us. He's hoping that if we're captured, we'll beg for his help. They're down in Hogsmeade. The aurors will be here soon. I suspect that they're speaking to Umbridge about us right now."
Aria offered to sneak him into the castle. From the Marauder's Map, she was aware of a secret passage that led to a corridor near Dumbledore's office. Draco refused to leave her alone with Andrew, not willing to trust someone they just met even if he was supposedly friends with her father. She headed down to Hogsmeade. The foreign shifters were in the Three Broomsticks. Three middle-aged men, bearing the auror emblem on their coats, entered the pub.
"They're already searching. The adults can handle themselves. It's the kids I worry about…some of them aren't even old enough to shift yet," said Andrew, pulling them into the alley.
"What are they going to do when—if they find these other shifters?" asked Theodore.
"The aurors will throw them in Azkaban for a few days, make sure that there is a big article in the Daily Prophet about the capture of such dangerous creatures, and then kill them."
"What about the kids?"
Andrew doubted that the Ministry would show leniency to children. If they were not yet thirteen, the Ministry would either kill them or use a painful charm to restrain the shifting ability. He did not think that Fudge would care about being gentle if it meant he would get glory from the public. Aria heard Madam Rosmerta shouting that the aurors could not search her pub without a warrant.
"This is definitely a two man job. Our best plan would be to—"
Aria reached for her wand and stepped out of the alley. "Oy, what are you doing?" asked Andrew.
"I'm worth like ten men so you little girls can sit here and be lookouts if you want."
"Are you always like this?"
"Pretty much. You've known her for five minutes. Try dealing with it for three years…and more than half that time, you thought she was a guy." said Blaise.
Conjuring a dungbomb, she sneaked over to the Three Broomsticks and threw the dungbomb through the door. The pub was soon filled with foul dark smoke. She used her enhanced sight to find the shifters in an upstairs room and quickly brought them into the alley. Some of the children were as young as eight years old. Andrew told the guys to keep the aurors distracted, telling them that the shifters had apparated out of Hogsmeade. Aria led the shifters through the secret passage in the alley next to Zonko's joke shop. When they reached Dumbledore's office, he greeted Andrew kindly and agreed to keep the shifters safe. He sent a message to Aria's father, telling him that there would be more visitors to his house in Surrey. The large group, including Andrew, left through the fireplace.
"That was a very commendable act, Aria."
"They'll be safe, right? What if those aurors keep looking for them?"
"I will speak to Kingsley. The aurors may be surprised by an anonymous tip that the group was last seen in southern France. I think it best that you return to your common room before Professor Umbridge finds you roaming the halls and proceeds to yell at you in her…unique language," he said, a twinkle in his eyes.
Aria returned to the Slytherin common room. The guys were sitting around the fireplace, talking about quidditch. She sat beside Draco and poked his side.
"Thanks," she mouthed, appreciatively.
December seemed to arrive in no time at all, covering the grounds in even more snow. The teachers were bombarding the fifth years with homework and with her added prefect duties of supervising the decorations around the castle, Aria had little time to herself. The colder weather led to a paranoid Filch, who suspected an outbreak of duels in the corridors since the students were stuck inside the castle. One upside to the weather was an absence of quidditch practices. Harry did not share her enthusiasm since he, Fred, and George had been banned from the team by Umbridge, due to a new educational decree. The decree gave Umbridge the power to have complete control over punishments and alter a punishment given to a student by another teacher. Now missing three players, Angelina had another quidditch tryout and ultimately chose Jack Sloper and Andrew Kirke, two fourth years, as beaters and Ginny as the seeker.
Aria began speaking to Raina and Draco again, trusting Raina's judgment that Draco was not part of some secret plot against her. She had completely mastered Sebastien's spell and as the deadline to accept Voldemort's offer approached, he wrote to her frequently. He warned her that Voldemort was prepared if she declined his offer, thinking that the box would be used as a last resort. Though she was confident in performing the spell, even nonverbally, she worried that it would go awry in a stressful situation.
Aria kept her mind off of the impending last day of term with the D.A. meetings. Everyone was beginning to improve, showing a lot of growth from their first lesson. She was heading to the Room of Requirement with Raina.
"Are you nervous? You have to meet your aunt tonight."
"How is it that I won't be there but I'm more worried than you?"
"It's going to work, Raina. I trust Sebastien. If this is the only way, then I'll do it. He said that I might not have much time to choose where I cast it. He called it a very 'in the moment' kind of spell."
"What if it does go wrong? This could be the last time I see you until you're some brainwashed lackey," replied Raina, biting her lip.
"I promise that as soon as it works, I'll come here and show you that I'm okay."
As they entered the Room of Requirement, they saw that it was covered in decorations, including golden baubles with pictures of Harry's face and the words: HAVE A VERY HARRY CHRISTMAS! Harry was standing on a ladder, removing the baubles. Aria giggled, grabbing one from the floor.
"I definitely want this for my Christmas tree."
"Ha ha. Dobby put them up," replied Harry, blushing.
"Ooh, who's Dobby?" asked Raina.
"His house-elf lover."
Harry threw a bauble at her as the two girls burst into fits of laughter. Once everyone arrived, he told them that they would practice spells that they have learned in the previous meetings. Zacharias did not look pleased. Not wanting to anger Aria, he muttered his disappointment to himself. During the meeting, they practiced the impediment jinx and stunning spells. Aria noticed that Cho kept smiling at Harry. After an hour, they ended the meeting and Harry suggested that they could attempt patronuses when they returned after the holiday break. Aria helped him stack the cushions into a pile. Cho whispered for Marietta to leave for the Ravenclaw common room without her.
"I uh think I can handle the rest of this by myself. Have a good holiday, Aria. Remember to ask your dad if you can stop by the Burrow," said Harry, sneaking a glance at Cho.
"Cho and Harry sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-s-s-i-n-g," she whispered.
"You put too many s's in there, genius"
"Not when you do it for a long time," she teased.
Waving goodbye to Cho, she left and returned to the Slytherin common room. She was surprised that it was completely empty. Standing near the fireplace, she stared at the clock. In twenty minutes, she would need to leave for her aunt's manor. She played with her necklace, watching the seconds tick by slowly. Draco walked down the staircase.
"Hey, here you are. Where did you run off to?"
"I was helping Hermione knit some hats. She wants to leave them over the holidays," she lied.
"Everyone is upstairs packing. Are you um excited to see your father?"
Aria nodded, silently thinking that she might never see her father again. He stood beside her.
"I want to talk. I know we haven't talked about what I said on Halloween. I shouldn't have just blurted it out and I should respect that you're still getting over all the pain that Ben caused you. I want to apologize…but at the same time, I don't. I'm not sorry about what I said that night. I meant every word. It is because of you that Pansy and I broke up. Until I met you, I couldn't really think of a reason to fight against that agreement between our families. I just accepted it because my father always told me that I could find other girls to spend time with if I got sick of her. I couldn't do that with you and I would never want to...if I was going to be with you, it would be you and only you. I wouldn't need someone else to make me happy."
"Just let me finish and then you can tell me how I'm an idiot. I'm not going to lie. I'm far from prefect. I've made a lot of mistakes and I'll probably make a hundred more before next week…but I can't ignore what I feel for you. Honestly, I don't deserve you, Aria. There are a million reasons why I'm wrong for you but it doesn't matter. You're all I can think about. You are the most stubborn girl I've ever met and you challenge me all the time. You constantly drive me mad but I like that. You do make me want to be a better person. When I look at you, you don't know how badly I just want to grab you and kiss you until my lips go numb. I keep telling myself that I am the worst choice for you and it might be selfish but I don't care. I'm selfish and I want you."
"Are you done?"
"Yea. You can go ahead and smack me. I know I'm—"
Aria grabbed him his loosened tie and pulled him forward, pressing her lips against his. At first, the kiss was soft and sweet. His arm squeezed her waist and he lifted her up, his body pressing hers against the wall. Her fingers ran through his hair. She could feel her heart practically beating out of her chest. The kiss intensified as his arm slid down to the back of her thigh and she wrapped it around his own waist. He groaned as her fingers tugged at the back of his hair. His other hand cupped her cheek. As their lips parted, both of them were breathing heavily.
"Stop talking," she replied, pulling him in for another short kiss.
Hearing a group of first years yelling upstairs, they broke apart though they still clung to each other. The fiery look they shared made her stomach twist into knots.
"Does that mean you feel the same way?"
She nodded. "I guess I have for awhile…"
"You couldn't do this on Halloween? Not that I'm complaining, that was…wow."
"Is wow good?"
"Amazing," he said, smiling.
"Well, it might only be a one-time thing."
"What do you mean?"
"I have to meet my aunt in five minutes."
Aria confessed about Voldemort's offer. She explained that when she declined the offer tonight, death eaters or Voldemort himself could be waiting at the manor to snatch her. Draco refused to let her go to the manor.
"No, you're not going there. I'll go with you."
"I have to go alone. He already hurt you once. My aunt told me what he did after what happened on the island."
"I don't care, Aria. He could hit me with fifty cruciatus curses and I still won't let you go."
"He could kill you. Even if your dad is one of his top men, you mean nothing to him. I have to go."
"You'll be back. It's like you always say…you never lose. You're the girl who hid from death eaters for 14 years, fooled even Dumbledore into thinking you were a guy, took on death eaters and Voldemort in a graveyard...you'll be okay. You always have some kind of plan."
"Not all plans are perfect. If I'm right that he's waiting there for me, I won't be the same when you see me again."
"Don't talk like that. You are going to see your aunt, tell her that you won't take the offer, beat a bunch of people up, and come back here. I'll be waiting. Just promise me that you'll be back."
Aria hugged him and used floo powder to get to her aunt's manor. Elyse was waiting by the fireplace.
"Right on time, dear."
"We're alone, right? You said in your message that it was just the two of us here."
"No worries. This is a private matter. Do you want some tea?"
"I want to get this over with, Elyse. My answer is no."
"Aria, I'll give you one more chance. Think very carefully."
"You won't change my mind. My answer is no. I'm going to leave now."
Flicking her wand, Elyse sealed up the fireplace. Ice formed over Aria's feet, sticking her to the floor. She reached for her wand but Elyse quickly disarmed her. Her wand rolled under a leather armchair. Grant, Mr. Malfoy, Snape, and Sebastien entered the living room. As Voldemort walked into the room, Nagini trailing behind him, Sebastien nodded his head very slightly.
"E—Elyse, you said we were alone. What is this?"
"I was hoping you would not be foolish like your father, Aria. You should have accepted the offer. How could we pass up this opportunity? You, all alone…no father or Dumbledore to save you."
Aria pleaded with Snape to help her. He looked at her with indifference though his eyes showed the true sympathy he felt in that moment. If he intervened with the plan, he would reveal that he sided with Dumbledore.
"There is no reason to fret, Aria. The sooner you accept me as your master, the sooner you will be free. I will help unlock your full potential." said Voldemort.
"I—I'm not going anywhere with you. I'll fight you."
He chuckled. "Such bravery. Though you are a very talented witch, you are outnumbered, six to one, and you are wandless. Consider this a temporary prison until you show that you are willing to join our cause"
The five death eaters pointed their wands at her. Voldemort conjured a small black box covered in runic markings. It resembled the model that Raina showed her when she first arrived at Hogwarts. He pricked his finger on the sharp edge. As a drop of blood fell onto the box, it glowed bright green.
The box opened and rusty silver chains emitted from it, wrapping around her waist. She whimpered as the chains tightened and multiplied, soon covering her from her waist down. The chains moved along her upper body, tugging her towards the box. She reached out, desperately clinging to Elyse. Tears streamed down her face.
"Elyse, please let me go. We're family. Help me."
"Get your hands off me, you insolent girl. You brought this on yourself," she replied, harshly.
Elyse's eyes glowed golden. Everything went dark as Aria was pulled into the box…
Draco was sitting in the common room with Graham. He stared between the clock and fireplace, waiting for Aria's return. Part of him wanted to go to Graham's manor with her but deep down, he knew that this offer was a trap. If he dared to face off against Voldemort, he would be dead before he could reach his wand. Graham was waiting for his mother. Instead of taking the train, she wanted to take him home personally through the fireplace. He could not bring himself to tell Graham about what was happening at his manor.
As each minute passed, Draco became more worried. Aria had just admitted her feelings for him and in an instant, they were separated from each other. His fingers dug into the leather couch. He silently begged for her to return safely.
"Draco, why are you down there? The others are upstairs, playing truth or dare."
"I'm waiting for Aria."
"Where is she? Is she still with Potter?"
"I think so," he lied.
The flames in the fireplace turned bright green. His heart sank when Mrs. Montague stepped into the common room, dressed in one of her expensive dresses. Graham had forgotten his transfiguration book in his room.
"I'll be one second, mother. I left it under my bed."
"Wait one moment, dear. We have something important to discuss. Draco can hear this as well. I'm sure he'll hear of it from his father when he returns home tomorrow."
"What is it? Is something wrong?"
Reaching into her purse, she pulled out a small black box covered in strange markings. Draco did not recognize the box. It looked quite menacing. Graham shrugged.
"Am I supposed to know what this is?"
"I wouldn't expect you to, Graham. This is a very special object…very rare. It is currently Aria's home."
Draco's eyes widened. "W—what?"
"The Dark Lord made her an offer, Draco. She had until the end of term to decide if she would join him. If she agreed, he would not harm her friends or her father. Unfortunately for her, she refused the offer. The Dark Lord was prepared for such a foolish decision and trapped her in this box," she replied.
"Have you lost your mind? You have to let her out!" said Graham.
"Hush, Graham. She will remain in there until the Dark Lord decides to free her. He is trusting your father and I with this box. If you so much as pick it up, you will be punished. She will not stay in here forever. He plans to bring her to a secret location to teach her obedience. Once she is willing to join our side, she will be freed from the box. We can speak about it more at home. Go fetch your book and don't get ideas of taking the box from me. Only the Dark Lord himself can open it."
Graham looked torn between yelling at his mother and crying. He had grown close to Aria, never approving of how his parents treated her. Silently, he walked up the staircase to the dormitories. Mrs. Montague placed the box back in her purse.
"She's your niece. How can you do this to her? After all the suffering you've caused her, you're not even sorry."
"It is what the Dark Lord wants and I will always do his bidding."
"He's not going to win. Aria would kill herself before she ever helps him. She'll find a way to escape."
"You think so, dear?"
"I know she will. Aria"
Draco looked at her, confused. "What?"
"She never loses. Even when they think they've got her, she's ten steps ahead. I'm not the one in trouble, Draco. Someone else is…" she replied with a mischievous smile.
Her eyes changed from dark brown to blue-green. Draco assumed it was some shifter trick to express an emotion like joy. Graham returned to the common room and left through the fireplace with his mother while Draco stayed seated on the couch, waiting for Aria to magically appear and reveal that she was not trapped in that small box…
A/N: Thanks for reading. In this chapter, Aria and Draco took a big step in their relationship. They had a heated moment when Aria thought she would not see him again. She did admit her feelings for him and is finally moving past all of the pain that Ben caused her. The next chapter will start with Draco's point of view and will feature a lot of trickery and deception. There will also be a first time meeting between Aria's father and Sebastien, who is like the second father figure in her life. Her father will learn about her past with Sebastien, leading to a violent confrontation.