She knew that this thing, this lost unknown item, was somewhere in the house. What would happen if she didn’t find it? She could feel the heavy pressure closing in on her, strangling her ability to think. Almost as though there were a veil between reality and an alternate future, Nora could turn her bleary eyes toward it and see, with full accuracy, what the consequences would be if she did not find it.
Something that was supposed to happen, would happen.
Should she let destiny continue, and allow nature to take its course? Was she meant to discover this God-forsaken thing that eluded her? And if she did find it, did finally lay her hands on it, would she be sorry she did? She could not shake that overpowering feeling of trepidation, as though a version of Nora far ahead in the future was reaching through this shroud, laying a ghostly hand on her and whispering, “Find it.”
She knew whole-heartedly that she must somehow take fate into her own hands, because someday Nora would wish that she had; and this alternate Nora was so very real, so very close to what could happen, that she felt it as though she had experienced it. She could feel herself thinking, “I need to stop this from happening, I need to stop this from happening…”
The other Nora, the Nora that could be, was in agonizing pain. She could not tell if it was physical torture or emotional torture – all she knew was that there was a dark, pulsating aura all around her, intensely trying to communicate. The murky veil kept the two versions separate – what was and what could be, and the present Nora could not understand what the other wanted. All she knew was that she must find this item.
Her life had the potential to split two ways, and she had a slight chance of forcing it go the way she wanted. If she was unsuccessful, she would suffer the ramifications of fate’s loom, and it would be too late to take it back. The other path was so close to occurring that it was tangible…she felt like she was going back in time and trying to rectify a huge mistake. A colossal, crushing mistake that brought on this excruciating anguish that seared through the other-Nora’s veins; that distorted her into an unrecognizable, shadowy beast.
Imminent terror settled like dust in present-Nora’s chilled bones, and her fingers shook as she upended a copper kettle in the basement kitchen of Grimmauld Place. She plunged her hands into various jars and bowls, knocking everything over in her quest. All the while, she felt the other-Nora’s frantic icy breath, her transparent hand reaching, reaching through the veil…
The dream abruptly shifted, and Nora felt all of her despair floating away…she was young…maybe six years old. And Nora smiled as the warmness and light climbed back into her memory, blossoming in the blackness and filling her with a sea of love. It was like being embraced by the sun’s rays after a month of cold, dark nights trapped in a cave deep under the earth’s surface. She crawled up this tunnel of uncertainty and darkness, and tumbled over the edge into soft, rippling green grass. Blue sky stretched on for days, but Nora only had eyes for the blurry woman standing twenty feet away, her back to the young girl collapsed in the grass. She seemed entirely unaware that a person had just climbed out of an underground tunnel and was avidly watching.
Her hair was long and blonde; she had braided it and then wound it around her head. If Nora hadn’t been about four feet tall and didn’t know better, she might have thought it was herself. But that dress – that was not Nora’s dress. It was her mother’s very favorite, with the peach-colored cotton and tiny coral buttons fastened up her spine. Nora considered calling out, but didn’t want to disrupt her mother, who was busy pinning laundry to a clothesline. Their house on Broadford Street in the town of Adlebourne was very close, but she could barely make out the yellow door with all the blurriness. It seemed very, very far away.
Petula was humming to herself, swaying a bit. Nora noticed how her feet were spread farther apart than seemed natural, and wondered if she was holding a heavy basket of clothes. She could not tell, of course, because her mother would not turn around. Gideon was laughing somewhere in the house – Nora could hear him – and she tried getting up for a moment before she realized she could not move. It was as though she had been magically bound to that patch of grass.
Nora contented herself with just relaxing and soaking up the image of Petula singing under her breath while her peach dress fluttered in the summer breeze, entirely ignorant of her spectator. Nora was drawn between desperately hanging on to her mother’s voice and also trying to concentrate on her father’s laugh, willing to stay in this memory forever and bask in the sounds of her parents.
Slowly, cruelly, Nora felt the sun on her skin cooling into marble, and the green trees faded away one by one. Blades of grass shrank backwards into the soil, the yellow door growing more indistinct until the entire house was sucked completely into nonbeing. Petula was turning, could almost see her, but it was too late – Nora was travelling through years in a black, starless vacuum, and had landed head-first into Number Twelve, Grimmauld Place. There was still laughter, but with a sinking heart she traced it to the exuberant voice of Charlie Weasley.
When Nora eventually sat up, she flipped the pillow over. She didn’t want to see the damp splotches where her tears had soaked through, didn’t want to remember the dream that had been so real…
Luckily, Tonks was a lifesaver with distractions, and after finding her friend moping around upstairs, dragged her into the sitting room. Nora blinked her eyes, startled by the heaps of flowing, sparkling fabric that lay strewn all over the floor. “Your dress!” Tonks cried happily. “For the New Years Ball in two days.”
“I didn’t order any of this,” Nora said, not acknowledging the voracious expressions of Molly, Hermione, and Ginny, who were just as eager as Tonks.
“Snape sent it,” Ginny told her.
“Professor Snape, dear,” Molly corrected her. “And there was a card.” She lifted up a fluffy roll of tulle and combed through everything with impatient fingers. “It’s around here somewhere…he said that he wanted you to have your pick of what to wear, and didn’t think shopping would be too safe for you in the current climate. So he had all of these samples sent here, and you can pick from it and ship it to Twilfit and Tattings, and they’ll make it for you.”
Nora didn’t know what to say; she felt stunned. Sirius was lurking in the doorway, his eyes regarding the scene with a grouchy displeasure. She knew he hated Severus, and probably wouldn’t be too chuffed that any of his friends would agree to be Snape’s date for a ball, much less one that lived under his own roof.
“We’ve been looking at colors,” Molly told her. “And we’re wondering what you had in mind…”
Nora bit her lip. “To be honest, Molly, I really don’t care. I’d been planning on borrowing just any old thing from someone else…I feel like this is a waste of his money.”
Tonks waved her hand. “He volunteered. Now, what colors do you want?”
Nora shrugged. “I don’t care. But you all seem a bit more excited about it than me, so how about you decide and I’ll just go along with whatever you choose?”
Ginny squealed and bent over a catalogue teeming with the newest fashions, and Hermione examined a length of lace with a critical eye. Sirius downed his butterbeer and stalked away through the dark corridor. “Her favorite color is purple,” Tonks piped up, running her hands over some lavender material.
Molly clucked her tongue. “Yes, but imagine how she would look in gold!”
“Oooh,” Ginny remarked. “Gold would be excellent on Nora. She’s got gold in her hair, gold in her eyes…so it’s decided, then?”
Tonks and Hermione agreed that a pale, shimmering gold would best enhance Nora for the New Year’s Ball, and got down to business with how best to design it. Ginny turned out to be surprisingly invested in the whole affair and frequently butted heads with her mother, who was obsessed with the idea of long sleeves. The two of them shut out Hermione, who sulked over to a chair after being told her suggestion of ribbons was absurd, and it was only due to the fact that Nora valued Tonks’s opinion the most that her best friend wasn’t cast aside as well.
“I have a vision of three tiers,” Molly muttered, moistening a finger with her lips and flipping through catalogue pages. “And maybe some fancy beadwork on the hem…”
“Not a chance with those sleeves,” Ginny hissed, scrapping a cut-out of a witch wearing flowy sleeves that draped to her knees. “She’s going strapless.”
Tonks caught Nora’s eye and they exchanged amused smiles, and Nora swallowed all of the bickering because she knew, in the end, that she would allow Tonks the final say. Tonks, after all, was her age and knew her the best, and she would take Nora’s comfort into account. When Nora decided that her own presence was no longer required, having been extensively measured and poked at already, she padded down the corridor.
“How’s it going?”
Nora tilted her face back to see Sirius overhead, leaning against the banister and looking dour.
“My aunt is determined to make me conspicuous,” Nora complained playfully.
Sirius laughed, shaking his head. “You’re always conspicuous, Nora. There’s not much you can do about that.”
She sighed, frowning solemnly now. “I don’t know what I was thinking, agreeing to go to this. I’ve got the social brilliance of a troll, and Severus doesn’t seem the dancing type. I’m going to spend the whole night standing alone at the punch bowl, aren’t I?”
Sirius traipsed down the stairs and stood next to her, his face softening. In truth, he’d been hoping from some reluctance on her end, some sign that she wasn’t overjoyed about going to a ball with Snape. Now that she’d expressed doubts, he was appeased enough to be generous. “Of course he’ll want to dance,” he told her, smiling a little to indicate she was over-thinking it. “A bloke doesn’t ask a woman to be his date to this sort of thing if he doesn’t want to dance with her.”
Nora returned his smile, but was still unconvinced. “I’d rather I was among friends,” she admitted. “Severus is nice, but besides him I’m not going to know anyone there.”
“There are two errors in your logic,” Sirius answered pleasantly. “One – Snape is not nice. He’s a hostile, sneaky little slimeball. Two – you’re going to know plenty of people there. Harry, Hermione, Ron, Ginny, Fred, George…as well as other professors. Hagrid and McGonagall you know, as well as Dumbledore; and I’m sure you remember Flitwick?”
“That’s true.” Nora beamed at him, relief pacifying all of her stress.
Molly and Ginny came striding out of the sitting room, the latter cradling a long cardboard box in her arms. Molly’s eyes flashed over Sirius and Nora disapprovingly, and Nora could almost hear the cogs in her brain spinning, trying to think up some reason to pull one of them away. And sure enough, she gave them both a smile that did not reach her eyes and said, “Nora, dear, could you come with me and look over the final design we picked out? We’re sending it off to be made, and I want to make sure you like it.”
Nora humored her aunt by doing as she wished, and Sirius revolved around, heading back up to his bedroom and looking very much forward to Molly’s departure on the thirteenth of January.
“You look stunning,” Ginny gushed.
“Thanks.” Nora mumbled. She’d never gotten the knack of taking compliments, usually because they were rare to come by as she was growing up. She didn’t think herself to be conventionally pretty, and was teased in school for having such fair eyelashes and eyebrows. They made her eyes pop out more – made them look bigger and darker like owl’s eyes. She used to wish she was a Metamorphmagus like Tonks so that she could change this – she was only teased more for applying a darkening mascara – but had learned to just accept it over time. Add to this the fact that Nora’s hair often became so snarled that it looked like she’d been electrocuted, and she was left with the opinion that it was a good thing she wasn’t stupid, or she wouldn’t have much going for her.
Complimenting others had always been second nature, however. Nora grinned at her cousin, who was swathed in a gauzy green dress that made her red hair extraordinarily vibrant in contrast. “You are absolutely gorgeous, Ginny. And you look like you could be sixteen with that makeup on.”
“Wish I didn’t have to go to this stupid thing,” Ron grumbled from behind them, straightening the collar of his dress robes and trying fruitlessly to shrink his buttons, which the twins had bewitched to be as large as doorknobs. “We just got out of there!”
“It’s only for one night, and then you can come back,” Hermione hushed him, trying not to smile at the state of his buttons while repairing them with her wand. “You’ll have the rest of the holidays after tonight until it’s time to face Umbridge again.” Hermione was dolled up in a form-fitting red number, looking surprisingly mature. Ron especially kept stealing sideways peeks at her.
Severus was due to arrive in less than five minutes, and Nora had finally been declared suitable enough to accompany a Hogwarts professor to the New Year’s Ball. She was draped in a simple pale gold dress that floated down her skin like silk, and whenever she moved it shimmered as though tiny yellow diamonds were embedded in the material. Her hair was mostly left down, as it was such a thick tumbling of waves that no one was certain how to tame it, but a few strands had been braided and pinned back. Around her throat, of course, was the moonstone and diamond necklace from Sirius. She absentmindedly fingered the spiderweb of jewels, eyeing her best friend’s reflection in the oval, floor-length mirror.
“Just relax,” Tonks whispered in Nora’s ear, smiling at the predicament and extremely glad she didn’t share it. “It’ll all be over in a few hours, and then you’ll be right back here again. Safe in your little hole where you don't have to be social anymore.”
Sirius was notably absent when Severus arrived, and Nora could hear him stomping around in his mother’s bedroom with Buckbeak. She wished, not for the first time, that it was Sirius she’d be dancing with tonight and not the morose Potions master.
Severus did not say much when he first appraised her, but several red patches cropped up on his neck and face. It was with tremendous edginess on all sides that they apparated – Harry, Hermione, and Ron going side-along with Fred and George, and Ginny holding on to Nora. They appeared just outside the gates of Hogwarts along with dozens of other apparating parents leading their children, all of them shaking in the cold.
“How do the Muggle-borns get here?” Hermione asked worriedly, her big brown eyes darting around the frosty black night.
“Students who can’t arrive by side-along apparition will have used the Hogwarts Express,” Nora informed her, as Severus clearly had no intentions of associating with the Weasleys, Harry, or Hermione, and was trying quite ardently to pretend they were not there. “Which means that they would have left early this morning and already been here for a few hours.”
The rest of the journey was a silent one, and once they were inside the warm confines of Hogwarts, Severus was keen to be rid of the others. Ginny did not quite get this message, and after trailing Nora and Severus in zig-zagging patterns through the Great Hall (which was positively astounding with thirteen gold-plated olive trees and a flurry of snow drifting down from the enchanted ceiling), Severus abruptly swiveled around and hissed at her to go away. This must have been a much milder reaction compared to how he would have behaved if Nora were not present, but Ginny’s face flushed all the same and she looked frightened as she ran off.
“Ginny’s my cousin,” Nora reminded him tersely. “And as I’ve not been around for the past few years, we like to spend as much time together as we can when we get the chance.”
“She’s had all holiday,” Severus replied bluntly. “Let’s go claim a table.”
One of the perks of being on the arm of Severus Snape was that he seemed to intimidate everyone within a twenty-foot radius, and a small string of first-years cleared out from their table when they saw him approaching. Severus seemed ignorant of this, or at least he did not acknowledge it, and hastily pulled out a chair for Nora to drop into. Dumbledore began a speech about the New Year’s Ball, and Nora allowed her mind to wander, and subsequently her gaze. And she was very sorry that she did.
Cargan Dearborn was leaning casually in a chair directly across the Great Hall from her, sitting next to Hagrid and running a hand through his flaxen hair. When he caught her eye, he winked.
Cargan seemed to be a brazen person, a man without reservations. He kept his eyes on her throughout Dumbledore’s speech, and the very second it ended, came over to them, plopping down at a table adjacent to theirs. And this, Nora observed, did not go unnoticed by Severus. “Good evening, my lady,” Cargan declared. “I saw you from afar and could not breathe, for how enamored I was of your great beauty.”
Nora bit her cheek to keep from laughing. “Thank you, Cargan,” she managed.
“My aunt.” Cargan was cheerful. “Sybill Trelawney. Turns out she’s a bit short on suitors…so I’m here as her escort.”
“Wonderful,” Nora said under her breath. She folded her hands in her lap, wholly prepared to be swept away in her own amusement with such a fine example of an idiot to provide entertainment. Cargan, of course, did not disappoint.
“Tell me, love,” he said boldly, scooting his chair ever-closer to Nora’s. “Have you got a passel of admirers or do I have a shot at being the luckiest man in the world tonight? Because if I don’t have you, Nora, then luck has thwarted me for eternity.” Nora smiled. She knew that Cargan didn’t like her, of course. He thought he did, but she suspected it was the novelty of her sudden re-emergence since her Hogwarts days more than anything else, and he was greatly deluded. There is something to be said for a lack of young witches in an immediate area; it will convince even the most brutally handsome young man that the new girl in town is someone worth running after. She imagined a flock of pigeons converging on a single bread crumb in a park. Nora was the new bread crumb. The pigeons would peck and peck until they realized she was poisoned, and then soon enough would turn around and leave her alone again.
“Sounds like a personal problem,” Nora replied. “Try some Felix Felicis for that and see how it goes.”
“Potions!” Cargan cried dramatically. “Potions are for weak and foolish souls who have not been blessed with such dangerously good looks as I have. Nora, my pet, I vow I will have you. And I will do this without the assistance of horrid chemicals.”
“Potions are enormously beneficial to society,” Nora insisted for Snape’s benefit. “And it takes a very clever wizard to make them.”
Cargan prattled on, ignoring her. “Any old prat could make potions. All’s you’ve got to do is take directions from a book! Not hard to combine a few drops of this and a few drops of that and come out with something potentially useful. I’ve always thought that people who dedicated their entire careers to the establishment of potion-making are defected nitwits. Probably not talented enough to do anything worthwhile, you know. They haven’t any brains and half of them couldn’t make a potion to substitute a bar of soap!” He laughed and slapped his knee. If Nora didn’t know any better, she might have suspected that Cargan was deliberately goading Severus.
“I think we’ll have to disagree there,” Nora responded, glancing at her date to the ball. His jaw was clenched and his eyes fixed on a spot far off in the distance. He was attempting to ignore their intruder, wishing to prevent himself from saying something that might offend Nora, like when he told Ginny to get lost. “Shouldn’t you go see to your aunt?”
“She’s probably nursing a nice bottle of sherry in a broom cupboard somewhere,” Cargan replied with a smirk. “Maybe Snape here should check on her instead; lend the two of us some privacy.”
“I don’t really want privacy with you, thanks,” Nora said wryly.
“Nonsense,” he persisted. “I can see it right there in your eyes, plain as day. You want a little bit of Cargan Dearborn.” He wriggled his eyebrows. “But doesn’t everyone? The girls tell me I’m a great kisser. My experience has really shot up the ranks in the past few years, and my abilities are really something now, not to brag. But you know what they say about the passing of time and fine wine.”
“You’re not anything like fine wine, not from this angle.”
“How would you know?” Cargan winked. “You’ve never tasted me.”
Nora could not suppress a laugh at this point. “Are you drunk?”
“Drunk with passion, my temptress of the night. I tell you, I could show you things about this castle that would blow your mind. Fancy exploring it with me?”
“Unless you are blind, you can see that Nora is here with me,” Severus said darkly. “She doesn’t want you.”
Something like anger flashed behind Cargan’s eyes, but he quickly composed himself. “Nora, my heart, has anyone ever told you that your eyes are like liquid love? And your dress…you are simply exquisite! Oh, how I would be delighted to take you home with me right now. You would adore my home, Nora. I know this for a fact.”
“It’s too bad I’ll never see it, then.”
Cargan chuckled. “My aunt’s a Seer, and I inherited her Inner Eye. My prediction states that you’ll wake up in my house tomorrow morning.”
“Would you like to make a wager on that?” Nora mused.
“Loser has to eat a jumbo-sized Cockroach Cluster.”
Cargan flashed an impish grin. “Hope you like the taste of cockroaches, then. Especially if you have any plans on snogging this one tonight.” He jerked his head at Severus. “I’d pour a bit of insecticide in my mouth if I were you.”
“Cargan!” Nora exclaimed. “Stop being so rude. You don’t see Severus here making nasty comments about you.”
“Not because I don’t want to,” Severus added quietly in his intimidating, slow-murmuring voice. He was gripping his chair with such force that his knuckles were white. “There’s really no need to try to make him look like an idiot, as he’s doing such a good job on his own.”
“I was number one in my Gobstones league, did I ever tell you that?” Cargan went on. “I admit, there’s nothing I can’t do. I’m pretty much better than anyone in my life who I have ever met. In fact, I can say with blunt honesty, that I am a flawless sex machine.”
Nora exploded into laughter. This had far exceeded her expectations of entertainment. Did she dare hope he would further incriminate himself?
As though he’d read her mind, Cargan stood up on his chair and shouted, “I am the embodiment of perfection! I would marry myself if I could. I am head over heels in love with my own reflection and not even a goddess could match my divine expertise in the sheets.” He then sat down and, beaming hugely, held out his hands palms-up to address the Great Hall. “Thank you, inferiors, for your momentary attention. You may go back to staring at me from across the room and building fantasies about what I might look like naked.”
Nora was giggling uncontrollably and Severus had the expression of one who’d just been punched in the stomach. Several Hogwarts professors were standing around in a dumbstruck manner, not knowing exactly how they should react. Cargan twirled a strand of Nora’s hair around his finger. “Feels superb to get that off my chest; it’s been hounding me for centuries. All of this magnificence is too much to bear sometimes. Good thing you’re not nearly close to my level, Snape, or I might be worried you were a rival for my true love’s heart. You’re lucky you don’t have the burden of being so extraordinarily good-looking. The pressure can get intense.”
“If you will excuse me,” Severus replied, mustering all of his strength to keep a sturdy countenance. “I’m going to go get a drink. Would you like something, Nora?”
“A gillywater, please,” she told him between laughs.
“I’ll take a butterbeer,” Cargan chimed, and Severus tossed him a scathing look.
“Isn’t he just a right old prude?” Cargan mused after Severus was gone, looking quite pleased with himself. “It’s not my fault I haven’t got a problem discussing my impossibly gorgeous physique. Yours, of course, is fantastic...but I fear that I will never stop being obsessed with myself. Perhaps it is due to my very small brain?” He cocked his head. “And just between us, darling, my brain’s not the only part of my anatomy that’s small.”
Nora choked. “Oh, Merlin, what an enchanting drunkard you make. You might want to stop while you’re ahead – you’ll be mortified in the morning.”
He looked beyond them to the refreshment table where Severus was talking to Dumbledore, and then focused on Nora, instantly sober. “Dance with me.”
“Not on your life.”
His lips curved into a sinful smirk. “Dance one reel with me or I’m going to stand on this table and profess my undying love for you. Care to call my bluff?”
Nora promptly grabbed his hand and dragged him out onto the floor with the other dancing couples. Cargan’s face was lit up with a dazzling smile, very much happy with this turn of events, and slipped one hand firmly around her waist. The other hand was met with Nora’s, and she was astonished to find that he was an excellent dancer. Cargan Dearborn, after all, was infamous for being clumsy on the Quidditch pitch; but she certainly wasn’t sorry that her partner wasn’t an oaf in all areas of life.
He must have been one of those people who were abnormally more coordinated after consuming alcohol rather than less, because he whirled with such grandeur and finesse that she felt herself really enjoying it. He gazed into her eyes with those fathomless deep green irises…hypnotizing somehow…and he was so close that she could taste his breath. It was powerfully minty.
Nora leaned in close to him, her lips at his ear. “Bit of a waste of Polyjuice Potion, don’t you think?” she whispered.
Cargan froze for a second, and then relaxed again, resuming dancing. He did, however, not hold her quite as shamelessly tight as before. She felt his cheek expanding in a broad grin. “How did you find me out?” he murmured. “I thought I was doing a remarkably good job at playing this dolt.”
“You forgot to stop snacking on peppermint Licorice Wands,” she reminded him, satisfied that she had finally placed that familiar light in his eyes, a witty intelligence that Cargan could never possess. “I’ve never met anyone in my life who likes them as much as you do, and your breath is reminiscent of swallowing a tube of toothpaste.”
“Ah, well, I can’t help it,” he said breezily. “They’re delicious. And it’s better than Cockroach Cluster breath, which you’re going to have tomorrow since you’ve lost the bet.”
“Oh, I don’t think so,” Nora countered. “You cheated. You failed to mention that you were impersonating someone else, and that in reality I live in your house, so of course I would wake up there.”
“This was definitely worth depleting the Polyjuice Potion,” he raved jovially, eyes large and sparkling. “Most fun I’ve had in ages, making an ass out of myself using Cargan Dearborn’s likeness. All the more merriment for me – all the more shame to put on him! Do you think it was too over-the-top? Maybe the bit about being a sex machine was too much...”
“You’re incorrigible. And just how did you manage to get a bit of Cargan to use for the potion?”
“The man’s obsessed with his hair,” he supplied after a few seconds of self-satisfied grinning. “Brought a comb with him when he stopped by a couple of days ago and I nicked it. Had ample strands, too – he’s probably going to go bald prematurely.”
Nora shook her head, fighting back a laugh. “Karma, Sirius. I wouldn’t start knocking on wood if I were you.”
“I don’t need karma,” he replied smugly. “My hair is still thick and luscious, thank you very much.” He looked all around them, smiling. “I should really invest in this stuff and masquerade all the time. Who do you think I should be next? Snivellus, perhaps? I’d have to dump loads of oil in my hair, though…don’t know if it’d ever come out.”
“Speaking of poor Severus, I wonder when he’s going to catch on that you aren’t who you say you are…”
“Probably when he gets wind that Trelawney doesn’t have any nephews.” He shrugged. “Don’t really care, myself. It’s incredible being out of that place, even if it is just for a little while. Still got the shackles on, of course – they’re just invisible. But at the moment, I don't see why this is a problem at all, as no one knows who I actually am.”
“Only due to my extensively fresh breath. Otherwise you would still be in the dark.”
“Yes, and you would still be calling me ‘darling’ and ‘my pet’.”
“I say the script that fits the role,” he replied evasively, and she thought she detected some pinkness in his complexion. His grip around her waist slackened so much that he was barely touching her, as if he was making a conscious effort to undo all of the brash things he’d done while posing as Cargan. Their revolving had slowed to a snail's pace.
“What’s the matter, Sirius?” she teased. “Suddenly forgotten how to move?”
He cocked an eyebrow and twirled her, their hands clasped high overhead. It was the most bizarre situation in the world – Sirius speaking through Cargan’s lips. She tried to pin her focus on the couples around them rather than on her own dancing partner, because it felt so strange. “You thought that it was Cargan asking you to dance, not me,” he explained. “I’m trying to gauge how much you resent the switch.”
Nora smirked. “He didn’t ask, he blackmailed. And I find you much better company, so you can stop being so standoffish. People are going to think I’ve got a disease you don’t want to catch.” She drew a pause, scrutinizing his eyes. The eyes were the only part of him that held any traces of Sirius, because of the clever gleam. “Would you have told me?” she inquired. “If I hadn’t figured it out, would you have confessed later on, that it had been you?”
He considered that, tightening his arm around her waist once more. “Probably not. I would ask if you had a nice time with Snape and see if you lied about it.”
“We’ll never know if I could have had a nice time with Snape, as you so audaciously bombarded him with insults and made sure we didn’t get a second of peace.”
“You would have been bored,” he whispered in her ear. “And you know it.”
He had her on that one. And she did wish before that she could be dancing with Sirius tonight, after all…she just wished Sirius’s body could accompany his personality. Cargan was aesthetically pleasing to look at, but he just wasn’t who she wanted.
“You look lovely,” Sirius said suddenly, his voice soft.
“You already told me that.”
He shook his head. “No, Cargan spouted a bunch of compliments that you wouldn’t really take to heart, as his opinions seem to have an agenda behind them. But mine do not, and I think you deserve to hear from someone with a brain that you are beautiful, as always.”
Now it was Nora’s turn to blush, and she looked away so that he wouldn’t catch it. “Thanks. I’d return the compliment, but I’m not the biggest fan of green-eyed blonds.” Cargan-Sirius tried not to look too happy about that information, and she felt him go slightly rigid, his eyes following the form of Snape, who was gliding towards them and looking severe.
“Here,” Severus spat, thrusting the gillywater into Cargan-Sirius’s hands. “Make yourself useful and find something to do elsewhere. Nora and I will be together for the duration of the ball and your presence is unwanted.” The atmosphere between Severus and Sirius crackled with furious energy. Nora could practically see sparks.
“And what makes you so damn sure she doesn’t want my presence?” Cargan-Sirius demanded, inclining his head toward Nora.
Severus smiled. “Because she’s here with me.”
The clock chimed midnight, signifying the New Year. Right on cue, the Hogwarts choir and orchestra began playing loudly, chorusing in Nora’s eardrums and somehow making the stagnant air between Snape and Sirius more pronounced, like a gaping black hole. Severus interlaced his long-fingered hands through Nora’s and spun her, a bit awkwardly, away from the scene.
Sirius threw the drink that Snape had shoved at him onto the floor with violent force, crystal shattering all around in miniscule shards. Nora only received one more glimpse of his eyes, black and murderous, before he slipped through the crowd and disappeared.
Molly Weasley was awake, propped up in a high-backed chair in the sitting room when the Hogwarts students and Nora came sauntering inside Number Twelve at four-thirty in the morning. George was supporting a sleeping Ginny in his arms and Hermione and Ron moved sluggishly like zombies. Nora had unfastened her high heels and Fred, inexplicably enough, was carrying them. Harry was the sole member of their party to appear like he was in an upbeat mood, and Molly caught snippets of the twins teasing him about someone called ‘Cho’.
“Wake up, Ginny,” George replied, shaking his sister a bit. With eyes still half-closed, Ginny tumbled into a standing position and wobbled a few feet, but when faced with the prospect of climbing stairs simply gave up and curled onto the floor in the entrance corridor.
“How was it?” Molly asked, her hands gripping a steaming mug of hot chocolate. She eyed Nora beadily. “Did you dance with Severus?”
Nora collapsed into a chair in front of the fire, relishing the soft, heat-absorbed material against her aching muscles. She leaned back, closing her eyes. “I could go to sleep here.”
“Nora,” Molly persisted. “Did you two dance?”
Nora opened one wary eye. “Did you stay up all night just so that you could attack me with a round of twenty questions?” Molly looked rather huffy at this, and before she could say anything, Nora held up a hand. “Yes, we danced a little. He wasn’t very talkative, but it could’ve been worse.” She paused. Severus had been discomfited, taciturn – but undeniably warmer to Nora than she’d ever seen him acting toward anyone else. They’d spent most of the time sitting at a table with Flitwick, and Snape ticked away the hours muttering complaints about various students as they passed into view; but Nora found a great conversationalist in Flitwick. Snape even joined in every now and then, usually when he felt Flitwick was incorrect about something he said. “It wasn’t too bad, really. He was a gentleman.”
“Snape a gentleman?” Ron snorted. “Not the impression I was getting.”
“Yeah, remember how cheesed off he was at that Dearborn bloke?” Fred chortled.
Nora groaned, but Molly pounced on it, her eyes shrewd and narrowed. “Cargan? What was Cargan doing there?” She looked to Nora quizzically, and Nora was reminded of a cat watching a bird fluttering around in its cage, its eyes manic and unblinking. She was always comparing life’s issues to metaphors with birds, probably a result of moonlighting as one herself whenever it suited her. “What happened?”
“George snogged Angelina Johnson underneath one of the tables,” Nora blurted, grasping at something random. George grinned mischievously, not the least bit embarrassed.
Molly wasn’t to be distracted. “Cargan was there?”
“I did see him,” was all Nora would say.
“Who didn’t see him?” Fred snickered. “Stood up on his chair and shouted to the world that he was in love with himself; the git fancies we all want to see him naked.”
“Oh, hush!” Molly barked. “Stop talking rubbish about such a wonderful boy.”
“Are you just saying that because you want to see him naked as well, Mum?” George asked with a devilish grin, but thankfully his mother did not hear – or she chose to ignore him.
“Did you dance with Cargan as well, Nora?”
“Sort of,” Nora reluctantly told her.
Molly’s eyes lit up like fireworks. “And was he a good dancer?” she hedged.
Nora sighed. “You could say that…I suppose.” Sensing no end to her aunt’s flurry of nosy inquiries, Nora stretched to her feet and announced she was off to bed. Molly frowned in disappointment, and then began shooing the children upstairs as well.
When Nora rounded the stairs to the third landing, Sirius’s bedroom door was closed. She sighed again and retreated into the cool, empty encasement of her room. Her eyes swiftly reaped a foreign object sitting in the middle of her bed, and she went over to examine it.
A Cockroach Cluster.
Nora smiled and moved it to her nightstand, and then crawled under the covers. She knew, somehow, that neither she nor Sirius would soon mention the New Year’s Ball again; that it would blend into the insignificant past. Nora supposed this was because Sirius did not want anyone to know he’d been out and about, even when disguised. But truthfully, Sirius thought this would be the most effective strategy of making light of Nora’s evening with Snape. If it was not discussed, then surely it would not become something meaningful to her. Sirius, after all, was nothing if not calculating. He was not a perfect gentleman. And he was not going to make things easy for a man he so fervently reviled.
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