Malea found that the next few days flew by in a blur. Lessons, meals, conversations - every action, every word and every reaction all merged together, forming a haze in her mind. She found that in lessons, instead of listening to her professors prattling on about something-or-another-which-she-would-undoubtedly-find-difficult-anyway, her mind was turning back to the conversation she’d heard a few nights before. At mealtimes, she’d scan the faces of the girls around her, wondering: is she the one? Is she the one I heard the other night? Is it her? Conversations had been stilted, even more one-sided than normal, as she listened intently to the voices around her, trying to match the voice to a face. It was almost all she thought about, all she cared about, the one thing preying on her mind, keeping her up past midnight, lying stiff in her bed, her breathing quick as she wondered, will they be back tonight?
They didn’t come back the night after, nor the night after that, or the one after that. She stayed up late, crouching by her door, ear pressed to the carpet, eyes searching greedily for something to happen. What it would be, she didn’t know - they hadn’t given any clue, after all - but something, she felt, should happen sooner or later.
Nothing happened, though, for an entire week. It was a lonely week, full of silence and pauses and half-hearted stabs at conversation. Malea discovered that, half-way through the week, even her sister and brother stopped attempting to talk to her and, if they did, they’d quickly remember and walk away, shaking their heads and returning to their friends. Nevertheless, she persisted until the end of the week.
She didn’t know why she lasted a week. Perhaps it was the power behind ‘seven’, the nice rounding sound of ‘a week’ or the fact that it was easy to remember, but she kept it going. Seven nights after the incident, as she had taken to referring to it, she kept vigil by her door, waiting patiently.
The seventh night, a week after the incident, Malea sat by her door at half past ten, having retired to bed early - not that anyone, she thought bitterly, had really noticed. Patiently, excited, she stayed there, listening to the sounds of girls walking backwards and forwards, rushing from one direction to another, chatting and giggling and yawning on their way to their rooms. Numerous pairs of shoes passed by the crack under her door - kitten-heels, flats, sensible shoes, laces - but none of them seemed quite like the ones she’d seen last week. The noise of so many pairs of feet tramping up and down drowned everything out, so there was no way she would hear the light, delicate steps of the mystery girl.
Eventually, the corridor quietened, the footsteps lessened and doors began shutting, their locks turning. Now, Malea’s heart beat quickly, excited and nervous - this could be it. Last week, everyone had been in bed. This week, everyone was in bed - any minute now they should appear.
She stayed there, in her crouched position, afraid to move for fear of discovery should they turn up, for what felt like hours. Her patience wore out and she fidgeted, biting the inside of her mouth nervously, for lack of something to do. Finally, when it became clear that no one was coming, that nothing was happening, she retreated to bed, her pride wounded and exhausted.
It was perhaps a surprise, therefore, that she awoke the next day with a sense of completion. She had waited an entire week, had spent a week trying to work it out, dedicating all her time and efforts to that mystery, and so, in her mind, it was over. There was no more need for her to think about it, to obsess over it and to waste her time on it. Now she could focus all her efforts on a far bigger and harder task, although the prize was, comparatively, greater.
To make sure she started off properly - because her mother always told her that if you start something badly the rest of it will never go well - she was up by half past seven, dressed and ready by ten to eight and eating breakfast by eight o’clock.
The hall was much emptier at this time, she mused as she glanced about herself, taking a seat at the Slytherin table quietly. A few people were leaving, mostly in twos or threes, and some were coming in, but it was quiet, with most of them focused on their breakfasts and, she noted, reading things.
Spotting Andromeda Black a metre or so down the table, with no one in between them, Malea gathered her resolve and shifted down the bench to join her, taking her bowl of porridge with her.
“Malea,” Andromeda glanced up, looking surprised to see her, her spoon hovering in mid-air, a mouthful of cereal wobbling dangerously on it. “You’re up early.”
“I,” she began hesitantly, quietly, not sure what to say now. She didn’t want to explain her entire plan to Andromeda - as much as she liked the other girl, they didn’t know each other very well and, considering that Andromeda’s best friend was Rabastan Lestrange, the danger that her plan might get back to Rodolphus was far too big. “I woke up early today and decided that I might as well try and be on time. There’s always time to change things, after all.”
Andromeda nodded thoughtfully, “There is, it’s true. How have you found the start of term? There’s a lot of work, isn’t there?”
With a weak smile, Malea nodded. She was incredibly glad, however, that Andromeda had continued the conversation - she wouldn’t have known what to say, or to mention.
“There’s so much work,” she agreed instantly. “I don’t know how I’m going to get it all done, or manage to get through this year. Not to mention the professors are always going on about how it all gets harder as the year goes on.” She stopped rather abruptly, realising that she was rambling.
“It is rather disheartening,” the other girl agreed, taking a sip of her pumpkin juice. “Although I suppose some people need it; after all, some of our classmates will have to get jobs at some point in the future.” The implication, hung so lightly in the air, was obvious: but we won’t. We, purebloods, don’t have to work, we have enough money to render such an idea useless, such things are for others, for the half-bloods and mudbloods that litter our perfect world.
“How have you been finding things so far?” Malea asked after a slight pause.
“They’ve been fine, I suppose. Not quite as easy as I thought they would be - but then, I should never have listened to Bella when she spoke about them,” Andromeda replied, rolling her eyes lightly.
Malea nodded, unsure of what to say in response. She couldn’t very well insult Bellatrix Black, after all, but then disagreeing with Andromeda would also be foolish - she had no idea what the sisters had said to one another regarding OWLs and the workload of fifth year students.
“Talking about me, Andy?” a voice reached them, strong but dulled, and the reason was made clear when Bellatrix Black claimed the seat opposite her sister, covering her mouth with one hand as she yawned.
Her goal in mind, Malea took in the older girl’s appearance, noting how her robes were of higher quality than normal, how her jumper hugged her torso, how her tie was knotted loosely at her throat. The Head Girl badge on her robes gleamed, the light bouncing off it, making it shimmer.
Achieving the same state of sloppy elegance with her clothes shouldn’t be too hard, she thought. No, the hard part would be when she got to using make-up and hair potions to get the same bounce in her hair, the same sleek shine, the same black-lined eyes, the same soft, pink lips. Enviously, she wondered if it would be alright for her to ask Bellatrix how she looked the way she did - then again, she’d probably just smirk and say that it was all natural, despite the fact that they both knew it wasn’t.
“- Flint, isn’t it?”
Hearing Bellatrix address her, Malea blinked and focused on the two sisters, who were both looking at her.
“Yes,” she nodded once. “Malea Flint. Malcolm’s my brother.”
“I know,” Bellatrix replied easily, stirring a cup of coffee with a quick spell. Simple magic, but Malea found herself mildly impressed - most people wouldn’t bother or even think about using a spell for something that easy. “He’s mentioned you a couple of times.”
“Has he?” she asked, inwardly alarmed. What had her brother said about her to his friends and year mates? Nothing bad, she hoped, but then didn’t all siblings share that hope whenever anyone said that dreaded phrase to them? Regardless, that throw-away comment made her stomach constrict awkwardly, her mouth going dry. “What did he say?”
“Not much, just that you were his younger sister, in the same year as Andromeda and that you had a crush on one of his friends,” Bellatrix shrugged, taking a sip of her coffee, gazing across at Malea. Her gaze was mostly curious, with a touch of boredom - only to be expected, Malea thought - and with a hint of something else. Malea couldn’t place it (protectiveness, perhaps? Defensiveness?) but it struck her as odd.
“Oh,” she replied, realising that Bellatrix wasn’t going to say any more. “Well, none of that’s too bad, I suppose.”
“Positively lovely, I think,” Bellatrix drawled, finishing her first cup of coffee and reaching to fill her mug for a second time. “I would never be that nice.”
“Thank you, Bella,” Andromeda sang sweetly, giving her sister a smile that was returned identically.
“You’re most welcome,” Bellatrix assured her sister, taking a peach from the fruit bowl and starting to peel the skin off delicately, her nails piercing the skin easily, juice flowing out around her fingers, dripping onto her plate.
“Morning, ladies,” Rabastan Lestrange, looking shattered, joined them, taking a seat on Andromeda’s other side. “Might I say, Bella, that you are looking fabulous this morning, all things considering.”
Malea considered briefly how different the two brothers were. Despite both being dark and having similar looks - the same shaped eyes, the same nose and same shaped head - they were otherwise completely different. Where Rodolphus was handsome, Rabastan paled in comparison to his elder brother. Where Rodolphus’ hair and eyes were both dark, Rabastan’s were lighter, paler and weaker. Where Rodolphus was pale, only lightly tanned, Rabastan’s skin was darker, his tan more pronounced. That being said, Rabastan’s English was much better than his brother’s - his accent was less noticeable and he’d acquired more of the local, colloquial phrases.
Her attention, however, was drawn to Rabastan’s words. ‘You’re looking fabulous this morning, all things considering’. What ‘things’ were being considered? Why shouldn’t she look fabulous? A small part of her wondered if it wasn’t just an off-hand comment, but she ignored it. She wanted, desperately, for there to be some kind of scandal, for there to be some kind of reason behind it.
She was, therefore, disappointed when Bellatrix just raised an eyebrow and asked,
“What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean,” Rabastan chuckled, smirking at her. “I saw you coming into the common room late last night.”
“Yes, from rounds,” Bellatrix gave him a half-disdainful, half-confused look. “What did you think I’d been doing?”
“I wasn’t sure,” he shrugged. “Then again, I’m not sure if anyone can ever be sure with you.”
“Some people can,” Bellatrix replied lightly, refusing to expand further on the subject when Rabastan pressed.
As Rabastan, leaning forwards over the table as though hoping she’d say it very quietly so only he could hear, continued to press Bellatrix for information and Andromeda watched them, looking thoroughly amused, Malea began to feel out of place. The teasing continued, growing in flamboyancy and ridiculousness as Rabastan strived to find ways to get the information he wanted out of Bellatrix, and her unease grew along with it. She didn’t feel like she fitted in with these people. They all seemed so close and so intimate with one another; she felt like someone watching a family through a window, intruding on something private.
She didn’t get the chance to leave, though, as Rodolphus sauntered into the Great Hall, Evander Pucey by his side. Her eyes rested on him, watching as he walked over towards her, looking perfectly at ease. Much to her disappointment he didn’t look once at her as he crossed the room, moving up the table before reaching them. That alone was enough to turn her cheeks a light pink. Merlin, she thought dreamily, if this was what she was like when he was only within two metres of her, what would happen to her if he spoke directly to her - or, almost worse in a way - sat down opposite her?
To her mixed dismay and gratitude, he didn’t sit down opposite her. Instead, he chose the seat opposite his brother - next to Bellatrix. She found she didn’t mind quite as much as she thought she would. After all, she could look at him more easily from this vantage point with the easy, ready-made excuse that she needed to look in his direction to be included in the conversation.
“What are you all talking about?” Rodolphus asked, glancing between his brother and Bellatrix, his eyebrows raised expectantly.
Rabastan opened his mouth to reply, but Bellatrix beat him to it:
“He was telling me how fabulous I look this morning,” she replied matter-of-factly, a tiny smirk curling in a corner of her mouth.
Malea, staring at Rodolphus, noticed that his eyes darkened, his attitude turning slightly colder, but thought nothing of it. It probably meant nothing, after all - it was no secret that Rodolphus and Bellatrix had been rivals for the top position in Slytherin for a while and that the former had lost quite comprehensively, the defeat sealed when Bellatrix received the Head Girl badge. They both remained at the top, but the hierarchy was clear: Bellatrix was in charge, while Rodolphus loitered in the background behind her, so close but not quite there.
“Was ‘e, now?” Rodolphus glanced at his brother, the glance sharp.
“I said it once - and I even put a condition on it,” Rabastan rolled his eyes, exchanging an amused look with Andromeda. “It was nothing.”
“I see,” Rodolphus gave a single, slow nod, the two words hanging in the air like weights on thin threads, his hands resting underneath the table. She could hear his fingers drumming idly on the underside of the table; Bellatrix shot him a warning look. Evidently she wasn’t a fan of such noises, Malea noted. “So, what ‘ave you all been up to?”
“Not much different from when you last asked,” Rabastan comment with a slight laugh.
Beside him, Andromeda shrugged and answered, “Homework, mostly. There’s a lot more of it this year, so it’s hard adjusting.”
“And what about little miss Head Girl?” Rodolphus nodded, turning to look at Bellatrix.
Malea felt her stomach twist as she watched him watching her. The strange look in his eyes - softer, darker, deeper and quite unlike any expression she’d seen him wear before - the way his gaze flickered over her face. She could only wish he’d look at her like that: like she was a particularly delicious-looking dish that he couldn’t wait to sink his teeth into. What made her feel worst, though, was that Bellatrix Black was, in anyone’s book, beautiful in every sense of the word. Next to her, she seemed plain and awkward, shy and dull - like a cygnet before it turns into a swan. She would never match up - would always be one step behind, blinded by Bellatrix’s shine like everyone else. Including, it seemed, Rodolphus Lestrange.
“Nothing particularly fascinating,” Bellatrix replied, her own gaze resting on the boy next to her. “Although I did catch a couple kissing in the old Potions classroom last night.”
“Really?” Andromeda raised her eyebrows, looking far more eager for the gossip than Malea would have thought. She’d always had this image in her mind of Andromeda - well, all the Black sisters really - being this perfect, pureblood girl. Quiet, respectful, polite, intelligent. The idea that Andromeda Black was also a gossip somehow didn’t seem to fit into the picture. “Who was it?”
“I don’t know, I didn’t recognise them,” Bellatrix gave a casual, delicate shrug, finally turning her gaze away from Rodolphus.
Like Malea, Andromeda seemed to have trouble believing that her sister hadn’t recognised the people in the classroom. Bellatrix had been here for seven years, the students involved must have been at least fourth years, but yet she, somehow, hadn’t recognised them? It sounded a little far-fetched. Then again, Malea reasoned mentally, maybe the lighting had been bad? Maybe they’d run off before she could get a proper look? There were any number of reasons why she hadn’t recognised them, or been able to put names to faces.
“What do you mean? Did you at least see what House they were in?” Andromeda asked, placing her spoon down in her bowl with a gentle clink.
“Hufflepuff,” Bellatrix replied almost immediately. “They looked to be about fourth year - they ran for it almost as soon as I’d opened the door.”
“I bet she looked like a tomato,” Rabastan smirked. “Hufflepuffs always do - no matter what happens. When you embarrass them, when you make them laugh, when you make them cry - it’s all the same. Tomatoes.”
“One fainted the other day,” Rodolphus commented idly. “All I did was tell ‘er that ‘er tie wasn’t tied tight enough.”
While the others laughed, Malea frowned inwardly, trying to work that one out. The girl had fainted when he’d simply informed her that her uniform didn’t meet school regulations? Was that it? How absurdly pathetic. Rodolphus wasn’t even a prefect - he couldn’t take points or dish out detentions and he hadn’t said anything nasty, insulting or threatening, so, really, there was no need to have reacted so badly.
“Is there a problem, Flint?” at hearing him address her - after quickly checking around to make sure there were no family members hanging out who he might have been talking to instead - she looked up at him, feeling her cheeks growing warm.
She knew it was silly, but she couldn’t help it - he just looked so handsome in the sunlight. It set off his dark looks nicely, contrasting beautifully, and lit up his slight tan, making him almost glow.
“No, not at all,” she managed to get out, keeping her voice level and even. “Why?”
He shrugged, resting an elbow on the table, toying with a goblet in mid-air. It turned in his fingers, spinning slowly, before the spell took total effect and he let go. Revolving gently, it rotated of its own accord, hanging lazily some eight inches above the table.
“I was just curious. You didn’t look like you approved.”
“Oh, no, I was just… thinking,” Malea lied hastily. It was probably the oldest excuse in the book but it was the first one that came to mind. Thankfully, apart from a shared smirk between Andromeda and Rabastan and a raised eyebrow from Bellatrix, they seemed to buy it.
“Well, I’d best be off before McGonagall decides she wants my company on Friday evening, again,” Rodolphus drawled after a short, pregnant pause. Standing up, he flashed them all a brief smirk, winked, tapped Pucey on the shoulder and then the two of them left, the latter promptly dropping the conversation he’d been having with a couple of sixth years next to them.
Realising that she now had no reason to stay and suddenly feeling out of place again, Malea rose.
“I should be going too,” she murmured, momentarily forgetting that Andromeda and Rabastan were both in nearly all of her classes, shared the same timetable at least and so would know exactly what lesson she had first thing and therefore whether or not she actually needed to leave this early.
Even though, as she walked away, she saw that none of them appeared to have heard or cared as the sisters leaned across the table to talk to each other quietly, she felt a certain sense of accomplishment. So far, so good. She had managed to get up early, eat a healthy amount for breakfast in a comfortable amount of time and, above all that, she had held a conversation with two Black sisters and the Lestranges. She hadn’t even blushed too much when Rodolphus had spoken to her, or made a fool out of herself.
Things were starting to look up.
Folding the corner of the page over absently, your fingers working of their own accord, you look around the room. It’s dark and silent - the only thing producing any light is the lamp on your bedside table. The curtains are drawn around Eleanor’s bed and you can hear her deep, even breathing. She’s asleep. Under the door, there’s only the faintest shimmer of light, seeping barely ten centimetres into the room.
You put the book to one side, glancing at the alarm clock on the bedside table. The hands read five past midnight, and you stare at them for a moment, blinking every so often. It’s as if you think they can’t possibly be showing the right time and that if you blink they’ll change back to the right time. They don’t change at all, and, as you watch, the second hand ticks round past the number twelve. Another minute’s passed. Time marches on, relentlessly, unaware of your disbelief.
Slipping off your bed, you change into your pyjamas silently, technically. It can’t be five past midnight - it simply can’t be. You never stay up to read that late, not in the school term anyway. There’s no reason why you would start to do so now: fifth year’s your most important one yet and you know (Merlin knows you know!) how important it is to have a good routine in place now, before you get anywhere near the exams. Reading until five past midnight simply doesn’t feature in your routine, the one you so painstakingly planned out at the end of the summer holidays, once all your books and homework were read and done.
Besides, you pause, fingers freezing on the handle of your hairbrush, shouldn’t you have heard Eleanor come in? Shouldn’t you have heard her moving around, getting ready for bed? She’s not the noisiest roommate, according to the stories you’ve heard others telling, but she’s not the quietest person, either. Nevertheless, you can’t even remember hearing a tap or the shower running, let alone a door opening and closing or trunk lids being shut. In fact, you frown as you concentrate, you can’t remember anything from the last few hours.
Except the book. Except the sequence of events you had just read. They stand out clearly in your mind, painted and bright, as though they’re memories, no different from your own. You can recall the exact words they all said to each other, picture Bellatrix’s elegantly sloppy style in your mind without needing to re-read the description, picture Rabastan Lestrange clearly, picture every detail of the scene.
A strange shiver runs down your spine and the hairs on your arms stand on end. You’ve always known your memory was good - visual, according to some muggle test you took - but never this good. Not quite like this. Some memories, you find as you sift through them, are weaker. Duller. Less complete. Your first day. Your first flight. An argument you had with Lucy a couple of years ago over a dress you both wanted. They’re not exact. Not perfect, like a photo or a fresh memory, formed that day.
It’s probably just imagination, you decide. After all, you were reading a book, so it makes sense. You’ve always been very good at picturing scenes, people, images described in things, and often find yourself filling in the details. The colour of the brandy in Poirot’s hand, the pale mottled brown of the snake winding itself around Cleopatra’s neck, the dark navy of Mr Darcy’s coat.
Lying down, you pull the covers tightly around yourself, curling up like a child. Your eyes flicker to the door. You could have sworn you felt… something, like another presence. As though someone else was in the room.
Careful, Molly, you think to yourself, you’re becoming paranoid.