The Choices We Make

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The villa was perched on a cliff overlooking the sea, surrounded by lush greenery and stone, its stone walls showing the passage of time in the sun and salt air of the Mediterranean. The house had remained for centuries under the high clear sun and warm scented breezes, yet it maintained an air of elegance despite the state of disrepair.

On this particular day, there was a figure standing on the patio gazing out at the sea smelling the salt and the indecipherable floral fragrance that wafted through gauze curtains. Dark and beautiful, she gave passing fishermen a pause as they caught sight of her and wondered if Poseidon had designated a new goddess of the sea. It was a passing thought before they forgot they’d even seen her and continued about their business. She didn’t notice them; not only were they beneath her attention but her mind was elsewhere.

This was not the life that Helene Alistair had intended for herself. When she met the dashing and handsome Nicolas Zabini, she'd been hiding on the Continent during the summer after she finished her studies. She had been swept away by his charm, and she'd given in to his kisses and dreamed of an exciting lifestyle bought with his wealth. Her own family had lost most of their fortune during the past years, gambled away by a father with an interest in sport, and she was left with nothing but a beautiful face and the drive to acquire the life that she wanted, whatever the cost.

Marrying a Muggle was distasteful, certainly, but she’d barely given it thought when she’d been consumed with passion and dreams of fortune. It was only after they married that the reality of her choice had occurred to her. Nicolas had no idea about her true background, of course, neglecting to ask about her parents if his lips could be busy brushing over her dark skin or scolding her whenever she failed to obey his demands. Within two months, she was pregnant, carrying the heir he had demanded in exchange for a spending allowance, and regretted her impulsive elopement.

The money was kept from her, only given in payment for good behavior, which meant she had been forced to fulfill his most depraved demands and to play the part of a happy English bride who was submissive to her ‘strong’ husband. When she dared to protest or object, he called her a whore, accused her of using her body for money, and did his best to break the spirit that had allowed her to survive seven years in Slytherin. She was not allowed to leave the property without an escort, a man he had hired to watch her shortly after their marriage, and she’d been kept a virtual prisoner since she’d uttered those two wretched words ‘I do’.

Even if she managed to get away from him, she couldn’t return home pregnant and hiding from a Muggle, of all creatures. There was a war in Britain, so the risk was too high should Nicolas attempt to find her and alert others to the true nature of her husband’s bloodline. Therefore, during the months of her pregnancy, she began to make plans. She had made one bad choice, but she certainly had no intention of allowing that to shape her life. No, she had visions of the future and wouldn’t rest until she’d obtained everything that she desired, regardless of the cost.

After the baby was born, Helene was finally able to put her plans into motion. It had taken little effort to seduce the bodyguard; he was a man, after all. Without the watchful eye of the bodyguard constantly monitoring her movements, she was able to quietly travel to the wizarding world once again, gaining information about the war in Britain, which had escalated since she’d run to Italy to avoid being forced into participating in something so unpleasant and disadvantageous for the future, and for that choice, she was glad.

Fortunately, Nicolas was overjoyed at the baby being a boy, so he had left her in peace following the birth. Before she had given birth, she had intended to remove the child from her life as well, because she hadn’t wanted the thing and had no interest in being a mother before she was twenty, especially when her plans were successful. However, he was a beautiful baby, with skin slightly lighter than her own and eyes that soon became a golden brown that reminded her of the stories of gods that her mother told of Egypt and ancient magic that became weakened with intermixing centuries ago. Despite the irony of her mother telling such stories when she, herself, had married a handsome Englishman and left her country behind, Helene remembered and could no longer dispose of her son.

Blaise was now two months old, watching the sea from his cot just a few feet away, and she was finally ready to take action. Paperwork had been created that would prove that Nicolas Zabini was a Pureblood should anyone feel inclined to investigate, which would allow Blaise to be seen as a Pureblood by any in their world once they left this filthy Muggle world behind them. She had researched the exchange rate for converting Muggle money into galleons, knew who to contact to sell everything that she had no use for, and was confident that her plan would succeed.

Fortune and power would finally be hers. There’d be no need to depend on a man for anything, which suited her perfectly. Once it was over, she and Blaise would return to Britain, and she’d live the life she was born to have, had her father not lost their fortune during her youth. Not even thoughts of a nasty war could ruin the excitement caused by looking forward to flaunting her wealth, tastefully of course, and gaining a respectable position in society.

Helene smiled as she turned and walked over to Blaise’s cot. “Soon, dear boy, we’ll leave this awful world and return to where we belong,” she promised, reaching down to shift the mattress in his cot so she could reach the vial she’d hidden there.

She tapped the clear glass with her fingernails and gently shook the bottle, allowing the vibrations to slowly mix the potion before she poured it into Nicolas’ wine. After the colors merged and the faint odor faded, she quickly banished the vial and set the glass of wine on the table. Blaise looked up at her when she bent down to pick him up, but he didn’t fuss or cry. Instead, he just curled his fingers into a tiny fist and shifted against her chest when she sat down.

“Shall we say good-bye to Father?” she cooed softly as she unfastened her shirt and moved Blaise against her breast. He frowned when she pressed her nipple against his lips before turning his head. She was pleased that she’d cured him of the disgusting habit of expecting to be fed in such a way, but it didn’t suit her plan at the moment. “While you’ll go far in life if you continue with this attitude and never allow yourself to be controlled by base desires, Mother needs for you to at least pretend right now. Open your mouth, dear boy.”

When he finally seemed to understand that she wouldn't hex him if he tried eating instinctively this afternoon, though the hex she used wasn’t harmful – merely a slight spark to keep him from trying, she glanced at the glass of wine while Blaise began to gently suck on her nipple. She no longer had milk, as she’d chosen not to feed him in such a common manner, but it would set the scene brilliantly.

“Nicolas, darling, could you please bring me my wine? Blaise is eating, so I’m unable to stand,” she called out, schooling her expression into that of a na´ve submissive spouse even as her eyes narrowed slightly while she watched her husband walk out onto the balcony.

He was still very handsome and charming, with golden skin and dark hair, but he was a necessary sacrifice if she was to have the life that was meant to be hers. Blaise shifted, but she kept her gaze on Nicolas, not looking away as he picked up the glass of wine, telling her she couldn’t drink alcohol while feeding his son, and drank it himself. The potion was undetectable by Muggle means, though she had actually chosen it because it was nearly instant. Nicolas gagged and dropped the glass, holding his heart as he gasped at her to get help, but she simply watched while rocking her son until Nicolas had collapsed on the stone and stopped moving.

“Oh, dear. It seems that Father has had a heart attack,” she said with a satisfied smile as she moved Blaise’s mouth from her nipple and stood up. She stepped over Nicolas on her way to the railing, holding Blaise against her as she looked out across the sea. It was almost funny how easy it had been- killing Nicolas and gaining the fortune she desired. Once she had made her decision, though, it had simply required following through. “It’s time to go home, dear boy.”

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It was too cold to play outside. Blaise was only three, but he knew better. He liked to stay inside by the fire reading one of his books or listening to Cook tell him stories about gladiators fighting lions. The stories were always fun, even if he wasn’t sure he believed them. Helene never told him stories, though, so he spent a lot of time in the kitchens since they moved here. Gerald, whom Blaise refused to call Daddy Gerald even when Helene scowled at him, sometimes told stories, but they weren’t nearly as exciting as Cook’s adventures.

Blaise had been reading a book - well, looking at the pictures and trying to understand the words - when his mother had entered the study. He knew he wasn’t supposed to be in Gerald’s study, but it had the comfiest chair and the nicest fire, so he liked to sneak in when he could. Instead of scolding him and sending up to his room, Helene had stroked his hair in a way he knew meant she wanted something. She’d done it when asking him to be good at the wedding during the summer and when she’d brought the men before Gerald home to their cottage in the country. Blaise didn’t like it when she touched his hair; it made him think about petting a dog, and he wasn’t a puppy. He was a boy.

When Helene had suggested that he go outside, he’d refused. It was snowing and so cold that the house wasn’t even toasty warm after Maid had gone around waving her wand, which usually made it too hot. Blaise hated the cold, it reminded him of being alone in his room at the cottage while Helene was out for days wearing her prettiest dress robes. The heat was nearly as bad, though, because it made him sticky and his clothes became damp when he was really hot. He also didn’t like smelling like the old neighbor in the country who was always covered in dirt after working in the gardens.

Helene had made the scary face, scowling at him before she said that he would go outside to play. She had taken his book away and tossed it into the fire, making him watch it burn before she’d sent him out the door and into the snow. He didn’t cry when she burned his book because she became very angry when he cried, but he did after he was outside, feeling dampness on his cheeks as he shivered and ran through the snow towards the trees across the property. It was dark and scary, but he couldn’t be afraid because fear was for weak people. That’s what Helene always told him.

With no coat or gloves, he was too cold to get very far. He huddled beneath a tree to wait for his mother to call him back, thinking she must be playing an odd game, but the call never came. He shivered as fresh snow began to fall, making his clothes wet as he blinked back snowflakes. For a moment, he thought he heard Gerald’s voice calling him, but then it was just silent.

He wasn’t sure how long he was out there but it finally became too cold to wait. Helene wasn’t coming to get him, he realized, and no one else cared. If he stayed, he’d get frozen like the fruity treats Cook snuck him during the summer. Instead of walking to the main door, he decided to go through the kitchens. If Cook was awake, she wouldn't tell his mother that he’d come home. Cook didn’t like Helene, though he wasn’t supposed to know that. He was three, though, and he noticed things they didn’t think he did since they all called him a child.

When he was nearly to the house, he saw a dark shape lying on the snow ahead of him. At first, he thought it was a large dog, he’d heard Maid muttering about ‘those bloody wild dogs’ to Cook last week, but it wasn’t moving and dogs were always moving when he saw them. Maybe it was sleeping? He rubbed his hands together to try to get them warm and his teeth chattered as he crept closer. As he got closer, he saw that it wasn’t a dog at all. It was Gerald.

“Gerald?” he whispered, voice quavering as he thought about being punished for playing Helene’s game. Gerald didn’t move, though. He just lay there on the snow in the shadows of the dark night. Blaise walked over to him and looked down, not understanding why he wasn’t moving. His eyes were open, after all, and the snow had to be cold and wet. Maybe it was a trick to catch him. He leaned down and touched Gerald’s shoulder, shaking him a little. “I’m sorry I was playing outside after dark. Helene made me but don‘t tell her I told please. She‘ll burn my books and send me to my room.”

His stepfather didn’t reply. He was lying on the ground like he was sleeping, but people didn’t sleep with their eyes open. Blaise didn’t know a lot of things, but even he knew that. He poked Gerald a few more times before he noticed the dark snow around the back of his head. He couldn’t tell what it was because the moon didn’t give enough light, but he began to shake as he realized that Gerald wasn’t going to wake up. He stumbled backwards, tripping on one of the large rocks used to decorate the garden and falling onto his rear.

Wet snow crept through his trousers, but he didn’t notice. He sat there staring at Gerald as the snow fell down on them until Helene suddenly arrived in a glow of light from her wand. “Oh, dear boy, why are you sitting out here in the snow? You should have come back to the house,” she scolded when she saw him.

Blaise looked up at her and shuddered when he saw her face in the light from her wand. She was beautiful, everyone said so, but he thought she looked like a monster in those moments when she looked down at Gerald and smiled. He had seen her smile like that when she was playing cards and won, but he didn’t know why she’d be smiling when Gerald was lying on the snow not moving.

It barely lasted a heartbeat, and he began to think maybe he'd imagined it. Especially when she called Gerald’s name loudly and then began to call to Cook to get help. He didn’t say anything when Maid was suddenly there putting a warm blanket around his shoulders or when he heard Cook saying Gerald had chased after Blaise when he’d run off or even when Helene told the man in dark robes who smelled like cigars that it had been a tragic accident.

He just watched and listened because they ignored him when he was quiet, and he was able to hear things they wouldn't say if he was talking. After everyone left and Gerald had been taken away, he sat on his bed with heavy covers around him, still shaking and feeling cold. He didn’t look up when the door opened. He could smell flowery perfume and knew it was his mother.

Helene came into his room and sat beside him, stroking his hair as she smiled. “Dear boy, you gave me quite a scare earlier. You should have come back into the house. Never put your own life at risk for someone else, Blaise,“ she said firmly. “You won’t tell anyone about our game, will you? Mummy is so tired of all these trees. Perhaps we’ll move to town now, somewhere exciting. Would you like that?”

Finally, he raised his head to look at her. She was so beautiful, but he couldn’t stop thinking about that smile and how scary she’d looked outside in the snow. She was waiting for an answer, though, so he nodded, knowing what was expected of him. “Yes, Helene.”

********************


It was too warm for an outdoor party. If he’d learned anything in eight years, it was that people didn’t enjoy sweating while wearing expensive robes. The Malfoys knew better, as their names were always whispered with a sense of respect and awe by those in Helene’s social circles, yet they’d decided to host a garden party during one of the hottest summers in years. Helene had practically fallen over herself after receiving the invitation, which had included ‘and child’, most likely due to the fact that the Malfoys had a son his age.

He had been given instructions to befriend the Malfoy boy and charm everyone else so people would forget that Helene was old enough to have an eight year old son. It was the first time he’d seen the Malfoys, two beautiful and cold creatures with white-blond hair and smiles that were more practiced than even Helene’s, and he found himself somewhat fascinated by them. Despite the fact that he hated these events, he had developed an interest in observing the guests, who were always amusing in their attempts to influence and earn favor of those below or above them socially. The Malfoys were unlike those who scrambled for attention, probably because they already had it, and he could see the fear in some guests along with the standard fawning.

While he might be young, he’d not been a child in years. It didn’t take him long to realize that the Malfoys had deliberately chosen this time and setting for their fancy party because of the heat, not despite it. They watched their guests like he’d watched the animals at the zoo when Henry, stepfather number three, had taken him. Henry had been dead for several months, though, so there would be no more trips to the zoo. For awhile, he'd thought Henry might actually be around longer, since Phillip, stepfather number two, hadn’t lasted six months before his tragic boating accident, but Henry‘s death merely reminded him that it was best not to care about anyone except himself.

Still, watching the Malfoys observe their guests in such a manner amused him. If it had been socially polite, he had little doubt that there’d be tasks set up for the guests to perform solely for the Malfoys' entertainment. He could just imagine Madam Goyle facing a dragon while the Malfoys drank their wine and clapped politely. Since that wasn’t allowed, however, they settled on choosing horrid conditions for their event yet remaining cool and perfect despite the heat while others wilted and sweated profusely.

Once he grew bored with studying the guests, he wandered away from the party and found a private bench where he could sit and read the book he’d brought along. He had only read five pages before he was disturbed. He didn’t look up from the text, hoping whomever it was would go back to the party and leave him in peace. No such luck, which was unsurprising when he realized who it was.

“Mother told me that I should show you my room.”

“I’m reading,” Blaise said, glancing up briefly to look at the small pale boy standing in front of him. “I don’t want to see your room.”

“Why not?” Draco demanded in a shrill voice that made Blaise wonder if his parents used a silencing charm. He’d read about those in the magic books he nicked from Henry’s study.

“Because I’m reading.”

“Reading is boring. I’ve got a talking Hippogriff that is better than a silly book. Would you like to see it?”

“Knowledge is power,” Blaise pointed out simply. “A talking Hippogriff doll won’t help you learn anything. Books aren’t silly unless the person reading them is.” He gave Draco a look that he hoped would scare the boy away, but the pest was apparently oblivious to subtlety.

“I know how to fly,” Draco said smugly. “Father said it’s illegal for me to have a broom, but he taught me anyway. I could show you, if you want.”

“I want silence so that I can read my book. I‘ve no interest in watching you fly.” Blaise gave a dismissive nod of his head like he’d seen Helene do and looked back at his book, smirking slightly when he saw the dumbstruck look on Draco‘s pointy pale face.

There was blissful silence for a page and a half of reading. He knew Draco hadn’t left yet because he hadn't heard footsteps walking away. Plus, he could feel someone staring at him. He didn’t stop reading this time, though, knowing the child would soon get bored and wander off to brag to someone who cared. Unfortunately, he was wrong. He hated being wrong.

“What are you reading?” Draco asked. “I have a huge bookcase full of books that Father buys me, and he has a library that’s got more books than anyone else in the world. I’m not supposed to go in there, but I could show you. If you want?”

A library? Blaise kept his attention on his open book even as he got excited at the idea of seeing the Malfoy library. Henry’s collection was small, but he’d found several interesting things to read mixed amongst the fiction. He could hear Helene in his head as he looked up at Draco, hoping he looked bored instead of interested in seeing the library. Dear boy, one should never show weakness, especially to those who might eventually use such displays to gain power over you. Find their weaknesses, instead, and control them.

Draco Malfoy was an annoying spoiled brat who spent too much time bragging and begging for attention. He had the world at his feet due to his parentage, and he couldn’t even be bothered to open a book or learn how to use his power. Blaise found him common and unworthy of attention because wealth and prestige meant nothing if one lacked intelligence or the subtlety to use it. Still, he could be used, which gave him value he wouldn't otherwise have.

Blaise silently watched Draco until the boy looked away first and shifted, then he smiled slightly, just a bare twist of his lips, and slowly nodded. “The library sounds interesting. I suppose you can show me before I finish my book.”

********************


Hogwarts wasn’t exceptionally impressive. From all the stories, Blaise had expected something. All he got was a drafty old castle with moving staircases. It was rather pathetic, really, to look at the other first years and see their wide-eyed na´ve stares and gasps at such everyday displays of magic, from Muggleborn to Pureblood. It took much more than this to impress him. If anything, he found the entire experience droll and wished Helene had forgotten him long enough for him to miss having to attend school.

While the other students shifted and stared, he stood calmly at the edge of the crowd silently watching them. When they'd first arrived in the castle, Draco had started towards him but a slight smirk from Blaise had sent the boy towards a Parkinson instead. They were now whispering about others in an attempt to make themselves feel more important, no doubt, without realizing that such behavior simply made them crass and ordinary. The room was filled with ordinary, though. Not even Potter was anything more than a gawky boy who had no idea how to use the reputation he’d been gifted with practically from birth.

Few students caught his attention long enough for more than a dismissive sneer. There was an overweight boy holding a toad who intrigued him because the outward appearance was that of a clumsy oaf but he could sense the strength underlying the cowardice. There was a girl with the worst hair he’d ever seen and buckteeth that distracted from what might be considered a relatively pretty face who was chattering away to Toad Boy. She interested him because it was easy to determine that she was Muggleborn, from the cheap shoes on her feet to the unfamiliar names for things she kept using, yet she knew more about the school and the ceremonies than other children whose relatives had attended Hogwarts for centuries. Knowledge interested him, even if she was shrill and obnoxious. There was another girl who was lurking near the edge that had a quality about her that seemed different from the others, more observant than social. She caught his attention briefly, as did a boy who was listening to Draco and Pansy without actually joining them.

Being a Zabini, he had little worry of being sorted for awhile. He watched and listened, noticing every nuance of behavior in his classmates and cataloging weaknesses as he saw them. The quiet girl was Bones, Susan, and she was sorted into Hufflepuff. He’d have predicted that house. The girl with wild hair was Granger, Hermione, who was sent to Gryffindor after a moment of hesitation from the Sorting Hat. Hmm…he’d have guessed Ravenclaw. The boy with the toad was Longbottom, Neville, and Blaise’s analysis was proven true when the boy was sent to Gryffindor. The eavesdropper was Nott, Theodore, who joined Draco in Slytherin.

Their choices were interesting. Unlike the impressionable children around him, he didn’t believe the stories of the Sorting Hat separating people based on characteristics. It put people where they most desired to go, as was evident just from his observations today. Vincent Crabbe, for instance, was a far cry from ambitious and cunning, yet he sat at the Slytherin table with a pleased, and relieved, smile. Blaise hadn’t yet decided which house would best suit him. Ravenclaw would become tedious despite his interest in learning, he had little patience for friendly people who liked to touch too much so Hufflepuff was out, and he only cared about himself, which left Gryffindor off the list.

That left Slytherin, though he had no interest in sharing a dorm with people who failed to appreciate the benefits of intelligence and refinement. Of course, he knew them, knew their type, well, so they’d be easily controlled and used. They were like birds squawking for crumbs of bread, children of the people who attended the boring parties Helene dragged him to whenever she wanted to play the part of ‘doting mother’ or needed him to listen and watch. Dear boy, one should always keep one’s enemies close. Those who have the potential to do the most damage should never be underestimated.

Perhaps Helene was right. Few students in other houses had the wealth or position to interfere with his life, after all. There was certainly little surprise in that group, which would bore him within a week, but he could find his challenges elsewhere, should the need arise. When his name was called, he sauntered up to the front and sat while the Sorting Hat was placed on his head.

Slytherin, he thought firmly. The Hat started to ramble in an annoying rhyming pattern, so he cut it off. Slytherin now. The students are hungry.

He smirked slightly when the Sorting Hat called out, “Slytherin,” before he slid off the stool and went to join his housemates.

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The Daily Prophet had covered the news of an escaped convict from Azkaban every day for two weeks. It was as if there were no other news in the Wizarding World, despite the fact that there were only a handful of ways to actually tell the events without being repetitive. Blaise saw the latest headline and tossed the paper in the bin.

He hated summer. He wasn’t fond of being stuck at Hogwarts, either, but there were at least lessons to learn or students to observe, so the time passed quickly. Last year had been particularly exciting, with petrified students and rumors of a Slytherin heir. There had also been Professor Lockhart’s memory loss and other rumors flying all over the castle. It bothered him that he’d been unable to learn the truth, to know what really happened, but he refused to consider the possibility that he’d never find out. He would, eventually, because he wouldn't give up until he satisfied his curiosity. It might take time, of course, but he’d learned to be patient at an early age.

The school year was tedious, but even that was more exciting than holidays. Summer was being stuck at the current, living or deceased, stepfather’s house with nothing to entertain his mind except books and an occasional party. He loved learning, devoured every book that he could find, but he liked to balance it with observation these days, to learn human behavior as well as other subjects.

This particular summer was different, though. Stepfather number five, as he’d stopped bothering to learn their names after Henry, was alive and well, and Helene spent her days shopping and her nights at parties, as usual, but there was a nervousness in her step that hadn’t been there before. Blaise had noticed it just last week, and it hadn’t taken long to determine the cause. The same Daily Prophet headlines that he found ridiculous had scared Helene.

Sirius Black, escaped Death Eater in need of a good haircut and a teeth cleaning charm, had caused the tension. Oh, Blaise didn’t think it was Black, himself, but it was what he represented, which he found very curious. He had read about Death Eaters, of course, and was familiar with the history of Voldemort. He found it ridiculous that people wouldn’t speak his name, giving him power with their fear, and knew all about Potter surviving an attack. Blah, blah, blah. It was little fact and mostly embellishment to create a myth for a future dictator. Dear boy, one is only as great as one’s reputation. With that, you can woo, control, or frighten without doing anything more than allowing people to talk about you. Controlled gossip is the easiest form of publicity there is, and people do it by instinct. He had no desire for people to speak of him, as he knew that being overlooked gave him a greater chance of gaining information and observing, but it was advice that allowed him insight into others.

While he had little tolerance at all for Muggles, magic was magic, regardless of bloodtype. True, he kept his beliefs to himself, especially considering the house he’d chosen, but it was ludicrous to believe that blood had anything at all to do with magical ability. There was a need to preserve their secrecy, of course, as he’d read Muggle history enough to know of their distrust of things they couldn’t explain or that set one apart as being different, but his opinion of Voldemort was low, at best. However, if he had more information, his attitude might change, so it was best to not speak about any of his beliefs.

Which brought him back to Helene’s odd behavior and his suspicions regarding her knowledge of the war with Voldemort. She hadn’t been in the country for much of it, he knew, but it still intrigued him, wondering why it would scare her unless she was worried about it happening again, which would put a damper on her lifestyle. Regardless, he had discovered something interesting and now knew how he’d pass the summer months because he wanted to know more about the war and those years.

********************


Cedric Diggory was dead.

By the way the school was acting, a saint had died. People were weeping who had never even spoken to Diggory, acting as if their best friend were lying six feet under, sobbing openly in the hallways. People were focused on Diggory’s death, which was a tragedy but, well, people died every day and it was known that the Tri-Wizard Tournament was dangerous. Blaise would assume that anyone who put their name into the cup was fully aware of the possible consequences, so he felt little pity in that respect. True, Diggory had seemed to be a decent bloke who didn’t deserve to die at such a young age, but death hadn’t frightened him since he was three and it had just been a normal part of life.

What bothered him was the fact that everyone was talking about Diggory but no one was talking about Voldemort. People had heard Potter’s claims, the same as he, but the weeping and grand show had begun before anyone would listen. It wasn’t as if he could just walk up to Potter and ask for details, either, which made it even more frustrating. So, he was stuck listening to sobbing for Diggory when Voldemort might be back.

He sat in the common room listening to his housemates talk about Diggory and the tournament, about exams and summer, and he felt like screaming. Draco was muttering about Potter, blaming him for Diggory‘s death, and Crabbe and Goyle were nodding their heads in agreement. Parkinson was surrounded by girls in their year while she sniffled about Diggory as if they’d been best friends. Nott was playing chess with Pucey, talking about summer plans, and Bulstrode was whining to Davis about possibly failing Potions.

They carried on with little change. Draco was also muttering about Potter, which he had since the boy refused to fawn over him before school started first year, from what Blaise could tell. Parkinson was always sniffling about one thing or another, and the others had basically had the same routine for four years now. Not even the return of an egomaniac who had once nearly ruined their world seemed to faze their tedious customs.

He still hadn’t formed an opinion regarding the possible return. It would take time to analyze the situation, observe and consider, before he felt he had enough information to come to a decision. Dear boy, it’s best to be neutral in any situation. Then you can be on the winning side, whichever it happens to be. Still, he wanted the information. He wanted to know what had happened in that maze and to know if Voldemort was, indeed, back. If so, how? That intrigued him more than anything. How could someone return from the dead? And if he hadn’t been dead, where had he been?

There were so many questions left unanswered, yet no one in his house seemed to care. Most of them seemed to like being oblivious. They parroted what their parents had taught them, never making a decision on their own, and having an opinion that they reached themselves was practically unheard of. In their hierarchy, the majority turned to Draco for their opinions, respecting the Malfoy name regardless of the fact that the spoiled brat had never done anything to earn their respect. He didn’t have their loyalty, though, because no Slytherin pledged that to anyone but themselves.

After watching them for awhile longer, he finally closed his book and stood. He smoothed out the crease in his robe before he quietly left the room. He’d go to the library to finish his book. Perhaps Granger would be there, and he could see what she was reading or possibly overhear those friends of hers talking about something important. They thought they were whispering, but Weasley wouldn’t know quiet if it hit him in the face. Potter was nearly as bad. There was information there, though, and it was worth tolerating their flaws for the chance to determine what was so important that Granger was studying it outside of a class assignment or to hear their frenzied whispers.

As he walked towards the staircase, he noticed a flashing button on the floor. He stopped for a moment and frowned at the ‘Support Diggory: the REAL Hogwarts Champion’ message before he continued walking. He wondered if it would occur to Draco that he’d put all his support behind someone who hadn’t lived to finish the tournament if it came down to choosing sides in a war. Probably not. He sneered slightly and headed up the stairs. Rest in peace, Diggory.

********************


While fifth year had been dreadful, starting with that shrewish bitch from the Ministry and ending with Death Eaters arrested and the confirmation that Voldemort was back, sixth year had been oddly quiet so far. It was too quiet, in his opinion, but he couldn’t determine exactly why. There was a war beginning, of course, and people were reported missing or found dead with each new printing of the Daily Prophet. The quiet girl he’d noticed before the sorting ceremony all those years ago had lost an aunt, but Bones still attended classes, unlike others who were removed from the school or fled into hiding all over the world.

The hierarchy in Slytherin had changed following the fiasco of Umbridge’s Inquisitorial Squad and Malfoy’s arrest, along with others, at the Ministry of Magic at the end of last term. Those who had been so proud to be on the squad had chosen the losing side, which he doubted would teach them to evaluate before choosing or to simply stay impartial like him. Draco was behaving very strangely, too, and Blaise didn’t think it was simply because of his father’s arrest and not being the center of things. It was something he kept an eye on because Draco was just unpredictable enough to be a threat, especially if he wasn’t being controlled by his need for acceptance and power.

Other things had changed besides Slytherin House dynamics. Snape was teaching Defense while a ridiculous man had taken over Potions. There were only two benefits to attending meetings of Professor Slughorn’s little ‘club’. One, Draco Malfoy had not been invited. Two, Hermione Granger had been. The former amused Blaise more than anything in months, especially when Draco was so put out about it. The latter was beneficial because there was finally an opportunity for intelligent conversation without having to make any real effort.

McLaggen was a waste of air, the female Weasley was feisty but vapid, and Bobbin was well-connected. He had dismissed the first two and seduced the latter. Dear boy, one never knows when one will be in a situation where past favors can be collected. Use everything within your power to gather debts and make connections. Bobbin had been a dull time of it, but he’d gained an invitation to a holiday party, where he’d secured a meeting with several prominent wizards who could potentially be used in the future, so it had been worth the sacrifice.

Granger couldn’t be played, however. It was as frustrating as it was intriguing. For once, there was a female that he wasn’t trying to seduce or dismissing as unworthy of his time. It was her mind that attracted his attention, though the package that it came in was appealing enough if one wished to have one’s bollocks hexed off for looking too long. It was the conversations that challenged him as she stubbornly refused to back down, even when they both knew she was wrong. Of course, he was just as bad, though he didn’t betray his annoyance at being wrong with more than a twitch in his cheek. Still, she made him think in ways that few people ever had and he couldn‘t figure her out, which earned her a grudging respect, if nothing else.

When the topic of war was raised around school, he listened and observed, wondering which of his classmates would survive to see the end and which would die before it was all over. He spent a lot of time thinking about death and trying to predict when he’d receive an owl that stepfather number six had died in some accident or another. The war had Helene edgy, after all, and number six wouldn’t consider leaving the country. He’d be dead by the end of the school term, probably of something that could be considered natural since number five had been a flying accident.

The night that Blaise went into the dorm early and found Draco curled into a ball crying into his pillow, he stood silently by the door and studied the scene. The sobs were quiet but Draco’s entire body shook. There was a piece of parchment on the bed along with a familiar wrapped package, sweets from Mrs. Malfoy that she’d been sending since Draco began Hogwarts, that had arrived in the owl post earlier that day. This was a moment of weakness that should be exploited, if only to embarrass the brat, yet Blaise turned and quietly closed the door instead of entering.

As he left the common room and walked through the dungeon, he thought about the shadow that he’d noticed on Draco’s forearm and wondered if it was, indeed, what he suspected it to be. He'd heard about it before, just once, during one of Helene's parties, after too much wine loosened the tongue of an older wizard, but he'd been unable to find out anything else, as it was something people either didn't know or didn't talk about. If what he'd seen was what the drunken old man had whispered about, Draco was already on a path that transcended petty schoolhouse humiliation. There was no point in lowering himself to such a level. Seeing that mark, watching Draco sob, it had made supposition and analysis real in a way that the newspaper and research hadn’t. It left Blaise unsettled, as he had been all year, and he didn’t like that restless feeling at all.

********************


The mid-afternoon sun was high in the clear sky as a warm breeze blew in from the Mediterranean. The villa was perched on a cliff overlooking the sea, surrounded by lush greenery and stone. Its stone walls showed the passing of time, a testament to the century plus since it had originally been built, yet it maintained a class and elegance despite the state of disrepair.

On this particular day, there was a figure standing on the patio gazing out at the sea smelling the salt and the indecipherable floral fragrance that wafted through gauze curtains. Dark and handsome, he gave passing fishermen a pause as they caught sight of him and wondered if Poseidon had fathered a new god of the sea. It was a passing thought before they forgot they’d even seen him and continued about their business. He didn’t notice them; not only were they beneath his attention but his mind was elsewhere.

This was not the life that Blaise Zabini had intended for himself. Hiding in a villa that had belonged to a father – a Muggle, of all bloody things- he never knew while a war raged across the sea in the country that had been his home since he was five months old. At least he now understood why Helene had been so nervous during the last few years, though it was dreadfully disappointing that it was simply cowardice over an impetuous marriage to a Muggle - not even concern that the truth of his own parentage might be a risk for him - instead of something more sinister. Of course, he should have known that whatever was bothering her was entirely selfish, as she'd never given him any reason to think otherwise during the years.

The wind rustled the newspaper that he’d been reading before standing, the front page flapping over to cover half of the headline, The Boy Who Lives Missing!, along with the accompanying story detailing the disappearance of Potter, along with Weasley and Granger, from a wedding two weeks ago. The columns of theories regarding said disappearance were visible, showing everything from wizards who believed them all dead to witches who claimed to have seen them doing obscene things in Knockturn Alley to those who called them heroes and had faith Potter would save their world.

How anyone could trust that obstinate brainless boy, Blaise didn’t know. After six years at Hogwarts, he could state quite honestly that he was unimpressed with Potter, and the idea that the fate of the wizarding world rest in his hands was disheartening, at best. Still, it was the first word of home that he’d received, and it had been a surprise to see the photo of those three on the front page along with that headline. His outward reaction didn’t reflect that, of course, as one never knew when one was being watched. However, it had distracted him from his breakfast and lazy perusal of his mail.

When the paper continued to rustle, he turned his head slightly to glare at the disturbance. As he did so, his gaze caught on a brightly decorated invitation that had arrived in the post. Yet another party thrown by one silly Muggle neighbor or another, this one hosted by a man, one of Helene’s ‘interests’, down the way with a daughter that Helene had declared worthy of his attention. She had been a washed out boring girl who hadn’t an opinion on anything, but all that mattered to Helene was the inheritance she’d heard came attached to her. The money didn’t interest him at all, as he had more than enough to last a lifetime even with his more expensive tastes, but the challenge of seducing her and earning her trust piqued his interest, if only to see how easily she’d be manipulated once he succeeded.

Beneath the invitation was a parchment that was curling up at the ends, the second surprise of the morning. It had arrived by owl, somehow managing to find its way to him despite the wards that had been placed around this ramshackle villa when they had arrived in June, though it had obviously taken the bird time judging by the date on the scroll. Hogwarts was to reopen with classes beginning next week.

When Helene had seen the notice, she’d laughed and tossed it in the rubbish. Dear boy, you’ll not be going back there. He’d removed it from the bin and coolly informed her that she was not to touch his correspondence again while he placed the parchment on the table along with a few items needing his attention. Of course, she’d had a sulk after that, retreating to the gardens down the way and, thankfully, leaving him in peace.

If it wasn’t so pathetic, it would almost be amusing. He knew all of her buttons and could easily push them, just as he could control her with little effort, even if he allowed her to believe that it was the other way around. It was simpler that way, after all, and he knew from experience that it was best to be overlooked than acknowledged as a threat. Subtlety was not something he had learned from Helene, though it was her own lack of the trait that had allowed him to notice its importance. It was far easier to control and manipulate people when they hadn’t the slightest clue that it was happening.

Blaise turned and walked to the table, staring at the party invitation before looking at the Hogwarts notice. It was time to leave for the party if he intended to attend and seduce that dull girl yet it was also time to go pack and leave for London to catch the train tomorrow if he planned to return to Hogwarts. At that thought, he frowned and glared at the photo on the front page of the newspaper. There should have been no doubt regarding his plans for the evening; he’d made that decision weeks ago.

Following Dumbledore’s death and Malfoy’s disappearance, he had chosen to accompany Helene to Italy. While he found the idea of hiding distasteful and ordinary, he had no interest in choosing sides in a war that didn’t particularly affect him. Why should he risk his life for one side or another when he could simply spend time in Italy at the apparent family home where he’d been born and return once it was all over? It wasn’t cowardly, it was merely survival.

Unlike Granger, he had no faith in humanity and optimism was simply a word in the dictionary. He didn’t care about anything enough to fight for it, save for himself, and he didn’t particularly care if she and others like her thought him a monster for such beliefs. The foolish girl had tried to rouse a less selfish viewpoint numerous times during the last school year with no success, but she’d been unable to resist a challenge, he supposed. He could understand that as he’d approached their debates in a similar way, though his intent was to break that noble optimism that he found so obnoxious. The fact that he’d never succeeded was something he chose not to remember.

Now the silly bint had run off with those bumbling boyfriends of hers, probably to get themselves killed before it was all said and done. Even worse, he’d wager half his inheritance on the fact that they probably knew the risk of not surviving whatever trouble they were getting themselves into and had gone anyway. He had to disagree with the numerous editorials on the front page. They weren’t dead, yet, nor were they performing obscene acts in public, though he reserved his opinion about what went on in private; they were still alive. He didn’t have faith in anyone but himself, but, accompanied by Granger and Weasley, Potter might not bollocks everything up too terribly.

“Dear boy, bring the invitation to me and come along. If we’re more than half an hour late, it’s considered rude instead of simply making an appearance,” Helene called out from the garden.

A nerve in his cheek twitched as his lips curved into a scowl. He glanced towards the garden then the door to the villa before turning his attention to the table. It was almost funny how life was really nothing more than a string of choices put together one after another; some much more important than others, of course. After carefully weighing his options, he reached down and picked up one of the pieces of parchment. It was easier than he’d expected considering either was a life-changing choice, but he was content as he walked away from the table. After all, now that he had made his decision, it would simply require follow through.

The End