"Imperiused? You think so?" gasped Terry. Quickly, he turned to pass on the message.

"That would explain why Crouch is so wooden all the time!" whispered Daphne. "But what's he being made to do?"

Hermione kept her gaze focused straight ahead. The charm projections had cut out when Fleur had emerged with the golden Cup. With nothing to occupy them, students were turning in every direction to chatter with their neighbours. The Headmasters had each waved their wand once to strip the maze of their enchantments, turning the hedges back to ordinary lines of trees so that a teacher could go in and retrieve the two defeated Champions. Maxime had an arm around Fleur and another around Dumbledore in a show of friendship, and was warmly inviting the two headmasters to go up to the top box to present Fleur to the Minister. Dumbledore was waving for Moody, who got up with a creak of the bench and hobbled around the judges' table to make his way to the maze.

Now. The moment that the conspirators were waiting for was now.

"Not sure, but I bet the imposter controls him!" exclaimed Blaise. Giving up subterfuge in the face of urgency, he flung up a blatant privacy shield. "And if Crouch isn't it then that only leaves -"

But Hermione had leapt to her feet and was already taking off in the direction of the castle. "Keep an eye on Crouch. I'm going to bloody find a professor who's not busy shaking hands with the Minister!"

Her departure was entirely unsubtle, but it could be explained and time was of the essence. Ducking out of sight as soon as she'd cleared the viewing terrace, Hermione concealed herself and quickly conjured a plain black robe over her body, banishing her school clothes into her bag. She could only apply the most rudimentary of her usual disguises, here in the dark and unable to see herself. The silver mask would have to make up for the rest. With her acacia wand, she sent a Patronus message to Severus Snape: 'Crouch Senior has been Imperiused. Nocturne Group is watching him at the stands. Your duelling student has come and told you. Please investigate when reasonable.'

Alibi complete, Hermione took hold of the air around her and propelled herself into the sky, just high enough to bypass the hedges and fly straight across the maze. She disliked this technique of flying, vulnerable as it was to enemy disruptions that could easily result in a fall to the death. Nevertheless, it was fast.

Now it was she who must run a three-way race to the center of the arena, which had begun the moment the maze's enchantments came down. Down below, Moody was shifting hedges out of the way as he moved inward, rearranging the maze so that a path would be clear for the two students to get out. This would take a small amount of time. During this time, the third member of their race would surely be doing as Hermione was doing now: flying straight for the center of the maze in hopes of getting at Harry before he could be brought back to safety. The window of opportunity was real. Five minutes or so where Harry would be stuck amidst a trapped maze with no supervision whatsoever. Five minutes for the imposter to break into a maze while his polyjuice subject is let out in his place under imperius to keep his seat warm at the judges' table. Enough time perhaps to snatch the Boy-Who-Lived and portkey away?

A shout went up in the clearing that she was hurtling towards, and spellfire began to flash. It would seem that the imposter was in the lead.

On the viewing terrace, the Nocturne Group was gathered in a worried huddle.

People all around them were chattering and laughing and starting to stand up. The Slytherins were shuffling along the terrace and slowly gathering from orderly rows back into a blob. Blaise ignored them all. "Guys, we can't just let Moody walk up to Harry all alone. I don't care if it can't be proven. He's still a suspect."

"Krum will be there too," said Theo.

"Two on one is hardly an overwhelming advantage when it's two students against a potential Death Eater!" retorted Blaise, although it really didn't need saying. They all knew. Theo too, judging by the waver in his voice.

"We can try following Moody," said Terry, wringing his hand nervously, "won't be easy though with that eye of his."

"And we've got an invisibility cloak to counter it," Daphne pulled out the cloak that they'd been safeguarding for Harry with a decisive nod, "we can chance it."

In the end they still applied disillusionment and muffliato just in case. Harry's cloak could only cover three of them, and very awkwardly at that. Blaise, Daphne, and Theo had to walk in a tight row with their left arms tightly looped around one another's shoulders and step together with the cloak draped over their faces, while Terry and Anthony continued to watch Crouch and wait for Sally. There was no time to spare any thought for what their classmates might've thought watching them disappear. They must stay close to Moody and get to Harry. With all five of them against Moody, surely they could fend him off if only by sheer numerical superiority.

Blaise wished that Hogwarts had Durmstrang's marching tradition. He'd laughed at them earlier that night, but now he was envious for the practice.

Shuffling carefully through the hedges with Theo's hand on his shoulder, he tried to focus on the rhythm of their footsteps and their goal. Now that they were on their way to rescue Harry, he was starting to feel bad for the Nott heir. Theo had come along to help save their friend when all was said and done, but how would tonight's escapade reflect upon him and his father if the Moody imposter escaped to make his report? Must Blaise save one friend at the expense of another?

If it really came down to a five-on-one duel, Blaise vowed, the imposter must not get away.

"I wonder how long it will take for a teacher to come get us," pondered Viktor, "and if we will still be needed for the award ceremony."

"Probably not," said Harry hopefully. He would hate to have to go shake hands with a row of VIPs and take more questions from Skeeter tonight. Really, Delacour did them both a favour by winning. "I just want to go have a bath and sleep. It's late."

"Yes," agreed Viktor, "that fight with the acromantulas was too exciting. And your little friend scared me. Ah, but look, our rescue comes!"

Overhead, a figure was flying toward them on a broom. A witch. He'd never met her before. He guessed the other schools had brought more teachers than just the headmaster to look after their students.

But something was weird, and the niggling feeling had Harry readying his wand almost subconsciously. "Ma'am," he called to the approaching witch, "which school are you from?"

"She's not our professor," shrugged Viktor, "I thought she would be one of yours. I guess we are getting rescued by Beauxbatons?"

The witch did not answer, focusing instead on her dive into the clearing. It was impressively steep, almost as if she was showing off a Wronski Feint for the two Seekers below. She even knew the correct feinting posture - with her weight on one arm and the other one left free like she was actually preparing to catch a nonexistent Snitch.

Suddenly, Harry realized what the problem was. She was coming in too fast for a landing, and she wasn't slowing down!

"Protego!" he cast without thinking, bringing up a shield bubble around himself and Viktor. The witch on the broom didn't react in time. She crashed against the bubble with a reverberating gong sound and then sort of bounced off to fall in a heap.

"Woah!" jumped Viktor, rushing forward, "are you okay - "

But the witch was already leaping to her feet, and this time her wand was raised. She fired off a bright whitish sort of spell right at Harry, shattering his shield easily like it was a piece of caramel. Harry's sheepish apology died in his throat and turned into a shiver when he caught her expression in the spell-light. No anger, no humor, just cold determination that bordered on fanaticism…

"Stupefy!" he fired, and shouted at Viktor who'd frozen in surprise, "She's not a professor! She's here to attack me!"

"Figured it out have you?" grinned the stranger, firing another red curse at Harry that he barely dodged. "You're smart for a kid, Potter. And a Parselmouth to boot! At least you're not too embarrassing as Lord Voldemort's foe."

She took a step toward Harry and then another, carefully as if she was Animal Control approaching a trapped gutter cat. "Do not move," frowned Viktor, levelling his wand at the witch. There was a half-formed red glow at its tip that looked really ominous and cool. Harry didn't know it was possible to form a spell and then not fire it right away!

The woman was talking again. She did look vaguely Southern - even plausibly French, but Harry doubted that it was her real face. "Stay out of this if you know what's good for you, Krum," she snarled, "there are bigger forces at work than you know. And tell your traitorous coward of a headmaster that he can't run from us!"

"Who are you to threaten my headmaster?" demanded Viktor, the glow on his wand intensifying.

It was then that Harry finally came to his senses about what he should have been doing instead of ogling. "Stupefy!"

His stunner was easily batted away with a shield charm, so he cast another as quickly as he could say the incantation. If he could keep the witch busy casting shields, she'd have no time to attack and maybe then a real professor could get here in time to rescue them.

In practice, his idea didn't work out too well. His attacker was blocking all his spells without breaking a sweat. "So slow, Potter," drawled the witch, walking steadily toward him. Viktor swung a fire whip at her. She paused, unconcerned.

"Haven't you learned to cast nonverbally yet? Or is that something they teach at NEWT-level? Merlin, I've forgotten how harmless fourth-years are!"

Harry had no spare breath to reply. Not Viktor though. "I said, who are you, and what do you want?" he asked again, firing off two fast white curses - one left and one right, so that it would be hard to dodge either way. The witch braced behind a spherical shield and let both wash harmlessly over her head. She cackled loudly.

"I've come to invite Potter to Lord Voldemort's resurrection party! He's an essential guest. His blood is, anyways. Now, Krum, I think you've made yourself enough of a nuisance."

An even faster barrage of spells forced Viktor to hunker down behind his own shield bubble. Harry kept shooting stupefy at her to try to take some pressure off, but it was like she was sidestepping all his spells without even looking! He could only watch with horror as one of the curses finally cracked Viktor's shield, catching the Durmstrang Champion in the stomach and knocking him backward. Viktor Krum fell with a pained sound and didn't get up.

"Viktor!" Harry yelled, pausing his casting to run over to the older student. 'Please don't be dead Please don't be dead...'

But this only gave the witch time to close in.

"Just you and me now, Harry Potter!" she crowed, reaching for him.

"You're bloody crazy! Protego diabolica!" At wit's end, Harry screamed, drawing a circle around himself and Viktor. A ring of terror-fuelled blue fire erupted around them, finally making the witch stop and frown with annoyance. "Playing with Dark Arts, Potter? Do you even know how to use that ward?"

He didn't. What he had was a badly cobbled-together version of Grindelwald's famous ring of fire. When done correctly, it was supposed to test people's loyalty and only allow his true supporters through. The books said that Grindelwald was also able to manipulate the fire, using it to selectively attack people like Fiendfyre. However, Harry was not Gellert Grindelwald, so all he dared to make was 'a ring of blue fire that burns that one particular mage if she tries to cross'.

He didn't even know if it would work like the real thing. He'd heard Blaise and Theo tell enough horror stories to know what could happen to wizards who screw around with unfamiliar Dark Arts like he was sort of doing now. Harry gulped, staring at his frustrated attacker through a sea of ominous blue. It was probably just as likely to burn him as protect him.

Still, he could bluff. "You said I'm essential to Voldemort's resurrection. Well, I'm not coming. And you're not coming in to get me or my blood even if you kill me tonight."

A huff of frustration from his enemy told him that he was on the right track. "Just go away," he added, because who knew what she might do the longer she stood there staring at him! "There's nothing you can do tonight. Go away before my real professors come."

And hopefully sooner rather than later, to free him from his own mess.

"Imperio!" the witch snapped, and the world fell away. Harry felt as if he was in a blissful dream. He knew it was the effect of the imperius curse from one of Moody's demonstrations in class, but it was hard to care when his brain was wrapped in soft fluffy clouds. A sweet, angelic voice was speaking to him from the clouds. "Step out of the circle."

Harry took one step toward the edge of his ward. "Step out of the circle, Harry."

But he shouldn't. He wasn't going to walk through a probably-miscast dark ward without Professor Dumbledore here to help him put it out. But his legs were still moving themselves, and suddenly the vicious-looking blue flames were almost right under his nose. He really shouldn't.

No! He didn't want to die!

The haze was finally pierced by self-preservation and fear of his own spell, allowing Harry to scramble backwards, falling on his arse beside Viktor. But the sweet, fluffy clouds swallowed him up again, so it didn't even hurt. His tongue felt heavy like it was stuck in molasses. "Bad idea," he forced himself to speak, "can't - control it. Good luck - getting blood from a pile of ash!"

The angelic voice growled. "The Dark Lord needs your blood! I will not fail him!"

Crazy bastard. Harry laid back blissfully and let her seeth as she pleased. He really should be more outraged or scared, but it was hard to care about anything right now.

Then, very dimly, a muffled second voice spoke. "You should have left when you had the chance, Death Eater."

Somehow Harry could tell that the angelic voice was distracted now. He didn't care. He wanted to stay in the clouds for just a bit longer.

But he mustn't, because his rescue was here! Reluctantly pushing the clouds off of himself like a blanket, Harry's vision cleared just in time to see the witch from before turn into a dishevelled, young-ish man in the middle of duelling someone else. But sadly the mage he was duelling was not a professor either.

It was another witch dressed in a simple black robe, with a silver mask on her face.

His original assailant, the witch-turned-wizard, was no longer in a position to threaten anyone. The masked woman seemed to have trapped him with her in a shield bubble of their own, and his wand was nowhere in sight. Harry breathed a sigh of relief and went to check on Viktor. He groaned and didn't wake up, but at least he was alive.

"Bartemius Crouch the younger?" asked the masked witch who Harry dearly hoped was on his side. "So many people coming back from the dead tonight! I won't ask you how you escaped Azkaban. It was clever of you to infiltrate the school polyjuiced as your own father. You even had the right name. And, of course, the right clearance."

"Would've liked to be Moody," muttered Bartemius Crouch. "Who are you? What do you want?"

The reversal had Harry burst out laughing despite his better judgement.

Neither Crouch nor his new masked opponent seemed to pay him any attention. "If it's all the same to you, Crouch, I came to stop you from leaving with these two boys," said the unnamed witch with a voice like acromantula silk, "but now I think I'll stop you from leaving altogether. I'm sure Dumbledore can decide what to do with you. Why go through so much trouble to get some blood, Crouch? Shouldn't you be disguised as a medic instead of a judge?"

What did she want and where did she come from? Harry watched his new savior warily. She was smooth and suave in a way that he was now somewhat used to seeing among Daphne's parents' circle of adults, but he'd come to associate that tone with parties and fancy seafood towers, not duels in the middle of mazes with Death Eater was something about that dissonance, or maybe the fact that she'd probably outduelled a Death Eater in about five seconds, that made Harry shiver. This was a bloody dangerous witch.

"The Dark Lord wants Potter there in person," shrugged Crouch, "and you can't stop me. Soon the Dark Lord will return to power, and I will be at his side as his faithful lieutenant."

"So confident," remarked the masked woman, rolling a coppery-coloured wand between long fingers. She'd said it plainly, but she must've been taunting him. "and where is your Dark Lord now, Crouch? Where is he?"

Bartemius Crouch grabbed his own head and started to scream in pain.

"Stop!" Harry yelled at her, horrified. Just because Crouch was a Death Eater didn't mean he needed to be tortured!

The witch turned her head toward Harry. Behind the mask, her eyes seemed to be blinking.

Whatever she'd been doing to Crouch seemed to have stopped though, and Crouch was quietening down. "I won't - I won't let you see!" he panted.

"Ah." Harry finally realized that she'd been trying to get Voldemort's location from Crouch by legilimency rather than bullying a prisoner for fun. He flushed and closed his mouth sheepishly, suddenly unsure if he'd been right to interrupt or not. Why'd he have to stick his neck out for Crouch of all people?

Now he finally had the interrogator's attention, and he couldn't even tell if she was pissed at him.

Either way, the masked mage was choosing to comply with Harry's moral intervention, and she did not make another attempt at reading Crouch's mind. Instead, she suddenly addressed Harry quite friendlily, "Mr. Potter, is your friend injured?"

"Y-yes," stammered Harry, "He got hit by a light blue curse. It broke through his shield and - and got him in the stomach - "

"I see," said the witch. She must've done some sort of diagnosis on Krum, because with a twirl of her wand she said, "That's a siege spell. He's not in immediate danger. It's fortunate."

Then she turned to Crouch and said, equally amicably, "Bartemius, how do your friends fare in Azkaban? Bellatrix? Rodolphus? Rabastan?"

"None of your business!" shouted Crouch, "The Dark Lord will free them in due time!"

She humoured him with an indulgent nod. "Them and you too perhaps, when the day comes?" she suggested with a particular look that suddenly made Harry wonder if she'd managed to get into Crouch's head after all. Merlin, who was this woman? She was scarier than Snape!

Maybe they were related.

"Perhaps you will be right. Or perhaps not," Completely ignoring Harry once again, the masked mage was leveling her wand at Crouch again. The sleeve of her black robe fluttered with the movement like a dark wing. "But for now - "

But Harry never found out what she meant to say, because before she could finish the sentence, something that Harry didn't catch took her by surprise. One minute everything was fine, and the next minute the great shield bubble was shattering to pieces and Crouch was flying away on his broom until with a swirl he disappeared altogether.

Instead of trying to knock Crouch out of the sky with a spell, the masked mage had spun around to face someone else.

"Alastor Moody," she greeted with a sigh that sounded like resignation, "What impeccable timing."

Hermione felt the attack a split second before her shield was broken through. Bartemius Crouch immediately summoned his broom and took off. Sidestepping a stupefy that came from behind, she turned to greet the new arrival. "Alastor Moody. I hope you recognized that man who you helped to escape."

Moody nodded, flicking a incarcerous at her. "Barty Crouch. He's supposed to have died in Azkaban."

"Well, did you not see him, or did you want to do him a favour out of sentiment?" Hermione complained with a touch of irritation, flicking his attacks aside. She should've known that Mad-Eye subscribed to the school of "shoot first, ask questions later".

"Didn't think he could still move that fast," admitted Mad-Eye honestly, "and you, witch, I'm bringing you in. You can explain to Dumbledore and the Aurors what the hell you and Crouch were doing here, trespassing and trapping students in dark wards."

Hermione shook her head. "I'm on a schedule tonight. If the Headmaster wants to meet me in person, he can write and arrange a mutually convenient time. But first, excuse me, revelio natura!"

She didn't think he was an imposter, but it was better not to take chances.

Moody scowled as the untransfiguration spell blasted through his hair, making them stand on ends, and scowled more when his retaliatory spell bounced off Hermione's newly cast shield that sliced across the clearing, separating herself from Moody and Harry's little circle of fire. "It's in your own interest to cooperate," he snapped. "Who are you and what the hell were you doing here?"

"My name is Slytherin. Dumbledore knows me as S. A pleasure to meet you," Hermione smiled, turning her head slightly to peer at a patch of air at the peripheral vision of her left eye. It looked perfectly normal, perfectly unwavering, and perfectly empty. Interesting. "I came, as you saw, to stop a Death Eater from abducting one or both of those two students over there, but really they've done quite well defending themselves. Whoever cast the protego diabolica was very inspired."

Perhaps the ex-Auror felt safer now that the threat had cordoned herself off from the helpless targets. Instead of aggressively trying to subdue her, he was now settling down to poke the occasional shield-breaker at her only once in a while. This was good. For the next part, she needed her audience to listen.

It was time to make a proper sales pitch.

"It's unfortunate that I must take my leave of you tonight, but first I would oblige you to pass a word to Dumbledore for me. Tell the leader of the Order of the Phoenix my name, please, and that I am the one he's been seeking since Bill E13 and the ill-fated Werewolf Registration Act. It may clarify a number of things for him."

"The Order of the Phoenix disbanded with the death of You-Know-Who," said Moody.

"Yes, and scattered like ash on a burning-day," smiled Hermione, "Nevertheless, after what we've seen from Mr. Crouch tonight, I am a firm believer in resurrections. For example, just now I've discovered from young Bartemius's mind that a homunculus called Voldemort is waiting in the Riddle Manor for his faithful servant to build him a new body from the blood of his enemy."

The retired Auror started at this news. "Where is this manor?" he demanded with renewed urgency.

"Little Hangleton, not that the information would do much good now," sighed Hermione, "He will most likely have relocated now that Crouch has returned to him empty-handed. In the meantime, we can plan to get him on the next turn. I represent a group of Dark-Traditionalists who are committed to preserving a peaceful magical society. I want a defensive alliance with the Order of the Phoenix to prevent the resurgence of Lord Voldemort and his Death Eaters."

Moody scowled. "Hard to trust a dark mage who shows up in a mask."

"Better a literal mask than an invisible one. I trust you will give my message to the Headmaster regardless," Hermione nodded. "And one more thing."

She took two deliberate steps backwards and to the left. Even as Moody's wand hand tensed minutely, her consciousness searched for that delicate feeling that she noticed mere moments ago. It was an elusive sensation of something, like a weightless feather on the back of her hand. A stir of the air. A flutter of a cloak.

She cleared her throat to speak. Not for Moody, but rather for her unseen listeners following this entire conversation. "The Headmaster has said admirably that Hogwarts is a sanctuary to all its students. As executor to a founder's legacy, I pledge to provide sanctuary where Hogwarts cannot. I do not believe that the choices of one generation should define the next. To anyone who feels torn by obligation, I share your pain. To stand against family is a terrible thing."

The platitude tasted bland as it rolled off her tongue. Her mouth was dry from speaking. "I will offer the choice anyway. If you know anyone who is caught between a rock and a hard place, anyone who is wavering… please pass this along, would you?"

Her plea was met with silence. Not even a night breeze answered her.

"Alright, you've said your piece," called Moody loudly, "Surrender yourself or leave!" His raised wand made it obvious that she'd overstayed her welcome.

"Until next time, Moody," Hermione bowed, and abandoned the outcome of her plea to the hands of fate.

As soon as the shield wall came down, Professor Moody came rushing forward. "Are you three alright?"

"Oh sweet Merlin's sake!" Blaise yanked the invisibility cloak off, un-hiding his two friends in the process, "You saw us too, professor? Does this cloak even work?"

"Yes it does!" defended Harry from a circle of hellish-looking blue flames, which Blaise still couldn't believe he'd actually dared to use. 'That's Gryffindor for you. Bloody fearless nutheads with balls of brass!'

"I've got a magic eye," shrugged Moody, "no idea how she knew you were there. Had to chase her off before she got any clever ideas."

Blaise couldn't help but grumble despite his best efforts. He bloody knew it! All this trouble to be sneaky, and all along Moody was probably watching them and having a laugh! At least now they knew he was the real Moody. If a revelio natura was good enough for the infamous Mme. Slytherin, it was good enough for Blaise.

"We're all fine," said Blaise. He wasn't afraid of the dark witch taking him hostage. Really, he was excited more than anything. "Can you believe she was standing right in front of us? The Mme. Slytherin. What - not even a meter away?"

Moody flicked his wand, probably to send another Patronus to say that the situation was under control."Don't you go hero-worshipping her now, boy," warned the ex-Auror. "You've no idea who she is or if she's even telling the truth. You lot have been smart enough to keep me at arm's length in case I was the imposter, right?"

"Er, yes sir," nodded Blaise, chastised and a little embarrassed.

"Good. Keep that skepticism. Don't go throwing it away just because someone's appealing to your Slytherin pride or some bullcrap like that. There's been enough glory-seekers and idiots trying to be cool in the last war, you hear me?"

"Yes sir," Blaise conceded. More than happy to change the topic, he said instead, "I guess this means we've solved the conspiracy, right? Crouch was the imposter masquerading as his own father, but now the real Crouch Sr. is sitting out there Imperiused while the real Crouch Jr.'s fled."

"That means I'm safe now, right?" asked Harry, plopping down on the grass beside Viktor Krum, "Finally. I never wanted to be in this bloody Tournament. I actually miss normal classes and homework and exams, to be honest."

"Harry, don't say that in front of a professor or they'll revoke your exemption!" joked Daphne.

Moody laughed too. At least, Blaise thought he did. It was a harsh bark from the stomach that wasn't at all gentle or polite. "Safe?" chuckled their Defence professor humourlessly.

"Maybe you weren't listening carefully just now. Voldemort is alive. He's on his way to regaining a body. At least one of his Death Eaters has returned to him, and more will follow. Do you think they'll leave the Boy-Who-Lived alone?" He was looking at Harry, but his magical eye seemed to swivel straight at Blaise's group like some sort of challenge. "Enjoy the rest of this year, Potter. You'll never be this safe for a long time."

And on that depressing note, Dumbledore arrived with the cavalry. Harry was quickly freed from his bastard version of Grindelwald's ward, and some field healing spells and potions were used on Krum. Theo went over to Harry and started filling him in on everything that had happened out at the viewing terrace while Mme. Pomfrey checked him for injuries. Blaise wrapped his cloak tighter around himself for warmth, settling in for a long wait while the adults sorted things out. It was funny. Even after they'd gotten rid of the invisibility cloak, the three of them had still been standing close as when they'd been clinging to one another. Now that they were moving apart, Blaise was feeling quite a chill at his side.

Eventually Viktor managed to wake up, but the professors still made him get onto a stretcher to be carried back. Karkaroff walked ahead with Headmaster Dumbledore and Professor Moody, but for once Blaise couldn't be less curious about what the teachers were discussing. Instead, the four members of the Nocturne Group trailed a good, wide distance behind.

"I can't believe we actually met Slytherin in person," he whispered.

Daphne quickly gave Harry the rundown about Mme. Slytherin that she'd told the others earlier in the night. "I guess she is kind of like how I imagined she would be."

"Mysterious and polite?" agreed Blaise. Politely secretive. That just about summed up the new Slytherin family head in a phrase.

"She's also kind of scary," added Harry, and he told them about how Slytherin had apparently made Crouch cry for death before they caught up. "Well, she was fighting him to find out where Voldemort is, and she won."

"My mother told me that the new leader of the neutral-dark faction is a ward master," said Daphne thoughtfully, "I guess she's a Legilimens as well. It does make sense. Potions and the mind arts are traditional expertise of the Slytherin family - well, at least until their family went downhill."

"I'd like to see her and Professor Snape have a match at Legilimency," joked Harry, "see who pokes a reaction out of the other first."

"Ugh, you have a twisted mind, Harry."

Blaise hazarded a glance at Theo. Theo hadn't said anything the entire walk, and seemed to be staring into space. "What do you think of her?"

Theo deliberated.

"Roses," he said. "subtle scent, surprisingly arresting."

Blaise gawked at him. "Oh c'mon Nott! We've just met a powerful dark witch who leads a political faction and holds the title of Venerable Mme. Slytherin, and that's the thing you focus on? Her perfume?"

"Yup," said Theo entirely unabashedly, even raising an eyebrow when Blaise continued to stare. But he would not elaborate, and nothing Blaise tried or did afterwards could get him to. If anything, it only made Theo quicken his pace a little.

Daphne sidled up to Blaise and grabbed his arm. "Let him be," she murmured into his ear behind their friend's back, "we can only push him so hard."

Blaise sighed, carefully holding back his frustration. "Right."

They picked up their pace again to catch up to their friend. He wasn't sure what verdict he'd hoped to hear from Theo. Acknowledgement of Slytherin's offer of protection, perhaps? Or else doubts that could be discussed and debated. Not this… non-answer! He didn't think his friend had turned into a rake overnight - and Theo was not that kind of guy - so it was clearly a transparent effort to bow out of the discussion.

But at the end of the day, it was Theo's choice, and it was up to him alone.

'Enjoy the rest of this year, says Moody,' thought Blaise morosely.

Like they could just pretend that everything would magically turn out fine if they stopped thinking about it.

Blaise tilted his head back, and imitated Theo by staring off into space. There was nothing to it. Whatever was going to happen would happen, and they'd just have to adapt. All they could do now was hope.