Dancing in the Rain

"Life isn't about waiting for the storm to pass… It's about learning to dance in the rain."

-Vivian Greene

Chapter 1: The Sapphire Dress

The dress was sapphire.

Emerging from one of Mother's old dress boxes in a rippling cascade of satin, it exuded an air of sophistication and class. It was the sort of dress that was never in high fashion but never completely out of style either. With a gathered skirt and a fitted strapless bodice adorned with jewels that glittered in the candlelight, it held its age well, despite its twenty-two years spent in the captivity of storage. It still held a faint scent of an unknown perfume – light and vaguely lavender. I realized with a tug that it was probably the perfume my mother wore when she was my age.

My mother, normally strict and domineering, looked nearly fragile as she removed the mass of finery from that flowered box. Her jaw was tight and her eyes were guarded, but under her layers of security I could sense something sad and deep and nostalgic. I knew that this was the dress that she wore when her engagement to my father was officially announced.

I didn't dare ask why she might be sad.

Perhaps maybe, just maybe, my mother was a little bit like me when she was younger. Perhaps she, too, felt a mixture of dread and nervousness and an overpowering weight in her chest when she was faced with her arranged marriage. Perhaps she didn't want to be trapped in this life any more than I wanted to be. But then, as my mother always reminded me, I was the one who was different. I was the Gryffindor. I was the child who liked horses and mud and climbing trees and didn't mind scraped knees. I was the child who was too wild. I was the child who needed to be broken. So perhaps I'm just projecting.

Whatever my mother's feelings, past or present, there was no denying the terrifying strength of my own. I generally didn't trust myself when my emotions were running strong. There was a positive relationship between my inability to control my emotions and my inability to control my body. When I got too emotional, I was prone to do such things as throw my shoe at my brother when I was frustrated, stick my elbow in hot soup when I fancied a boy, or skip so excitedly that I tripped down the steps when I was elated. Experience had taught me that whenever I got emotional, something bad happened.

Tonight, especially, I shouldn't get emotional. But could I stop myself?


In truth, I was still clinging to a bit of denial. I knew that I was going to begin formally courting Landon Burke tonight, but until I laid eyes on him, until we danced our first dance, until I figured out just how wonderful or awful he was, it didn't feel completely real. I was trying to hold on to that bit of blissful denial for as long as I could. I was trying to supress the jumbled mass of emotions that were tumbling through my mind. I was trying to ignore the fact that I was set to become my mother.

The dress wasn't helping.

As my mother neared me with it, the shimmery fabric dancing in the light, mesmerising, reality became clearer and colder.

The sapphire dress. My mother's sapphire dress. I was told of it as a little girl, allowed to run my fingers along it when I was seven. I remember sitting in front of that floral box, cross-legged and under my mother's watchful gaze, letting the slick fabric slide between my fingers. It would be mine one day, my mother told me. It would be mine when I'd found the man I was going to marry.

Found. Funnily enough, when I was a child no one mentioned that my future husband would be found for me.

"Stop fidgeting, Marianna," my mother snapped, standing directly in front of me with that fateful garment clutched in her talon-like hands. I hadn't noticed that I was squirming, but sure enough my bare feet were practically prancing back and forth on the wooden floor. I snapped to attention, ridiculously rigid as the butterflies attacked my stomach.

I could see the mirror's reflection from here, and I focused on that. I could see my desk, complete with Great-Grandma's trusty old lamp and my favourite crystal ink well. I could just barely see the edge of my bed and a patch of the window's view – the summer sky, covered with a mixture of fluffy grey and white clouds. But mostly what the mirror showed me was myself.

Fifteen years old, having just come out of my (hopefully) last growth spurt, I was borderline tall and distinctly gangly. I had my father's red hair, my mother's blue eyes, and my grandfather's tiny little ears. I was born with porcelain skin, just like my mother. However, through studying by the lake and neglecting sun-protection charms for much of my childhood, my pale skin was smattered with freckles, mostly on my shoulders and across my cheeks. My freckles caused my mother no end of grief.

Now, however, those unruly dots were disguised with glamour spells and skin potions, so they were invisible in that gold-framed mirror – the mirror that had been a silent observer of this same transformation a thousand times.

Just like the mirror, I always watched. It was oddly fascinating. It was like watching myself be stripped away yet watching myself come back to normality at the same time. Throughout the course of the last few hours, my reflection had slowly transformed from that gangly, clumsy, nerdy ginger girl that Hogwarts knew so well, into Marianna Elizabeth Blackthorn, a satin-clad, bejewelled, and glamour-charmed young woman with a decade and a half of social training and enough money to run a small country.

It was quite odd, I must admit: Looking at yourself but not seeing yourself. I only saw The Mask.

The Mask was a necessity of home life. At home, I had to be perfect for my mother, and The Mask helped me achieve that. It had exited in the tiny things – the way I would always sit straight and hold my fork properly and speak when spoken to – my entire life. I'd always felt it. It was the controlled, level feeling that came over me when I tried to be perfect. The Mask had always been part of my life. Nothing had changed.

Except, I thought, as I watched myself slowly become just like my mother, except I believe that over time it had gotten stronger.

The Mask was quite useful though. Masked me didn't get so very nervous about tonight. Tonight, I was to spend the evening with Landon, a person that I didn't really know, with the expectation that we were very soon going to have a committed romantic relationship. In three years, we would be married. The Mask understood this. The Mask was calm. Without The Mask, I would panic under the crushing weight of that reality.

But The Mask was unruffled. The Mask was cool and calm and collected. The Mask was everything my mother trained me to be.

That persona slipped into place in unison with the sapphire dress. I drew back within myself, distanced myself from life. I let the Mask take over, the cold, empty, precise feeling seeping into my bones, driving out the panic and the nervousness and the dread. The Mask didn't deal with emotions. The Mask only dealt with reality: What needed to be accomplished? What was the proper thing to do? It answered these questions and carried out the appropriate actions without wasting any tears or laughs. The Mask was an instrument of utility.

I didn't feel like myself under The Mask. It made me feel cold and dark and lonely. But it served its purpose. With The Mask, I pleased my mother.

My mother dressed me herself. It was the first time she'd ever done that. Normally she chose my dress and then, with a click of her ringed fingers, summoned a handful of our many house elves to do the hard work for her. She supervised. But now, the room was empty save for the two of us. It was rather odd – eerie, and quiet, the tension of the night hanging in the air and making every small manoeuvre seem to hold titanic significance.

When I was little, I used to dream of getting ready for a ball with my mother. My nurses would spin me tales of parties and dancing and dresses so pretty that they made your heart soar. I ate up their stories, more out of the joy of hearing them weave a tale than actual interest in balls. My elder brother, Richard, proclaimed balls to be silly, so I pretended to harbour a slight distaste for them, trying to prove to him in my tender age that I was not a frivolous little girl. Nonetheless, when thoughts of my brother were far from my mind, I still daydreamed of this day: The day that my mother and I would spend time together getting ready for a ball.

In my imagination, my mother was always caring and tender, helping me along the way and telling me all the secrets that I would need to know for the night. We would smile at how pretty I looked and pick out my jewellery together, sharing one of those secret, loving moments between mother and daughter. By then, my young self thought, I would have learned how to make my mother happy.

Oh, how foolishly naïve I was.

Instead, the first and potentially last time that my mother and my mother alone helped me prepare for a ball, the air was filled with pressure. I was clinging to The Mask, pushing my true thoughts into the depths of my soul and projecting a cold and calculating version of myself. My mother's lips were pressed tight and her eyes were narrowed as her wand weaved backwards and forwards, sewing me into the sapphire dress. I could sense that a lecture was coming.

The moment didn't feel like one of bonding to me. Rather, it felt almost threatening. There was only my mother in the room. There was no one to plead to, no one's sympathy to beg, no one to cause me to doubt tonight. Perhaps my mother meant for this night to be like my dreams, perhaps she meant for it to be a night of tenderly maternal affection, but it appeared to me little more than a strategy to maintain control, to make sure I didn't back out of the previously discussed arrangement at the last minute.

My mother finished her work with a final sweeping flourish. It was complete; the sapphire dress and I were inseparable for the night.

I really did look quite beautiful. I scrutinized my reflection, trying to pinpoint what exactly made me look better tonight than I looked for last summer's balls. I concluded that the dress was far more stunning on person than it was in the box, and the colour played off wonderfully against my hair.

My hair was troublesome to categorize, as most reds are. It was a bit too red for auburn, but too brown to be called copper. Aunt Astoria calls it titian. When I was a little girl I loved that – I used to brag to Octavia as we dressed up as princesses that my hair was titian, a very special colour that Aunt Astoria deemed the best. And if Aunt Astoria said it was the best, then it must be the very best hair colour in all the world. That word did wonders for my self-confidence as a child.

Now, as I looked at my reflection, at the perfect version of myself in the mirror, I felt no surge of self-confidence. Perhaps I ought to have had pride in how I looked. But I had long thought that the beauty that my mother brought out wasn't really mine to claim. It was the product of beauty potions and glamour spells and lotions and makeup and a plethora of other appearance-altering tools. Did I really, then, have any right to claim the final product? The girl staring back at me in the mirror, with her perfectly curled hair pulled up in a complicated coiffure, with her perfectly even complexion devoid of any hint of freckles, did I really have any claim to her? Was she really I, or was she simply a physical Mask – an altering of my exterior to fit my mother's wishes? Was there even enough of my natural self in her for me to reasonably say that I was she?

I thought not. I was not beautiful, but she was.

"That should do," My mother said, clicking her tongue to show that she was still slightly dissatisfied, despite her afternoon's efforts. My mother was perpetually dissatisfied with me. Her disapproval hardly bothered me anymore; it was routine.

She prowled a circle around me, eyes roaming up and down before settling on my face. I could smell the scolding about to be laid upon me.

"I expect you to be on your best behaviour tonight, Marianna," she warned, her blue eyes, so like mine, narrowed into steely slits.

"Yes, Mother," I responded obediently, dully, uncaringly. This was a little tradition of ours, The Pre-Ball Lecture, and I had stopped giving Mother my full attention after the fifth nearly identical speech.

But tonight was different.

"As you know, tonight is not like other nights." My heart began thumping loudly.

Control yourself, The Mask demanded. I deepened my breathing, ignoring the rising emotions until they disappeared.

"Tonight you will do your family proud and begin courting Landon Burke. I hardly need to remind you of what is expected of you. This family is relying on you. The Blackthorn name is not a pureblood one – marriage is one of the only ways that we have of purifying ourselves in the eyes of the true purebloods. And as you know, marriage is the only option available to you, Marianna. It is your duty to carry this out, for the good of your family. The lives and reputations of your brothers and your future children depend upon it."

I'd heard this speech a thousand times – it was drilled in my head from the age of twelve. Marriage was my destiny. My future was as the wife of a pureblood, likely a second or, as Landon was, a third son in a line. I was to raise strong little boys and graceful little girls to carry on the traditions of the past. I was to link the Blackthorn name ever closer to that circle that my father so desperately wished to become a part of.

It was my duty to my family to marry Landon Burke in three years.

It didn't matter that my heart was still pounding, despite my attempts to ignore it. It didn't matter that my head was getting a bit dizzy and the world seemed wrong. It didn't matter that I wasn't sure, even a little bit, that that was the life I wanted. It was going to happen, and that was the end of it. I didn't expect anyone to pity me or try to console me. No one ever had before. Why should I receive sympathy for something that was expected of all girls in families like mine?

I wasn't prepared for my mother's next words.

"I know how you must be feeling, Marianna." My eyes snapped to hers in the mirror, shock barely disguised on my face. Here I stood, in the sapphire dress, next to my mother in all her crimson finery, and she had just…just…

Was she relating to me? For, perhaps, the first time in my life?

"When I…" She paused her voice almost soft, a strange flash of emotion crossing her face. Then, as quickly as it had come, that uncharacteristic emotion was gone.

"Landon Burke is a fairly decent boy. At least," she continued, with a growing edge in her voice, "he was the best I could dredge up, given what I had to work with." She sent me a look and I shifted slightly. I knew what she was referring to: Gryffindor, friends with only one other girl in the pureblood circle, socially mediocre, too quiet to be lively but too wild to be demure, lacking talent in any one specific area such as art or music, too smart to not be opinionated, and not gorgeous enough to be able to pull all of that off. For a second, I wondered how my mother had managed to find me a pureblood husband at all.

"He certainly doesn't come off any worse than your father did. Granted, he doesn't have your father's money, and you won't live in a manor near this grand when you marry, but he has the name, and that's what's important." Her face softened again, twitching slightly. She opened her mouth and looked as though she were going to say something more, something important even, but then she snapped her mouth shut and once more returned to her normal authoritative tone.

"Now, you have ten minutes. Do whatever you need to do to prepare yourself for tonight. Be in the foyer at six fifty-five sharp, understand?" She demanded, rising to her full height.

I nodded. I was quite ready to have a moment of peace before I was forced to socialize for an entire evening. With an impressively artistic swish of her crimson skirts, she glided out of my room, the door shutting behind her with a snap.

I sighed, immediately slipping my feet out of the high, strappy silver heels that my feet were being subjected to. I gazed longingly at my cushioned vanity chair, but knew that if I sat down I would wrinkle my dress before the ball even began, and Mother would have my head. Standing would have to suffice.

I could hear the slow ticking of the large clock out in the corridor. Tick, tock, tick, tock, it mocked me. In the heavy silence, full of whispers, whispers of secrets that were being actively pushed to the very darkest depths of my mind, I suddenly wished that my mother would come back. At least her lectures and judgmental gaze would give me something to focus on. Something besides my feelings, clawing their way to the surface, closing my throat, causing my skin to prickle, and sending my head in circles.

I wouldn't think about it. I wouldn't. I couldn't. Thinking only led to madness, and I couldn't afford madness. I needed to be the perfect Mask, inside and out. Thought was The Mask's Achilles heel. How could I go through with the ball tonight in the way my mother wanted me to if I thought too long and hard about what it was that I was giving away, about what I was willingly signing myself up for?

But standing alone in the silence of the darkening room, with the cool floorboards under my feet, how could I do anything but think?

It was a relief, therefore, when I heard a knock of my door.

Rat-a-tat-tat-tap-tap, our secret knock. Charlie.

I faced the door just as his head popped around the corner, all dark hair and big blue eyes. His hair was wet and dripping slightly unto his pyjamas.

"Hello," he said automatically, slipping through the door and shutting it quickly and silently behind him. We must have looked quite the contrast – I, dressed for a ball, and he, dressed for bed.

He fidgeted a bit, unsure of what to do next. His eyes darted to mine a couple of times, as he seemed to struggle with his words.

"Alright there, Charlie?" I asked, slightly amused at his failing attempts at speech. He nodded quickly and promptly blurted out:

"Good luck." Then, with a slight shake of his head, he stumbled on, "I mean, have fun. Er, I hope that you like Landon." Charlie looked so painfully conflicted, obviously trying to unravel the complex, undefined emotions that he'd gotten off of me in the past week and put them at ease. Charlie knew what was happening, of course; it was impossible to have lived in this house in the past week and have not known what was occurring tonight at the opening ball. In fact, Charlie probably knew more about Landon than I did, as he was at home whereas I was at school during Mother's hunting season.

"Thanks," I said, giving him a sincere smile, breaking The Mask in the process. Charlie's red face dimmed a bit as he exhaled. The tension in the room dissipated. The poor kid never stopped trying to have emotionally stable and empathetic conversations, despite the fact that Blackthorns just aren't cut out for such things.

He hovered, glancing around my room – which had looked the same for three years now – as he rolled back and forth on the balls of his feet. He looked too aimless, smacking his lips together.

"Is that it?" I asked, suspicious.

Charlie's big eyes looked up into mine, a little bit too wide and innocent. "Hmm?" He asked. He heard me perfectly well.

"Is that all you had to say?" I elaborated, realizing after I spoke that I sounded as though I was kicking him out. He seemed to consider my question for another moment, shuffling his bare feet on the floor, before he blurted out pleadingly:

"Please don't make me go back out there!" He looked up at me in sheer desperation. "She'll find me in an instant. She thinks that Mother is in here, which is the only reason I'm safe."

I quickly deduced the nature of his predicament.

"Miss Clarice?" I asked, referring to the Nurse of the Moment. Charlie's head bobbed up and down frantically.

"She's evil," He hissed, casting a shuddering glance behind him at the door, as though she were about to burst through it any second.

"I'm sure she's not that bad," I said diplomatically. Although if she was anything like some of our past nurses, she might be truly terrifying.

"Yes she is," Charlie insisted. He stepped closer to me, pulling his ear outwards and showing me the red skin behind it. "Look at it! She's rubbed it raw. She insisted that I must be filthy after playing Quidditch today so she decided to torment me by personally bathing me and trying to rip the skin off of my skull. I swear she treats me as though I'm three years old! I'm not a child." He finished stubbornly, his arms crossing tightly over his chest.

"Well you are only ten," I reminded him with a teasing smile. Charlie huffed, offended.

"I'll be eleven next month! It's as though everyone forgets that I'm starting Hogwarts this year!" He sulked a bit more. Dramatic though he was, he probably wasn't wrong. I wouldn't be surprised if Mother and Father honestly had forgotten that he was leaving this year; they hardly paid any attention to Charlie.

But, if there were ever a time to have an honest conversation with Charlie about how Mother and Father hated us all, and how their lack of attention might actually be a blessing, that time was not now. So, I put on a smile and nudged him in the shoulder with my elbow, nearly taking him out with my skirts in the process. "Well, that's just part and parcel of being the baby of the family. No one is ready for you to grow up."

After recovering from his skirt-induced stumble he grumbled, "I am."

"I know," I replied, thinking back to how frustrating and exciting those last couple of months at home were. Out in the hall, the clock chimed seven.

"Ah, bugger," I muttered, picturing Mother standing below in the foyer, counting how many seconds late I was. Merlin forbid if she was on time and I wasn't there. "I have to go," I told Charlie, though he had likely already gathered that from the way I was frantically trying to strap my shoes back on underneath my dress.

"Off to go dancing and dining," Charlie said with dramatic wistfulness. "While I'm stuck here with Miss Clarice, slowly dying of boredom."

"Poor baby," I cooed, finally managed to manoeuvre those tiny, tricky little straps into their proper places. Charlie made a twisted face at me, which I returned, making him smile reluctantly before I dashed out the door and into the corridor.

"And don't let Mother catch you saying naughty words like bugger!" Charlie yelled after me. I ignored him, flying down the stairs as quickly as possible without killing myself or losing my breath or putting one of Mother's perfectly styled pieces of hair out of place.

I passed the imposing Nurse Clarice a second later, climbing quickly in the direction of Charlie's voice, her face set in a mask of iron determination. I had a feeling that Charlie's evening would be just as wretched as mine was likely to be. It hardly made me feel better, but I didn't have much time to dwell on it before slipping back into The Mask. At the top of the final set of stairs, I popped my head over the railing, looking down into the grand foyer, excuses on my tongue, to find that no one but Richard was even down yet.

Typical. Mother had to make a fashionably late entrance and Father, though the one who insisted most vehemently that our family must fully integrate itself into the pureblood circle, usually had to be dragged away from his office on nights like tonight, which would be more about tittering and gossip than secret business deals in the corner. Only Richard was there, taking long pulls out of a large silver flask, regarding my approach with indifference.

I sighed, taking my time down the last steps, knowing this was probably the last moment I'd have this evening in which watchful eyes wouldn't be monitoring my every move. I came and stood beside Richard silently, my eyes following the movement as he lifted the flask to his lips once more. His eyes were already glassy, his cheeks ruddy.

I didn't comment.

We stood for a long moment, side by side, in silence, listening to nothing except the slow, deep ticking of the seconds from the massive entrance clock. Richard turned slightly to regard my dress, an odd sort of look passing over his face.

"You ready for a miserable life of mistresses, disobedient children, forced loyalty, and inane responsibilities?" He asked with a hiccup. My heart made a good play for a twang, but The Mask smothered it. He didn't wait for me to reply before muttering darkly under his breath, "Twelve months." He took another gulp of the burning liquid as though it were water. He had only just graduated Hogwarts, and in a year, he too was committing himself to the life he had described with Georgiana Goyle. I wondered if his attempted to drown reality worked.

Father came striding in irritably then, completing the trio of family redheads. His gaze glazed over Richard and I, registering Mother's absence with a flash of agitation.

"Where is your mother?" He barked. Neither of us answered. To actually engage Father was akin to suicide. He growled a few choice words on Mother's absence under his breath and quickly sized up Richard, taking in his obvious intoxication.

"You had better control yourself this evening," he threatened with a significant look. Richard made some vague sign of affirmation, and Father whipped around to the stairs, looking about a second away from marching up them and dragging Mother down no matter her state of dress, which was a spectacle he'd indulged in before.

He didn't say a word to me.

Mother eventually descended the stairs in a theatrical display of her forty years of beauty. Father snapped at her harshly, but Mother kept her poise in her humiliation and belittlement. Mother apologized profusely to Father as we prepared to Apparate, but I knew that come next ball, she would be late once again.

It was her one rebellion.

The opening ball of the season was being held at the Nott's, as it usually was. Every family that had the wealth to do so held one party each year, varying in size from a ball to a garden party based on the size of their house and Gringotts vault. Extra gatherings occurred around a special event, such as a wedding, but sometimes those events had guest lists restricted to only families close to the hosts. You could only depend on one party a year from each family. This was, in the end, plenty.

But tonight's event was the most sought after event of all. All of the richest families bickered with each other – in their quiet, underhanded, polite way – to try to be the lucky family who hosted the first ball of the summer season. It was arguably the most important event of the entire year, as it was when the rising forth years joined the ranks of the partygoers and also when the vast majority of formal courtships were announced. The Notts usually won, if only through the power of tradition and their absolutely magnificent sweeping double staircase, which was perfect for the grand, ceremonious entrances of the courting couples.

I only just had time to register the Nott's fine entranceway, only just had time to feel my heart stop in terror at the sight of that portentous stairwell before I was being whisked off by one of the younger Nott wives, my mother sending one last warning look to behave after me.

I found myself in a large room off to the right of the top of the staircase. The large pink and gold room was full of some dozen of my peers, all in their very finest dresses. Some were whispering and giggling excitedly, others were sitting alone in chairs along the edge, their faces ranging from unnervingly blank to full of sheer panic. Lillian Travers looked as though she was going to be sick on the floor. A couple of the faces I didn't recognize, and I figured they were likely the foreign competition that Octavia so often griped about: girls from high status families in America or France or elsewhere whose families set them up with boys from our increasingly incestuous pool.

I hovered about the doorway, my eyes roaming the room until they settled on Octavia in the far corner, who was regarding the other girls with visible disdain. She caught sight of me and straightened up in anticipation. I hurried over to her.

Octavia Flint was taller than I, with a far more pleasing figure. When she entered a room, it was impossible for eyes not to fix on her. With her olive skin, high cheekbones, and striking dark hair and eyes, she would draw attention if she were wearing a potato sack. Dressed as she was now, in a positively gorgeous emerald dress that brought out the brown tones in her skin, with her raven hair styled to compliment her classic face perfectly, she looked nothing short of a goddess. But then, as her best friend of fifteen years, perhaps I was prone to a bit of exaggeration.

"Thank Merlin," she proclaimed upon my arrival to her vicinity. "The sheer levels of stupidity in this room were beginning to affect my sanity." She sent a dark look over to the more giggly girls in the room. I ignored her insult with practiced ease and directed her attention to a more safe and desirable subject.

"So," I began leadingly, playing up my interest in her latest mystery. "Are you finally going to tell me which lucky lad will be adorning your arm this evening?" I prodded, a smile stretching along The Mask.

She exuded an air of superior satisfaction, a sly grin slipping onto her face. "What would be the fun in that?" She teased. "I want the satisfaction of seeing the surprise and supressed jealousy on your face." I laughed with her, unsure of how serious she actually was. No matter whom she was taking, I doubted that I would be jealous. Unless she'd escaped this madness and was taking herself. Then I suppose I might be a bit jealous.

We spent the next ten to fifteen minutes speculating and, frankly, gossiping, about who each of the girls was paired with. Every so often I would poke at her own mysterious partner, if only to enjoy the smile it brought to Octavia's face as she basked in the attention. Far too soon, however, we were being lined up. Not even The Mask could completely overcome my panic when I realized that I was the first in line. I cursed my year for lacking in males with surnames beginning with A, causing Burke to be the first in the determining line. It only made it worse that I could sense Octavia behind me. I had no doubt she would be watching closely when I descended the steps. So too, would my mother, and my father, and Landon, and every other party-age member of the United Kingdom's pureblood circle.

I clung to The Mask, and hard, but even through my forced indifference I could feel my legs start to shake.

There was a reason I never liked putting on plays with Octavia.

A powerful mix of fear and focus muddled my mind. I led the line, following that young Nott, whose name I still couldn't remember, to the top of the stairs. Most of the world was hazy – I couldn't even tell you what colour the dresses were on those around me. But some things – the staring eyes, the obstructed outline of Landon Burke, my harsh breathing, and more than anything, the imposing staircase – were painfully vivid.

I was acutely aware of what my body was doing.

Stand straight, shoulders back, chin high, eyes forward… I ran through the gamut of my mother's usual admonitions, conscious that all those eyes were silently measuring me.

The staircase loomed in front of me, one of the single most fear-inspiring objects I'd ever faced in my life. When I descended those steps, I would be courting Landon Burke, a boy I knew virtually nothing about. When I descended those steps, my fate was sealed.

My breathing was ragged, my hands sweaty, my heart pounding. It was all The Mask could do to keep the panic and terror off of my face – it wasn't powerful enough in that moment to keep those feelings out of my heart. For one time-stopping moment, just before my name was announced to those curious onlookers below, a terrifying, wonderful thought crossed my mind.

I could run.

It was silly and implausible. I had no plan about what I was going to do after I ran away from my family and my responsibilities. But in that moment, the urge to run, to bolt, to take the easy way out, to never descend those steps was so overpowering that every fibre in my body wanted to turn the other direction and flee away from this world I was entering. I could just run away, find some way to live on my own, never having to give up my freedom.


My mind retaliated but a split second later. I wouldn't run. I was going to descend those steps with a smile, with all the grace and poise that my mother had taught me, and I was going to take Landon's arm and be swept away. And though my breath was still ragged, my hands still sweaty, my heart still pounding, and my mind still clouded with terror, I did just that.

In my mind, I was screaming in panic. In my mind, I was terrified that I was going to trip. In my mind, I had no idea how my feet were moving. But on the outside, I smiled when my name was called, floated down the stairs, and when my Father, tall, erect, indifferent, handed me off to Landon, I gave him a smile, as though determined to see the best in that honey-haired, brown eyed seventeen year old. We linked arms and walked through to the ballroom, as tradition dictated, and I did my very best to ignore the crawling, uncomfortable feeling on the back of my neck and make the most of the situation.

There were smatterings of people already in the ballroom – those who didn't fit or didn't care to be out in the front watching the proceedings. The food, drink, and music wouldn't appear until after all the new members of society and courtships had been announced, so people were mostly clumped in groups chatting. I was suddenly quite conscious that I was essentially alone with Landon, this boy I'd never explicitly met before, whom I was now courting.

The silence was crushing.

"Shall we go find a table?" He suggested easily, his brown eyes purposefully seeking out my blue ones. He seemed unbothered by the tension that was threatening to push my shoulders up to my chin. I agreed, The Mask wrestling a smile onto my face.

I was expecting him to direct us towards one of the empty tables, but instead he steered me towards a table that already held two other seventh year Slytherins and one of their girlfriends. He greeted his friends with familiarity before turning to acknowledge me.

"And this is my Marianna," he said casually, waving a hand in my direction. I felt my hackles rise a bit at his casual wording, unaccustomed to belonging to anyone besides my family. I forced myself to smile and let it roll off my back. To question his phrasing would be seen as not only petty but also rude.

He and his friends quickly fell into heckling each other about some bet they had made, so I turned with a half smile to Anastasia Fawley, the other female at the table, in an attempt to bond over our mutual womanliness. She returned my smile with a look so cold that I knew in an instant that she'd heard and believed all the nasty, mostly false rumours about how, as a Gryffindor, I spent all of my time plotting with muggleborns and blood traitors about how to tear down the pureblood society.

Granted, my best mate was a muggleborn, but we hardly spent our time plotting the downfall of an entire society. Mostly we just complained about homework and other people and sighed over boys in books.

Nevertheless, Anastasia returned my half-hearted attempts at conversation with icy silence, so I occupied myself with watching the pairs coming through the doors. Octavia was much better than I at predictions; nearly all of hers were correct. As more and more couples flooded into the room, I began to get increasingly suspicious at Octavia's absence. I realized with a jolt of guilt that I'd never turned around to see where exactly in line she was. When two Yaxley cousins entered the room and Octavia was still absent, I began to worry if perhaps something bad had happened.

However, in the next moment, Octavia strode through the doors with Nathaniel Zabini, a cat that caught the canary grin stretched across her face as she clung to the arm of the pureblood world's Most Eligible Bachelor. (According to Octavia Flint and Marianna Blackthorn's official 2020 ranking.)

Quite literally tall, dark, and handsome, Nathaniel Zabini was known to be cause girls to swoon with only the powers of his deep, even voice and his dark chocolate eyes. As the only son of Blaise Zabini, he was to inherit all of his father's growing holdings, which was enough to cause a whole different set of girls to swoon. With his flirtatious manners, handsome features, broad shoulders, and easy confidence, girls had been trying to trap him into a formal courtship for the past four years, all with little to no luck. It was commonly believed that it was impossible to pin down Nathaniel Zabini, as he would stick to his flirtatious, carefree style of relationships forever, never settling into a proper courtship.

That Octavia's only sign of victory was her self-satisfied smirk was a testament to her levels of self-control. Though I didn't know the details, capturing Nathaniel Zabini had to have been akin to winning a war. A long, bloody war full of the nasty, horrid type of fighting that the pureblood girls learned from their mothers. Octavia would have had to have been incredibly shrewd, carrying out a flawlessly complicated plan with the strength and fortitude of a stone pillar.

I felt a strange surge of pride as Octavia led her latest conquest over to where I was, no doubt to further enjoy the look on my face as I once again found myself marvelling at her terrifying social skill.

"Oh, hello, Marianna," Octavia said simply, as though a massive, triumphant grin wasn't threatening to swallow her face. "Are you enjoying your evening?" She asked innocently. The boy on her arm greeted Landon and his friends.

"Oh yes," I lied, quirking my eyebrow at her. "Are you enjoying yours?" I asked, flicking my eyes to Nathaniel significantly. Her grin stretched, impossibly, even wider.

"Oh yes," she mirrored, casting a glance over her shoulder. A good percentage of the female population within half a decade of Nathaniel's eighteen years was shooting dark, jealous looks at Octavia, ignoring their own significant others in order to resent Octavia for her accomplishment. Their anger only seemed to fluff her ego, and she seemed all the more satisfied when she turned back to me. She stayed for only a moment longer before she dragged Nathaniel off to be paraded around to the rest of the people she knew in the room.

A moment later, the new partygoers streamed into the room, with all the nervous grace that a pack of fourteen year olds could display. I caught sight of Scorpius momentarily before he was shuffled across the room to his family. With a grand gesture from Mr. Theodore Nott, the music began playing.

At Octavia's absence, Landon suddenly pulled himself away from his friends and looked at me with a gaze that was burning in its intensity. His eyes were hard to look into – something in the depths of my soul itched to look away, but the warm brown was oddly mesmerizing, and I found myself staring back, albeit with a bit more uncertainty and discomfort in my gaze than his confident ease portrayed.

"You look beautiful tonight," he said, his eyes still boring into mine. I felt the flattery warm my cheeks. I broke under the pressure of his gaze and stared into my hands.

"How about a dance?" He said, rising to his feet and holding out his hand, giving me little choice but to accept his hand and follow him onto the dance floor. I felt as though everyone in the room was staring at me, burning holes into my back. In reality, I knew my mother was likely the only person watching me that closely, but that did little to help The Mask calm my nerves.

My hand in his felt all wrong – his fingers were too long, his hand too warm, his grip too tight. I tried to push down my ruffled feelings.

Of course it feels weird, I consoled myself. You barely know him, but it's just holding hands. It's not a big deal.

I hoped that focusing on the dance would take away some of my nerves, but it had quite the opposite effect. The simple Strauss waltz presented no challenges to my twelve years of dancing lessons. My feet moved automatically, my skirts swishing around my legs. We were spinning too often for me to spend my time spying on Octavia or Scorpius, so I was left with nothing to focus on except Landon. Landon, and the way his eyes were staring at me, almost hungrily, and the way his hand was a bit lower on my waist than strictly necessary. Landon, and the way he seemed to be getting closer, his breath on my face. Landon, and the way my body wanted to tense, wanted to pull away, wanted to put distance between us.

The Mask commanded me to remain where I was. The Mask commanded me to keep my muscles relaxed. The Mask commanded me to look happy.

We danced for five songs. Five long, agonizing songs, in which I was highly aware of each passing second. At the end of the fifth, when Landon's face was mere inches from mine, I seized my opportunity to play the girl and escape.

"Oh," I sighed, far more painfully than necessary, "I think my feet need a rest." I lied. Sure, my feet were throbbing, but my mother taught me to ignore that at the age of five. I could've danced for another hour, easily. I spotted my cousin leaning against the far wall and decided to use him as my out. "And I do want to congratulate my cousin on his first ball." Lies, lies. But Landon seemed to buy it, giving me a smile.

"Of course," he said. There was something about his voice that bothered me. It was a bit too smooth, a bit too even, a bit too controlled. I wondered if he had his own Mask on.

I didn't spend too long pondering that disturbing likelihood. I just gave him a parting smile and walked slowly over to the other side of the room. I wanted to run, find a place to hide, and sort through everything running through my spinning head, but I knew I couldn't do that. I would have to return to Landon soon enough. So I might as well walk nice and slowly to give myself an extra minute.

I grabbed a glass of champagne off a floating tray I passed and slid up beside the rather sullen looking Scorpius Malfoy. The Mask took a five-minute break, always in the backseat when it came to interactions with my cousin, which usually got me in no end of trouble.

"So is it everything you ever dreamed?" I asked, drily sarcastic, motioning around at the grand golden ballroom. Scorpius's eyebrow quirked slightly.

"Oh yes," he replied with the same almost undetectable sarcasm. "It's everything I used to fantasize about, lying awake at night, dreaming of the day when all my dreams would come true."

I snickered. The mental image of Scorpius dreaming wistfully for his first ball was too delicious to ignore. I tried desperately to keep the smirk off of my face. My mother would be able to spot it from three houses away.

We spent a minute ragging on how pointless this entire show of wealth and status was. If my mother heard me – or even Octavia – they would be appalled, but there was something about Scorpius that always brought out my snarkiest, sassiest, darkest side. It was as though that platinum-haired sarcasm machine dredged up my inner rebellious side. Or perhaps it was my Slytherin side. Or perhaps it was both. Whatever it was, it felt amazing. It also never failed to get me in trouble.

"Oh, Mister Avery," I mimicked, my voice squeakily high. "I didn't see you there! Did I just dump my wine down your dress robes? Oh dear me, let me pat that for you so you'll be wooed by my superior patting powers and want to whisk me away from my dreadful fiancé and marry me right here!"

Scorpius, too, was watching the growing spectacle across the room with amusement.

In a freakishly deep voice: "Oh, that's alright. I'm just going to use this opportunity to subtly feel up your chest, because obviously me groping you is a necessary component of Scourgify." We snickered a bit more.

"So how's lover-boy?" Scorpius asked, throwing me off with his complete change of topic. Apparently he was now bored with our previous diversion. He nodded his head in the direction of Landon, who was back at the table with his friends, the now-larger group of six hooting quite loudly about something.

"Eh," I replied. I didn't elaborate further, not even knowing myself yet what I thought of him. Scorpius's eyebrow quirked again. I swear one of these days it was going to get stuck up there.

"Sounds charming." He teased, trying to poke at me. I opened my mouth, my automatic reply 'It's coming for you in a year' getting stuck in my throat. I snapped my mouth shut, suddenly quite peeved at the entire Malfoy family, particularly Uncle Draco and Aunt Astoria.

Scorpius noticed my suddenly surly expression. "What?" He demanded, slightly defensive.

"I was going to say that the whole courting and marriage process is coming for you in a year, but then I realized that it wasn't. And now I hate you." I griped. Scorpius just laughed.

"I've never felt more love for my mother than in that moment," he recalled fondly, placing a hand on his heart and sighing just to mock me. He was no doubt referring to the moment that Aunt Astoria convinced Uncle Draco that putting Scorpius through the traditional pureblood marriage process wouldn't help his happiness.

If only that sort of thinking was genetic – perhaps then my mother would have inherited it.

"You're ridiculously lucky, you know that, right?" I said, my eyes roaming the room for those other fortunate souls whose parents believed in marriage for love.

"I'm aware of the fact." He said easily, taking another sip of his own champagne.

"And I still hate you." I informed him. Though to be fair I don't think there was ever a moment in our relationship when one of us didn't "hate" the other for something.

"I figured," he replied, unconcerned.

I had to fight off a smile at our inside joke of sorts. I couldn't let him know that I was amused. I was supposed to hate him; that would break character. I had to pretend to be mad at him for at least five minutes. So I took another sip of champagne, if only to use the glass to block my face.

No sooner had the crystal touched my lips than I was attacked from the side by a mass of pink tulle.

"Oh my Merlin, I just can't believe it!" A high-pitched voice squealed in my ear, her arms wrapped firmly around my shocked person. My arms stuck out in front of me awkwardly, doing their best to keep the champagne glass level as the tiny beast tried to squeeze the life from my body.

I drew back to identify my attacker and found a tiny blonde girl, shrouded in so much pink that she looked as though it was going to devour her at any moment. My brain vaguely registered who she was. Christina Burke, Landon's younger sister, Slytherin forth year. I turned to Scorpius for help – she was in his year in Slytherin, after all – but the little coward had disappeared into thin air. I mentally cursed him for his stealth abilities.

"We're going to be sisters!" She exclaimed excitedly. My heart dropped to my toes, a chill spreading through my entire body as though a bucket of ice water had just been dumped over my head. There was something about those five words that made my future suddenly quite real.

A quiet, "Oh," escaped my lips before The Mask could rein it in. Christina grasped my forearms and bounced slightly.

"It's going to be great, isn't it?" She continued, just as energized as before. Though greatly relieved that she hadn't noticed my reaction, I wondered how she couldn't. The Mask took over in time for me to return her smile, albeit without the bouncing and squealing.

"Yes, I think it's going to be just wonderful," The Mask said. I wasn't sure if I was lying or not. I didn't have much time to ponder it, however, as soon Christina was steering me back towards her brother.

I found myself once again at the table with Landon and his friends. Anastasia was much pleasanter when Christina was present. Landon alternated between focusing all of his attention on his friends and all of his attention on me, which was a bit disconcerting. I supposed that was just the kind of bloke he was, though – all or nothing. His hand got more adventurous as the evening went on. First it rested on my arm, then it twined itself with my hand, then it found its way to my knee and began to slowly inch its way up so that towards the end of the night, it was halfway up my thigh. I wasn't quite comfortable with that, and I tried to squirm away a bit, but it never worked: his hand stayed resolute. There wasn't anything more I could do without drawing attention, and that would spout no end of trouble. Besides, technically we were courting now. It wasn't that odd, I suppose, for a boyfriend – the word felt foreign in my mind – to rest his hand on his girlfriend's leg, especially when said leg was protected by about a million layers of fabric.

It still made my skin crawl, though.

Christina chattered at me for quite a while. I smiled and nodded and even threw in my two Knuts once in a while. She was a nice girl, if a bit hyper. She left after a while, however, to go talk to her other friends. Anastasia returned to her former icy self and Landon was in one of his heckling-with-the-mates phases, so I let my eyes roam the room.

They first landed on my mother, at a table with her sister, Aunt Astoria, and a few others of her closest friends. Her eyes immediately locked with mine, which gave me the uncomfortable, though expected, feeling that she'd been watching me the entire night. I quickly looked away, past my father, in a corner with some of the wealthy business owners, over to my brother, looking downright miserable and more than a little bit tipsy, at a table with his fiancé, Georgiana, and some of their assorted seventh year and recently graduated friends. Scorpius was hanging about with some of his acquaintances, and seemed to be having a decently all right time. The last object of my search, my eyes landed on Octavia.

She was leaning in quite close to Nathaniel, who was whispering something into her ear that caused her to smile that sly smile of hers. I, too, smiled for her. Although I'd never heard her express real interest in the dark boy, if Nathaniel Zabini was what she wanted, I was happy that she'd gotten him.

Anastasia must have gotten bored with examining her nails and noticed the direction of my stare, because she leaned into me and whispered poisonously:

"You know, he's only courting her because his father said he couldn't get his inheritance until he married." She drew back, a cunning look in her eye, obviously trying to rattle me. My defences were on guard, wanting to disregard everything she said. I didn't know why this brunette had taken such a dislike towards me, but she was obviously only saying these things about Octavia to get to me. The Mask was determined not to give them credence. "I hope she doesn't think she actually managed to win him." With a final smirk, she turned back to her boyfriend, clinging to his arm and placing her chin on his shoulder as he ignored her.

I tried to completely discard what she'd said, but as I looked back over at Octavia and the Unattainable Mr. Zabini, I couldn't help but wonder if perhaps there was a seed of truth to her words. In the next instant, however, I shook my head to dispel such thoughts. Anastasia was just jealous.

The evening was obviously winding down. The music began to slow, the dance floor began to thin, and more and more couples disappeared into the garden. As Landon's table broke up, I somehow became one of those couples.

The air was pleasantly cool, as we were still within range of the Cooling Charms, but the Cooling Charms couldn't dispel the moisture in the air that made my hair stick to the back of my neck. We were hardly unsupervised in the darkness, barely broken by the lamps placed around the plants. There were plenty of other couples whispering secrets and snuggling closer than the watchful eyes of the parents and grandparents in the ballroom allowed. The fresh air exhilarated me. I wanted to lean my head back and take big, gasping lungfuls of it. After the tension of being in the ballroom, with all the eyes, and all the expectations, and all the pressure, it was nice to escape, if only for a moment.

It would have been perfect, if I hadn't been able to sense Landon beside me.

"You know," he said, drawing up closer to me. "You aren't nearly as bad as some of my mates convinced me you were going to be. They enjoyed teasing me about my courtship of the Gryffindor Blackthorn, but I don't think you're anything like the other Gryffindors I know."

I wasn't sure if that was meant as a compliment. It seemed to be almost like an insult, but The Mask commanded me to view it as a compliment, so I smiled falsely for the thousandth time that night, as though I found his comment charming.

He was in front of me. I realized suddenly how much taller than me he was, looming over me with that confident grin, his brown eyes getting closer. It was too muggy, too dark, too confining. I felt the sudden urge to flee the garden, back into the light, back to my mother's constant monitoring.

I didn't expect it. It happened so suddenly that I didn't have time to prepare. Perhaps I should have seen it coming all night, but I was woefully unobservant about such things. All I know is that one second I was standing too close to him. One second I was just about to use the freedom of the garden to back away, to put distance between us, and the next second Landon was quickly closing that distance. His lips were smashed against mine before my brain had time to fully grasp what was happening.

His lips were wet and warm and squishy. It was rather unpleasant, his wet, warm, squishy lips moving against my shocked, unmoving ones. It was over almost as quickly as it began. Landon pulled away with a smile.

"I really think this is going to work," he said, his brown eyes still too close. "Even if your family is newblood."

I didn't want to think about what that meant. No, I knew what it meant. I just didn't want to think about it. I shivered suddenly.

"I'm feeling cold," I said, though the cold I felt came from inside myself. "I think we should go back in, it sounds as though the last dance is going to start soon." All I was thinking about was escape, but The Mask, my dear Mask, that kept me from being rude and abrupt, added a smile and a charming tone to my voice, so that to Landon it must have seemed as though I'd enjoyed our contact.

My stomach squirmed. My mouth tasted wrong.

The evening seemed to end all at once. The final dance, with Landon's hand on my waist, saying my final goodbyes, Apparating home, even the great relief as I peeled off my clothes and slipped into my silky pyjamas, all of it seemed to slip past in an instant. It wasn't until I was curled in bed, my perfumed hair fanning out around me on the pillow, that the evening came rushing back to me.

It was the sapphire dress that did it. I saw it thrown across the back of my vanity chair, merely a clump of fabric in the darkness. The moonlight through my window glinted off of the jewels in the bodice, and with a start I realized everything that had occurred tonight.

It felt like I'd lived a lifetime, but that wasn't true. It had only been one evening. Just one evening, but it determined my next three years. No, not my next three years: My life.

The feel of Landon's lips on mine came back. The unpleasant, crawling feeling returned to the pit of my stomach as I realized that there was likely much more of that in my future. It wasn't as pleasant as I'd hoped. Looking back, it felt more wrong than it did in the moment. It was too soon, too unexpected, too unromantic. Disappointment throbbed through my veins as I lay there, shutting my eyes tight so I couldn't see my mother staring back at me through her sapphire dress.

I'd hoped that it would be romantic. I'd hoped that there would be magic in the air. I'd hoped that I would feel a soaring in my soul, a tingling in my lips, and fireworks in my mind.

Landon's lips, smashed against mine with too much force, too much moisture, and too much squishiness, was not what I'd pictured. But that's how it went down. It was what it was.

It was my first kiss.

I slowly managed to dampen my disappointment and calm my jumbled thoughts. Before long, I drifted off to sleep, the sapphire dress still spread across my chair, a silent witness to the evening.