Thanks to Thobeobo for beta-reading this chapter.

I do NOT own Harry Potter or its universe. All rights go to JK Rowling and her publisher.

ENJOY!


Chapter 21

Long Road to Recovery


The sun warmed his skin, and cooled by the soft caress of the ocean breeze. The blinding light turned the inside of his eyelids red while the salty smell filled his nose. His fingers combed through the hot sand before letting each grain fall back to the beach. It all combined to create a sense of peace that Krios had never felt before, but it was exactly what he needed after the hellish last few months he had experienced at Hogwarts.

He was grateful to the Malfoys for inviting him along on their yearly trip to Southern France. Narcissa had suggested it to Regulus, who had agreed at once. The decision had ultimately been left to Krios, but since he had never been on a vacation in his life, it wasn't a difficult choice.

It was only the first morning, but so far he had no reason to consider regretting it.

"There you are!"

Krios opened his eyes and glared at the sky. He just had to think that, so now the universe was giving him a reason.

"Hello Draco," he said, though his cousin seemed to miss the frustration in his voice.

Draco came to a stop next to Krios. He grimaced at the sand; like usual, not wanting to get down and dirty. It was one of his qualities that made many question whether he actually did his own Herbology work or made Crabbe or Goyle do it.

"I've been looking for you," he said.

"Once again, you have demonstrated your astounding talent for stating the obvious."

"Ha-ha-ha," Draco mocked. "You're a right comedian, you are."

"It's a gift," Krios deadpanned.

Draco rolled his eyes, then held out a hand.

"Get up, I want to play Quidditch and you're the only one willing."

"Am I?" Krios raised his brows. "I don't recall agreeing to this."

"You did by coming," Draco retorted. "Now come on."

Krios stood up and brushed the sand off his trunks. Then he bent over and picked up his t-shirt.

Draco scrunched his nose with a dirty look.

"I still don't understand why you would want muggle clothes," he said.

"They're more practical in some situations," Krios told him, once again. "Not nearly as time-consuming to put on or take off as robes." He glanced at Draco's sand-covered robes. "Easier to keep clean, too."

Draco scowled. "They're still muggle clothes."

Krios bit back an angry retort. While he didn't care for some muggles, especially those around Privet Drive, he wasn't about to paint all the billions of them with the same brush. And he would rather not think about what he felt for the Dursleys.

But that anger was pushed aside when he noticed something else.

Draco was refusing to look at his bare torso.

Draco was refusing to look at the scar that disfigured his chest.

The mark of his encounter with the Dark Lord.

"I think I'm going to take a walk," Krios said stiffly. And before Draco could do anything, he turned on his heel and, his fists tightly clenched at his sides, walked off in the opposite direction.

This was exactly why he had chosen to be alone on the beach first thing. The sun was warm, and bright, and the sand was dry, and it was everything that wasn't the Chamber of Secrets. He had been alone down there. Dying in the cold darkness. Soaked in the freezing water and his own blood.

But that wasn't this.

Yet, when all he had wanted was to take in as much of whatever wasn't that, Draco had come along.

He had ruined it.

Krios squeezed his eyes shut as he fell to his knees. He pushed the palms of his hands against his eyes and tried, desperately tried, to push away the images that haunted him. Despite the heat of the summer around him, he felt cold. He shivered, and even making his body as small as possible in an attempt to embrace his own warmth didn't help.

The splashing waves echoed in his ears.

He couldn't breathe.

He couldn't breathe.

He couldn't breathe.

Krios rocked back and forth on his toes, trembling and trying to make his lungs work. He opened his eyes and looked around, but his vision was blurred. He couldn't see anything but brightness, and it hurt, it hurt so much.

He shut his eyes again and fell to his side.

He didn't understand what was happening. He knew he wasn't in the Chamber. The hot sand beneath his skin and the hard sun beating down on him was proof of that.

So why did Krios feel like he was back there?

A cool breeze caressed his face, ruffling his hair, and suddenly he could breathe again. It was as if that soft wind had carried his worries away with it.

Some of them, anyway.

Krios couldn't stop thinking about the cold, damp darkness, but at least it wasn't so all-consuming anymore, rendering him unable to focus on anything else. His mind was still foggy, and his pounding heart felt like it was in his throat.

But at least he could breathe.

"Get a hold of yourself," Krios scolded, slamming a fist into the sand. Then he ran his hands over his face and through his hair. "It's been nearly three months. You're being stupid."

He rolled over so he was laying flat on his back, staring up at the sky. The white clouds so far above captivated his gaze, though his mind remained farther away than they were.

"What's wrong with me?" he asked the world.

There was no answer.

He was alone.

Like he always was.

Krios blinked hard to fight the stinging in his eyes.

But even if he cried, there was no one around to see.

And perhaps that was the worst part of it all.

By the time he made it back to the beachside villa the Malfoys owned, Krios had used his abilities to make it appear as though nothing had ever happened. His eyes were dry and clear instead of wet and bloodshot, and his cheeks were not stained by his tears. There was nothing to suggest that he had ever been anything less than composed, just as he had been taught.

For the first time, Krios hated that he couldn't show what he felt. He had always disliked it, but he had understood its importance. Emotion was something his unknown enemies could use against him.

But he had never hated it as he did now.

"There you are," Draco said, stepping up to his side. He seemed to take Krios's appearance as a sign that everything was fine, and thus didn't say anything about earlier. "Come on, it's time for Quidditch."

The only reason Krios didn't protest was because he was entertained by the thought of knocking Draco off his broom.

It was a thought that made him smile.

After a few hours flying around the property, the two boys returned to the cool indoors for dinner. Draco won several times, though Krios gave him a good enough challenge to not be considered a novice, despite the fact he almost never flew.

"Did any letters come?" Krios asked Narcissa.

She frowned and shook her head. "Were you expecting any?"

He hid his disappointment with an ease that surprised him.

"No," he said. "Just checking."

Draco started rambling to his mother about their practice Quidditch matches—if they could be called such when it was only two players—and Krios took the opportunity to slip away. He softly shut the door to the room he was staying in, then flopped onto his bed.

He had been sure the Potters wouldn't mess this up, but he hadn't received a single letter from them since the Easter holiday when Lily told him about the elective courses. They hadn't responded to the letter he had sent them.

He felt abandoned. Again.

It was much harder to fight back these tears. Krios had, apparently foolishly, given his parents a chance to prove they still wanted him to be part of their family. He had trusted them. And now he was being punished for daring to hope it was worth it, for hoping it would work out.

Krios forced the thoughts from his mind. There was no point in dwelling on the past or what ifs.

Not when he had more important things to be doing.

He stood up and swept over to one of his bags, then dug around until he found what he wanted.

Facinorous Flames, by Elladora Black.

Krios had borrowed the book from the library at the Black family manor, without telling anyone, to further his understanding of the Dark Arts so he would be better prepared for whatever threat came after him next. He doubted he would be able to count on Fawkes coming to save him again, should the need arise, which meant he needed to know how to protect himself.

The Chamber had been cold, dark, and wet.

The curses in this book were, for the most part, the exact opposite.

He flipped open to the one he had been reading about: the Combustion Curse. Its purple flames were not intended to cause harm through burning, like regular fire, but instead consumed the air so that the victim would slowly suffocate.

It wasn't what Krios was searching for, but he had fun with the idea of killing Voldemort with it.

A series of knocks on the door came a few hours later.

"Dinner's ready," called Draco's voice.

Krios stifled a groan as he rolled off his bed. His sore body told him that he shouldn't have been in that position. He pressed a hand to his back as he moved to his trunk for different clothes—the others might not care what he wore when he was out of their sight, but there was no chance he could get away with wearing anything but quality robes during a family dinner.

This was one limit he wasn't willing to push, not when Narcissa was around.

By the time he got down to the dining room, the Malfoys were all seated at a table for six. They had, it appeared, decided to dispense with formalities tonight, and instead had chosen to group together at one end of the table in remarkably casual robes.

Krios suddenly felt overdressed.

"Ah, Krios," Lucius said pleasantly. He gestured to the chair beside him with a kind smile. "Come, come. The food will be out soon."

Krios nodded, grateful not to be next to Draco. As he took the offered seat, Lucius said, "How was the beach? You were out there for quite a while."

"It was perfect," Krios said in a light tone that didn't sound at all like him. "Thank you for inviting me."

Lucius's smile faltered as he replied, "It was the least we could do."

Narcissa and Draco seemed to take that as helping Krios with his recovery, but Krios knew better. He knew that this was Lucius's way of apologizing for almost getting him killed with that diary. And the only reasons that Krios hadn't voiced this were because, first of all, there was nothing to be gained from it, and he had a feeling that Regulus, somehow, already knew as well.

And if Lord Black wasn't doing anything open about it, it wasn't smart for Krios to involve himself.

So he kept his head down and pretended he was clueless. He gave Lucius another nod, not trusting his voice to remain steady when he wanted very little in life more than he desired to tell Narcissa her son's life had been put in danger because of her husband.

It was going to be a long vacation.


"Hey! I'm glad you could make it!"

Krios forced a smile. "Wouldn't miss it."

"Sure," Daphne said slowly, rolling her eyes.

"I had to make him get dressed," Altair said as she stepped out of the Floo behind him. "And then I made him go first so he couldn't walk away the moment I left."

"I'm sure Krios isn't that stupid," Daphne teased. Her eyes sparkled. "He's too self-preserving."

"If that were true, I'd already be as far away from Britain as possible," Krios deadpanned.

Altair and Daphne grinned at each other.

If only they knew that he was completely serious. With the Dark Lord attempting to return, having almost succeeded two years in a row, it wasn't safe here anymore. There were some days where Krios was tempted to vanish in the middle of the night, just to escape it all, to be free at last.

But then he thought about the very girls he was talking to. Of everyone in his life, they were the only two who truly, unequivocally mattered to him. They had always been honest with him, loyal and kind, and he knew that it would hurt him too much to leave them behind. Sure, he could try and convince them to join him, but they had their own lives here, their families.

He had no right to ask them to give it all up so he could be selfish.

"So where's Astoria?" Altair asked. "I want to wish her happy birthday before the crowd gets here."

Daphne snorted. "They're already showing up." She tossed a thumb over her shoulder. "Astoria's out back with our parents, making sure everything's ready for her party. Some of the other girls from your year arrived a few minutes before you did."

"Great, thank you," Altair said, then rushed off.

Daphne immediately turned worried eyes on Krios.

"How are you?" she asked softly, resting a hand on his arm.

Krios opened his mouth, his standard 'I'm fine' on the tip of his tongue. But then he hesitated and thought about whether he wanted to give that answer. Had he not just reasoned with himself that he couldn't disappear on Daphne because of how true a friend she was?

If he couldn't be honest with her, well, he would be a pretty shitty friend.

"I'm alive," Krios said after a moment. "That's about all that's going for me right now, though."

Daphne squeezed his arm with a sympathetic smile. "I'm sorry to hear that. If you need to step away for a few minutes, don't feel bad about it. Just let me know so I can keep everyone distracted."

"Thanks." He faked a smile. "It means a lot."

"Come on," Daphne said. Her hand slid down into his. "My parents want to meet you."

Krios blinked. "Um… Why?"

As she tugged him forward, she flashed him a smile and said, "Because you're my friend."

Never before had the word 'friend' sounded quite so ominous. Krios almost felt like he was being walked to the gallows.

Daphne led him out to the back yard, and over to an older couple who were observing the gathering of pre-teen girls from a distance. The man was only a few inches taller than Krios, with black hair that was beginning to turn silver on the sides and the same blue eyes as Daphne and Astoria.

But the woman beside him looked more like their daughters, with the same long, dark hair as Daphne, and Astoria's bright, kind eyes. Her face lit up when they approached. She stepped forward with a grace that Hera would have been impressed with, then pulled Daphne into a loving hug before facing Krios with a beautiful smile.

"It's good to finally meet you," she said. She held out a hand. "I am Serena Greengrass."

Krios shook her hand with an, in his opinion, admirable attempt at a charming smile. "It's good to meet you, too."

The man moved to stand beside his wife.

"I am Lord Gareth Greengrass, Heir Black," he said in a formal tone. "I welcome you to our home."

Serena rolled her eyes in the same exasperated way Daphne often did, then winked at Krios, as if they were sharing a private joke. Daphne was giving her father a look that suggested she wanted to do something that wouldn't be respectable in current company.

It was a look that Krios knew fairly well.

His smile tightened, and he threw a quick, sharp glance at Daphne—she had 'forgotten' to inform him just who her father was, in all the time they had known each other; he would not let it go, especially not when she looked so amused—before replying, "I thank you for your hospitality, Lord Greengrass."

"Give my regards to Lord Black, won't you?" Lord Greengrass said pleasantly. Before Krios could respond, he added, "You'll have to excuse me, but I have other matters to attend to."

As he walked away, Serena said, "Ignore him. He's bigger on formality when it isn't needed than any wizard I've ever met."

"Yet you still married him," Daphne quipped.

"Yes, I did, and never once have I regretted it."

"Not even when Daphne was born?" Astoria said innocently as she sidled up to them.

Daphne glared at her.

"I know for a fact Krios wishes I wasn't born," Altair teased, joining them. "I'm too much trouble."

"Trouble I wouldn't expect from a spoiled know-it-all," Krios retorted.

Altair raised her chin and looked down her nose at him, which was amusing since she was shorter.

"Excuse you," she said imperiously. "It's rich, spoiled know-it-all."

Krios gave her a flat stare, and deadpanned, "Of course, how could I forget?"

Astoria and Daphne shared a look he couldn't decipher.

"Sometimes, it surprises me you two have only known each other for a year," Daphne remarked. "You act like you've been together your entire lives."

"It's almost like it was meant to be," Altair said dramatically, flopping against Krios's side.

He shoved her off him.

"So how was France?" Daphne asked before they could start anything else. "I haven't heard from you since before you left, and that was over a month ago," she added, scolding him, but her eyes glinted in the way they always did when she was teasing him.

"It would have been better without Draco," Krios said, scowling. "All he wanted to do was talk about Quidditch, play Quidditch, talk about Quidditch tactics—"

"Anything else about Quidditch?" Altair asked, laughing.

"He's obsessed with the damn sport." Krios shook his head. "I don't get it. Yeah, it's fun to play, and I love flying, but this is just crazy, how far he takes it."

Daphne smiled, somewhat sadly. "I should have written."

"I would have appreciated it," Krios said, staring at her. His voice was cold and sharp, like a blade forged of ice. The one thing he had truly missed while on vacation was his correspondence with her. Even Altair had written to him, and she was notoriously awful at remembering to write letters.

"I'm sorry."

The sincerity in her voice was touching, and it thawed the frigid anger that had welled in Krios like an overflowing goblet. He took a couple breaths to calm himself before replying, "Don't worry about it. There's always the rest of summer, right?"

"Right," Daphne agreed, her smile back in place. "Two more weeks to send plenty of letters."

"Enough depressing talk," Altair interrupted. "It's Astoria's birthday, not her funeral. Let's party!"

Daphne snorted while Krios rolled his eyes.

"Thank you, Altair," Astoria drawled.

Altair grinned. "No problem."

Pre-teen girls were annoying. That was the thought that consumed Krios an hour later as the party was still going on, and didn't show any signs of slowing any time soon. Astoria's friends consisted of the rest of the Slytherin girls in her year, and one younger sister whom she had known for years. But what stood out most prominently for them all was that Krios was the only boy present.

And it sucked.

A traitorous part of his mind wished Draco was here, if only so he wasn't alone.

In desperate need of some time away from everyone—it had been far too long since he was this social, never mind in these circumstances—Krios slipped off while the others were distracted eating cake and other sugary desserts that sounded more nauseating than delicious right now. None of them noticed him leave, disappearing into the trees behind the Greengrass's large ancestral home.

Seeing the beauty around him, he understood how Astoria could love it out here so much. Splintered sunlight broke through the branches of the aspen trees that surrounded him. Flowers were sparse along the path he walked, varying in colour from yellow, to red, to purple, and even a couple white ones he recognized as lilies, of all things. How they were growing here, he didn't know, but it made for a sight that was, frankly, among the most magical things Krios had ever seen.

"Beautiful, isn't it?"

The only reason Krios didn't jump was because he had heard her approach. He turned to face Astoria with a soft smile tugging his lips.

"It's amazing," he said honestly.

Astoria beamed as she stepped up to his side. She gave him an expectant look, and when Krios returned it with a confused frown, she rolled her eyes and forced his arm into a certain position before slipping her hand into the crook of his elbow.

"Such a gentleman, you are," she teased.

"I wasn't aware I needed to be one," he replied.

Astoria laughed. "You should always be a gentleman, Krios."

"I'll keep that in mind."

They walked along the path in silence after that. Krios found that, strangely, he was more comfortable now than he had been since… well, more comfortable than he had ever been. Astoria's presence was so different to anyone else's he had experienced: She, unlike Daphne or Altair, seemed to be fine with letting the quiet remain. Altair was always bubbling with some question about magic or another, and Daphne loved to spark banter when she got bored—which was quite frequent.

But Astoria did neither. She strolled through the forest with a serene smile, letting the sounds of nature fill the void caused by their lack of conversation.

It was… peaceful.

"Your friends probably miss you," Krios said after a while. He hated to be the one to break the calm that had settled over them, but it was her birthday, and she was spending it with him, whom she barely knew, instead of the people she spent every day with during the school year. She was with him instead of her own sister.

"You'll have to do better than that if you're trying to get rid of me," Astoria said without so much as glancing at him, but he could see her lips twist into a smirk.

"I'm not trying to get rid of you," Krios said quickly. He really didn't want her to think that, for some reason. This was the best he had felt in a long time, and he didn't want it to end. But it wasn't his birthday, it was hers, so he couldn't think about what he wanted. "It's your birthday and you're not with the people you invited to spend it with."

"I invited you, didn't I? So, once again, you'll have to do better than that."

Astoria Greengrass, apparently, was a whole different type of frustrating than her sister.

Before he could say anything else, though, she said, "If you want to be alone, you only need to ask."

Alone… The word echoed in Krios's mind, the one thing he didn't want—hadn't wanted in months, whilst also simultaneously craving it. But not right now.

"Why did you invite me?" he asked, coming to an abrupt stop, forcing her to stop with him. "We aren't friends, and we only talked the one time, when we got ice cream on Altair's birthday."

Astoria raised a single eyebrow, and Krios was actually envious of the elegance and ease with which she had done it, because he knew he could practice for years and never manage the same thing. It was an action he would expect from Hera or Narcissa, but never from a twelve-year-old.

"I thought that was obvious," she said, as if he were a small child. "I want to know you better."

Krios's jaw dropped before he could even think of controlling himself.

"Why would you want that?" he asked, baffled.

Astoria smiled, a hint of mischief in her eyes he was all too used to seeing in Daphne's, and her answer surprised him more than anything else could have.

"Because it sounds like fun."

Krios had been called many things in his short, miserable life, but fun had never been one of them, unless it was followed by something that completely destroyed any positive connotation it could have held for him. He couldn't understand how this girl, a girl he barely knew, could think him worth getting to know just because they had talked once over ice cream.

"Daphne talks about you a lot, you know," Astoria continued conversationally. She tugged on his arm, forcing him to start walking again. "All the help you give her with homework—remembering different things in Potions, practicing spells she doesn't understand, and so on. She's really happy that you're willing to insult her back when she does it, because I don't want to."

Krios snorted. Of course that was what Daphne was happy about.

"Why don't you want to?"

Astoria shrugged with one shoulder. "It's fun sometimes, don't get me wrong, but it's like that's the only thing she ever wants to do. We can't really ever just talk, you know?"

"Altair's the same way," he told her. "But with magic instead of insults."

"I've noticed," she remarked.

Krios couldn't help the laugh that escaped him then.

They came to a small clearing in the forest, perhaps ten metres across, with a large, somewhat flat rock on the edge that was just spacious enough for them to take a seat, though side-by-side. There was a small pond at the base of the rock, barely larger than the rock was.

"I love to come here when I need to get away," Astoria said softly.

Krios looked over at her and couldn't help but stare. She was reclining, using the palms of her hands to support herself, with her eyes closed as she embraced the warmth of the sun. Her pale skin seemed almost like it was shining in its light, and her thin summer robe matched the clear blue sky far above.

He felt like disturbing her peace would be a crime, so he said nothing and turned his gaze to the pond.

He was so lost in his thoughts that he jumped when there was a soft splash. A quick glance showed that Astoria had moved to dip her bare feet in the water.

"Sorry," she said, smiling. "The water's cold, but not too cold. It feels nice when it gets hot."

Krios glanced up at the sun, felt a bead of sweat on his forehead, and decided he could do with a bit of cooling off. So, without speaking a word, he pulled off his shoes and socks, and dipped his toes in.

The moment his skin met the cold water, he pulled away with a harsh flinch. He squeezed his eyes shut and scooted back, distancing himself from the pond, and grabbed at his hair with clenched fists.

"Krios?" Astoria asked. Her soft hand rested against his arm. "What's wrong?"

He couldn't respond. His throat felt like it was constricting, and his breathing was laboured. A chill had settled over him that the sun couldn't fight off. He was surrounded by darkness, the soft dripping of distant water in his ears, accompanied by a symphony of cold, high laughter.

And then he felt warmth.

He grabbed it and pulled it closer, wanting it to chase off his nightmares.

It was several moments before he noticed the soft hand running through his hair and the soothing whispers in his ears.

"It's okay," said the girl's voice. "You're okay, Krios. You're okay."

Slowly, he felt light return, and with it warmth.

And realized that he was holding Astoria against him with a grip so tight it had to be painful.

He released her with a mumbled, "Sorry."

"It's okay," Astoria said again. Her eyes were wide and worried, and she looked at him as if expecting him to fall apart at the seams, like some poorly made doll.

Krios turned away, his face burning with shame. He had, thus far, managed to avoid breaking down in front of anyone since that day in Dumbledore's office—mostly because he had been avoiding people as much as possible since then. He hated how weak he was. It was so hard, to pretend that everything was fine when he wanted nothing more than to stay in bed all day. Nobody else he knew of let the problems of their pasts affect them this way, so why did he?

"How was your birthday?"

Krios blinked, staring at Astoria like she was insane.

But she just smiled and repeated herself, "How was your birthday? It's the end of July, right? Did you spend it in France, or did you come back here and not invite Daphne?"

"We were still in France," he said numbly. He was too dizzy for this.

"So she's been pouting the last two weeks for no reason, then," Astoria said, nodding.

"What?"

"She was upset you didn't invite her to your party." Astoria snorted. "Well, apparently that's because you weren't even in England for it."

"Yeah," Krios said distantly. He was so confused about what was happening.

"It looks like you spent a lot of time on the beach," Astoria noted, eyeing his tanned skin.

"Every day," he told her. "It was great."

Astoria smiled. "Tell me about it?"

"France, or my birthday?"

"Both," she said, as if he were stupid for suggesting anything else.

So Krios smiled and started talking about France. He told her about the beach, then the day he and the Malfoys had spent in Paris, another day in Marseille, and so on. When he finished those stories, he moved on to how they had celebrated his birthday.

"Altair surprised me with a visit," he said.

"Oh, really?" Astoria asked. Her eyes hadn't once left him while he spoke, not even when a bug had flown too close to her face, batting it away without looking.

Krios was almost envious of her ability to pay so little attention to her surroundings. He was far too paranoid for something like that, jumping at any shadow that flickered strangely. There were times when he couldn't sleep for fear something bad would happen.

"I guess she begged her parents to let her come for a couple days," he said, shrugging. "They couldn't come with her, though. Work stuff, I think."

'Or they didn't want to be around you,' whispered a voice in his mind. 'Not even on your birthday.'

He shook his head and forced a smile.

"It's good to be back, though. I don't think I could've lasted much longer without cursing Draco."

"I would cheer if you did," Astoria laughed. "So what presents did you get?"

"Ah, um…" Krios looked away for a second. "Altair got me a book on different charms. And the Malfoys got me a souvenir from the shopping district. A crystal Abraxan."

"That's kind of them."

He snorted. "It cost fifteen sickles. It was probably an insult to me that they didn't spend more."

"You don't seem too upset about that," Astoria noted, but she was still smiling.

"Earning approval from the Malfoys isn't exactly high on my list of life goals."

"Just don't make enemies of them," she warned. "But I get the feeling you know better than I do what could happen if you do that."

Krios grimaced. He certainly did.

"Anyway," he said, not wanting to think about that too much, "speaking of birthday presents."

Astoria sat up straighter, staring at him with wide eyes and an open mouth.

"You got me a present?" she asked. "Wait, you brought a present out here?"

Krios laughed—actually laughed—and said, "Yes, I got you a present. No, I didn't bring it here."

"You didn't have to—"

"Shush, I'm being a gentleman now."

Astoria bit her lip to stop a laugh. Her eyes sparkled as she replied, "Well, who am I to argue, then?"

With a grin, Krios called, "Kreacher!"

Thankfully, the house-elf knew what he wanted, and brought Astoria's present with him.

"Thank you, Kreacher," Krios said.

The house-elf bowed low before popping away.

Astoria gaped at her gift.

"You got me a cat?"

The cat was very big with bandy legs and ginger fur. Its face was squashed, as if it had run straight into a wall too many times, or perhaps been hit with a frying pan like a cartoon character.

"His name is Crookshanks," Krios said, smiling, though his smile faded when she continued to stare. "Did I do something wrong?"

She snorted. "Is there a reason you got me a cat for my birthday?"

"I heard that girls like cats," Krios replied, shifting uncomfortably. He was beginning to feel like he had mucked things up tremendously, and his cheeks burnt from his embarrassment.

Astoria laughed.

He felt like curling in on himself. He wanted to hide so she would stop laughing at him.

"Hey," she said softly, and her hand was back on his arm. "It's a really nice gift, Krios."

"You don't like it," he mumbled.

"I actually do," she said, though her voice was still full of laughter. "But is there a reason he's so, well…" She gestured at the cat. "He's not exactly a handsome cat, is he?"

Krios put his face in his hands, and his words were muffled as he said, "Daphne told me you like ugly things, so… I found the ugliest cat in the store and—" He pointed at Crookshanks without looking up.

Astoria laughed again.

"You listened to Daphne?" she asked incredulously.

"She doesn't always have me on like this," he said, looking at Astoria. "I didn't think she'd do it where her sister was concerned. I thought she would be a bit more honest."

"What if I was allergic?"

His eyes shot to hers, horrified.

She burst into laughter.

"I'm not!" she reassured him quickly. "But what if?"

"I would probably die," Krios said honestly.

"No, I think that's what I would do," Astoria pointed out, grinning.

"I assure you," he argued, "I would definitely be the one dying there."

Astoria hummed. "You know what? I think you're right." Her grin took on an evil edge. "My parents would murder you if something like that happened."

"If I didn't off myself first," Krios muttered under his breath, but she heard him anyway.

"Hey!" she said, somewhat snappishly. "Don't talk like that."

Deciding to move past the unpleasant topic, he said, "Crookshanks is technically for you and Daphne."

Astoria raised a single eyebrow in that elegant manner of hers. "Oh?"

Krios gave her a sheepish smile.

"Don't tell Daphne—"

"I already like where this is going."

"—but I don't know when her birthday is. I thought this was a good way of making it up to her."

"How thoughtful of you," Astoria said, smiling. "And, for your information, her birthday is at the end of September. About seven weeks from now."

"Thank you."

"Anytime."

They sat in silence for a few minutes. Astoria pulled Crookshanks into her lap and dragged a hand through his fur, and smiled when he started purring contentedly.

But, like all good things, it eventually came to an end.

Astoria sighed. "We should head back."

"Yeah," Krios agreed softly. "I guess."

She looked at him. There was an inscrutable glint in her eyes.

"Do you think we could do this again?" she asked. "I really enjoyed this."

Krios gave her a genuine smile. "I'd like that."

Astoria beamed, and that look made all the bad that had happened that day disappear, as if it had never happened at all.

As they stood up to return to the party, Krios couldn't help but look forward to seeing Astoria again.


AN: Thank you, Mtk757, for your incredible patron support.

THANKS FOR READING!