With her hands stuffed casually in the pockets of her robes, Nozomi walked quietly through the dungeon corridor, pausing only once in her steps to stretch her arms out with a yawn before placing her hands back in her pockets and resuming her nightly route.
It had been a long day. Classes had passed by tediously slow, and it seemed that almost every single professor Nozomi had had that term had chosen to assign multiple pages of homework for the evening.
Normally, the seventh-year Slytherin didn't mind the work load because it gave her an excuse to go to the library and catch up with the eight people she held close to her heart. However, Professor Slughorn had immediately requested a meeting with her directly after classes had ended for the day to discuss tutoring arrangements for students who were failing his class, which just so happened to cut into the time she would be spending with her friends in the library.
She encountered Umi on the fifth floor not long after Slughorn had dismissed her from his office. The blue-haired Ravenclaw had been as stoic as ever as she politely declined Nozomi's apology for her absence in the library and gave her Slytherin senior a brief summary of how it had only been Kotori, Hanayo, Rin, and herself that showed up.
Honoka had been in the Transfiguration classroom all evening, undoubtedly receiving a lecture from an irritated Professor McGonagall about not turning in the last four homework assignments. And of course, the sixth-year Gryffindor had all but dragged Eli along with her, thinking McGonagall would go easier on her if the blonde were present.
And it certainly did not surprise Nozomi when Umi mentioned that she hadn't even seen Nico and Maki all evening. Their absences were beginning to become more frequent, and everyone in their friend group was starting to notice.
It all started last year during Nozomi's sixth term - right when the nine of them were finally united. Those two were almost always nose to nose whenever they were in each other's presence - something no one ever expected to occur between a Ravenclaw student and a Slytherin student.
They carried on like that all the way through the rest of that year and even through the summer. Once the brand new term at Hogwarts began, the arguments between Nico and Maki seemed to simmer down just a little bit, but not by much. That's when the mysterious disappearances began.
At first, they were sporadic in occurrence. Nothing really noticeable. It was just one of those situations where everyone in the friend group just assumed that the two girls had other important things to do. Maybe not so much Nico, but it applied more to Maki. It was something that had been easily overlooked.
Pretty soon, there were days when it seemed as though the red-haired Ravenclaw and the raven-haired Slytherin had disappeared from the face of the earth. Both would be present for breakfast and for classes, but once evening came, they were nowhere to be seen. It was a very rare occasion if either one of them had even showed up at dinner in the evening time, and whenever one of them did show up, they would rush to eat and then quickly disappear out of the gigantic double doors at the entrance of the room.
That was when Nozomi and the other six girls began to become a mix of worried and suspicious. Well, the suspicious part came more from Nozomi than it did any of the others. She knew more than anyone else that Nico didn't have any friends other than the girls in their circle. Plus, Nico wasn't involved in anything else other than lazing it up on the couch in the Slytherin common room or seeing how many chocolate frogs she could ingest before her stomach couldn't agree with her choices anymore.
Maki, on the other hand, was the more aloof one out of the nine of them. She preferred to stay to herself most of the time even when they would all hang out together, only bothering to speak her mind when she felt the need to do so or to pop off with a sarcastic or smartass comment whenever Nico opened her mouth.
Unlike Nico, Maki's disappearances could have held a number of reasonable explanations. Fifth years would be taking their O.W.L. exams later this year, and the red-haired Ravenclaw had made the choice to prepare early by studying privately in the girls dormitory of Ravenclaw Tower during her free time.
Then there was the volunteer work she was doing under Madam Pomfrey in the Hospital Wing. Nozomi remembered Maki saying something about her father suggesting it during her first year so she could gather more experience while she was away at school.
Despite Maki's disappearances making a lot more sense than Nico's, it still didn't add up as to why they were both disappearing and reappearing at almost the exact same time.
Purely coincidental. Nozomi remembered Umi's reply during one of their meetups (minus Nico and Maki unsurprisingly) a few weeks back in the library when Rin decided to take one for the team and open up about the elephant in the room.
Eli had agreed with her. You're all just overthinking things. They both have their own things to do like the rest of us. As concerning as it may be, I'm sure they are fine.
That had been the end of that conversation. And although it felt sort of relieving to hear some assurance from both Umi and Eli, Nozomi still felt like something was amiss. There were so many possibilities as to what was going on.
If it were something dangerous or threatening, Nico would have told her otherwise, so there really wasn't any cause for caution on Nozomi's part.
But there was another possibilty that she knew may have been a little too farfetched even in her own mind.
A romantic possibility.
Nico spoke about her love life only when prodded by the purple-haired Slytherin, and sometimes she would make comments about this cute boy from Hufflepuff, this cute girl from Gryffindor, or someone else entirely, but they were never really considered crushes. Nico preferred being by herself for the most part, and that was completely okay.
But recently, she had noticed Nico's change in behavior. On top of the mysterious disappearances and reappearances, the shorter Slytherin's almost always grumpy exterior morphed into a somewhat cheerier exterior. Her slow trudges to class were replaced with a little more pep in her step. Hell, she even laughed off the prank Honoka and Rin pulled about a month ago when she had discovered a Stink Pellet hidden in the pocket of her robes when she normally would have given them an earful of expletives.
Maki's behavior also seemed to improve. Not by much, but there was an elusive little change that only a dedicated observer like Nozomi could catch.
The redheaded Ravenclaw's uptight aura had diminished. The straight face she normally kept during moments of humor within the group had advanced into a small smile or a rare giggle, only to revert back to the stoic poker face whenever Rin or Honoka called her out on it. And of course, this would lead to her denying it and making a poor excuse as to why she had done such a thing.
It wasn't normal for Nozomi to ever disagree with Umi, who was considered the wise one of the group, but this wasn't purely coincidental. This was real, and it was happening right under their noses.
Nico and Maki were romantically linked. This was the only possibilty that made total sense in Nozomi's head.
That was enough thinking for tonight, though. The purple-haired Prefect's mind had been running a mile a minute all day, and now was the time to put it to rest. Her rounds were finally complete, so she could now make a direct beeline for the entranceway to the common room.
Right as she finished another yawn, she could have sworn she heard something scrape against the stone steps of the spiral staircase that lead up from the Dungeons, almost like someone had tripped and hurriedly caught themselves before they plummeted down.
"Lumos," She whispered, pointing her wand to the mouth of the entrance that led to said staircase.
Probably just a rat or something. These Dungeon walls did have the ability to carry the echo of every small sound, after all.
With that in mind, she pocketed her wand and spoke the password to the hidden entrance to the Slytherin common room, the wall closing behind her as quickly as it had opened up.
"Shit, that was close." A heavily disheveled Nico breathed out as she stumbled her way down the staircase. If she hadn't caught herself like she did, she would have had to explain the reason why she wasn't in bed to a fucking Prefect, and it sure didn't help that the Prefect was her best friend on top of that. Nozomi would have never let her live this down if she had found out this way, and Nico intended to keep this a secret from her for now.
She didn't even have the energy to make herself look properly presentable, so if Nozomi had caught her, she would have known right off the bat that Nico had been to see someone.
The thought of that someone prompted the fresh bruises on Nico's neck and chest to throb simultaneously.
"Damn it, Maki," The raven-haired Slytherin cursed under her breath as she rubbed at her rumpled shirt collar. These ones actually hurt this time. She was going to absolutely murder Maki Nishikino in the morning. There was no question.
She harshly pulled the already undone tie from around her neck and sighed irritably up at the ceiling as she remembered that she hadn't bothered to do any of her homework for the evening.
It was no big deal honestly. She would just copy from Nozomi's at breakfast early in the morning.
She reached behind to run a hand through her long black hair before she came to the realization that she had left her hair ties behind on the third floor, presumably somewhere on the floor of the broom closet.
"Fuck," She cursed once more. Again, no big deal. Maki most likely picked them up and would probably return them to her at some point tomorrow. And if not, they would still be there tomorrow night. No one ever used that broom closet anyway.
After another sigh, Nico slowly trudged her way over to the wall.
"Pure-blood," The Slytherin recited, and once the wall opened up, she proceeded through with a yawn.