‘Unnatural child!’ the village woman hissed, and struck Blaise’s face with her palm.
Blaise tumbled to the ground, the slap ringing in his ears. It took a heartbeat before he felt the heat on his cheek, pain catching fire across his skin. Across the street, Dipsy squealed, and ran to Blaise’s side, pointing a finger at the woman in a manner the house elf intended to be threatening. The woman scoffed, her flushed doughy face twisted with derision.
‘Any child of that woman taints the land with his presence,’ she spat. ‘You should not be playing in our woods!’ She whirled around, and disappeared back into her store, the door slamming in her wake.
‘Oh, Young Master, are you hurt? Dipsy is so very sorry – Dipsy is bad for letting that horrible woman hurt you – oh, oh, Dipsy will punish herself – oh, Young Master, Dipsy is very sorry!’ The house elf’s high-pitched voice pierced through the hush that settled along the main street when the woman slapped Blaise.
As Dipsy helped Blaise to his feet, he watched as the adults turned away and resumed what they were doing before. Not one of them looked at him; everyone had seen, but they didn’t want to help him. They thought the same thing as the woman. Blaise touched his stinging cheek, the skin tender and throbbing. He was only looking at the carved wooden dolls on display in the shop window – there was one of a woman turning into a tree, and it reminded him of Hiraeth.
When they were home, Dipsy took Blaise to see his mother, her oversized ears twitching nervously. Mother caressed Blaise’s swollen cheek, her dark eyes assessing him coolly. She cast a healing spell, and told him to go play in the garden. He was barely ten minutes in her presence, but Blaise knew that when they were here on their secluded Wales estate, Mother was not to be disturbed. She was now grieving the death of her fourth husband, and they were here for her to find the quiet and solitude she needed.
The house elves were here to attend to his every need. They watched over him, and played with him in the gardens, but when Blaise went into the woods, they would not follow. ‘We are too small for the woods, Young Master,’ they said. ‘So are you. Come back, Young Master!’
Blaise left them at the edge where the gardens ended and the march of the trees began. He clambered over rocks covered in damp, spongy moss and roots twisting underfoot like ropes cast by Incarcerous. He took a different route from the last time. He always went in by different ways, but unfailingly found the same way home. That was how the woods worked.
The woods surrounded their estate, and the only way out was a narrow, straggly path that led to the village, which was the only settlement of magical folk here. Everything took on the name of the woods, Hiraeth, in this area. Muggles wouldn’t come here; their inherent prey instincts shy away from these woods.
But not Blaise.
He was drawn to them. The slender, bowing trees spotted white and brown; the bursts of yellow and purple flowers brilliant against the deep green undergrowth; and the song of unseen brooks splashing amongst the rocks: the woods were calling out to him. Blaise did not have a wand yet, but he had seen his mother cast spells, and he had observed the house elves’ brand of wandless magic, and he knew how they were different from the magic of the woods.
He came to the meeting place: a great rock split in the middle by the roots of an ancient tree lush with dark green leaves and armoured with thick, craggy bark. He climbed up, his hands and legs dirty and scraped, and wedged himself between two knotted roots, where he could watch the rest of the woods unfold, a triumphant grin on his face.
Amongst the trees, magic moved slow and syrupy as molasses, amber and soft as the light of the setting sun. It whispered into Blaise’s ears, rustling in the leaves as wind. He watched as jarveys scampered in the undergrowth, shouting nonsense at each other, and doxies swarmed the trunk of a white trolls-fast tree. Fairies with iridescent yellow wings spiralled above the canopy, their high-pitched chitter piercing the air.
Blaise leaned back, closing his eyes and tilting his head back. He took a deep shuddery breath, releasing his tightly clenched fists. It was fine here. He could not disturb Mother here. She had the whole house to herself, and she would be pleased that he was so thoughtful. He was not a troublesome child – he was a good boy, Mother must think so. She must.
He looked up. He felt more than heard the voice trembling along the branches, shivering in the leaves. The animals had melted into the undergrowth, slinking away from the starkly white luminescence drifting down an invisible path through the woods. He smiled, sitting up straighter. The light coalesced and brightened, forcing him to squeeze his eyes shut.
When he opened his eyes again, a woman was sitting on the swell of a root, leaning over him. Her eyes were dark as the deepest part of the woods, and her hair golden-green as the afternoon sun through the canopy. She returned his smile, touching the top of his head. Her touch was warm, and Blaise leaned into her palm, looking up at her.
You have been hurt.
He did not say a word; what could he say? He was hurt, but Mother healed his wounds, and his cheek was no longer throbbing. He was fine. The woman sighed, the breeze of sun-warmed meadows. Humans are so territorial. You are not from here, and they do not think I should heed your call. They cannot see what we can: that you are our child, boy. I have not met a creature as attuned to us as you in over a century. Come now, I will share with you our secrets, and you will forget the villagers’ selfishness.
She told him stories of the woods, her voice weaving in and out of his mind, sweet and gentle as spring blossoms waving in the breeze. Blaise listened, mouth agape. He could feel the woods stir in his blood, within him.
The woods will always be your friend, Blaise Zabini.
Drunken laughter and shouts shimmer in the air, effervescent in the dim, warm lights of the busy Muggle pub. Blaise wraps his hands around his pint of lager, and leans back in his seat, chuckling at the scene Eloise MacMillan and Padma Patil are making over Neville’s being late. The dark-haired man takes their jibes good-naturedly as usual, and grimaces at Blaise.
‘Looks like the next round is on me. What would you like, mate?’ he asks, shrugging his jacket off and draping over the back of Blaise’s chair. Blaise catches a whiff of his familiar woodsy cologne.
He smiles and shakes his head. ‘I just got my pint. I’m good for now, thanks.’
‘No point asking Blaise the lightweight as usual,’ Eloise drawls, tossing her long, dark hair over her shoulder. ‘A round of vodka shots for the table, and another gin-and-tonic for me!’
‘Oh, yes! Shots!’ Padma crows, her eyes bright from a little too much drink. ‘If we are not drunk, we’re not going home tonight.’
‘And that’s how you get a bartender to shag you,’ Justin Finch-Fletchley quips on Blaise’s left.
Blaise laughs, bumping his elbow against Justin’s. ‘You would know.’
The redhead smirks, batting his eyelashes coquettishly and raising his cocktail. ‘And wouldn’t you like to know, Zabini?’
Blaise pretends to throw up, as the others snort with laughter.
‘Are you doubting my skills in bed, Zabini?’ Justin demands with mock outrage, throwing an arm around Blaise and pulling him against his side. ‘You know my offer still stands, right? I’d gladly bottom for a bloke as bloody fit as you.’
‘Bugger off!’ Blaise guffaws, nudging his elbow into Justin’s side and shrugging out of his embrace. ‘Merlin would sooner rise from his grave before Terry allows that.’
‘Oh, he would definitely want to join in,’ Justin leers. ‘Don’t you fret.’
Blaise rolls his eyes, but before he could tell the flirtatious man to sod off – everyone knows how desperately Justin chased Terry Boot for a year before winning him over – Neville interrupts with an apologetic smile: ‘Blaise, could you come help me with the drinks?’
‘What, your wand isn’t working?’ Blaise asks, eyebrows raised, but slides out of his seat anyway; Neville could ask Blaise to walk with him into the Forbidden Forest wandless, and Blaise would ask him how soon.
‘I don’t think a bunch of drinks is worth violating the International Statute of Secrecy. Anyway, you’re my safeguard,’ Neville replies, glaring at Eloise with mock outrage, ‘so that our Eloise can’t accuse me of buying fewer drinks than she wanted, and diluting the lot to make up for the rest. I should be offended that she thinks me that much of a cheapskate, shouldn’t I?’
Eloise sniggers. ‘They tasted strange, all right? Don’t you agree, Pad? You thought so too, didn’t you?’
Padma blinks at her, and looks from her to Neville. ‘Could you get us normal shots this time, Nev? When Ellie’s really drunk, she wears that nightie I love so much. It’s all lacy and skimpy and –’ She is cut off abruptly by her girlfriend’s hand across her mouth. Eloise wraps her arms around Padma, her pale skin flushed scarlet and her narrowed eyes daring any of them to laugh.
Neville catches Blaise’s arm, and the two of them disappear into the crowd, leaving Justin to ask, ‘Do you really –’ Blaise is laughing, exulting in the warmth and solidity of Neville’s hand against his skin. He feels Neville’s laughter vibrating through his body as they are pressed together momentarily by the crowd. They break through the crush, and Neville releases him, and Blaise wonders briefly, regretfully, if he should have flexed his arm – if that might have made the slightest bit of difference in seducing Neville Longbottom.
Of course not. Not to Neville Longbottom, who does not talk about his love life to anybody, but whom everybody knows is dating Ginny Weasley. Blaise decided four years ago that he was fine not knowing for certain; he does not need to see Neville holding hands or kissing another person. It hurt that little bit less when he does not hear the words my girlfriend coming from Neville’s mouth. Considering how wretched it feels to even look at Neville sometimes, Blaise gladly takes any degree of relief.
‘Sorry I was late,’ Neville says, as they lean against the bar counter, waiting for the bartender to prepare the drinks. ‘Professor Thorpe came to the glasshouses, and wanted to see the progress of my experiment.’
‘How is that going?’ Blaise asks. ‘It has been … three weeks, hasn’t it? It’s almost full moon – you would have to pluck the leaves then, I suppose?’
Neville brightens, as he always does when they are discussing plants. It is like watching a Sunstar bush burst into flowers in mid-summer, shimmering in the bright light. His brown eyes are lit by an almost manic glint, and he gestures enthusiastically as he describes the growth of his Witch’s Ganglion. Whether the experiment is going well or not, Neville is unwaveringly chuffed about his progress. He is the only one of them who chose to go on to do a doctorate in Herbology; the rest of them, they are relieved enough to graduate with their Master. Blaise cannot help but smirk in amusement, his chest suffused with warm affection.
From the corner of his eye, he catches sight of a man watching them. He looks up, over Neville’s shoulder. The Muggle, attractive in a brutally masculine manner with his shaven head and tattoos, is leaning against a table, sipping his drink with calculated suaveness. He meets Blaise’s eyes unflinchingly, and smirks, his full lips glossy in the dim light. Blaise looks away, unimpressed.
People flirting with him or checking him out happen nearly every hour of the day. It sounds like bragging coming from anybody else but Eleanor Zabini’s child; their famously good looks are the Zabini hallmark. Family legend tells of a powerful Zabini ancestor who somehow managed to entice a forest spirit to mate with him. It sounds almost like a tale by Beedle the Bard – except Blaise remembers Hiraeth, the forest spirit from his childhood.
Neville glances over his shoulder, spotting the flirtatious Muggle, and turns back with a mischievous grin. ‘Not your type?’
‘Too handsome,’ Blaise replies flippantly.
Neville snorts. ‘You have no bloody right to say that, mate.’
‘Oh, do you think I’m handsome then?’ Blaise asks teasingly.
‘No! Of course not!’ the brown-haired man sputters, his face turning a deep red. ‘How could I? You’re my friend.’
It feels like fragile stalks of fanged lilies breaking within his chest, their thorns catching on his soft, pulpy insides. Blaise knows – of course he does – but he was not prepared for the vehemence of Neville’s response. He wonders if someone has been taking the piss out of Neville for being friends with him, if someone has made insinuations about Blaise. He knows too, that there must be many: whore, heartbreaker, bumboy, slut.
He is abruptly filled with the sort of suffocating desperation he thought he had left behind at the start of their strange friendship. This must be when he leaves me. This must be when he sees the rot under my skin. This must be it. This must be the end. He smiles, the contraction of muscles and lifting of lips. He knows that he appears as he usually does. His ability to carry on normally amidst devastation has served him well all his life – especially during the war.
‘Thanks, Longbottom,’ he says with a wry laugh. ‘Should I feel offended? But that is to be expected, I suppose, since you are not part of my target audience anyway.’
Neville is mortified, reaching out to grab Blaise’s forearm. ‘I don’t mean you’re ugly – of course not – I just – Merlin, it was a slip of the tongue. I didn’t mean to say that – I meant it for myself. I don’t – I didn’t mean to say it like that. You are – you are the best-looking bloke I know. Of course you’re not ugly!’
Blaise’s heartbeat is thunderous in his ears. The awareness of touch starts out as a tingle that spirals across his skin. He is seized with the mad desire to lean into that touch – to twist his hand around and intertwine their fingers. Would it be so bad to give in, just this once? Neville is gazing at him with beseeching eyes, his hand warm and slightly damp. Abruptly, confusion flashes across his face, and Blaise realises that he has been leaning in, and his mask must have cracked, and his longing revealed.
‘Blaise?’ Neville asks, bewildered.
The bartender arrives with their drinks, and Blaise, profusely thanking Merlin, Morgana, Salazar and the other Unseen Gods, grabs two shot glasses. ‘You know what?’ he says blithely, unable to meet his friend’s eyes. ‘I changed my mind. He’s not too handsome after all. I think I’ll have some fun with him tonight. I’ll see you tomorrow, mate.’
‘Wait – Blaise –’
He walks away without a backward glance. The Muggle is scanning the crowd for other potential prey, and grins with surprise when he spots Blaise walking towards him. Blaise takes little more than a smirk and a nod at the shot glasses in his hands for the man to follow him. The Muggle wraps his thick fingers around Blaise’s wrist, jostling the drink and causing vodka to spill down Blaise’s hand. The stranger brings Blaise’s cupped hand to his lips, and licks the liquid pooling in Blaise’s palm, his eyes darkened with desire.
Blaise smirks, deftly twisting his hand away, and plunges further into the crowd. He thinks he feels Neville’s eyes boring into his back, but he must be imagining it; how desperate he is for Neville’s attention. He swallows the shot of rancid vodka, abandoning the glasses on a nearby table, and wends his way through the heaving crowd, aware of the persistent Muggle behind him.
He turns behind a screen, goes around it to the other side, ducks beneath a table, apologising to its tipsy occupants, and goes back into the crowd, adopting the sway and gait of the crowd so that his movement does not stand out. He does not look back. He has performed this pantomime frequently enough to know that the alcohol-addled Muggle must be still standing on the other side of the screen, lost and alone.
Neville is no longer at the bar, and Blaise, hiding half-behind a booth wall, sees that he has returned to their friends. The group is laughing at something Justin has said, Neville having taken Blaise’s seat. Blaise’s barely drunk pint stands forgotten at the edge. It seems almost like Blaise was never there. He draws back into the shadows, and threads through the crowd, making for the exit. There are thorns grinding in his chest.
It was Neville who brought him into the friend group in the first place; it is befitting for him to take it away if he wishes. Blaise was leaving the lecture hall after their very first class at university, still reeling from the fact that he was actually here, pursuing a Master in Herbology, when he could barely get Acceptable in any other subject at Hogwarts. Neville called out to him, and he turned in surprise.
He had seen Longbottom with other former Hogwarts students in class, but he had not given them second thought until then. Blaise was already friends with Harry, Ron and Hermione by way of Draco, and had been since their repeat eighth year, but Neville, he barely knew. The only thing he dimly remembered of Longbottom was Draco smirking at Ron and teasing him about the time his sister was spending with Neville.
Now, oh, now Blaise knows that Neville’s favourite magical plant is the flavuthistle for its vibrantly yellow blossoms; that his favourite non-magical plant is the willow tree; that he likes his tea with at least three sugar cubes and no milk; that he trains in the Muggle sport of wrestling for the certainty that he will no longer feel helpless in his own body. Oh, yes, Blaise Zabini also knows that he is well and truly fucked.
‘Do you like this?’ the girl asked, her voice sultry with her French accent. She looked up coquettishly at Blaise from where she was kneeling on the ground between his legs.
Blaise looked down at her, digging his fingernails into the cold tiled wall behind him, his wild hair falling in his face. He was about to receive his first blowjob, but his mind was dizzy from the alcohol smuggled into the Yule Ball, and he could only think about how bloody cold it was. That could not be right. He was down here in the Quidditch pitch showers in the middle of the night, with a very pretty girl stroking his half-hard dick – should he not be thinking about how lucky he was? How aroused he was?
He smiled and pretended. His mother always said, the last thing you want to do, Blaise, is let them see you for what you are. Your deception must be impenetrable. Make use of the fact that no one ever sees past our looks. Encouraged, the girl dipped her head down and engulfed his dick in her warm, soft mouth. He gasped, more out of surprise than arousal, and his fists clenched out of instinct. The girl giggled, the sound vibrating through his cock. She began bobbing her head up and down in earnest, her hands digging into his thighs. Blaise closed his eyes, head falling back against the chilly tiles.
He cursed himself for being so careless. He would have wanted to stay out of the Ball, which had thrown the school into a tizzy, but the Beauxbatons girl had asked him in the main courtyard crowded with students changing classrooms. When he saw the way the other boys looked at him with such searing envy, he had to say yes, because rejecting her would only stoke their ire.
He liked girls as much he did boys, but he also had as much interest in pursuing relationships with anyone of any gender as he did with a ghoul. He very much preferred to be left alone, thank you very much. He still went on dates every once in a while, because people kept asking him out, and he had to keep up the pretence. This only gave him the reputation of being a player. Blaise wanted to laugh. He had not so much kissed anyone; the thought of putting his face so closely to someone else’s made him want to throw up.
The world was spinning around him, centring on the wet, slurping noises between his legs and the slow string of desire tightening in his belly. He had planned on leaving the moment the ball was over, but they were drinking the spiked punch, and he did not know alcohol could feel so good, keeping him afloat and a fuzzy distance away from everything that hurt. He kept drinking, and she told him they should go somewhere else, because the professors were suspicious, and next, they were here, and they were snogging. She had whispered breathily in his ear: ‘You are so fit, Blaise.’
Blaise kept his eyes closed. He could hear the Forbidden Forest from here, the wind rustling and groaning through those massive, ancient trees. The music of the forest always sounded so achingly lonely after a night soaked in the heat and activity of people. The wind swirled through the cracks in the walls, and pressed against Blaise’s bare skin, whistling as it went by. The sound was almost human, almost like a gasp. He could feel the girl shivering.
She quickened her ministrations, her breathing rapid through her nose, and the string in Blaise’s belly drew taut. His fingernails digging into his palms, his head thrown back, Blaise came in her mouth, his teeth gritted against the loud, desperate gasp that threatened to spill out. He opened his eyes, and, through the gap in the slightly open door, he saw the crowns of the Forbidden Forest, ruffled in the strong breeze.
The next morning, the girl would not look at him, and her friends scowled and drew their arms protectively around her. His fellow Slytherins had sniggered, and gave him congratulatory slaps on the back, some with more force than necessary. ‘Well, well, are you competing with Potter for the title of Mr Yule Ball, Zabini?’ Draco Malfoy said snidely, as he swanned past with his goons in tow.
Blaise sat in the Great Hall at breakfast, holding his throbbing head and listening to the rumours hissing around him. The story told in scandalised, half-disbelieving whispers was that he fucked her in the showers by the pitch, with water sluicing down around them. After he had fucked her on all fours, he fucked her on a broomstick. Blaise Zabini, at fourteen, seemed to have mastered at least two techniques from Madame Esme’s Seven Sekret Artes. They shouldn’t be so surprised, they were saying. After all, Zabini seemed to be that sort, did he not?
He looked up from his eggs, and caught the eye of someone who was too slow to look away like everybody else. It was a pudgy, mousy boy from the Gryffindor table. What was his name? Longbottom, one of the Sacred Twenty-Eight. He flushed bright red when their eyes met, and he quickly looked down at his plate. Blaise scoffed, clutching his fork tightly. Let them talk, he thought. Then maybe they will leave me alone.
Blaise takes a few deep breaths, pushing away the anxiety at the edge of his thoughts. He turns the corner when he is certain he appears unflappable. Neville is waiting in front of Sugarplum’s, holding a mix bag of sweets, as he usually does when they meet here. He nods and smiles at the people who recognise him; there are bound to be a few here in Diagon Alley, him being a war hero and Harry Potter’s friend. He grins when he catches sight of Blaise, and shakes the bag.
‘They have your favourite coffee bean toffee today,’ he says.
Blaise returns the smile, relieved that Neville is talking to him as he usually does; that he does not seem inclined to tell Blaise, you’re a wanker, Zabini, and I don’t think we should be friends anymore. Well, he is here after all, is he not? Blaise takes a sweet, popping it in his mouth.
‘Thanks, mate,’ he says. ‘Sorry, have you been waiting long?’
‘No, it’s fine,’ Neville shrugs, taking a candy himself before stowing the bag away. ‘I wanted to get something from Sugarplum’s anyway. If I didn’t, you would only insist on popping in, and that would make us even later.’ He gives Blaise a mock accusing glare.
Blaise smirks. ‘You know Luna is going to be the latest anyway, right? All right, all right, let’s go.’
As they walk towards the Disapparition Point, he asks about last night. Neville shares the updates the others gave about work and the other parts of their lives. Blaise nods, regretting that he was not strong enough to stay after exposing himself so to Neville. Neville does not ask about his night, and Blaise is relieved. He has his story prepared, of course, but lying to Neville always grates like prickly bushes against his skin.
They reach the Disapparition Point. Blaise readies himself so that he does not blush when Neville wraps an arm around him with an encouraging smile. ‘Hang tight. We’ll be there soon,’ he promises.
Blaise loathes Apparating. He could do it, if he must, but the very thought of doing it causes him stomach-churning anxiety for days before the act. Magical teleportation is certainly not his transportation of choice, even if it may be the most convenient method. He thinks it may have something to do with the fact that he is abysmal at magic. Yes, he knows how it sounds: a pureblood wizard poor at magic? The very essence that makes them what they are?
He is bad at casting complex charms or hexes, and hopeless at brewing potions – how many times had Draco shouted at him for nearly blowing their cauldron up in school? Transfiguration is, of course, clearly out of the picture. He was absolutely shite at school. The only subjects he managed passes were Herbology and Care for Magical Creatures. N.E.W.T.s in only two subjects should not have given him entry into any programme at the prestigious Aeaea University for the Magical Arts, but his relentless letters managed to secure him a meeting with the head of the Herbology department, and somehow, Blaise walked out with a place in the programme and a qualified Master in Herbology four years later.
He is still bewildered by the fortuitous turn of events, the unravelling thread of which leads him here, pressed against Neville Longbottom. He closes his eyes, clenching his fists on Neville’s robes. Neville takes a deep breath, his chest pushing out against Blaise, and they are squeezing through an impossibly tight space, their bodies elongated and twisted. Blaise loses sense of up and down, and is abruptly seized with the mind-numbing fear that he may never find his way out again. His feet hit the ground, and his knees buckle. He would have fallen, if Neville were not holding on to him.
‘We’re here,’ Neville murmurs, a warm hand rubbing Blaise’s back comfortingly. ‘You’re fine. You’re in one piece. Take a deep breath.’
Blaise takes a deep, shuddery breath, opening his eyes. He is immediately embarrassed to realise that he has buried his face in Neville’s chest, his fists crumpling the front of Neville’s clothes. Neville has his arms wrapped around him, because of how tightly Blaise is clinging to him. He releases him immediately, taking a step back. He passes a hand over his face, pushing away the panic crackling at the back of his mind, composing himself. He is in one piece, as Neville said; there is nothing to fear of Apparition at all.
He needs only fear that he is so terrible at hiding his phobia that Neville knows about it. He cannot remember how it came to be an arrangement between them that Neville would Side-Along Apparate him whenever they are meeting their friends outside of London, but he should have been more careful. Fool. Perhaps Neville is not even the slightest bit surprised at his weakness; he has seen Blaise for the coward that he is well enough during the war.
‘Thanks, mate,’ Blaise says breezily. ‘That wasn’t as terrible as I thought it might be.’
‘No problem. You know I would gladly take you anywhere you like.’
Blaise snorts. ‘If that came from anyone else, I would think the bloke was flirting with me. Come on, didn’t you say something about being late?’
They landed on the path leading up to Draco’s cottage. After the war, Draco moved to this isolated cottage in Wiltshire, nestled amongst gentle hills and crowded with hornbeam and chestnut trees. There are no large wizarding communities nearby – the main draw for Draco. It turns out that he need not have bothered in the first place, because he has all but moved in with Harry at Grimmauld Place. In fact, he only uses the cottage these days for gatherings and parties – like today.
Blaise and Neville are the latest after all; Luna was early for once, having arrived with Ginny. Everybody is already there and at least two drinks deep. Harry, who is playing Exploding Snap with a very giggly Ron and frowning Dean Thomas, waves at Blaise. A flushed Hermione is sitting on the rug in front of Luna, who is braiding the other woman’s wild hair. Ginny jumps to her feet gleefully upon seeing Neville. After muttering a general Hello to everyone, Blaise makes straight for the drinks in the kitchen. He has no wish to see Neville and Ginny together without a few in him. Draco is in the kitchen with Seamus Finnigan, and he clearly has had a few already, because he greets Blaise enthusiastically with a suffocating hug.
‘Blaise! We were just talking about you,’ he exclaims gleefully. ‘Heard you pulled a very fit Muggle last night. How was it? Did you make him breakfast?’
Blaise scoffs, pouring himself a shot of rum. He swallows it with a grimace, shuddering, before replying: ‘Why in the name of Merlin’s pants would I make breakfast for a one-night stand?’
Draco nudges Seamus, who is chortling. ‘I told you – Blaise only does one-night stands. I don’t think he even dates - do you?’ He returns his gaze to Blaise, eyebrows raised.
Blaise shrugs, pouring out another shot. He can hear Neville and Ginny whispering in the hallway leading to the kitchen, and he is no mood to discuss his love life in front of the happy couple. He throws back the second shot.
‘How did you even hear about last night anyway?’ he asks, setting his glass down. ‘Morgana, is there no way a bloke can get laid in this community without the Daily Prophet writing about it?’
‘Not if you’re one of this lot,’ Draco retorts, gesturing in the general direction of the sitting room.
‘What about this lot?’ Ginny demands as she enters the kitchen with Neville in tow.
‘Oh, only the fact that who our heroes snog is worthy of national news,’ Seamus says laughingly. ‘Blimey, it’s tough being you, isn’t it, Malfoy?’
Draco sighs dramatically, tossing his head back and pressing his hand to his forehead. ‘It is so very difficult.’
‘Berk,’ Ginny snickers, grabbing two beers from the fridge – one of the many Muggle conveniences Harry introduced to Draco – and handing one to Neville. ‘Why are we talking about this attention-seeking prat?’
‘Excuse me,’ Draco gasps in mock affront, bumping his hip against hers. ‘Did we not just spend the entire dinner last night dissecting your relationship woes, you ungrateful bint?’
Ginny laughs, clinking her bottle against his glass. ‘Cheers, mate!’
Blaise is still amazed at what good friends Draco and Ginny have become. It makes sense in hindsight: Ginny Weasley is a fearless, enrapturing force of nature, capable of taking anything Draco unleashes and returning it twice as fiercely. Blaise is often struck by her blazing good looks, by the spirit and energy in her strong features. One does not easily forget a woman like Ginny Weasley, and the rest of the wizarding world agrees with him, judging from how frequently she is featured in gossip rags and lads’ mags.
She is the very best sort of partner Neville deserves. They have already suffered Hell together, the year at Hogwarts under Voldemort’s rule, when they must protect the vulnerable younger students from the cruelties of the Death Eaters and their Slytherin supporters, of which Blaise was one. Blaise measures out another shot. He is being stupidly morose today. He is here for a party – one of the rare occasions when everyone’s schedules are aligned – and he is wasting it being tiresomely melancholic.
He must have been more affected by the thought of losing his place amongst the university lot than he would like to admit. He swallows his third shot of red currant rum, savouring the heat of the alcohol licking his throat and the warm, fuzzy blanket being slowly pulled over his mind. It is enough for him to hold a conversation with Ginny when she asks him how he has been doing. Neville stands next to her, looking and smiling at her. Blaise soon finds himself with another drink in his hand.
They eventually move out to the sitting room, where everyone is happily drunk. Someone puts on a Weird Sisters record, and people are whirling around the sitting room, grabbing partners and knocking over furniture, ignoring Draco’s protests, which Harry shuts up with a very effective kiss. Blaise sits back in his beanbag chair, cradling his fifth – or was it sixth – drink, and watches as Neville dances with Luna. The dark-haired man’s face is luminescent in the warm glow of the sitting room lights, flushed with helpless laughter.
Neville catches Blaise’s eye and grins, open and honest with gaiety. He passes Luna’s hand to Ginny, and stumbles over to Blaise’s side. Blaise returns his smile, exulting in the warmth and security of the detachment offered by the number of drinks he has imbibed. Neville lowers himself to the floor, draping himself over Blaise’s arm and grabbing Blaise by the shoulders with both hands.
‘Why aren’t you dancing?’ Neville demands, jostling Blaise a little. ‘I bet you’ll look beautiful on the dance floor. It’s almost offensive how gorgeous you look no matter what the fuck you do.’
Blaise is not drunk enough that he does not feel the spark of astonishment. Neville is far drunker than he thought. He laughs, putting his drink down and reaching out to steady Neville with a hand on the other man’s arm. His chest is warm with pleasure, gleefulness rising in him, effervescent as the finest elf-made champagne. Neville presses down on one side of the beanbag, and the chair loses its shape. Blaise is slipping towards Neville, and Neville is pitching forwards with a grunt of surprise. Blaise catches himself with one hand on the ground, and wraps his other arm around Neville.
‘Oops,’ Neville chuckles, looking up, a hand balanced on Blaise’s chest.
Blaise is breathless for a heartbeat. Neville’s face – lit with humour, slightly flushed and guileless from drink – is close enough that Blaise can feel Neville’s breath warm against his cheek. They are chest to chest, separated only by Neville’s fist. Blaise is staring into Neville’s eyes, an intimacy that feels almost violating, because his restraint is fraying at the edges, and he fears Neville must be able to read the longing in his eyes.
He feels more than hears Neville’s breath hitch in his throat, and something inscrutable shifts in the depths of Neville’s eyes – something that feels dark and cloying and scares Blaise just that little bit. His heartbeat is thunderous in his ears. A minute movement catches his eye over Neville’s shoulder, and he looks up, just as Neville opens his mouth. Blaise sees Ginny watching them, her eyes perceptive and accusing. Blaise’s heart twists. She knows. Salazar save him, Ginny has seen it, and she knows.
He pushes Neville away, scrambling to his feet. He makes for the front door, murmuring something incoherent about needing fresh air, ignoring his friends’ concerned looks. Neville is calling his name, his voice ragged. He shakes his head, trying to hear, trying to think above the vociferous pounding of his heart. He pushes the front door open, trips over a boot, and staggers out into the open night sky.
It is cold, excruciatingly cold, a breeze scouring his overheated skin. He trips over his too-large feet, and curses. The world is spinning, the stars streaking silver in the blue-black sky. He can taste the scent of trees in the air, his name whispered on the wind. The whisper turns into a shout, and he looks over his shoulder to see Neville stumbling out of the open front door. Fuck. Blaise swears, forcing himself onto his feet.
‘Sorry, Nev, but I just remembered I – I – I have a date tonight, and I must go.’
‘What?’ Neville is blinking furiously, his eyes bleary. ‘You’re lying.’
Blaise manages a shrug, blanching at Neville’s bald accusation. ‘Nonetheless, I need to go.’
‘I’ll take you,’ the other man steps forward, an inexplicable hardness to his face. ‘I’ll take you to your date. You can’t Disapparate, can you?’
Blaise shakes his head, stepping back. ‘You’re drunk. You’re in no state to Disapparate. I’ll be fine. I’ll see you soon, yeah? Tell Draco sorry for me.’
He turns around before Neville can respond, and he is running before his mind catches up with his body, and Neville is shouting his name. He reaches the end of the path, and plunges his hand into his pocket to make sure his wand is there. He takes a deep breath, squeezing his eyes shut, and steps forward with determination, his destination already springing to his mind. He yields to the awful, suffocating darkness with Neville’s voice ringing in his ears.
‘If you do not do it, Zabini, we will do it to you,’ Amycus Carrow snarled.
‘Go on, pretty boy. Surely, you are more than your looks – you are still a Slytherin,’ his sister jeered with the sort of jealous bitterness of people who were often derided for their looks.
Blaise stared at the first-year girl strewn at his feet. She was unconscious from the Cruciatus Curse she had suffered at Nott’s hand. Her crime was being sorted into Gryffindor, and her mistake was separating from her class being guided back to their common room by a Hogwarts professor. Nott was now standing behind him with the rest of the audience in the shadows that filled the basement classroom. Blaise felt their eyes boring into his back. He tightened his hold on his wand, the custom-made Ollivander wand that cost his mother a ridiculous sum of money.
How small the girl looked, her lips pale and bleeding against her dark skin, her limbs loose in the manner of a golem that has lost its command spell. She had refused to scream, not even when she had bitten her lips to bleeding shreds, not even when Nott had collapsed from the strain of holding the curse together. The whole room could see her eyes flashing with rage and defiance and hatred. The Carrows were furious that a little Gryffindor half-blood could defy them so.
‘GO ON!’ Alecto shrieked, jabbing her wand at the girl and the fragile, limp body twitched like a grotesque marionette.
Blaise raised his wand. His body felt distant, as if his mind had fled the shell and his movements were no longer what his mind desired. He wondered detachedly if he might even be able to cast the spell. It was well known after all, that Blaise Zabini was only good in the bedroom and deplorable in the classroom. He wondered as well what the Death Eaters might do to him if he confessed that he did not like doing magic.
Magic did not come as naturally as breathing for him like it did for everyone else. Wielding a wand always felt like he was gasping for breath through heavy, soupy London fog with nothing but a twig to pierce holes through the thickness. No one knew, of course, because Blaise was that good at pretending to be the pureblood Slytherin they expected him to be. He stared at the tangle of robes at his feet. Robes – they are only robes. There is no girl. He opened his mouth, stilling the trembling of his arm.
The door burst open, and Neville Longbottom, who has been evading capture by the Death Eaters for the past two months, darted into the room, flanked by his lieutenants, Ginny Weasley and Seamus Finnigan. They fired Stunners at the Carrows before anyone else had time to react. Longbottom raced towards Blaise and the girl at his feet. His dark eyes, wild and bloodshot, flashed from the girl to Blaise, and the fathomless rage that roiled in them made Blaise flinch and take an involuntary step back. The last thing he saw before Longbottom flung a red jet of light at him without a pause in his steps was the snarl on his pale, half-starved face, desperate and venomous.
‘How long do you intend to stay?’ his mother asks.
Blaise looks up at her over the toast, jars of wild honey and moondew jam, and a gently steaming pot of freshly brewed coffee. The dining table stretches out between them, perfectly arranged with gleaming silverware and pristine white cloth napkins, waiting for guests that will never arrive. The house elves are standing quietly behind, ready to serve from the silver platters kept under stasis charms on the sideboard.
Eleanor Zabini sits at the head of the table, dressed in cream-coloured robes embroidered with flashing gold thread. She looks at Blaise, her eyebrow arched in expectation. With a mixture of powerful lineage, expertly applied glamours and careful maintenance, his mother does not look a day above thirty-five – or the mother of a twenty-three-year-old. Blaise looks down at the crisp toast smeared with butter on his plate, wondering how he might answer her.
He did not expect her to be here on their Wales estate at this time of the year. It is summer, and she prefers Italy in the summer, when the weather is reliably sunny and warm. Outside, the clouds lay low and heavy on the horizon, dark and rumbling. A light drizzle is falling, pattering gently against the windows. It is strange for his mother to be here, and without her husband, who – Blaise checked from the very first – is alive and in London. She was surprised that he has come as well, but that might have more to do with his inebriated, incoherent state last night.
‘A week, perhaps,’ he finally says.
‘Ah, is that so?’ she replies, looking down to scoop out her soft-boiled eggs. ‘Things are not busy in the shop at this time of the year?’
He makes a non-committal noise. He has sent off a letter to his boss before breakfast, begging to take leave for the next two weeks, citing critical family business for the abrupt urgency. He winces internally. Edgar, the only other Herbologist, will not like that. The apothecary is always busy this time of the year, with hay fever and summer colds. While the shop has three other Potioneers, Edgar and Blaise are the only Herbologists qualified to handle the more volatile plant-based ingredients. When he is back, he will bring Edgar out for a meal, Blaise decides with a twinge of guilt.
‘You are still enjoying yourself working?’ his mother continues.
Blaise grits his teeth. ‘Yes,’ he says without looking up.
His mother had no protests against his studying at university, because it is an acceptable thing for a Zabini to be a scholar, but she still does not understand why he would choose to work. He had not imagined that he might either – until Neville asked him what he might do after university, and Blaise realised with a jolt that he should put his knowledge to use. He knows that his boss only hired him because of his looks, but he does not mind the fawning customers so much when he can touch and talk about plants all day.
‘That is good.’ His mother takes a sip of tea, and sets the cup down with a clink. ‘You came here for a rest from everyone else, I expect. Our family has an affinity for this place – it rejuvenates us. I suspect that is why it was chosen for our ancestral seat.’
Blaise looks up. She is looking out of the French windows, eyes fixed on the edge of the woods just visible from here. Eleanor Zabini can be loquacious when she chooses to be, usually when there is company worth entertaining. Blaise remembers only a few occasions from childhood when she was like so alone with him. Perhaps a child is not worth speaking to, while her grown son might be. This is the first time he considers such a thing; since graduating from Hogwarts, he makes a concerted effort to be considerate of his mother and her new elderly husband, and to take the estate he knows they will not be at.
‘This is the first place I thought of when I needed to get away,’ he admits.
His mother nods, still looking away. ‘These woods call to us, and welcome us. That’s why the locals hate us so much. The woods call to them too, but they cannot truly enter without fear of death. Have you ever feared the woods or the forest – any forest?’
Blaise shakes his head, awareness unfurling within him. Eleanor nods again, and looks at him, smiling slightly. ‘That is our gift,’ she says.
‘Mother …’ he hesitates, the words coalescing and growing within him. He must ask her. ‘Does magic not work for you too?’
She laughs, light and silvery like ice crystals shattering in the moonlight. ‘My dear, we Zabinis are terrible at magic. It is part of our heritage – of the strength of the woods in our blood. You cannot imagine how proud we all are that you are the first Zabini to make it to university. We are not only our looks, are we?’
She rises to her feet, stately and elegant, smoothing back her perfectly curled dark hair. ‘I will leave you to your breakfast. I will be returning to Italy in two days, so you can expect to have Hiraeth to yourself. You do look like you need her.’
She leaves before Blaise says another word, a house elf scurrying in her wake. He stares after his mother, open-mouthed, the cup he raised to bring to his mouth forgotten mid-air. He sets it down, staring unseeingly at the perfectly laid out cutlery sets. His mind is reeling from her words, shouting protests and denials at every meaning he attempts to conjure from what she said. Proud? We Zabinis are terrible at magic? Her too? Proud? Proud of me? Truly, truly proud?
He stands abruptly, sending his chair falling over with a thump. A house elf hurries over to right the chair, and to ask if he wants any more tea. Blaise shakes his head, thanking him. He will go for a walk; yes, he will go for a walk. Here in the house, the air is tight and closed with the past and disappointed hopes, which cannot be fixed in a single moment of stunning honesty. He cannot breathe here with the thoughts crowding his head. He must get out.
The drizzle falls against his face, sharp and icy as needles, but he does not mind it. The chill is a shock that obliterates all other thoughts from his mind. He keeps his head down, his shoulders hunched against the rain and his hands stuffed into his pockets. He focuses on the movement of his feet through the wet, clinging grass, knowing where his path inevitably leads.
The woods are as he remembered: the wild tangle of thick, ancient roots; the white-spotted trees marching into infinity; and the violent colours of flowers in the undergrowth. Everything smells of the rain and the greenery. The canopy is thick enough here to shelter the worst of the drizzle. Blaise straightens, running a hand through his wet hair, and starts walking.
He listens to the sounds of the rain pattering on the leaves, dripping on the damp undergrowth; of the creatures scurrying in the bushes, caught only as a blur of movement; of the birds and faeries singing in the treetops. There is a deep, unruffled calm within him, placidity that cannot be stirred. He is home – a certainty bone-deep and blood-warm.
Soon, he comes to the tree growing through a rock, and Hiraeth is waiting for him. She has not changed: not her lovely golden hair worn loose and stirring with an unfelt breeze; not her smooth, fair skin dappled green like sunlight on leaves; and not her joyous, loving gaze. She opens her arms to him, and he goes willingly, sinking into her embrace with a sigh.
She smells of the woods – and of every forest Blaise has since visited. Despite his damp clothes and the chilling drizzle, he is warm. Heat is stirring within his blood, singing with the magic he now recognises as that of the woods; of the trees; of every plant, magical and non-magical, that grows with intention or abandon in this world. The strength of the woods in our blood. He thinks he sees what his mother meant now.
You leave but for a second, and come back fully grown. Hiraeth says, her laugh the sound of the wind rustling in the treetops. She steps back, surveying him with eyes brimming with pride.
‘A second to you is nearly a decade to us.’
Yes, that is so. And you remember the stories I told you.
‘Of course. Every word. They took me through the worst of the nightmares.’
The forest spirit sighs, her eyes dimming slightly. Your kind has been through something terrible of late, I know. There were a few who begged refuge in my domain, and I granted it to them. You did not emerge unscathed yourself, my child.
‘No, I did not,’ Blaise looks down. ‘I can no longer be the child you so kindly granted your favour. There is … rot in me. I’m afraid I will bring the entire woods to the ground.’
I forget how dramatic your kind can be. We lack the imagination you mortals possess. While we are enduring, we do not have the capacity for change like you do. Hiraeth’s voice is gentle and deep, echoing in Blaise’s mind. Change takes place slowly in the woods, as you know. We are not so easily taken down. Where one tree rots, new growth takes root, and the woods continue to thrive.
It is the same within you, is it not, child of the woods? Yes, perhaps there is rot within you, but I also see that there is already growth – and this is not growth that seeks to bury what once was diseased. This is growth that is borne out of the darkness – that makes the infection part of what it is becoming, so that it may be stronger. More powerful.
Look at this tree, child. I know you see it in your dreams. Do you not recognise it for your destiny?
Blaise stares up at the giant tree. Its roots are sunk into the jagged, grey rock, pursuing cracks and creating them where there were none. Its gnarled trunk is twisted, bent over on itself in places, but strong and sturdy for its massive crown of deep green leaves. He feels like he might laugh, if he were not swallowing the well of tears and emotion Hiraeth’s words are drawing up. If he truly were a tree, perhaps he will get Neville’s attention.
‘I’m afraid to let him know what I really am,’ he whispers, clenching his fists and digging his fingernails into his palm, trying to deny the horror threatening to overwhelm him.
Oh, child. Hiraeth laughs, lilting and sweet. He is a friend of the forest. He has always seen you for what you are.
Blaise stared blankly at the parchment in front of him. His ears were filled with the sound of quills scratching against parchment, as his peers hurried to answer the exam questions. He looked at the quill he held in his hand, between his index finger and thumb, made out of a glorious plume of eagle owl feather. His mother had given it to him for his sixteenth birthday – a month late, when she remembered it. He returned his gaze to his empty parchment, reread the questions, and looked up.
Around him was a sea of bent heads. Draco’s distinctively white-blonde head was a few rows ahead, his shoulders tensed. He was writing furiously. Transfiguration was one of his best subjects; he would have no problems with the exam. Blaise’s eyes travelled down the row: Hermione Granger writing with her nose practically pressed to the parchment; Ron Weasley glancing askance at his neighbours; and Harry Potter looking up once in a while, and always at the back of Draco’s head.
Blaise had known since third year. Perhaps Draco’s unhealthy obsession with the Potter boy started with jealousy and spite, but once Potter’s innate goodness became too difficult to deny, Draco became rather perverse whenever it came to anything Potter. Blaise always saw that the two of them were inevitable, but inevitably headed for disaster, or otherwise, he could not tell – until they returned for their repeat “eighth” year.
From the moment Potter marched up to Draco and shook his hand without waiting for Draco to even accept the handshake, Blaise saw the way the Whomping Willow bent. That was not why he spoke to Draco on their first day back; he was never close to Draco growing up, and the prat even slighted him numerous times over their schooling years. It was most probably Draco’s eyes, hollow and haunted and sunken; they reminded him of the Carrows’ dungeons, stinking and infinitely dark.
Whatever the reason, the result was the same: because Blaise was Draco’s friend, when Potter pulled Draco into his orbit, Blaise was inadvertently brought along. Somehow, after the end of a war that put him on the wrong side, he now had a coveted place in the group that the wizarding world’s greatest hero called friends. This bewildered people, who never saw him as any more than the pillock who couldn’t keep it in his pants. Even people outside of Hogwarts heard: his mother wrote him a very polite letter suggesting that he was welcome to invite his friends to any of their estates for the summer.
Blaise slapped down his quill. Writing this essay would not help him pass his Transfiguration N.E.W.T.s – he had already left numerous questions in the first part of the exam blank. He was going to fail anyway. With a loud clatter of chair against flagstone, he stood up, gathering his things. Heads turned his way, including one of the invigilators. He strode out of the Great Hall, ignoring the gaping mouths and raised eyebrows around him. Transfiguration was not going to be important to him in the future anyway.
His future – it felt like there was a Venomous Tentacula squirming in his stomach to think of what came after Hogwarts. Draco did not doubt his future: he wanted to be apprentice with Ollivander. Harry was thinking of going to university and becoming a teacher. He wanted to come back to Hogwarts, a prospect Draco and Blaise found absurd. Ron and Hermione were, of course, tremendously supportive. Still, they all saw how “Hogwarts Professor” was the only natural route for Harry Potter.
Ron was going to try being an Auror, but should he fail, he joked that he could be Hermione’s stay-at-home husband. After all, Hermione already had a job lined up for her: she was going to the Ministry. Draco was already referring to her as “Minister” – something she regarded with steely-eyed determination and a vicious grin. And Blaise? I suppose I will help Mother run the estates, was his usual response – except they had house elves, and the mansions were covered with layers of maintenance and defence spells. There was no need for him.
Blaise blinked. Ancient trees loomed and crowded around him, the world hushed by greenery and time. He had walked to the Forbidden Forest. He smiled, and abandoned his schoolbooks at the edge of the forest. He continued walking. Ever since childhood, he never had to fear getting lost in any woods or forest; he always found his way out.
He followed the winding path to his favourite spot: a sweet little pond surrounded by starburst lilies and cottontail reeds. He suspected it was magical, because the water was always pristine, and shone burnished gold in the sunlight, and rainbow-hued opal in the moonlight. This was his hiding spot for most of the last year, when the world burned down around him. He paused on the edge of the clearing, because there was someone else crouching at the pond. The other boy, tall and dark-haired, heard him and looked up.
‘Oh, hullo,’ Neville Longbottom said with some surprise. ‘It’s you, Zabini.’
Longbottom was friends with Harry and the others, turning up a few times at the Hog’s Head with them, and he was in Blaise’s Herbology class. But besides the occasional greeting when their eyes accidentally met in the hallways or classroom, Blaise did not know Longbottom like how he knew Harry, Ron and Hermione now. He was not sure he wanted to either, considering the fact that Longbottom must think him a torturer of helpless little girls.
‘This is a very lovely spot, isn’t it?’ the Gryffindor asked. ‘It has the most fragrant lilies. How did you come here? I only found it because I’m lost.’ He was grinning in a most disarmingly sheepish manner.
‘Oh, I know the way out,’ was the only thing Blaise could think of saying.
‘Brilliant!’ Longbottom exclaimed. ‘Do you mind we sit a while then? I don’t think we’ll be able to find this spot again after we leave.’
Blaise shrugged, taking a spot across the pond from him. He could easily find the spot again, of course, but he would not like to share it – especially not with Longbottom, a bloke he barely knew. It seemed Longbottom was the sort to fill silences with chatter when he was nervous or uncomfortable, because he was soon asking Blaise about his exams.
‘I walked out of the Transfiguration paper,’ Blaise said nonchalantly. ‘I was going to fail anyway.’
‘Oh.’ Longbottom stared at him, wide-eyed; clearly the thought of walking out of an examination had never crossed his obedient mind. ‘Well, I hope the other papers went better for you. What did you think of the Herbology paper?’
Blaise suppressed a sigh, staring down at the still pond. He had come here to avoid thinking about the exams, but he supposed he should be polite to Harry’s friend. ‘It was all right,’ he said. ‘I should pass.’
‘I hope I’ll pass too,’ the other boy said fervently. ‘So, will you be going to university after this? For Herbology.’
Blaise’s head snapped up. He stared at Longbottom, who seemed startled by the ferocity of his response. University? That thought had never crossed Blaise’s mind. Was Longbottom pissing around with him? Everybody knew very well how stupid Blaise Zabini was. He, a university student? It was not something he might think to see outside of a Mirror of Erised. But Longbottom merely returned his gaze steadily, blinking with slight bewilderment. Bloody hell, the bloke was sincere – he was genuinely wondering if Blaise might go to university.
And now that the thought was in his mind: why not? He had no real need to work to earn a living – his mother’s wealth provided for everything. He could study Herbology. Yes, perhaps he would like that. He would like to learn more about plants, to spend more time in greenhouses and with his hands in the dirt – the only moments he felt any sense of rightness at school. He swallowed, licking his lips.
‘Maybe,’ he said. ‘What about you?’
‘Yeah, definitely. Hope we’ll be classmates again then,’ Longbottom smiled shyly.
A leaf fell from a tree above and into the pond, disturbing its mirror surface. Ripples spread across the pond, its outer rings lapping the edges, reaching Neville Longbottom and reaching Blaise.
Blaise stops at the gates to gaze at the sunlit country home with some satisfaction. It is an open, airy structure with white walls, terracotta roofs and vines creeping around wrought-iron railings. Its front garden is fit to bursting with wild roses and honeysuckle, daffodils and bluebells – the house appears perfectly idyllic. He has no doubt that Draco was responsible for choosing this house for his and Harry’s holiday home.
He pushes the gate open, and continues walking up the curving path, appreciating the sweet scent in the air. He was right to accept Draco’s invitation to join Harry and him in Provence; perhaps a change of scenery from dreary grey Wales to the balmy French countryside is what he needed. After all, it has been a week, he has not come to a decision on what to do about Neville, and he must return to work soon. Unfortunately, he cannot hide forever.
He murmurs the unlocking phrase at the front door; Draco had told him that they would be on an overnight trip to Corsica when he arrived, so he has to let himself in. Nudging the door open and yanking his duffel bag through, he looks up to see Neville waiting in the middle of the breezy foyer, wand clutched in his right hand. Blaise freezes, their eyes meeting. Neville’s face, like the last time they met, is unreadable. His lips are pressed together into a thin, flat line.
Neville flicks his wand, and the door clicks shut behind Blaise. Blaise looks over his shoulder, forlornly wondering if he should still try making a run for it anyway. Neville clears his throat, taking a few steps forward, and Blaise sighs, dropping his bag at his feet and turning to face Neville.
‘It isn’t Draco’s fault. I begged him to lie to you – he didn’t want to,’ Neville says with a trace of apology, only because Blaise knows he does not like to think he might have implicated their friend.
Blaise waves it away. ‘No, I am certain the prat is more than happy to help you trick me on anything. He helped you because he wanted to. You wouldn’t have been able to coerce him otherwise.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Neville says quietly, his hands balling into fists by his sides. ‘It has been a week, and you had disappeared. I didn’t know how much I could get you to respond. You destroyed every one of my letters, didn’t you?’
Blaise flinches involuntarily. ‘Some of them were Howlers. I didn’t … I didn’t want to hear from you until I knew what I could say to you.’
The dark-haired man nods slowly, sombrely. ‘I see. I’m sorry then. I should have been more considerate. I … I was quite a loss, I’m afraid.’
‘You couldn’t have known,’ Blaise shakes his head. ‘Don’t apologise – please.’
Neville stares at him, opening his mouth, and then shakes his head and turns away. ‘But I am sorry that the only way I can get you to talk to me is when I quite literally trap you in a room with me. Let’s go into the kitchen. I’ve prepared tea, you must be parched from your Portkey.’
The kitchen is as bright and cheerful as the rest of the house, with a pot of tea on the table by the windows. Blaise feels surreal, sitting here across the table from Neville, thanking him politely for the cup of tea. The windows are thrown open, the gentle breeze stirring the white gauzy curtains and bringing with it the scent of the fields. The sky outside is a pale, cloudless blue dotted with the occasional bird. The tea is strong and invigorating. Blaise takes a sip, feeling that perhaps he might come out of this in one piece – hopes dashed the moment Neville speaks.
‘You tell me not to apologise, but there is a lot I must apologise for, whether or not you can ever forgive me,’ Neville says, his voice steady and measured. He is looking down at the mug he cups in his hands.
Blaise wants to say that there cannot be anything like that, because he is the one in the wrong. He should have known better. He should have had better control over himself – something that should have come easily, since his entire life is one of restraint and denial and concealment. He had so arrogant and unsympathetic to the people who sought his attention, thinking himself exempt to Eros’ caprice, and here he is, gagging for a man ten thousand lifetimes better than he can ever hope to be. If he could have been satisfied being Neville’s friend, they would not be in this situation, when Neville somehow thinks he has something to apologise for.
The other man looks up, and Blaise’s heart stutters in his chest. Neville looks tired and bleak, shadows smudged like bruises beneath his eyes. Has their friendship taken such a toll on him? How can Blaise even say he deserves to be Neville’s friend then? Neville intertwines his fingers, pressing his hands together, hunching his shoulders. He appears to be steeling himself.
‘I know you are only pretending to go home with those people you pull at the pubs,’ Neville blurts, a blush rising to his cheeks.
Blaise blinks. You’re an arsehole and a shite friend. Ginny told me how you look at me, and it’s disgusting. I don’t want to see you again. These words, he might have expected, but a confession – one that clearly pains Neville – that Neville knows he is only pretending to be a player is an Erumpet barging from the left field, utterly blindsiding him.
‘I’ve known since the first year of university. I – I – I am not proud of this, but I followed you, because I didn’t like the look of that bloke you walked away with. I saw the way you knocked him out when he tried snogging you in the alley and went home alone, but the next day, when Justin asked about last night, you pretended you had the time of your life, and I knew I couldn’t ask you about it.
‘But you did it every time. I …’ Neville looks down, cringing and passing a hand over his face contorted with anguish. ‘I thought I could use the excuse of a concerned friend, but … there is no excuse for this. I violated your privacy and your trust. I wish … I wish I could have taken it back, but I … I could not be stronger. I was weak.’
Blaise’s mouth has fallen open. Neville, following him to make sure he really was not going home with anyone? Neville? But … why? Why would he do that? Blaise may be an abysmal wizard, but as with anyone who lived through the war, he knows how to handle himself – and Neville knows that very well. He cannot possible think Blaise that fragile. Does he care for Blaise that much? But … why?
‘You followed me home?’ he asks.
‘No!’ Neville’s head snaps up. ‘No, no, only until I see that you left the pub alone. That’s it. I never once followed you home.’
‘Why do you care?’ Blaise asks, surprising himself with the steadiness of his voice, the coherence of his questions. The rest of his thoughts are a maddening chaos of impossible insinuations. He has always seen you for what you are.
Neville grimaces, dropping his gaze again and biting down on his bottom lip. He is silent. From outside the window, the wind is whispering through the trees and the flowers, telling Blaise unthinkable secrets of hidden worlds. Blaise lifts the mug to his lips, and takes a long, deep drink. He almost wishes it were alcohol, so that he may be granted distance from the tension brewing and stirring at their table. He fears what mask might be burned away, and what hell will be revealed beneath.
‘Before I tell you – and I will tell you, since we have come to this – there’s something else I need to confess.’ Neville runs his hand through his hair, something he does when he is well and truly embarrassed. The other man squeezes his eyes shut, pressing his fingertips to his forehead. ‘Do you remember when we were in fourth year, and there was that rumour about you having sex with that Beauxbatons girl in the showers?’
‘Yes?’ Blaise is immediately wary.
‘I started that rumour. Oh, but I definitely didn’t mean to!’ Neville practically wails, clearly wracked by long-held guilt. ‘I was going by the pitch to the glasshouses – I left something behind – and I heard noises. I wanted to be brave of all things,’ – he makes a disgusted noise – ‘so I went to look, and I saw – I saw her giving you a blowjob.
‘I made a noise, but I don’t think you saw – did you?’ He glances at Blaise, who shakes his head speechlessly. ‘No, I didn’t think so. Anyway, I ran away, and bumped into a few older Ravenclaw students by the greenhouse, and they were asking me what happened because I was crying, and I – I told them I saw Blaise Zabini having sex.’
Neville punctuates his monologue with a long, embarrassed groan, his face buried in his hands. Blaise can only stare at him, mouth hanging open once more, his mind very thoroughly wiped clean by Neville’s extremely unexpected confession. Has he held on to this remorse for the past nine years? Merlin, save me from this man.
‘Why were you crying?’ Blaise asks the only question that comes to mind.
Neville sighs, his hands still covering his face. ‘Because I saw what the girl was doing, and I wanted to be the one sucking your dick – not just your dick in particular, any dick really. That was how I realised I’m gay.’
Blaise chokes on his saliva, his mug slipping from his hand and rolling to the floor, hot tea spilling everywhere. Neville looks up, concern creasing his brows. He jumps up at the sight of Blaise’s hands reddened from the hot tea, and raises his wand. Blaise lunges forwards, ignoring the stinging pain, and grabs Neville’s hand, digs his fingers into soft flesh. Neville flinches, panic twisting his features.
‘You are not gay,’ Blaise spits.
Neville gawps at him, bewildered. ‘I am gay. I don’t tell everyone about it, but I’m not hiding it either. It doesn’t really come up in conversations anyway, because everyone seems to think I don’t date. And I suppose I don’t really, because there is no one I’m interested in.’
‘You’re dating Ginny! You’ve been dating for the past five years!’ Blaise shouts.
Nothing is making sense, and Blaise is seized with the abrupt certainty that he must be losing his mind. Neville, gay? What does that even mean? His friend is gazing at him with wide eyes, flabbergasted. He twists his wrists around, grabbing Blaise by his forearms.
‘We are not dating. She is my best friend, and she is dating Luna. They’ve only started dating, so Harry and Draco are clueless too. Did you … have you been thinking that Ginny is my girlfriend?’ Neville’s voice is absurdly gentle.
Neville’s brown eyes are perceptive and searching, and Blaise knows that he revealed too much. He does not comprehend the situation – not Neville’s prying, or a silly mistake made nearly a decade ago, or his coming out. He wants – he wants to get away, but Neville’s grip is an Imperturbable Charm on his wrists, and the burn is starting to sear on his skin. He looks away instead, his shoulders slumping.
‘My hands hurt.’
‘Oh!’ Neville loosens his grip just a little. ‘Yes. Sorry. If – if you don’t mind, I’ll do a few healing spells.’
‘Of course I don’t mind, Longbottom,’ Blaise rolls his eyes. ‘I’m in sodding pain.’
Neville makes a face at his rudeness, and they nearly share a grin, because it feels like any one of their usual exchanges again, until Neville remembers and turns away. They sit down, and Neville bends over Blaise’s hands, holding both of them in his left hand, as he whispers the charms and waves his wand. Blaise closes his eyes, taking a deep, ragged breath. Worse than the pain stinging his hands, worse than the awareness of losing his masks, is the knowledge that he will lose Neville’s friendship after this.
They cannot return to what they were, not with the truth so baldly strewn on the table between them. So Neville knows that Blaise has been lying about sleeping around. He must admit that if Neville were not so dear to him, he would have been outraged and hexing the bloke’s balls off; how dare he impinge on Blaise’s independence? But he knows Neville does not have any ill intention. For him, Blaise will gladly allow the excuse of a concerned friend, because that must be from which his concern comes. It is also a relief that Neville does not appear to judge Blaise for such constant lies.
And that Neville is gay? So what? It does not mean Neville would date him. If they cannot be lovers, and they cannot be friends, what place does that leave for Blaise in Neville’s life? Blaise opens his eyes, because he does not want to contemplate that infinite darkness lapping at the very edges of his mind. Neville is watching him, his thumb stroking Blaise’s. He stops when their eyes meet, and Blaise pulls his hands back, his skin tingling with a very different sort of heat now.
‘I’m sorry,’ Neville says quietly. ‘The very last thing I wanted to do was to cause you pain, because you are the dearest person to me. I love you. I’ve loved you for years.’
Blaise feels as if he has been hit with a Stunner to the chest. He presses himself back in his chest, shaking his head.
Neville gives a strangled gasp, his face crumbling just a little, but he smiles, and says: ‘That’s the reason why I care so much about who you go home with. I was jealous of everyone you flirted with or smiled at or talked to. Why do you think I put myself between you and Justin so much? I know, I know, this is ridiculous and unhealthy, and I do not blame you if you no longer wish to see me.’
Before Neville can move, Blaise grabs his hand, leaning forwards. His mind is unravelling, it must be. What are these words Neville is saying? ‘Don’t you remember? During the war. The girl I was torturing. You Stunned me to save her. I was on the Death Eaters’ side, Neville. I was working against you.’
‘No,’ Neville says emphatically, covering Blaise’s hand with his warm one. ‘You would not have tortured her, even if I didn’t come in time. If I had come a minute later, it would be to stop the Carrows from killing you. You always think you are harder or worse than you really are. You are about the most sympathetic man I know. I am so fucking angry that the world has treated you so badly you think you must harden yourself against it.’
Neville’s palm is hot. Blaise is caught by Neville’s gaze. He has never seen such a look on his friend’s face: broken apart so that his emotions, tempestuous and violent, are splayed across his features. His brows are furrowed tightly, and his lips trembling with emotion. His cheeks are flushed, and he looks like he is dying just a little bit. Blaise raises a shaking hand, and presses it to Neville’s cheek. Neville starts, hope creeping into his intense eyes.
‘I don’t mind that you’re a stalker,’ Blaise says, failing in his attempt at levity. ‘But it is only because I love you too.’
Neville cries out in delight, and he is wrapping his arms around Blaise, crushing his lips to his. Blaise tastes tea and honeysuckle and strawberries, the buzz of the garden ringing in his ears. Neville’s words – Neville’s voice whispering his name – fills his mind, and Blaise’s chest is warm with summer sunshine. He feels new buds unfurling within him, a quickening and a growing.
Neville kisses his cheek, and pulls away, whispering: ‘Ginny told me, she told me she saw the look in your eyes that night of the party, but I dared not believe her. Do you know how much I’ve longed and longed for you? I didn’t think – couldn’t imagine that you might look at me this way.’
‘Love, it seems that you see yourself as clearly as I see myself,’ Blaise replies with a blazing smile.
Love, Neville mouths, and Blaise is pulling him in, pulling him down, and their lips meet. Blaise is holding Neville in his arms, and they are kissing, warm and deep, with the summer sunshine blazing through the open windows.