This week's edition of the Daily Prophet lay spread on her desk.
So did last week's. And last month's.
Beneath a pile of newspaper clippings and worn, torn, and abused magazines, one roll peeked through: the oldest dated issue. July 18th. Thursday.
The day her father left for his business trip.
The day he disappeared.
And never came back.
Her mother, an Auror, had scoured London, and soon, the rest of England with her small delegation of friends (her superiors refused her a team) for him. But to no avail. There was no report on his disappearance. Anywhere. No articles, no alerts — not even a small blurb in the advertisement section.
She'd made sure. She'd checked every publication this side of the North Sea. In a fit of despair, Zarina had grabbed a variety of Muggle magazines off the new stand by King's Cross Station. She was only a few thousand cupcake recipes and doping scandals wiser.
For the entirety of August, Saida Shafiq flitted in and out of the house, making herself as scarce as possible. Zarina didn't begrudge her for it; the climate outside their apartment complex — composed of entirely wizards — was saturated with danger, and the need for Aurors had increased tenfold. More and more reinforcements were brought in from previously dormant units, stagnant from the peacetime that succeeded the war, and Saida's had been taken out for daily patrols. On top of that, Saida's investigation into Omar Shafiq's disappearance was still ongoing. She really had her plate full, and Zarina could not begrudge her less-than-motherly behaviour these past months.
What she couldn't deny, was the restlessness it had fostered. Errant energy which Zarina had poured into aiding her mother's investigation, and reading through every newspaper with a magnifying glass for clues. It consumed her summer: she hadn't touched a single one of her books, and had rarely, if at all, answered her friends' Owls. She felt like a hermit, and a useless one at that, as a month and a half of scavenging had yielded zero results.
She groaned. It was nearing the end of August, it would be September in two weeks, and nor she nor her mother had given Diagon Alley a single thought. She needed to get her NEWT booklist sorted, her supplies, money, clothing …
With mounting frustration, she pulled at her hair, which was a knotted mess. One glance at her cluttered desk, and another sound of abject misery escaped her throat.
A clipping, still moving and looking very much alive (photographs in newspapers lost their magic and froze after a month), of a certain, harassed-looking Harry Potter looked back at her. At his side stood the Headmaster, the coolness of his blue eyes perfectly rendered through the monochrome photography. They looked like two sides of the same coin: one looked aggravated and the other collected, but had identical lines of tension around their mouths.
He looked sad in the picture. Sadder than he looked last year. Zarina recognised it, because she recognised it in herself, in the mirror. It made her feel less lonely, as ridiculous as that was, when her friends' letters came in and regaled her of holiday tales of faraway beaches, far from Britain's drama: saccharine blue skies, cocktails and sun-kissed, Muggle boys.
Most of her post was left unanswered, and abandoned in her drawer, gathering dust. They didn't know. They didn't understand.
Malfoy was in there, too. The Daily Prophet had an exclusive, with Lucius Malfoy's mugshot smattered across the front page, and a sizeable candid of mother and son accompanying it. They looked calm and haughty as ever; as if they were only at another society ball, not Lucius' hearing.
Zarina had stared at it for a while when it first arrived. It had been a day since her father left. She remembered feeling distinctly uncomfortable. Of course, horror for Malfoy Sr.'s misdeeds preceded it — deatheaterdeatheaterdeatheater — but something else unsettled her. But she didn't dwell on it — didn't want to — and tossed the issue to her mother, who had hummed in agreement upon reading the headline.
"Malfoy's son is your classmate, yes?" she'd asked Zarina.
"You know him well?"
"Good. You don't want to be associated with him. Best steer clear, just in case."
Zarina had nodded. Saida had nodded back, absently, and flipped through the next page. "God, not Potter again …"
As usual to her routine, Saida was out. Zarina, for a fact, knew that her Auror duties had finished hours ago. She was probably searching for her father right now.
Zarina looked at the frame on the side of her desk. Her eyes softened as she watched the man in the picture hoist a black-haired infant in the air and catch her effortlessly, eliciting a round of giggles. A weight nestled in her throat as he turned to look at her, smiling.
The morning rays stubbornly beat against her small window. One quick glance at the hanging clock told her it was nearing 9 AM — the time she usually woke up.
The sun shone in her eyes aggressively. "All right, all right," she grunted.
Her movements were sluggish — staying awake for two nights in a row had that effect —and Zarina nearly gave herself a broken neck trying to fit her head through the collar of her shirt. Her threadbare Oasis tee was a size smaller, but also the only clean top she had on hand. She stepped into a pair of khaki shorts.
She rearranged the zig-zag mountains of papers on her desk into even piles and tucked in her bedsheets and duvet, before walking down the hallway to the combined living/dining room and kitchen. Their flat was spacious, but efficiently built. Not that the rest of Slytherin saw it that way: most of them lived in mansions or at least two-storey houses, and believed Zarina was doomed to a life of squalor. Another point of contention were house elves. She didn't have any, and nearly all of the other Slytherins did. In fact, when Draco had whined about losing his house elf a few years ago, Zarina proudly stated that her family didn't need anyone else's help in housework. Draco had given a nasty laugh, and demanded pictures to prove that she didn't live in a rat's hole. Her mother refused to send her a photograph — Why do you want to show people what our home looks like? Do you want us to get robbed? — and Draco had jeered at her whenever she walked into the Common Room for two weeks.
She scowled at the thought of the little shit — who was, admittedly, not that little anymore, as she'd seen in the newspaper — everyone was sprouting up these days, leaving her in the lurch — and cracked the egg harder against the pan. Some egg white dripped onto the stove.
"Shit!" The Muggle stove stained quickly. Before she could wipe it away, the egg white had sizzled. She swore again.
With a kitchen towel, she started to rub the spot furiously. "Why does this always happen to me," she asked herself, "and not to anyone else?" She imagined Draco doing this, dirtying his manicured hands with kitchen grease, and snorted. Armageddon might come sooner than Draco Malfoy's voyage into a Muggle kitchen.
She looked at the bulging, yellow-y mess in her pan with narrowed eyes. Hadn't she flipped it several times? Her omelette, if you could even call it that, looked like the back of someone's shoe. Not edible. At all.
If only she was seventeen already … She knew a spell or two, to turn one ugly omelette into a Michelin-starred dish.
She sighed. It seemed she had to resort to cornflakes, bland as they were. Hadn't her mother bought a Special K box yesterday … ? She said she had. Zarina hadn't bothered to check.
A mistake, as the cupboard was depressingly empty, when she went to look.
She heard the sound of furious flapping of wings before she turned to look at a tiny owl flying through the open window in the kitchen. It was Daphne's owl, Nitwit. In its talons, he carried a pink envelope. Bemused, she closed the cupboard door and grabbed the letter from his paw, causing Nitwit to hoot at her. She waved the ticked off owl away, and tore the Greengrass seal off.
She held the melted wax plack, which bore the Greengrass family's coat of arms, in-between her fingers. And huffed.
The letter requested her presence at the Sweeping Cafe, an up-scale restaurant that was, despite its name, not a cafe. Daphne wanted to meet that exact day, in exactly two hours, at exactly this table north of the counter and west of the entrance. Zarina smiled, and rolled her eyes at the same time.
In all honesty, Zarina was surprised at the invitation. While Tracey and Millicent wrote her diligently — to her chagrin — the Greengrass heiress was silent all summer. She hadn't expected to pop up on her friend's radar so soon.
"Hmm," Zarina mused, "I wonder what that's all about."
Why not? She had exhausted all her current activities, and deserved a break too. Knowing Daphne, she would pay for the meal just because she could, and Zarina knew when to be economical.
She grabbed a pen from the stand on the dining table.
Dear Daphne, she wrote on the back of the letter, I'll be there.
The Sweeping Cafe was lively, even when it only had a quarter of the Leaking Cauldron's customers. Zarina blamed the decorations. Ribbons of organza curled around the stately pillars by the entrance, tables were decked with pale flowers, and waitresses, looking like living, Victorian dolls, scurried around, attending to the customers with fixed smiles.
It was all so sickeningly sweet. And so … Daphne.
Speak of the devil and he — she — they? — shall appear. A brunette and a strawberry blonde, as different as night and day, sat at a table. North of the counter and west of the entrance. The taller of the duo beckoned Zarina closer.
She smiled nervously, patted her robes down, and made her way towards them.
Daphne wore fuchsia-coloured robes, while Astoria had donned a red ensemble. They looked perfectly coiffed, and Zarina wondered how long they had taken to get ready. She'd only run a brush through her hair.
Astoria's smile was earnest as she hugged Zarina. Daphne was next, and hers was a bit more reserved. But Zarina didn't mind — in fact, she felt an explicable warmth at both hugs.
Looks like the months without outside contact has taken its toll …
After the greeting, the trio sat down gingerly. Three cups of tea smoked on the table, and gave off a waft of a delectable fragrance which Zarina couldn't identify.
She must have noticed her sniffing, as Daphne answered her silent question: "It's rooibos tea, with some cinnamon sprinkled in. I took the liberty of ordering for you — hope you don't mind."
Zarina smirked. "I hope you don't mind if I don't touch this."
"I didn't poison it," Daphne said in consternation.
"Tea is poison to me, either way."
"Oh yes, I've forgotten. What is that savage beverage you love to slurp instead?"
"It's not savage. It's a drink. It's coffee."
"Ugh. Burned water, more like," Astoria butted in, "Deirdre made me try a macchiato once. Foul." She scowled. "She's got one of those Muggle coffee machines. From Italy. Interesting equipment, but an utter waste of time. You might as well gourmet tap water and pour it down your throat."
At this, Zarina laughed. "Merlin, Astoria, how I've missed your wit," she said fondly.
The girl in question perked up. "I aim to please."
Daphne clicked her tongue impatiently. "Yes, yes, we've missed each other terribly, it's been horrendous, ta-ta." Astoria's face turned sour, and she crossed her arms, huffing. "Zarina, what would you like? It's better if we get some substance in our bodies before we get down to business."
"Down to business?" Zarina raised an eyebrow.
"Yes. Business. Gossip. Philosophical discussion — whatever you wish to call it. Well?"
"Just a mushroom croissant will do fine."
"A mushroom croissant? Who are you? Lovegood? By Salazar, eat something! You're looking reedy."
Zarina hugged her middle protectively. "Are you pulling my leg?" she asked in disbelief. "I'm a bit chubby, you know."
"Curvy," Astoria amended. "Attractively so."
"Fine. Reedier than usual," Daphne waved off. "I'll buy one of those family-sized platters. Could you keep your grubby hands to yourself, Astoria, and leave some for us? Hmm?"
"Bitch," Astoria hissed.
What was the point of asking her what she wanted? Zarina sighed internally as Daphne mouthed off their order to the waitress. Oh well. At least she was paying.
Ten minutes dragged past, filled with small-talk, snide remarks (mostly volleying between Daphne and Astoria, but Zarina was content to watch) and comments on the passerby's they glimpsed in the shop front window. Zarina was particularly interested in one patron, dressed in green Quidditch robes.
"Hey," she said, tapping Daphne on the shoulder, "isn't that Darcos Twaine? The Chaser for Dolly Dover?"
Daphne stretched backwards, squinting her eyes. "I … think so? Actually — yes! That's him!"
The Quidditch player, famous for his excellent sportsmanship — he once rallied for a rematch when his team won against the Chudley Cannons, on grounds of a 'faulty Snitch' — looked dapper in his competitive clothing, and was making his way to the Flourish & Blotts across the street.
"Wonder what he's doing here, wearing that," Daphne mused. "Looks like he left in the middle of a match or something."
Zarina frowned thoughtfully. "Isn't his niece at Hogwarts? A Ravenclaw, I think. Astoria?"
"Doesn't ring a bell," she said lightly. "I know no Twaines."
"Hmm. Cassius said so. He knows him."
"Warrington says a lot of things," Daphne said vaguely.
Zarina was about to ask what she meant by that, when their waitress popped out of nowhere and set down a plate filled to the brim with pastries and bites.
Zarina eyed the platter. Various delicacies and savoury tarts were presented, and she hesitantly grabbed a neon pink baklava. She bit off a piece, and her eyebrows jumped in surprise. She hadn't expected the monstrously coloured baklava to taste so … well … not monstrous. "Hmm."
"Not bad?" Astoria asked, before digging into her finger sandwich.
"Tastes like regular baklava."
Daphne gave her a strange look. "What were you expecting then? Slime?" Zarina shrugged. "All right. Now, we can get started.
"Some very interesting developments happened this summer, as you must know," Daphne continued. "The Malfoys …"
Zarina nodded in understanding.
Daphne bit her lip, and it was the most unsure Zarina had ever seen her. "What do you think will happen this year? With him — Draco?"
She fidgeted in her chair. "What do you think?"
Daphne eyed her skeptically, but answered nevertheless, "I asked you first, but okay. I think there'll definitely be a division."
"Division?" Zarina and Astoria echoed.
"Well, now that Daddy Malfoy is a Death Eater, where does that leave him? He follows the teachings. And he'll have others in our House who will agree with him."
"But we've always known of his Death Eaterish tendencies," Zarina argued. "Remember second year? All that mudblood stuff? And back in fourth year, after that drama at the World Cup, he boasted a lot too."
"Yeah, but back then there was no You-Know-Who!" Daphne hissed. "He's back, Shafiq, he's back. For real. Potter wasn't lying. They've rounded up at least half our Housemates' family members. Do you know what that means?"
A pulsing silence followed her outburst. Zarina gaped at her. She was at a loss of what to say. Next to her, Astoria looked pale, her hands clasped tightly in her lap.
Daphne breathed out deeply. "Half of our House will be pro—pro—him," she whispered, "no one will trust us. I mean, they barely did before — but now, it will be much, much worse. My family wants to stay neutral and …"
"Have you been approached?" Zarina interrupted.
Astoria grimaced. "Yes. Father politely declined, and they've stayed away, but he's stationed an Auror at our home just in case."
"My mother?" She had been secretive about her Auror missions, lately. If it was her, Zarina wouldn't be surprised she hadn't been told. Guarding some uptight pureblood's mansion didn't sound like the excellent mission one should be wasting their time in.
"No. Robards. I suspect that everyone in Ravenclaw will be neutral, by the way. I mean, my friends have barely mentioned Potter in their letters. Shocking, I know," she huffed. Zarina and Daphne looked amused. They were used to Astoria's whinging over her friends, who never shut up about the Boy-Who-Lived. "Do you really think Slytherin will split up this year?"
"It's likely." But Daphne's constipated expression suggested she probably thought the likelihood was closer to 'definitely happening'. "I assume you will be … eh … pro-Ministry, Zarina?"
She shrugged. "Mum's an Auror," she reminded her, "I was pro-Ministry last year, too."
"What about Warrington?" Astoria asked. "I don't think his family has been contacted, but Astor Warrington looked particularly joyful at the Summer Solstice."
"That's cause he's finally rid of Malfoy Senior," Daphne said dryly. "They've been at each other's tails for years now. With him locked up, Astor has full reign over the upper rungs of society. I suspect he'll make a bid for the recently vacated seat on the school council."
"Wasn't your dad going to put himself forth as a candidate, Zarina?"
Zarina nearly choked on the pain au chocolat she'd been nibbling. She met Astoria's inquisitive stare. What could she say to that?
Yeah, he was going to. He was going to do a lot of things, before he disappeared in thin air.
"As if he would get accepted," she started, with hollow confidence. "He wasn't even invited to the Summer Solstice."
Daphne shifted nervously. "Well, if my dad was in charge, he certainly would have. I guess — you know how the Parkinsons can be …"
She huffed. After having Pansy as a dorm mate for five years, she knew very well. "Anyways," Zarina continued, "half-bloods don't get selected. Let alone half-bloods without a fortune." Also, he'll need to actually be here to get selected. Did I mention that my father is BLOODY MISSING?
There goes her appetite. She sighed, and put down her pastry. She wanted to tell them about what had happened so badly, but found herself unable to push it through her lips. She had an opening just now, but completely sidestepped it.
She looked up at her friends, both of whom wore expressions of genuine sympathy. It made her slightly nauseous.
Astoria patted her hand in a comforting manner. "We don't care that you don't have a fortune," she said.
Daphne nodded. "Not at all. Nor about your blood status. But you know, it won't matter at all soon, anyway …"
Zarina narrowed her eyes. "What? What are you talking about?"
"Well, er, you're with Warrington, aren't you?"
"Oh." The mention of her boyfriend — her handsome, rich, pureblood boyfriend — made her feel strangely guilty. "It's not like … It's … unlikely that I'm going to marry him."
"You won't be judged," Daphne assured her, "neither will Warrington. Even Malfoy won't say squat — the Malfoys marry half-bloods all the time! He'll probably propose at the graduation."
"Can you please stop?" Zarina burst out. "Merlin, we haven't been together for a year! I don't want to get married now."
"Fine, fine. He won't be waiting forever, mind you."
"Hush, Daphne," she grumbled.
"Hey, I agree with you. I don't mind if you postpone it a little. Or a lot. I've never really liked him."
A fierce red blush stained her cheeks. "Y-y-you've never liked anyone I dated," she stuttered. "You nearly got Malfoy to take me instead of Urquhart back at the Yule Ball!"
She shuddered. Couldn't Daphne have found any other Slytherin? It's so wrong ...
Daphne crossed her arms. "And I would have succeeded," she said slowly, "had Puggy Pansy not sunk her talons in him. You were quite adorable back then, Zarina — he definitely took a fancy to you. He was going to say yes, before the harpy jumped him."
Zarina looked as if she'd been slapped. "Oi! Am I not adorable anymore?"
Astoria snickered. "Adorable isn't quite the right word, now, is it?"
She looked up at the Ravenclaw girl who, despite being three years younger, already had a couple of inches on her. "Aren't you like fourteen?" she asked, scandalised.
Daphne let out an incredulous hoot. "With her behaviour? Unlikely! You know Edwin Edgeley? Well, so does Astoria …"
"Keep your big mouth shut!" Astoria screeched.
Zarina blinked in surprise. "You're seeing Edgeley?" She recalled a short, slim blonde with athletic limbs and a handsome face, standing by the Ravenclaw team during Quidditch matches. "The Reserve Seeker?"
Astoria blushed prettily. "I am," she said confidently. Her self-assured smile turned dopey. "He's really nice, and not as obsessed with Quidditch as the other players are. He takes me flying sometimes."
"A feat no other has accomplished," Daphne grumbled, which earned her a sharp elbow in the gut. "Ouch!"
"As I was saying," Astoria continued, unfazed, "we go flying. He's come over at least five times this summer, and father really likes him." She then turned to her sister with a scowl. "You can't talk, Daphne! I've seen Zabini lurking around far too often. Does he like creme brûlée that much?"
"Comes for me, stays for the creme brûlée," Daphne muttered.
Zarina gaped at her. "Are — are you serious?" Zabini? How did Daphne even fit in the same room as Zabini and his massive ego?
"It's nothing serious," she argued, "we just tried it out … a few times. Didn't work, of course. We're too incompatible."
"I'll keep an eye on the both of you. Just in case."
She rolled her eyes. "Come off it, Zarina."
"I mean it. If there's one person I don't trust in Slytherin, it's him."
"You just say that 'cause of his mother."
"Do you blame me? The apple doesn't fall too far from the tree."
"Ugh. You and your Muggle idioms."
"They're useful in pretty much any situation. Say, have you heard of a chap called Shakespeare by any chance?"
"I have," Astoria interjected cheerily, "we had a lesson on him in Muggle Studies, once. His poetry is wicked. Literally." She winked.
Zarina shuddered. "Gah."
For the rest of the afternoon, the three engaged in conversations about their classmates, with Zarina and Daphne sharing anecdotes about their fellow Slytherins, while Astoria squeezed in several hilarious stories about her dorm-mates.
Zarina nearly spewed out her apple juice — Daphne ordered a jug when Zarina had point-blank refused to taste the lukewarm rooibos tea — when Astoria recounted the time she'd charmed Doris Baedecker's trousers to never stay upright, even with a belt, leading to the poor girl having to hold it up herself for an entire day.
"You're a riot, Astoria," Zarina hiccuped, wiping away the tears of laughter that had escaped.
Even Daphne couldn't hide her smile. "I bet the Hat regrets not placing you in Slytherin, sis."
Zarina watched fondly as the two sisters proceeded to grapple once more, heatedly discussing Ravenclaw's relevance compared to 'regal' Slytherin. The hopelessness that she'd felt just hours ago had been relieved slightly, in the presence of two of her dearest friends.