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The Better Part of Valor

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"Didn't I tell you not to go picking fights with Mulciber? Look what you've done to your robes; if she could see you now, Mother would have your head!"

Rabastan, splattered with mashed parsnips and soaked to the skin, stands dripping onto the carpet with a baleful expression. The entire common room, grateful for a break from studying, roars with laughter at the sight of him until a series of loud bangs from Rodolphus's wand warns them into silence. In the corner, the two elder Black sisters are snickering. Rabastan is grateful to see that Narcissa is missing — it is she, indirectly, who has gotten him into this mess.

"I'm sorry," he apologizes weakly once Rodolphus has yanked him aside. The sight of his brother staring reproachfully down at him has him flailing his arms as he struggles to explain his predicament. "I know I shouldn't have; I knew something like this would happen, but I was provoked. Avery let slip to Dolohov that I fancy taking Narcissa Black to Slughorn's Yuletide Banquet, and Yaxley overheard, and then he let slip that Mulciber wants to take her, too. Then Yaxley pulled a vow card out of his Christmas cracker at dinner and dared me to duel Mulciber, winner asks Black, but I didn't know it was a vow card at first, and I agreed, and — you know how those cards work, Rod; I have to do it, but I don't know the right spells, and Mulciber's already chosen Macnair as his second, and he's so much bigger than I am, and I'm going to die and then all Black is going to remember me as is that boy who died." Despite Rabastan's obvious distress, Rodolphus can't help chuckling at the spot his brother has gotten himself into.

"You're not going to die," he assures him. "The last time Mulciber dueled someone, the other guy came out with antlers, and that's not so bad, anyway. You can hang mistletoe from them and get Black to kiss you every time she comes near."

"But then she'll just think I'm pathetic!" Rabastan is too close to tears to appreciate the humor, and seeing how red his face has gotten, Rodolphus decides to take pity on him.

"Oh, lighten up, Rabs," he attempts to cajole the desperate boy. "If it's really that important, I'll back you up; just remember all those new hexes from dueling club, and you'll be all right."

Rabastan only nods, looking thoroughly unconvinced, but seems to know enough to follow Rodolphus to the dormitories to change his robes without protest. As they pass the two Black sisters lounging near the staircase, Bellatrix snickers. Rabastan shrinks behind his brother at the sound, having witnessed quite enough of her legendary charm and dark wit being employed over the years. He is surprised when Rodolphus only chuckles in response, and his curiosity grows when Bellatrix lets the matter drop rather than retaliating with one of her fabled explosive fits.

"What was that about?" he dares to ask once they've reached his dormitory, standing with his wet arms held awkwardly aloft as Rodolphus digs through his trunk. Rodolphus tosses a fresh robe at him; he misses, and it knocks a glass of water off of Avery's nightstand.

"With Black?" Rabastan nods; it's apparent that something is afoot, and Rodolphus isn't absurd enough to pretend there isn't. They've never taken each other for fools. "Let's just say it makes things interesting — if you marry Narcissa, our children will be double cousins," Rodolphus says cryptically, siphoning the water off the robe and repairing the glass with a silent wave of his wand. "Here." Rabastan nods his thanks.

"What do you mean?" His voice is partially muffled; the robe is stuck around his neck. Though he has a dim idea of where this is leading, he won't dare to voice his suspicions until Rodolphus confirms them. This territory is paved with eggshells and calls for cautious navigation.

Rodolphus untangles him from the material with a quick tug.

"Father wrote last week," he replies smoothly once he is satisfied that there is no danger of his little brother suffocating. "I've been betrothed to Bellatrix Black."

Over the collar of his robes, Rabastan stares.

"You mean Bellatrix is going to be your wife?" he asks incredulously. Rodolphus looks highly amused.

"That is how betrothals typically work, yes," he teases. Rabastan's robe is now properly arranged. He continues to gawk at his brother.

"She'll murder you!" he declares, eyes wide; he can sense himself taking on an expression of astonishment, but can't seem to do anything to quell it. "She'll keep you prisoner in your own cellar with only spiders and rats for company!" Rodolphus's smirk is wondrously smug.

"Mulciber doesn't seem so bad now, does he?"

"I don't like this, Rod."

"That Squib Filch can't do a thing to you, Rabs; don't be a pansy."

"If we get caught — "

"I'm blaming you," Rodolphus promises definitively, prodding his brother in the back. Rabastan stumbles forward, just managing to catch himself on the doorjamb, and glares. They've crept up to an empty classroom on the eighth floor armed with their wands and a particularly large pot of Venomous Tentacula. It's hardly after curfew, but Rabastan is all the antsier for that; any number of stragglers could still be awake, and he doesn't want anyone to witness this potentially mortifying event.

"Care to remind me why we've brought this blasted thing?" he hisses through the shadows when the plant in his arms loops a tendril around his neck for the third time and attempts to reel him in.

"Relashio." Rodolphus sounds almost bored. "I told you, it's for entertainment when we pummel Macnair. You know Avery will love it; always the Herbology fanatic. Even I have to admit that it's quite fascinating watching this thing shred spiders to bits."

"As long as it isn't shredding me," Rabastan mumbles, but Rodolphus doesn't seem to hear him.

"Go," he prompts; they reached their destination over five minutes ago but have lingered just outside the classroom, Rabastan procrastinating desperately. "Quit stalling, or someone will come along and catch us." Again, Rabastan hesitates, wishing he'd paid more attention during dueling club. "Go."

"All right, I'm going!" he exclaims when Rodolphus gives him another shove. "Just stay behind me, all right?" He can practically feel his brother rolling his eyes, but Rodolphus mutters a low, I will, little brother, and he knows the irritation isn't real.

Drawing a deep breath, Rabastan wrenches another branch of the Tentacula from his sleeve and strides into the room.

The applause that greets him causes him to drop the plant in shock, shattering the pot across the stone floor and causing the tentacles to wave wildly in protest.

The entirety of Slytherin House, it seems, has gathered to watch the duel; the small room is crammed with students in their nightclothes. The Black sisters have taken a corner for themselves and command the shadows like slaves, lording over the room with dark eyes that dare anyone to challenge them. Shocked and dismayed, Rabastan turns to find Rodolphus, a protest on his lips, but his brother gestures for him to be silent. Rabastan shuts his mouth with a whimper that dies in the hoots and whistles of the crowd and spins slowly on his heel to watch Dolohov, who stands in the center of the room with a scroll in hand to read the challenge.

Over his shoulder, Mulciber and Macnair smirk and wave.

"The challengers stand: Rabastan Lestrange against Adrien Mulciber, seconded by Rodolphus Lestrange and Walden Macnair," reads Dolohov. "Winner takes the right to request the company of Miss Narcissa Black at the Yuletide Banquet; loser takes a dive into the Black Lake at midnight, observed by the entirety of Slytherin House, clothed in nothing but a Snargaluff leaf placed over the area of his choosing." An outbreak of snickering occurs; Rabastan chances a glance over to the corner dominated by the Black sisters and shudders to see Bellatrix and Andromeda standing tall on either side of their younger sister, looking mutinous. He swallows hard, wishing desperately to be somewhere else. Fleetingly, he hopes that he will lose the duel; he'd rather face the Giant Squid than Bellatrix Black any day of the year.

A shuffling to his right catches his attention, and in his peripheral vision he sees Rodolphus edge forward to stand level with his elbow. Rodolphus's expression is always carefully schooled, but Rabastan is familiar with his brother's mannerisms, and gets the sense that, for some reason, Rodolphus is calm. The thought causes him to breathe more easily, even when Rodolphus hisses from the corner of his mouth a subtle, "Wand at the ready, brother."

"Wands at the ready, gentleman!" Rabastan starts when Dolohov echoes the whispered words and whips his head around to stare at Rodolphus, wide-eyed.

"Wait — "

"Ready . . ."

"Rod — " Rodolphus shakes his head, wand out and trained on Macnair; opposite them, their opponents have done the same.

"Set . . ."

"I'm not — "

"Duel!" Rabastan flinches, and moments later finds himself on the floor, giggling hysterically, the victim of a tickling hex. A counter-jinx cast by Rodolphus allows him to stand, and once he has caught his breath, he sends a round of hexes Mulciber's way and dodges the retaliating Leg-Locker Curse. He darts forward, making sure to keep an eye on Rodolphus and Macnair, who are exchanging a series of particularly loud jinxes that let off brilliant jets of purple light. One of these collides with Macnair's arm, causing a strange flaming substance to crawl rapidly up his skin. In its wake spring up clusters of repulsive, jelly-like boils.

A bang sounds, and Rabastan is blown backward to the feet of the crowd with such force that the wind is knocked soundly from his lungs. Blinking upward in shock, he registers Bellatrix Black glaring down at him; the sight serves to render him immediately capable of movement, and he rolls away with a yell that is echoed several yards away.

"Oi! That's my brother, you git!"

Mulciber sails through the air, his figure illuminated by a blast of white light, and Rabastan raises his head to see Rodolphus glaring at his opponent with an expression fiercer than Bellatrix's. Quickly, he wrenches his wand away from the Tentacula still slithering along the floor and scrambles to his feet, intending to help. Moving swiftly to Rodolphus's side, he goes shoulder-to-shoulder with his brother and raises his wand. He sees Rodolphus glance at him, nodding, and opens his mouth to cast a spell, any spell, anything that comes to mind —

"Expelliarmus!" And suddenly, Rabastan feels quite foolish standing there without a wand in his hand, mouth open to speak an incantation he can no longer perform. "What in Merlin's name is going on here?" Lucius Malfoy, four wands clutched in his hand along with his own, surveys the room from the doorway with fury plastered across his pale features. "I return from a meeting with the Head Girl and staff to find the common room and dormitories deserted. After combing half the castle for some school-wide event I figure must have somehow slipped my mind, I find the entirety of my House packed into an empty classroom, free of supervision, cheering on a duel. It is an hour past curfew. Explain yourselves." A momentary, embarrassed silence settles over the crowd, which, Rabastan notices, deprived of the energy of its entertainment, looks rather ludicrous in its attire of nightgowns, robes, and drawstring pajama trousers. People glance furtively at each other, wondering who will be the first to sell everyone out.

It's a tie between at least a dozen people.

"Parkinson told me that — "

"Nott said hardly anyone was coming — "

"I didn't know it would be after curfew — "

"Slughorn was sleeping — "

"I hear someone slipped him the Draught of Living Death at dinner."

"I heard it was Rosier."

"I heard it was you!"

"Silence!" A vein above Malfoy's left eye is twitching. The room falls quiet; all eyes turn to the Head Boy. Malfoy purses his lips, his eyes scanning the crowd. He nods curtly at something over Rabastan's head. "You, Dolohov — hand over that parchment." There is a shuffling, and the parchment is passed to the front of the room.

The silence while Malfoy reads is impenetrable; the entire group seems to be collectively holding its breath. In the corner, the Black sisters' expressions are blank, but for once, Rabastan hardly pays attention to them. Helplessly, he finds Rodolphus's gaze — they're sunk. Both of their names are on that parchment; there will be no skirting the blame.

"I see," Malfoy says at last, reaching the bottom of the scroll and looking up. His eyes slide briefly over Rabastan, Rodolphus, standing side-by-side with their wand-hands still raised, before moving on to Macnair, who is nursing his disfigured arm, and Mulciber, who remains in a heap on the floor. "I see," Malfoy says again, and Rabastan can't help but cringe. "Well, you've certainly topped the bill. Never in my life have I witnessed such disgraceful behavior from purebloods — out of bed after hours, engaging in forbidden altercations, using unapproved, untested spells, performing magic outside of the classroom — I ought to turn every last one of you in to the Headmaster."

No one stirs. Eyes tipped towards the ceiling, Rabastan sends a silent thank you to Rodolphus for never having turned out as pretentious as Lucius Malfoy.

Perhaps thinking of his brother triggers something in the universe, for a moment later, Rodolphus steps forward. His eyes are on Malfoy.

"I'll take the blame," he offers quietly. A collective gasp is heard, drawn sharply from every set of lungs in the room. Rabastan gapes.

Malfoy, too, is taken aback, but recovers swiftly, and Rabastan deflates; the move may have been honorable, but it will take more than chivalry to win points in their House. Gallantry is the lions' specialty.

Malfoy sneers.

"Quite excellent of you, Lestrange, I'm sure, if you value martyrdom, but alas, I cannot let this transgression slide." His tone is quite nasty, his lips curling to express his distaste. "Even disregarding the breach of curfew, this shall not be taken lightly; dueling is strictly forbidden outside of designated clubs. What is more," he continues with an awful air of finality, smirking at the room at large, "no one shall be accompanying Narcissa Black to the Yuletide Banquet but I."

"Oh yeah? And why's that?" Though it is weak and slightly fuzzy, it seems Mulciber has regained his voice. Malfoy's smirk grows until tips of his teeth are exposed, blindingly white and even.

"Because it is improper, in pureblood society, to court a woman who has already been betrothed," is his triumphant reply. "And so you can see why it would be absolutely unacceptable for any of you to accompany Miss Black to Professor Slughorn's Yuletide Banquet when she is already betrothed to me."

Rabastan chokes.

"Taking the blame for the entire House, Rod; how very Gryffindor of you," he teases later as they trudge up the staircase to their respective dormitories. Though still in shock, he's already recovered from the disappointment of not being able to attend the Banquet with Narcissa. Fleeting fancies are true to their name, after all, and considering the baggage that would come along with the youngest daughter of the House of Black . . . well, he doesn't want to spend the rest of his life on edge for having to constantly disarm the bomb that is her eldest sister.

Though, he supposes, he'll be doing plenty of that anyway if Rodolphus ends up marrying the nutcase.

"I didn't do it for them," Rodolphus snorts, snagging his little brother by the collar when he stumbles over his robes to prevent him from crashing to the floor. "Not by Morgana's — not for them, Rabs. I just — I didn't want you to get in trouble for something that, while, granted, you could have avoided if you had been more attentive, wasn't entirely your fault." Rabastan could hug him.

He doesn't.

Instead, he settles for staring admirably up at his brother as they reach the top of the stairs.

"You . . . you did that for me?" He hates that he's choked up. Rodolphus has the decency not to comment on it, though he can't seem to conceal some amusement.

"Of course I did," he replies without hesitation. When Rabastan only continues to stare, he rolls his eyes. "What? You were expecting betrayal? Come on, Rabs; how many little brothers do you think I have?"

Rabastan has to fight hard not to hug him at that. Part of him dies a little in mortification at the wetness he can feel gathered in his eyes, and he blinks quickly to clear it, but Rodolphus notices — of course he does. They've never taken each other for fools.

Rabastan can't seem to come up with any words to accurately express how he's feeling, so what he ends up saying is something garbled along the lines of, "I can't stand that Malfoy, always making himself out to be more important than he is." When Rodolphus raises an eyebrow in response to his mumbling, Rabastan clears the last of the moisture from his eyes and meets his brother's gaze. "What I mean is — at least you're honest about what kind of man you are," he amends quietly.

For a moment, Rodolphus regards him, expression quiet as ever.

"Yeah, well," he says finally, and the casualness of his voice doesn't match the emotions that have fought to the surface in his eyes. "You just remember that when I'm a prisoner in the cellar of my own home with the spiders and the rats."

Rabastan snickers.