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On the first of April, Pansy Parkinson agrees to marry Ernie Macmillan.

His proposal is satisfactory, if not a bit stale—he calls at a quarter past ten, wielding a diamond-crusted heirloom tiara and a bouquet of exotic hothouse flowers, recites several off-tempo warbling odes to the blue of her eyes and the pink of her cheeks, and then, when the silence between them seems to stretch on, not quite awkward but not quite comfortable, either; he rather abruptly drops to one knee.

For her part, Pansy gasps, presses her fingertips to her lips, and wishes, not for the first time, that summoning blushes were as easy as summoning tears.

“Oh, this is such a shock,” she lies, breathlessly.

Ernie offers her a pained, not entirely genuine looking smile before clearing his throat. “If you need a moment—”

“I don’t,” she simpers.

He doesn’t move from his spot on her drawing room floor. “Ah. Of course.”

Truly,” she goes on, hands fluttering, “I am overwhelmed by your affections.”

His mouth opens, and then closes, and then opens again. “Indeed,” he says, voice slightly higher-pitched on the tail of the second syllable. “Which is why I would be most understanding if you, ah, required time to reflect—”

“I absolutely don’t,” she gushes.

He stares at his still-bent knee. “Well. That’s—well.”

Pansy supposes he must be waiting for her to say yes—and she will be saying yes; she isn’t an imbecile—but she can’t quite bring herself to do so yet. To put an end to this, the immeasurably satisfying culmination of years of hard work. Dedication. Half a lifetime spent at finishing school, a wobbly tower of encyclopedias stacked on her head, learning how to sit and how to stand and how to bloody well breathe properly with a corset laced much, much too tight. Summers filled with dancing lessons and embroidery hoops and honest-to-god weekly quizzes on the contents of the most recent edition of Debrett’s, a revolving door of faux-French ladies’ maids tugging at her hair and lamenting the too-steep slope of her nose, piles of bloodstained seamstress needles and ghastly tasting teas to lighten her complexion and hours upon hours of chess with her father, gambits and blockades and games she hadn’t had a prayer of winning—

Pansy has earned this.

And Ernie will be an attentive fiancé, when it matters. It isn’t as if she’s sacrificing anything. Whatever deficiencies their relationship might have—deficiencies she wouldn’t even notice if that romantic love-match drivel wasn’t currently so fashionable—well, they can be overlooked. Overcome. Especially with the promise of a castle, and a title, and a victory, because Pansy is going to be a duchess. Which is why—

On the first of April, Pansy Parkinson agrees to marry Ernie Macmillan.

Three weeks later, she meets Harry Potter.

 


 

Harry Potter is a bastard.

Not literally, of course—god, the scandal—but he’s messy and he’s handsome and he’s sarcastic and he’s rude, really, unfailingly kind to the people who don’t matter and inexplicably hostile to the ones who do. He looks at Pansy like she’s an annoyance, at best, and a villain, at worst, and his distaste for her, for what she is and who she is and how she fits into the microscopically tiny mold of the world they’re forced to share—it makes her feel transparent. See-through, but not quite fortunate enough to be invisible.

It happens like this:

On a rainy Friday afternoon, Pansy strolls into the lobby of Fortescue’s, passes her primrose-blue parasol back to her maid, and is immediately accosted by Daphne Greengrass. Daphne has a new last name now, of course, but Pansy loathes having to use it. Daphne had married a Weasley, and not just any Weasley, but the youngest Weasley son. Pansy would have to be tortured like a Spanish heretic before she’d ever marry a second son. Or a sixth son, as Daphne had done. What’s the point?

“Pansy!” Daphne squeals, waving Pansy over to a small corner table. Pansy’s pace remains unhurried; Daphne’s enthusiasm isn’t nearly as catching as it had once been. “Oh, this is brilliant, we just got back from the Burrow!”

Pansy has next to no idea what or where a Burrow is, but she replies, “Lovely,” anyway, carefully adjusting the Macmillan ruby pin in her hair. “I hope you had a smooth trip, considering the weather.”

Daphne beams lovingly at the tall, red-haired man slouched beside her. “Oh, Ron made it a very smooth trip, indeed.”

The tops of Weasley’s ears turn pink. “Daph,” he admonishes, not sounding the least bit like he really means it. “You can’t say things like that.”

The untidy man sitting across from them, who Pansy hadn’t even noticed, suddenly snorts. Snorts. As if Pansy, the daughter of an earl—no, the fiancée of a duke—isn’t right there.

Harry,” Daphne chides him, and she doesn’t sound like she really means it, either. God. What has Weasley been doing to her? “This is my very dearest friend, Pansy Parkinson. Pansy, this is Harry Potter—he’s Ron’s very dearest friend, too, isn’t that wonderful?

The charlatan—a Potter, apparently—is young, Pansy realizes upon closer inspection. Probably Weasley’s age. Fresh out of Cambridge. Unlike Weasley, however, Potter is…attractive. Darkly so. His skin is tanned a deep bronze-brown, like he’s spent an unfashionable amount of time outdoors, and his eyes are a rather astonishing shade of vivid emerald green. His jaw is square, and his nose is straight, and his mouth is crooked. The sum total of his features is wholly, entirely smug, giving Pansy the distinct impression that she’s being condescended to in some way.

“Pleasure to meet you, sir,” she says, flashing him an admittedly flimsy, tight-lipped smile—which he doesn’t even have the decency to return.

“Pansy Parkinson,” he repeats, tone slightly sour. “You’re engaged to Macmillan, aren’t you? Ernie?”

“Yes, I am,” she replies, lifting her chin. “He proposed earlier this month.”

Potter hums. “We were at school together, you know. Still see him around a lot. Good man.”

“Yes,” Pansy says again, more firmly. “He is. I’m thrilled to be marrying him.”

Potter’s answering frown is skeptical. Exaggerated. “Strange, then, isn’t it?”

She sniffs. “What is?”

“That he’s never mentioned you. Not once.”

Stung—and unwilling to allow Potter the privilege of knowing that she is—Pansy levels him with a politely mocking sneer. “And yet you’re aware of our engagement!” she exclaims, as sweetly as she can manage. Her cheeks are warm. Her bones are brittle. She wants to go home. “What a devoted friend you are, sir.”

Potter clenches his jaw for a glorious, too-brief moment—and then he’s barking out a gravelly, irritatingly masculine laugh, sharp-edged and scornful, shaking his head and diverting his attention back to Weasley—

It’s a clear dismissal.

And Pansy is left standing there, posture perfect and expression placid and rage practically seething, smoldering, simmering in her gut like watery soup in a cast-iron cauldron, before she grits her teeth, scowls at Potter—god, his hair is a disaster, too, who let him leave the house—and instinctively reaches for the enormous sixteenth-century, princess-cut sapphire Ernie had given her the previous day. She twists the ring around and around her finger, reminds herself that she can’t very well plan a wedding while being tried for murder, and then coughs, delicately.

Oh, is that from Ernie?” Daphne asks, gesturing to the ring.

Pansy relaxes. This is normal. This is what she’d come to Fortescue’s for in the first place. “Mm,” she confirms, holding out her hand so that the sapphire can adequately catch the light. “Queen Elizabeth gifted it to his great-great grandfather.”

Daphne absently strokes the ugly silver locket around her own neck. “Aren’t family heirlooms so lovely for engagements?”

Weasley glances up at that, an appallingly bashful grin spreading across the lower half of his face, and Daphne giggles, a wistful sigh escaping her lips when Weasley just—watches her, looking pleased and surprised and vaguely like he thinks he might actually be dreaming.

Pansy furrows her brow.

She feels strangely off-balance, and wonders if this is what vertigo is—the earth simply tilting on its axis without any warning at all, rearranging latitudes and longitudes and Pansy’s ingrained ability to ignore the things that she doesn’t understand. The things that she doesn’t want or need to understand. Because the dull, grating, somewhat hollow pang reverberating through her chest; it isn’t jealousy, and it isn’t important. It isn’t—

She blinks herself back to reality.

Squares her shoulders, just like her father taught her to.

Chews on the inside of her mouth, abruptly uncomfortable with the happy, harmonious glow that’s suffusing Daphne’s cheeks.

And it’s then that Pansy registers a gaze, heavy with judgment and mostly unfamiliar, boring into the side of her head. Studying her, like she’s a wriggling wreck of a specimen trapped beneath the bottle-thick lens of a microscope. Like she’s been found lacking. Wanting. Useless.

She doesn’t turn to look.

She can guess quite well who that gaze belongs to.