The Stars Are Burning

Chapter 3

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Chapter Three

Thursday dawned cloudy and brisk. Ferris and I snagged a few oranges and scones from the Slytherin table and took our breakfast to the courtyard overlooking the deep ravine and mountains on the eastern side of the castle, where we met up with Az and Davey. It was one of our favorite spots, for it was isolated and had amazing views of the grounds and the distant Scottish Highlands. It was also a great place away from any prying eyes or ears.

"Finally," Az grumbled when we appeared. His blue-and-bronze scarf was wound tightly around his neck, and he huddled deeper into his black cloak to escape the hint of winter that blew in with the breeze. "I've been freezing my balls off out here."

Ferris cast me a judgmental look. "Sorry. Angel here had to make herself look presentable."

I shoved a scone in my mouth whole just so I could flip him off. As much as I hated to admit it though, Ferris was right. With Emma Vanity's proverbial sword hanging over my neck, I knew I had to get her stupid game over with, and fast. So that meant attempting to do something with myself that looked less ghoulish and more…girly.

Davey touched the white ribbon holding one of my pigtails in place like he'd never seen it before. "Hence…whatever this is?"

I smacked his hand away when they all started laughing.

"Fuck off," I snapped. "I had to try something."

"Does your schoolgirl look have anything to do with why you summoned us for a top secret meeting this morning?" asked Az.

Ferris looked to me in amusement. His blue eyes glinted wickedly. "Go on. Tell them."

Az raised a questioning eyebrow, but Davey leaned against one of the stone pillars behind him with a sigh. "Oh, this should be good."

"Watch yourself, Gudgeon," I growled, "or else what happened in first year will look like a tea party after I'm done with you."

I was, of course, talking about the time me, Az, and Ferris dared him to touch the trunk of the Whomping Willow, a vicious tree living on the grounds that walloped anything that went near it. Davey had almost lost an eye after being hit with an assailing branch, and Professor Dumbledore had had to issue an official warning that any students were forbidden to go near it ever again.

Davey scowled. "I thought we agreed to never bring that up?"

I ignored him. "Emma Vanity has blackmailed me into playing a stupid game she invented. I have to break Remus Lupin's heart, or else…"

I hesitated. I'd told Ferris in less words, but none of my friends knew about Jacob still. I wasn't even sure if I should tell them. On one hand, it was a family secret, but on the other, they were my best friends. I knew they'd die for me, and I for them. I could trust them with anything.

"Or else what?" Az prompted when I stayed silent. Well, at least he was handling it well. He and Davey would, I know. They were the most rational people I've ever met—but between Ferris and me, that wasn't saying a lot.

I sighed. "What's said here doesn't ever leave, got it?" When they all nodded, I took a deep breath. "Vanity…found out about my family this summer. About Jacob." I shrugged. "He's my half-brother. My mum had an affair with a Muggle and Jacob was the result. She left him on our doorstep and bugged out. I haven't seen her since, but you already know that part." It was hard to hide an absent mother. Most of the time, I pretended she was dead. Only Az, Davey, Ferris—and apparently Emma Vanity—knew the truth about her leaving. I'd just never told my friends the whole backstory before.

It was silent for a beat until Davey let out a low whistle.

"Shit," Az said, his eyes wide. "That's tough. Does the kid know?"

I shook my head. "No. And it has to stay that way." I beseeched all three of them. "The truth would kill Jacob if he heard it from Vanity first. That's why I agreed to play her stupid game. After I'm done, I'll tell Jacob. But for now, it has to stay between us."

"I'm going to rip Vanity to shreds," Ferris said, an ugly scowl on his face.

"You're not going to do anything," I said. "She gave me until next summer. I'll figure something out."

"And if you lose?" Az said. His dark eyes studied me carefully. "You said you had to break Lupin's heart. What happens if you can't get him to fall for you?"

I shrugged. Truthfully, I hadn't thought that far ahead. My only priority right now was protecting Jacob at all costs.

"Are we all electing to ignore the part where Taylor said she has to break this bloke's heart?" Davey interjected. "That's mental, right? Tell me you all agree with that?"

"I don't like it either, Davey," I said. "But if it keeps Vanity off my back…"

He stared at me, his round face incredulous. "Why can't you just tell Jacob now? Get it over with? Then Vanity won't have leverage and you won't have to seduce the poor sap!"

"And ruin Jacob's second year?" I argued. "Davey, this would crush him! All Jacob knows is that our mum left when he was born. Adding the news that my dad isn't his real dad and bringing up all the abandonment issues again over Mum?" I shook my head. "He doesn't need that shit right now. Not after we just got back to Hogwarts."

Davey still looked unhappy, but he conceded. "All right, fine. I just think this is a terrible idea, and that more than one person is going to get hurt."

"It won't come to that," I said. "Lupin's a Gryffindor. Brushing themselves off and moving on is a specialty of theirs. It's that stupid underdog-to-champion streak they have."

"Well, you won't be seducing anyone with that," Az said, pointing to my pigtails. "Honestly, Taylor, have you ever even opened a copy of Witch Weekly in your life?"

I scowled. "Then what do I do with my hair?"

Ferris yanked out one of the ribbons, and I yelped when several strands of hair went with it. "Ow, you ass!" He pulled out the other with the same result, and I slapped his arm in retaliation.

"There," he said. "You look fine."

"I look the same as I always do," I complained, massaging my scalp.

"Precisely," he said, tossing the ribbons aside. The wind picked them up and carried them away, like two opaque birds drifting in the breeze.

"I thought the whole point of this was to get Lupin to like me?" I said.

"And he will," said Ferris matter-of-factly. "Because you will be yourself."

"Yeah, that doesn't sound like a good idea," I replied after trading a confused glance with Az and Davey. "Actually, being myself is a really terrible idea in this case."

"Lads," Ferris said with a lazy smile, "when is Ferris Ozymandius Blishwick ever wrong?"

Az rolled his eyes. "I hate it when you use your middle name."

Ferris looked offended. "It was my great-grandfather's name. You know, Ozymandius Blishwick was the first wizard to propose a bill outlawing anti-Muggle-born discrimination to the Wizengamot in the nineteenth century—"

"—And then was promptly assassinated shortly thereafter," Az finished. "Yes, I'm aware."

As Ferris and Az began to bicker about politics, I glanced to Davey. He stared at me in the faintly disapproving way he did sometimes whenever I was being too much of a Slytherin, but I tried for a reassuring look.

I'll be fine, I mouthed to him as Ferris began shrilly listing off the contributions of his great-grandfather to the Ministry of Magic.

I hope so, was all he mouthed back when Az finally roared at Ferris to shut up.

Our meeting with Az and Davey made Ferris and I late to our first lesson that morning after we completely lost track of time. Ferris was still grumbling about the accomplishments of his family and how Az was an annoying prick when we tumbled down the stairs to the dungeons, heading for Professor Slughorn's classroom. Class had started five minutes ago, and though Slughorn was our Head of House and Ferris was in his good books for being a Blishwick, I still hated arriving late. It was just inconvenient.

I opened the door and Ferris and I entered. Professor Slughorn looked up from his desk, clearly in the middle of giving instructions on that day's potion, and though he didn't say anything, he still frowned in disapproval. The other students had turned at the sound of our entrance, and I was disgusted to see that there were only twelve people in N.E.W.T. Potions, including me and Ferris, and that half of them were Gryffindors. Great.

As Professor Slughorn continued his lecture, I scanned the classroom quickly, ignoring the hostile glares from the Gryffindors and Slytherins alike. There were two empty seats, but they were next to Severus Snape and Ronan Mulciber, respectively. Every year we'd had Potions with the Gryffindors, Snape and Lily Evans had always been partners, but now Evans sat at the front with none other than Remus Lupin, her spine straight and decidedly not facing Snape.

I was honestly surprised Mulciber had made it to N.E.W.T. level. I mean, the bloke was skilled when it came to Charms and Defense Against the Dark Arts (emphasis on the 'Dark Arts' part), but he'd always been rather useless at Potions. I figured that that was why Snape had insisted on not sitting with Mulciber; git didn't want to lose his status as the best potion-maker.

Of course, this left Ferris and I with only two options: one of us had to sit next to Snape, and the other with Mulciber.

Ferris realized this at the same time I did. "Shit."

I sighed. "Rock, paper, scissors? Loser has to sit with Snape."

At least Mulciber didn't talk much, and he usually sat back and let his partner do all the work. Snape, on the other hand, was meticulous, and always did something else than what the instructions called for. I couldn't deny he was brilliant at Potions, but I'd still rather deal with Mulciber, especially after recalling that day on the Express when Snape had looked at me with the same amount of loathing that he reserved for James Potter and Sirius Black, his sworn enemies.

Ferris nodded. "All right." We lifted our hands. "Rock, paper, scissors, go!"

My fingers shot out to form scissors. Ferris raised his fist triumphantly and smashed his hand-rock down upon my finger-scissors.

"Git," I muttered darkly. He just shot me a wicked smile as he went to sit next to Mulciber.

I took the stool next to Snape. He didn't turn when I sat down, but his mouth twitched in a scowl. Or, at least I thought it did. It was hard to tell his facial expressions since they were always hidden by the greasy black curtains of his hair.

Professor Slughorn clapped his hands with an enthusiastic, "Off you trot!" and the instructions for that day's potion appeared on the blackboard behind him. I squinted my eyes to see and read aloud, "Elixir for Inducing Euphoria."

"Congratulations," sneered Snape. "You know how to read."

I shot him one of my most poisonous glares. "I was late, genius. I missed Slughorn's directions."

"Just let me handle the potion," he snapped. "I don't need you ruining it."

"By all means." I held up my hands. "You do all the work. I won't complain."

He scoffed before heading to the storage cupboard to collect our ingredients. Once he was gone, Ferris wheeled around in his seat to face me.

"Well?" He jerked his head toward the front of the room, where Remus Lupin sat by himself, flipping through the pages of Advanced Potion-Making. "Ready to make your first move on Lover Boy over there?"

I gave him a dry look over the top of my own book. "It's Potions. What exactly am I supposed to do? Brew some Amortentia and slip it to him when no one's looking?"

Ferris grinned. "Not a bad idea, honestly."

I sighed. "Forget it. I'm not talking to him here. I have rounds with him tonight; I'll just do it then."

"Ugh, you're no fun."

I rolled my eyes as Snape returned with our ingredients. I eyed the peppermint sprigs he set down, wondering why he'd brought them; the recipe didn't call for anything peppermint. Upon seeing my judgmental look, Snape scowled and said, "You didn't even heat the cauldron. How useless can you be?"

"Watch yourself, Snapey," Ferris said casually, picking at a hangnail.

Snape sneered. "Or what, Blishwick?"

Ferris raised his voice ever so slightly. "How many letters did you write to Evans this summer, Snape? A hundred? Two hundred?"

Snape's hand plunged into his robes as Lily Evans walked by our table to return to her own with her ingredients. She didn't glance our way, but her shoulders stiffened. Snape didn't draw his wand, but his hand still lingered in his robes as his face turned a murderous shade of red.

"I think you got your point across, Fer," I said, giving him a warning look as Snape seethed beside me. Ferris looked wholly unconcerned, still fiddling with his hangnail and staring at Snape in cold amusement. "Sit down, Snape, before Slughorn comes over and starts talking. I don't think I can deal with stale-glazed-pineapple breath so early in the morning."

Slowly, Snape sat down. Ferris blew us a kiss before he turned around and began working on his own potion with Mulciber, who hadn't even realized anything was going on the whole time. I glared at Ferris's back as Snape began preparing our cauldron. Ferris and I didn't get along with other Slytherins, but we'd always been careful not to provoke them unless they provoked us. Apparently, he'd forgotten that little fact.

Snape thrust a shrivelfig and a small dagger at me. "Peel it," he ordered, indicating the purple shrivelfig.

Gritting my teeth, I did what he wanted, but more from my own desire to get a good grade in that day's class than because I wanted to follow Snape's commands. I peeled the shrivelfig and handed it back.

"You have all the delicacy of a troll," he commented.

"Piss off, Snape," I said carelessly, flipping through my Potions book absently while he worked. "I'm not your house-elf."

He glowered in my direction for a moment before going back to the potion. What a pretentious git. I honestly didn't know what Lily Evans ever saw in him. It wasn't hard to understand why Snape would've been attracted to Evans, as a friend or otherwise; she was pretty, outgoing, and had a certain charm that people seemed to be drawn by. But for the life of me I couldn't figure out what his appeal to her had been.

A half-hour passed without any more problems. I really thought I could make it through this lesson unscathed until James Potter and Sirius Black decided that they were bored and wanted to bother their favorite target: Snape.

With Snape taking control of the potion, I had nothing to do but sit quietly and observe. So when James Potter got up from his seat on the pretense of washing his hands at the sinks in the back of the classroom, I found myself watching him out of sheer boredom.

He walked with a confident strut that bordered on arrogance, a free hand reaching up to mess with his black hair, so it stood up in every direction, like he'd just gotten off a broomstick. I supposed he was attractive in a goofy, athletic way—after all, he was a Chaser for the Gryffindor Quidditch team and rather good, from what I'd heard—but if anyone hated Slytherins, it was James Potter.

Although Snape continued working silently, he seemed to sense his archnemesis's presence, for he began cutting his wormwood with violent force. My eyes drifted back to my book as Potter passed our table, so I didn't even realize he'd slipped something into our cauldron until it was too late.

The smell hit me first. It was like rotting eggs and troll snot. I gagged at the same time that Snape shot up from his seat when our cauldron began emitting clouds of noxious gas and fizzing like a shaken bottle of butterbeer.

"Back up, Aster!" snarled Snape. I did as he said, grabbing my book and rushing away from our table, just as our cauldron exploded with a forceful BANG!

Several people screamed as our cauldron ricocheted off the ceiling and fell back to the floor as nothing more than a pile of melted pewter. Fortunately, there was no gas, but the stench doubled, forcing everyone to cover their mouths and noses to escape it.

I retched into my elbow, my eyes watering from the brunt of the smell. Beside me, Snape's face purpled in rage, one of his black eyes twitching as his gaze fixed on James Potter, who had returned to his table with Sirius Black, who both howled with laughter.

Professor Slughorn hustled over, waving his wand to diffuse the horrible aftermath of our exploded potion. "Settle down, everyone, settle down! Just a bit of a mishap…Mr. Snape, Miss Aster, what on earth happened over here?"

Snape struggled to form a coherent sentence. "Potter—cauldron—sabotage—"

Slughorn turned to me. I shrugged and stuck to the truth. "I didn't see anything. Snape had some peppermint sprigs though; maybe he just added them wrong."

Snape nearly spit venom at me. "The peppermint was to counteract the side effects of the potion! Potter did this! I know he did!"

Across the room, Sirius Black snorted. "Don't flatter yourself, Snivellus. James doesn't care enough about you to do something to you."

I had to refrain from laughing out loud. Potter had made it his goal in life to mess with Snape since our first year. The bloke couldn't go anywhere without Potter shooting a hex in his direction, and after our Defense Against the Dark Arts O.W.L. last year, they'd very publicly humiliated him by hanging him upside down and revealing his knickers to the whole school.

Out of curiosity, I glanced at Lily Evans—after all, the result of Snape's humiliation had been the end of their friendship. Clearly, Evans disagreed with Black's statement as well, if her narrowed eyes and scowl were anything to go by. But she didn't come to Snape's defense again like she'd done last year. She said nothing.

Slughorn frowned at Black. "Let's not resort to name-calling, Mr. Black." He turned back to Snape and me. "Well, you might as well clean up, you two. We don't have enough class time for you to attempt another try."

Snape looked ready to pass out. "Sir—"

"Not to worry, Mr. Snape, you'll have another chance to take a crack at it in a few weeks. Hm, let's see…half-marks for the both of you today, I think." He winked at us conspiratorially; we should've gotten a zero, but Slughorn had always favorited his own students. "Now, clean up, please!"

He waddled away, squeezing his girth in between the tables as he went back to his desk. With the excitement over, everyone else went back to their own potions to add the finishing touches. I caught Ferris's eye before he turned around; he shot me a thumbs-up, his eyebrows raising in a questioning look.

I nodded. Satisfied, he went back to work with Mulciber. As I took out my wand to begin cleaning our table, Snape's hand clamped down on my arm with an iron grip.

"You liar!" he hissed. "Potter did this! Why didn't you tell Slughorn?"

"I told him the truth," I said coolly. I tried to move my arm back, but his grip tightened painfully. I kept my face neutral though, even when his fingers dug into the skin beneath my sleeve. "I didn't see anything. I couldn't corroborate or deny your theory."

His black eyes flashed dangerously as he leaned closer. "You know damn well Potter did it. He's had it out for me before we even set foot in Hogwarts."

"That sounds like your problem, not mine."

"I can make your life a living hell this year, Aster," he snarled. "The things I know—"

"I don't care what you know, Snape," I drawled. "And I hate to burst your bubble, but Vanity already has it out for me. Get in line."

He yanked me even closer, until I could see the yellow of his teeth as he said, "Choose a side, Aster."

I stared at him, forgetting to even fight back against his hold. "What?"

"Choose a side," he repeated. "Slytherin or not."

"What are you on about, you loon? You were there at the Sorting five years ago—the Hat put me in Slytherin."

"There's a war out there, Aster," he said. "And you'll only live if you're on the right side of it."

I was about to ask him what he meant until a voice behind us said, "Interrupting something, snakes?"

Snape whirled around to face James Potter, Sirius Black, and their lackey, Peter Pettigrew. He released my arm finally, and I shook out my numb fingers.

Black smirked widely at Snape. He was unfairly handsome, even when his expression bordered on cruelty. He looked so much like his sadistic cousin—Bellatrix Black—within that moment that a shiver actually went down my spine. "Moving on from Evans so soon, Snape? Pity—for her, that is." He nodded in my direction.

"What do you want?" spat Snape.

Potter shook his head with a tsk-tsk. "You should be more careful with your potions, Snivellus. You could've melted that ugly mug of yours."

"I'd say he'd be doing the world a favor," Black said. "Burn off all that grease, too."

The three Gryffindor boys snickered when Snape's expression turned murderous. Their little club was missing a member though, and I scanned the room until my eyes found Remus Lupin looking back at us from his table, a crease between his eyebrows. When he caught my eye, he grimaced and said something to Evans before coming over to us. Slughorn, naturally, was nowhere to be seen. Git had probably ducked into the teacher's storeroom to munch on his crystallized pineapples.

"James, Sirius," Lupin sighed when he reached our table, with the air of someone who's suffered this exact encounter hundreds of times. "C'mon; finish your potion. Please."

"Already finished," Black said without taking his eyes off Snape. Snape's hand kept twitching toward the wand in his robes, and Black seemed to be goading him into whipping it out.

I pushed Snape aside with a scowl.

"Back off," I said. "I'm a prefect; don't make me take points."

"I'm terrified," said Potter dryly.

"She's right, guys," Lupin said. "It's not worth it."

"Yes, listen to your pet," Snape said with a significant look at Lupin.

The atmosphere changed instantly. Black and Potter now towered over Snape, forming some sort of shield in front of Lupin, who now looked extremely uncomfortable. Even mousy little Pettigrew glared at Snape with an intensity I'd never seen before.

Snape leaned back on his heels, smug. "Go on, then," he said triumphantly. "Do your worst."

"Don't—" Lupin said in a pained voice, but he was too late.

Four wands were drawn at once, and on instinct, I ducked behind my stool as a blue spell whizzed over my shoulder.

Pandemonium erupted for the second time in the classroom. Potions were abandoned as everyone turned to watch Snape dueling against Black, Potter, and Pettigrew—well, just Potter and Black, mostly. Pettigrew wasn't nearly as talented, and he produced only one spell for every three that Black and Potter hurled at Snape.

Lupin made half-hearted attempts to call off his friends, but Lily Evans pushed herself forward through the crowded students, yelling, "Stop, STOP! POTTER, I SAID STOP!"

Ferris sidled up next to me as Mulciber jumped into the fray with a nasty grin, joining Snape against the Gryffindors.

"What happened?" he asked, watching the duel in awe and leaning to the side when a jinx shot by.

"I have no idea," I muttered. I was utterly confused. Snape calling Lupin a 'pet' seemed to have struck a nerve, but I didn't know why. I thought I remembered something from first year about Lupin having some sort of foul-tempered rabbit, but I couldn't fathom why that would launch a duel.

Professor Slughorn tumbled out of the teacher's storeroom at that moment, discarding a box of glazed pineapple on his desk as he shouted, "ENOUGH!"

It took a few tries, and it wasn't until Slughorn had squeezed his way to our table that the five boys finally lowered their wands, all of them panting.

Slughorn was beside himself. "Unacceptable, gentlemen, unacceptable! All of you—with me—to Professor McGonagall's office at once!"

Snape, Mulciber, Potter, Black, and Pettigrew all slinked out of the room after Slughorn, who continued ranting until he was out of earshot. The class erupted in talk as people discarded their potions and collected their things, as the lesson was clearly dismissed after that.

I turned back to our ruined cauldron and dirty table with a grimace. Ferris patted my shoulder sympathetically. "Want me to stay?"

"Nah." I sighed. "Go find Az and Davey. Let them know I'll be late for Charms."

He nodded, grabbed his bag, and filed out of the room with everybody else. I took out my wand and began to clean, alternating between Tergeo and Scourgify to get all the black gunk off the table. It wasn't until the room was empty that someone dropped their bag next to me, and I paused in my spellwork to see Lupin taking out his own wand.

"What are you doing?" I asked.

He waved his wand and the mangled cauldron Vanished. He then set about cleaning the table.

"James tampered with your potion," he said after I just stood there, staring at him. He kept his eyes on the table. "I told him not to, but he wanted to mess with Snape."

"Oh. You feel guilty. Cute," I said sarcastically.

He frowned. "I wanted to help you. You shouldn't have to deal with James's mess."

"It must be exhausting," I remarked. He paused, looking up at me. His eyes were a nice shade of light green—like how sunlight looks on a leaf. I smirked. "That Gryffindor chivalry of yours, I mean."

"I think I'd be more exhausted pushing away anyone who's even remotely civil to me," he said lightly, going back to his work.

I opened my mouth to retort something nasty, but unbidden, the image of Vanity's victorious smirk came to me. "Don't forget to say hi to Lupin. I'll be watching."

Instead, I tapped my silver-and-green tie and forced myself to look casual. "Comes with the territory."

To my surprise, his lips quirked in a grin. Huh. Well, Ferris was right about one thing. That jawline is impressive. "I can tell."

Not knowing what else to say, we worked in silence until the table was spotless. Even I could admit that his teamwork helped a lot; what should've been a half-hour's worth of work only took about ten minutes. I wouldn't even be late to Charms.

"Thanks," I said after we finished and put our wands away. "That wasn't nearly as awful as I thought it would be."

He gave me a faint smile. "I'm sorry about James. You wouldn't have a mess to clean in the first place if it wasn't for him."

I shrugged. "Can't blame him entirely. Sometimes I think about tying Snape up and tossing him in the lake."

He chuckled. "Ah, well, there is that." A moment of awkward silence passed before he said, "Er, see you tonight for rounds?"

"Yeah. Nine o'clock, right?"

"Yes. Fourth floor." He gave me another slight smile. "See you then."

He left the room. I stood for a moment, thinking. Maybe this wouldn't be so hard after all. If he was already this receptive, perhaps getting him to fall for me wouldn't be impossible…

That is, if I didn't ruin my chances first. Merlin, help me.

I hadn't really planned on Snape getting super involved in this story, but he wrote himself in anyway and now I can't get rid of him. We'll see how this goes!

Let me know what you thought! Stay safe out there.