Grazhir :: Harry Potter :: Masks :: 02 :: And

02 • And

The next morning Draco was treated to another cat-like stretch from his roommate and found himself nibbling his lower lip while pretending he wasn’t actually paying attention. Bloody hell! Did the man have a clue what he was about? He spent a little more time deluding himself into thinking he was still a bit woozy from sleep, giving Alex first go at the bathroom. Once he was out of sight, Draco flopped over on his back and threw his arms back over his head. He wanted to scream like a girl! A girl, damn it!

The sound of the shower got him to sit up and he ran his fingers through his shoulder length hair, idly wondering if he should get it cut shorter. He’d been letting it grow for some reason he couldn’t quite remember. That brought a frown to his face and made him feel a little uneasy. Then he shrugged and decided to leave the matter for another time, at which point Alex appeared again, clothed only in a towel loosely secured around his hips.

After Draco got his heart convinced that it really belonged in his chest and not his throat, he pushed himself away from the bed and entered the bathroom himself. Cold water would be a good idea. In fact, it was a splendid idea. As the cool water sluiced over his body, he considered asking Alex what he thought about his hair. That might produce an interesting response. That might tell him if Alex was his type of guy.

He toweled himself off then wrapped it around his waist, sauntered back into the bedroom, and rummaged around in his trunk for something to wear. Since it was the weekend still, he could please himself (and incidentally many other people, not that he gave a damn, of course) by wearing something that suited his icy blond perfection. So he snatched out some close-fitting black trousers and a dark blue silk shirt.

A quick glance showed that Alex was rummaging through his trunk, so Draco shrugged off his towel and slipped into a pair of boxers, then finished dressing. As he turned around he realized that a pair of bright blue eyes had been watching him and almost blushed, though not from embarrassment. “Let’s go have breakfast and then I can explain about what Severus meant,” he suggested.

Alex nodded and the pair made their way to the Great Hall to sit down and tuck into the myriad dishes placed on the table. It was fairly early, so there weren’t a lot of people around, and most of them were yawning and talking in sleepy murmurs. Alex kept his expression clear when he noticed Hermione and Ron were actually present at the Gryffindor table, but smiled inside at the sight of Ron awake so early on a weekend day.

He wished he could push himself back and relax now that he was done, but that was rather difficult to do on a bench, so he looked instead at Draco who was finishing up a last bit of buttered toast. Alex gave him another one of his charming smiles and set himself to follow the blond out of the room, the castle, and onto the grounds, again letting his eyes wander all over the place to try and see things as a newcomer would.

Draco was amiable enough to point out things here and there as he led Alex to a quiet place that only Slytherins seemed to frequent. He would have done for any new Slytherin, in point of fact, had he been assigned to one. Generally speaking that duty went to younger students, as they had more time to show around the first years, and had at the bare minimum a year of wearing the Slytherin mask to the world. The only real difference was that Draco was going out of his way to brush against Alex in the process.

Sure, Alex was gorgeous, but Draco had never been stupid enough to put pure looks at the forefront of a contest of interest. So why, he wondered, was he verging on breaking his outwardly cool reserve and making a complete prat out of himself? The more Draco thought about it, the more he wondered if it might be the way Alex seemed to look at him, appreciate what he saw, but not show what he was really thinking back there. Maybe it was the allure of the one person he’d seen (Slytherins included) who didn’t let longing and worship of Draco dominate his eyes. Alex somehow seemed both close and very far away from him.

When they finally arrived, Draco sat down with his back against a tree and stretched his legs out in front, while Alex dropped to the ground and laid his head on Draco’s lap as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Draco, being the cool, calm sort (really, he was) simply said, “I’m sorry?”

Alex smiled up at him. “Do you not do this in this country? It is comfortable.”

Draco didn’t have much of a response for that, and since he didn’t particularly want Alex to move anyway he shrugged. “So about Severus, and about Slytherin. This is very important, Alex. You’ll come to notice that around Hogwarts we Slytherins are seen as nothing less than evil abiding. They think we’re all just drooling over the chance to join the Dark Lord the second we get the nod. But it’s the furthest thing from the truth.”

Draco sighed a little and continued, “You see . . . for a very long time that was the truth. Salazar Slytherin had a pure-blood mania and wanted nothing more than to sweep the school out of muggle-borns, muggle lovers, and anything else that didn’t fit his idea of trust and perfection. But people change over time. There are still plenty of people who’ve come out of Slytherin house in the last fifty years or so that have followed that credo, but like I said, people change. We’ve changed enough that you’ll find none of us currently here have those leanings, but we can’t just give up the lie publicly, not yet anyway.”

Alex shifted his head a little and stared up at the sky, happy for once to just listen and know he was getting the whole story.

“Every person wears masks. Slytherin just happens to be the best at it, that’s all. On the outside we sneer and smirk and insult anything and everything that isn’t Slytherin, or dark, or evil. On the inside we’re trying desperately to make things better. None of us want to be Death Eaters, bow down to what we see as a psychotic man, if he even really is a man anymore, and be led by false promises of power into acts that any sane man would find disgusting.”

Draco didn’t notice that his fingers were slowly working their way through Alex’s hair as he continued on with his explanation. “What I’m saying is, you need to build your own mask for now, like mine. Present that mask to the world, while in private you’ll be helping like the rest of us. Sometimes I think our housemates are close enough to be a family simply because we have only each other. Come the end of this year, if things haven’t been resolved, those of age are going to have to either go into hiding, take the Dark Mark, or end up dead.

“The one thing that’s really got me worried,” mused Draco, “is that Saint Potter hasn’t been seen. I don’t know what’s happened, but he should be here. We’re counting on him just like every Light-sider out there.”

Alex shifted again, catching Draco’s complete attention, and with a slight smile said, “I understand.”

Draco nodded. “Now that that’s out of the way, do you think I should cut my hair?”

*

An owl fluttered over Dumbledore’s head and dropped a parchment into his cereal, then flew off. Hermione watched as he opened and read the note. When he looked up at her and Ron, he nodded once and went back to his breakfast.

Hermione tugged at Ron’s sleeve as she rose, giving him one of those meaningful looks she’d taken the time to perfect, and started off toward the doors fully confident that he’d follow. They were silent as they walked to the statue that guarded Dumbledore’s office and on their arrival simply stood there waiting.

After an age he appeared and the three continued on into his office, where he sat in his usual place behind a desk filled with what would have normally fascinated Hermione. She opened her mouth to speak, but was cut off by a vague gesture from Dumbledore’s hand.

“I know you have come here to ask about Harry,” he said. “Sherbet lemon?”

Hermione prevented herself from rolling her eyes with effort. “No, thank you, professor.”

“All I can tell you is that Harry is perfectly safe and doing his part in this war even now.”

His eyes twinkled at them in a way that had come to infuriate her, knowing that all she would get from this meeting was vague proclamations of reassurance.

“Does this mean we won’t be able to talk to him, write to him . . . anything?” she asked.

Having finally woken up a little Ron asked, “We can’t see our best mate? Is he even here right now?”

Dumbledore gave them one of his slight, knowing smiles and shook his head. “Know that he is safe. Know that he is gearing up for the final battle. And know that he has the two of you in his hearts as comfort, and expects, as do I, that you will both also work toward this. There is far more at stake here than one person’s desires. If you or your house should come up with anything that could help us in what is to come, please let me know.”

Knowing this for a dismissal they both stood with a, “Yes, professor,” and left the office. Outside Ron watched in amazement as Hermione kicked the wall a few times before he dragged her off toward their common room.

*

Schedules were passed out, people groaned or laughed, and breakfast wound down to a close. “Our first class is double potions, hm. Come on, I’ll show you the way, though I think you’re a bit better off now since our tour yesterday,” said Draco to Alex, who nodded.

Down into the depths of the castle they went, along with the other seventh years, to arrive at the potions classroom. The Gryffindors were sitting in seats at the back as usual, never warming to the idea of being any closer to Snape than they had to.

Alex let a slight smirk appear on his lips at that, though he was thinking it was nice to see them at all. Draco steered Alex to the seat beside him and looked up fairly attentively. Potions was his best and favorite class, after all. He only hoped Alex was all right at it, if not good. He wasn’t sure what they taught over at that French school anyway. He knew Durmstrang was a bit on the dodgy side.

Snape swept in like a storm overtaking a small defenseless village and faced the class. A violent gesture at the blackboard revealed the day’s work, and the first day of classes had thus begun. Since this was Alex’s first day here, Draco was the one to gather the ingredients as Alex perused the instructions. As usual, the Gryffindors (and members of other houses) were treated to Slytherin masks of sneers and smirks, laced with a few very rude comments about their abilities, parentage, and whatever else sounded good at the time.

As they sat side by side, Draco realized that Alex really was good at this. There was no hesitation in his movements, no inane questions, and he didn’t get in Draco’s way. He couldn’t help but smirk a little at hearing Snape snap out another loss of points to some unfortunate Gryffindor along with a few choice comments. He also noticed that Alex’s mouth had curled up into a perfect sneer just before he’d glanced over his shoulder to see the commotion.

Glory be, Neville had melted yet another cauldron and was skittering back like a spider in reverse. Alex kept the sneer in place as he turned back to ask in a low voice, “What’s up with that guy? Is he always like that?”

Draco gave his seat mate a small though genuine smile and whispered in his ear, “Always. He’s scared to death of Professor Snape, which is funny since he isn’t really that bad at potions. Makes for good comic relief. A shame, though, since he’s not such a bad sort.”

They continued to work on their potions, but Draco was starting to feel a bit uneasy. Was someone staring at him? Surreptitious glances around the room showed him that someone was staring all right, several someones, but not for once at him. They were staring at Alex instead.

Draco couldn’t decide if he should be pissed off that he was out of the spotlight for the nonce or outraged that Alex was getting so much attention from someone that wasn’t him. So Draco did what he did best. He scowled threateningly at the watchers until a tug at his hand got his attention back. He was met with laughing blue eyes and a secretive smile.

*

Alex sighed inwardly and slumped a little. It had been a very long day. So close and yet so far away from his love and his friends. He knew going in it wouldn’t be easy. The quill in his hand flicked back and forth as he worked on his essay with only half his attention.

Draco had Alex under a watchful gaze, which wasn’t unusual. He was disturbed to see Alex looking so . . . depressed. He’d read the same page for a half hour now and still had no idea what it actually said. The dark hair that fell across Alex’s face couldn’t quite shadow the look of sadness in his eyes.

Alex let his thoughts tumble around in chaotic confusion, not that he himself was confused. He knew what was what, but he didn’t have to like it. It was a pity that so many people had to wear these masks, and it was more than a shame that he had to hide away from two people he’d counted as friends for years. The essay kept on writing itself, a specimen that didn’t compare to his best work by any stretch of the imagination.

Apparently Alex had a mask besides the Slytherin one and Draco really wanted to know what it was about. Alex was usually calm and often cheerful. Without really stopping to consider what he was about to do, Draco heard himself asking, “Have you ever been in love?”

Dark hair flipped back as Alex raised his head and looked at him in surprise. “Er . . . once.”

Draco tilted his head. Maybe that was the problem? “What was she like?”

Alex blinked at him and ran his fingers through his hair. “Not she, he. A bit like you, actually.”

Draco took that bit of news with admirable composure. “Does it bother you, then, that we’re rooming together? I only ask because you look depressed and like your mind is somewhere off in the sky. Did you want to talk about it?” Draco squirmed inside as Alex graced him with a smile tinged with ineffable sadness.

“No. I like being here with you. I just . . . miss my friends, that’s all. The people I left behind when I came here. Don’t worry about it, Draco. Things will be all right in the end. Besides, I have you to cheer me up.” And at that, Alex’s expression changed to one of light-hearted flirtatiousness.

Draco’s heart tried another journey to the region of his throat, but he suppressed the feeling. Was Alex saying what it sounded like he was saying? So he smiled and ghosted his hand across Alex’s and said, “I will surely do my best. Can’t have you feeling lonely.”

*

A note dropped onto his plate and he heard the flutter of retreating wings. With a slight frown Alex opened and read the parchment, then in a low voice said, “Hm, I’ve got to see the headmaster. I haven’t done anything wrong have I, do you think?”

Draco shook his head and replied, “Not that I’m aware of. Maybe he just wants to see if you’re fitting in all right now you’ve been here a week.”

Alex shrugged and pushed the parchment into the pocket of his robes. “I’ll see you in a bit, then. Try not to miss me too much.” He flashed a provocative smile at Draco and left the table.

Draco was beginning to get used to his heart jumping all over the place when he was around Alex. He just wished he knew if all this flirting was serious, or just Alex’s way. It did strike then him that Alex never did it to anyone else, despite the ardent gazes he was showered with on a regular basis. The most his fellow Slytherins got were artless smiles, cheerful good humor, and a strictly hands-off policy of interaction. Those thoughts accompanied him all the way back to the common room.

*

“You wanted to see me, sir?”

“Ah yes, young Alex. As you no doubt may have wondered, I wanted to see how you were getting on here with us.”

“I’m fine, sir. My housemates are treating me well.”

“Good, good. I’ll let you go, then. I’m sure you have things you wish to get started on, sooner rather than later, I hope. If you have any problems, please let me know.”

“Yes, sir. Thank you.”

*

Ron leaned back into the yielding embrace of the couch and frowned as the words of his housemates washed over him. Everyone was worried, desperately worried, about Harry. Rumor, theory, and rampant speculation flowed through the room like swift ocean currents, getting everywhere and nowhere in an unending dance.

The only person who wasn’t involved in the ongoing debate was Hermione, who sat at a table with a stack of books higher than her head, apparently intent on force-feeding their knowledge into her mind at an alarming rate of speed. Ron wondered what she was up to, but knew she’d come to him sooner or later.

*

Alex knew he should get back to the common room, but he preferred for the moment to stand there looking at the moon in all its cold beauty. He thought back over the years while picking out formations on her barren surface and came to a chilling realization.

There was something, one thing, that could betray him and ruin everything they’d managed so far. If someone else got their hands on it. . . . Well, he didn’t want to finish the thought. With that he lifted his wand and cast a summoning charm.

*

In a quiet, private place, Alex and Dumbledore met. Alex stalked around the room in nervous circles after handing a piece of parchment to the older man. “Can you fix it, sir? I’d really like to keep it, but if it has to be destroyed. . . .”

Dumbledore spent a great while studying the paper, working his way through the tangle of spells that charmed it. After ages, and the loss of Alex’s perfectly manicured nails, Dumbledore lifted his head and nodded. Now that he knew how it worked, he could fix it so that it would not betray his protégé

Some time later Dumbledore handed Alex the Marauder’s Map, and started to bid him a good evening.

Alex startled him by saying, “Sir? I think. . . . I think we could use this to our advantage.”

Dumbledore noted that Alex had a very peculiar look on his face, one he was not used to seeing.

“Sir? What if. . . . Merlin, how do I explain this?”

Dumbledore raised one brow and said, “Take your time.”

“I’ve been thinking, sir, while you fixed it. All Death Eaters have a mark, right? How do they work? Hermione made us something similar in nature for the DA meetings, except she used the protean charm to enchant the coins. So I’ve been thinking . . . is there any way we can use the marks, unravel them to see what’s really there, and use that information to create a map like this one . . . one that shows us where every Death Eater is that isn’t under magical wards?”

Dumbledore started in obvious surprise, looking at Alex with new eyes. This young man, who had surprised him at every turn with his strength in the face of what no one should ever have to bear, had just voiced the most brilliant idea he’d heard in a century. Out of the mouths of babes, indeed!

“Let us see, let us see. Yes, young Alex. Let me ponder this idea most fully. I will get back to you on this, or not. You may hear more from a different venue. Yes, yes. . . .” And then he was gone.

When Alex tested the map, he was relieved beyond measure to see that he appeared in his new guise. On that note he glanced at his fingernails, swore, and fixed them.

*

It was like any other Saturday morning as Draco and Alex wandered into the common room after breakfast. Groups of people were huddled together, talking, playing games, or helping each other study. Several looked up as the twosome arrived looking like a pair of bishonen angels. More than a few had started laying bets on how long before Alex and Draco were a couple after seeing the record number of scowls Draco had produced lately when people dared to catch Alex’s attention for any reason. There weren’t many secrets inside the dungeons, but nobody wanted to have Draco in a raging terror over finding out this one.

Everyone looked up, though, as Severus swept in looking like a thundercloud, and gave him their full attention.

“Right. I have a very important project for those of you who feel you’re up to the task.” Snape looked around to see interest on the sea of young faces around him.

“Someone has come up with a very interesting idea, and we’re to see if we can make it a reality. How it came about I’m not at liberty to reveal, but I think I can safely say that you’ll be intrigued enough to do your best to make it work. You’re all aware that the Dark Lord marks his people.”

Every head nodded, speculation in their eyes.

“Good. What I’m asking you to accomplish is the unraveling of the mark itself, with an eye toward a way to use them to be able to produce a map that will show us exactly where every Death Eater is at any given time. This would be invaluable to us, not only in being able to track them down and negate their effectiveness, but also in learning how to remove the marks from people after the fact, people that have been all along spying for the Light.”

Heads nodded again, looks of pleasure spreading across every face in the room.

“I’ll be needing a few of you to start with. . . .”

*

The Boy Who Lived—Presumed Dead?

Confidential sources report that the Boy Who Lived, Harry Potter, has been missing for over a month and is presumed dead. The Ministry of Magic denies any such allegations, noting that it was believed for a year that the boy was dangerously unbalanced with his adamant belief that You Know Who was indeed back among the living.

This reporter notes that it was the Ministry who fueled those stories with a degree of such vigor that it is hard to know what to believe in these obviously troubled times. The question raised by many is over the non-appearance of Potter for his seventh year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Unfortunately, no one is talking, and to date there are no answers to the myriad questions which surround the situation.

Alex ignored the rest of the article and tossed the paper to Draco in favor of his breakfast.

*

The common room was a scene of feverish work. Younger students huddled over essays and books, while their elders shared their thoughts and ideas about the workings of the Dark Mark and how to convert it to their own purposes. Some slight progress had been made, at least. They had all the components, even if much of it was a morass of muddlement.

Arguments went round in circles as they struggled to rearrange what they had into a new whole, and eventually it became late enough that everyone left off for the time being and began straggling off to their beds. Draco thought that Alex was being unusually quiet that evening. This pensiveness was beginning to worry him. Alex got ready for bed in a kind of daze, neither looking up or speaking. Maybe he’d tackle him about it tomorrow, thought Draco.

*

I sat there in the dank graveyard gazing at the fibrous growths that threatened to overtake the time-weathered stones tilting against a stormy grey sky. I knew he would not understand, not at first. But I had to begin trying. I knew he would resist me, but I would have my way in the end. It was only because I’d seen something like this in an earlier vision that we thought it had any kind of chance to work.

So I looked up into the slit-pupiled eyes of Lord Voldemort and began to speak, asking him about his hates and obsessions. I knew the man was not sane, but I also knew that in this guise he would talk to me, for I was him, the voice in the back of his head, come to him as the very picture of his youth.

I continued to speak, and to listen as venomous words were spat out at an uncaring sky. And so I began to understand my only real foe in this world. With time, I could begin to twist his mind. Twist it back into some semblance of reality and sanity. And when that time came, it would finally be over.

*

Draco watched Alex toss and turn and mutter in his bed, something that had awoken him in the first place. Alex didn’t seem to be in any particular pain, though judging by the odd looks that kept flitting across his face whatever dream he was having couldn’t have been deemed pleasant. Gradually Alex settled back into something that looked like normal sleep.

*

“Ron, do you remember when Harry showed us it was possible to resist the imperius curse?” asked Hermione over breakfast. When he nodded she continued with, “Well, what do you think about Gryffindor house working on ways to resist, repel, or even negate all the unforgivables?”

“Let’s go see Dumbledore.”

*

Alex sat in the stands, draped in Slytherin green and silver. His smile was a mixture of pleasure and pain as he watched Draco fly like the North Wind after the snitch, and catch it. Such cold beauty. But the look on Draco’s face made him smile, this time with unalloyed pleasure. He rose and left the stands for the private place only Slytherins frequented. He stood a good chance at being alone there for a while.

He never sang around other people. It was mainly for his own pleasure that he did it. He’d heard the songs once before by chance and they had stuck in his mind. It was good that he had the music to accompany him, thankful for the little device he held in one hand, his own little magical form of karaoke. So he sang one, alone there in the gathering twilight. A silly little way to wallow in what he was feeling.

Alex smiled to himself when he was done. Silly games. There were some extraordinarily talented people in the muggle world. The slow sound of clapping that penetrated his thoughts had him whipping around in a blur, mortified that someone had been listening, his face a study of shock and embarrassment, to look into the silvery eyes of Draco Malfoy.

He slipped the device into his pocket and shuffled his feet, not sure where to look anymore.

“You sing like an angel, Alex. I’m impressed.”

“Er . . . thank you.” He was still looking anywhere but at Draco.

“I’m glad I got to hear you. It was poignant, to say the least. Dare I ask if that was about anything in particular?” Draco asked with a hint of anxiety.

“It’s just a song I like. I just . . . felt like singing, you know? N-no special reason.”

Now this was different. Draco wasn’t used to seeing Alex in such a dither. He was acting like Draco had caught him in the middle of shagging someone. The red flush on Alex’s cheeks was oddly becoming.

“I’ll just self-centeredly assume you were thinking about me,” he drawled and was rewarded by seeing the flush deepen dramatically. His insides started skipping around like children on their way to a much desired treat.

Draco moved until he was inches away from his friend and slowly leaned closer, hoping desperately that Alex wouldn’t pull away. One hand came up to ghost across the soft skin of his cheek as Draco’s lips brushed Alex’s in a whispery movement.

Before he knew what was happening, Alex was running his hands through Draco’s hair and kissing him with a drowning man’s passion for life. Draco didn’t think anymore at that point, not for a while at least.

*

I sat there in the dank graveyard again. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been here now, listening, speaking, trying to twist things around. But I think he’s starting to really hear what I’m saying. At least I hope he is. It isn’t easy playing this part, having to hear things that turn my stomach with disgust and even pity, having to wear the guise I do.

I was right, though. We’re a lot more alike than I ever imagined, except that I never gave into the dark, never followed the impulses of skewed remembrances into the cold unreality of his world. Why? I’m not really sure. In many respects I’m just like any other person, given to strong feelings, resentments, and hatred on some accounts. Maybe it was because I’ve always been propped up by the light, held by it, and comforted by it.

Having walked him through his life, I can see where it all started to go so horribly wrong. I just hope I’m strong enough to keep this up, and to try to lead him along a new path. A path like mine.

*

He awoke briefly to feel Draco’s arms wrapped around him and Draco’s warm breath on his neck. They had, perhaps, gotten a little overenthusiastic kissing earlier, but that was a different kind of heaven. The one right now was as pleasurable. Alex snuggled a little closer and fell back asleep.

*

Care of Magical Creatures was a trial. It was unfortunate, but good, in many ways that a number of Gryffindors shared this particular class. Potions was easier because Alex wasn’t generally able to watch his friends as they worked, but here he could. It was doubly difficult because of Hagrid. One can’t win for losing sometimes.

It was also unfortunate that it was Draco’s normal behavior in public to be especially nasty to Ron and Hermione, since that meant Alex was obliged to join in and Pansy and Blaise were always willing henchmen. It should come as no surprise to anyone that a scuffle broke out, Alex thought, nursing a black eye given him by Ron. Even he had to laugh, though, when Draco retaliated by hexing Ron into a babbling idiot. Ron was suffering badly under a forced verbal stream of consciousness, desperately trying to keep his mouth shut, and losing the battle handily.

Draco’s seemingly permanent smirk didn’t even falter when all three of them were slapped with detention and loss of points. It had been fun, after all, and nobody got away with hurting his Alex. He simply wouldn’t allow it. He wasn’t about to get all sappy about it in public, though, and fuss over his beloved. It would ruin his reputation and make him look like a total git.

Hagrid held them back to let them know to meet him at nine that evening for their detention, right outside his hut, while Ron had both hands tightly over his mouth and shot glares of pure venom at Draco and Alex as they smirked right back.

*

It was getting close to Halloween when Dumbledore announced they’d be having a party that year, and that costumes were preferred though not required. Students across the hall broke out into excited chatter. A Hogsmeade weekend started on the morrow, which gave most of them a real reason to go and shop aside from the normal routine of ‘Let’s get away from this damn castle and relax for a bit’.

Therefore it was surprising to no one that Hogsmeade bustled with youthful faces the next day. Draco and Alex were taking their time perusing the clothing shops, examining every article they could find with the utmost care. Neither of them planned on actually wearing a costume, per se. They did plan on dressing with an eye toward making most of the student population take notice, though.

When Halloween Eve rolled around, they would be more than ready.

*

“So, young Alex. How are you getting on?” asked Dumbledore in a vague sort of way.

“Fine, sir. I believe my studies are progressing nicely.”

“Good, good. Off you go, then, and enjoy the ball.”