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Harry Potter and the Lack of Lamb Sauce

Chapter Text

Harry took Dumbledore’s arm, and in a flash of contorting limbs and frenetic sounds and colors, they had left Privet Drive and appeared on another street corner.

This street looked nothing like the Dursleys’ pristine, conservative neighborhood. From the look of it, Harry would guess this was an exclusively wizarding neighborhood, judging by the off-kilter angles of the houses, the flocks of owls, the local apothecaries and robe shops, and the roads that resembled and rippled just like murky green lake water.

Harry followed the Hogwarts Headmaster as he started off up the street, glancing at him with a questioning eye. Dumbledore smiled wryly.

“Welcome to Wandsworth Green, Harry,” he said serenely. “This entire community sits on top of a small lake in the Muggle neighborhood of Wandsworth Common and is hidden by very powerful Concealment spells. Normally one can only enter it by stepping onto a certain pattern of planks on the bridge that goes over part of the lake…but I thought that Apparition would be more efficient, given the circumstances…”

Harry frowned. “Circumstances, sir?”

Dumbledore led him past the apothecary and toward the end of the street.

“We are here to try to recruit our newest professor. I anticipate, however, that he might be a bit reluctant…ah, here we are.”

They had approached a restaurant. At first Harry was alarmed at the sight of it, for it looked like it was on fire, but after a second he realized there was no danger – the ceiling was simply decorated with constantly raging, but perfectly contained magical flames, as well as a header in red neon lights.

HELL’S KITCHEN

“Gordon always did have an inherent flair for the dramatic,” Dumbledore commented serenely upon noticing Harry’s quirked eyebrow.

The two pushed open the door, to find an empty dining room. Harry could see on the door that dinner hours had ended not too long ago.

Just inside was a young man a little older than Harry with a large nose busing tables with a magic rag that moved over the wood and back into the man’s hand by itself. He looked up, immediately putting on a “customer service” mask that made it clear he’d said this exact thing a million times.

“Excuse me, but the restaurant is clo – ”

He stopped abruptly, however, when he recognized the people who had entered the restaurant.

“…Pr-Professor Dumbledore!”

“Good evening, Beau,” Dumbledore greeted pleasantly. “You’re looking well. I presume Gordon is just helping with kitchen clean-up?”

“Ah…yes, Professor,” said Beau anxiously. He shot a glance at Harry – he looked incredibly uncomfortable and he kept licking his lips. “Shall I…go fetch him, for you…?”

“If you would,” Dumbledore said indulgently.

The man called Beau gave a weak little nod; then, glancing over his shoulder and back at Harry again, he bustled off toward the kitchen.

Harry looked at Dumbledore confusedly. He knew the Defense Against the Dark Arts job was always very hard to fill, but from the sound of things, this teacher Dumbledore was seeking out was a cook in some restaurant. It wasn’t like Harry underestimated him because of this, but all of the other professors – excluding particularly bizarre oddities like Umbridge – usually had a background teaching about or fighting against the Dark Arts. Even Lockhart had had a (misleading) reputation of being talented in fighting Dark creatures.

A raised voice came from the kitchen, but Harry couldn’t quite make it out. A moment later, a tall man with a square face, blond hair, and very sharp blue eyes came stomping through the door of the kitchen. He wore a white chef’s uniform with the sleeves rolled up and  still had a large kitchen knife in one of his strong fists.

“Dumbledore,” the chef said coldly. “So you did choose to show your monkey’s arse of a face here.”

“As always, Gordon, your language is delightfully colorful,” Dumbledore replied, clearly not offended at all.

“Don’t bullshit me,” the man called Gordon swore angrily. “If you’ve come to try to recruit me, you’ve got another thing coming. I frankly don’t know how you’ve kept the loyalty of half the people who work for you, with your fucked-up attitude toward human life! Now pick up your feet and get out of my restaurant, you blasted numpty – ”

He stopped abruptly, however, at the sight of Harry just behind Dumbledore.

“Harry…may I introduce Gordon Ramsay,” Dumbledore said calmly. “Gordon, I believe you’re already familiar with Harry Potter?”

Harry’s face had been scrunched up in shock and righteous anger, but his temper cooled when Dumbledore spoke. Ramsay’s expression likewise seemed to clear at the sight of Harry – there was something almost guilty in his face.

“…Yes,” he said lowly. “How do you do?”

He extended a hand to Harry, who took it out of obligation but refused to shake it. Ramsay’s mouthing off to Dumbledore had left a sour taste in his mouth.

“Hello,” he said stiffly.

Ramsay offered a faintly wry smile. “I must apologize for my language – although I daresay you know it all by now, I try not to swear…my hand unfortunately just gets forced by certain individuals.”

He shot a cold look at Dumbledore.

“How long is that list of individuals, Gordon?” the headmaster asked lightly with a twinkle in his eye. “Forgive my vanity, but I would much prefer to be among the elite in such a category.”

Ramsay shot him a bewildered, disgusted look. “Vanity I can forgive. It’s everything else I can’t stand.”

Dumbledore chuckled. “As I feared…you’re still as stubborn as ever. Very well, Gordon – I concede. May I use your facilities, before we go?”

Ramsay crossed his arms, still holding the knife in his fist, and glared at Dumbledore suspiciously, but curtly inclined his head in a single nod toward the restroom in the back of the dining hall.

“Thank you,” said Dumbledore, and with a swish of his lilac robes, he turned and disappeared through the red restroom door.

There was a short, palpable silence between Ramsay and Harry for a moment. Then Ramsay unfolded his arms and faced Harry with a more pleasant expression.

“…Are you hungry?”

Harry blinked. “What?”

“Are you hungry?” Ramsay repeated patiently. “We have some food leftover from our meals today – Beef Wellington, Pumpkin Soup, Chicken Cordon Bleu with braised potatoes – I usually have my servers take it all home after work for dinner, so that we don’t waste anything.”

“Oh no – I’m fine,” Harry dissented firmly. Unfortunately his stomach rumbled loudly just as he said it.

Ramsay smiled.

“Well, at the very least, I’ve got to let you taste my Mint Chocolate Truffles. They’re my specialty.”

He pulled out a chair for Harry, before settling down in another chair on the other side of the table. With a wave of his hand, his knife dissolved away into an unusually thick and long silver-tipped wand, and Ramsay waved it at the kitchen door. In an instant, a small plate came floating out of the kitchen and landed delicately on the table in front of Harry’s chair. There were five small chocolate balls arranged neatly on the plate.

“Go on, try one,” Ramsay said gently.

Still feeling reluctant, Harry slowly settled down in the chair and took one of the chocolate truffles from the plate.

“Thank you,” he mumbled.

He popped it into his mouth. All at once it felt like his taste buds were swirling in a sea of creamy chocolate and cool, refreshing mint. It was delicious!

The happy surprise must have shown on Harry’s face, for Ramsay smiled more widely.

“You like it?”

“Yeah!” said Harry. “It’s really good.”

“Well, thank you,” Ramsay replied. “I hoped you would.”

He picked up one of the truffles himself, turning it over in his hand as he studied it carefully.

“…When your parents got married, I sent them a whole box of these,” Ramsay said absently.

Harry was startled. “You knew my mum and dad?”

Ramsay put the truffle down with a sad smile. “Yes…they were both quite a bit older than me, and I was too young to join the Order during the War, but I played Quidditch against James for a year at Hogwarts. And I knew Lily through Professor Slughorn’s old ‘Slug Club’ – he was Head of Slytherin house and Potions Professor back then. Old codger loved to 'collect’ children that he could mentor and then receive favors from once they were successful…a pleasant enough chap, I suppose, but a bit materialistic for my taste.”

Harry frowned. “Well, if he was a Slytherin, I guess that’s not surprising.”

“Easy now,” Ramsay reproached gently. His tone was much less sharp – honestly, since he’d started talking to Harry, Ramsay’s tone had gained a wonderful down-to-earth, patient quality that reminded Harry of Lupin. “Don’t give into that silly old Gryffindor notion that all Slytherins are rotten. Every Slytherin, like every other student, is like a fresh tomato…full of potential, but also ripe for spoilage and bruising. That’s why we must treat them gently – keep them well-washed, partner them with others, and transform them into something amazing.”

Harry considered Ramsay carefully. “You sure didn’t treat Professor Dumbledore very gently.”

Ramsay turned a bit more solemn. “The Headmaster isn’t a student – he’s a professor and a fully trained wizard with a lot of influence. Yet he makes it a point to hire many substandard teachers – not Minerva, Filius, or Pomona, clearly, but they deserve better than the partners they’ve been forced to contend with. Dolores Umbridge? A perfect monster of a woman! She should be down at the bottom of a well, not in a classroom with children! Gilderoy Lockhart? I knew him at Hogwarts! That dim-bulb trollop is so pathetic I daresay a Cornish pixie is braver!”

Harry snorted, remembering Lockhart’s “eventful” first class where, indeed, Lockhart was taken down by a swarm of pixies.

“And that’s not even touching Severus Snape,” growled Ramsay. “How Dumbledore found it in his heart to hire him, I’ll never know…”

Harry had to nod in agreement. “I don’t know why he hired him either. I know Snape was a Death Eater, and Professor Dumbledore said he turned spy for the Order before the War was over…but I still don’t trust him.”

Ramsay raised his eyebrows. “And why is that?”

Harry didn’t know where to start. Snape’s bullying of him and his friends – his loathing of Gryffindor house overall – his blatant favoritism of Malfoy – his shady behavior – it was something that felt like it’d take forever to explain.

“It’s complicated,” Harry said at last.

“Mm.”

Ramsay looked like he was thinking.

“…Do you like Potions, Harry?”

The question was abrupt.

“Not really,” answered Harry. “I mean, it’s kind of hard to like it when you’ve got Snape breathing down your neck while you work, taking points from Gryffindor for no reason and putting up all the Slytherins on a pedestal…”

This seemed to get Ramsay’s attention.

“He does that?” he asked, sounding both dismayed and sympathetic. The tone encouraged Harry to go on.

“Yeah…you should see how he treats us. If anyone gets one little thing wrong, he uses it to shame them and sometimes the whole class. Like one time, he was picking on Neville Longbottom – he’s a friend of mine, in Gryffindor – for his Shrinking Solution being wrong, and Snape decided he was going to feed Neville’s potion to his toad Trevor at the end of class to see if it would work.”

Ramsay looked outraged. “See if it would work? Shrinking Solution can be deathly poisonous if brewed incorrectly! To threaten to poison a student’s pet, when you’re supposed to be teaching him – unbelievable!”

Harry continued – he felt vindicated in a way he hadn’t felt in a long while, hearing Ramsay’s reaction.

“He picks on Gryffindors mostly, but he bullies Neville a lot. He doesn’t like me very much, because of my dad…so he doesn’t like my friends much either. There was this one time, my friend Hermione – she’s the brightest girl in our year – was trying to answer one of his questions, and Snape snapped at her that she was an insufferable know-it-all and made her cry.”

Ramsay looked disgusted. He’d brought his hands up to his face, covering his eyes and massaging his temples. “Good God..”

The door to the restroom abruptly opened. Harry jumped, startled, as Dumbledore strode back over to them.

“Ah, much better,” the Headmaster said smoothly. “Well, Harry, I suppose we’ve taken too much advantage of Gordon’s hospitality – time for us to move on.”

Harry immediately got to his feet. Ramsay stood as well, his face abruptly turning much harder as he faced Dumbledore again.

“Dumbledore,” he growled. “If you want me for the position, then I expect to be able to do things my way.”

Harry gaped. After all that, he was going to take the Dark Arts job?

“But of course,” Dumbledore replied pleasantly.

“And I expect that you’ll keep your stupid, broken nose out of my business while I fix the mess you’ve seen fit to make!” Ramsay added, his voice rising, and he got right up in Dumbledore’s face.

“Duly noted.”

Dumbledore helped himself to one of Ramsay’s truffles with a smile.

“I look forward to seeing you when term starts, Professor Ramsay.”

With this, Harry and Dumbledore left the restaurant.

“Professor?”

“Yes, Harry?”

“I don’t understand,” Harry said slowly. “The entire time we were here, Ramsay acted like he hated you. And then, after I told him about Snape and his classes, he decided to take the job! Why?”

“Gordon has an incredibly strong moral compass,” Dumbledore answered simply. “It’s a trait that makes me wonder if he could’ve been an excellent Gryffindor, at school…though of course Gordon has said he’s very content as a Hufflepuff and colorfully told me where I may put my thoughts regarding his Sorting. Regardless, if there’s one thing that can convince Gordon to take on a project, it’s incompetence on someone else’s part.”

Harry blinked. “Wait, so…he took the job because I told him Snape was a bad teacher?”

“And he knows he can be a better one,” Dumbledore confirmed with a nod, his blue eyes twinkling. “Although your method is not exactly one I’d encourage, I had a feeling that you and Gordon might find enough common ground that your presence might be enough to sway him.”

Once they had walked a good couple of feet from Hell’s Kitchen, Dumbledore extended his arm again.

“Come, Harry. The night awaits.”

Still feeling faintly bewildered, Harry nonetheless took hold of Dumbledore’s arm and the two disappeared once more.

Chapter Text

Dumbledore’s announcement of Ramsay taking over Potions while Snape took on Defense Against the Dark Arts was met with a lot of buzz from the student body. Snape had been incredibly smug about finally receiving the job he’d wanted for such a long time, and most of the Slytherins were rather thrilled about their Head of House’s success too. But the other half of the announcement – the part about Ramsay – also perked everyone’s interest. It seemed that Gordon Ramsay had a bit of a reputation in the Wizarding World.

“He’s known for his cookbooks, mainly,” Ron explained to Harry one evening at dinner. “But apparently he was this prodigy at Hogwarts, becoming Hufflepuff Quidditch Captain at 14 and creating new potions while he was still at school. But then he got badly injured, and he decided to open up a restaurant instead. Mum’s been dreaming of getting a reservation there for ages, but it’s just so upscale…”

“I wonder why he would just throw away all of his potential like that,” Hermione said with a disapproving frown. “I mean – imagine all the good you could do for the world, if you’re that good at potions!”

“He does do a lot of good,” Ron dissented. “Sure, he’s not exactly academic, but he’s perfectly brilliant! He helps out restaurants that are about to go out of business, even if they’re Muggle places. Dad says he exclusively hires and trains Squibs and Muggle relatives of witches and wizards to work in his restaurant, so that they can have stable employment in the Wizarding World even if they can’t use magic.”

 “That’s awesome,” said Harry, impressed despite himself.

“Yeah!” said Ron. “Only, he’s also known for being kind of scary. His temper is legendary – like, if you make a mistake, he can just go off on you. One time he visited this new restaurant that opened up in Diagon Alley a long while back, and he caused a big fuss in the dining room when he demanded to see the chef and roared for everyone to hear about how the lamb was dryer than the crack of the guy’s arse.”

Hermione gaped, clearly disgusted. “That’s…that’s utterly boorish!”

“I can see it,” said Harry, grinning despite himself. “When I met Ramsay, he called Dumbledore a ‘blasted numpty.’

Harry at first had thought that Hermione would just have to tell Ron and him how Ramsay’s classes were, since neither of them had gotten the “O” they would’ve needed to continue…but Professor McGonagall came to find them later that morning, informing them that Ramsay was comfortable accepting high E’s into his class, and so Ron and Harry would both be added to the roster.

When Ron and Harry entered the dungeon where Potions was normally held that day, they were surprised to find the room had been utterly transformed. The classroom – which, for as long as they could remember, had always been dank, dark, and damp with poor greenish lighting and grotesque trinkets lined up on the bookcases – was now clean and well-lit. Ramsay had redecorated the walls with many different-colored potion bottles as well as various ingredients that had to have come fresh from the Hogwarts Greenhouses, including several potted Mandrakes and glass jars full of Shrivelfigs. There were also four clean bronze cauldrons set up in the aisles between the students’ desks.

At the front of the classroom, sitting behind a much cleaner cherrywood desk that had replaced Snape’s, was Ramsay, dressed in high-collared robes just as perfectly white as his chef’s uniform back at Hell’s Kitchen. His silver-tipped wand sat comfortably in a belt loop in the waist of his robes and his sleeves were once again rolled up as if he was ready to get to work.

“Good morning, everyone,” he greeted with a broad smile.

The students all mumbled various incarnations of “hello” and “good morning.” Ramsay got up, propping himself up with his hands on the desk as he looked around at the class.

“All right, first of all,” he said in a more business-like tone, “when I greet you or ask you something, I expect a proper response. You will address me as ‘Professor,’ and I would like to hear words and not mumbles. So let’s try that again. Good morning!”

“Good morning, Professor,” the class replied a little uncomfortably.

“Better,” Ramsay granted mildly. “Could do with some improvement…but I suppose that’s what the school year is for.”

He came around to stand in front of his desk, clapping his hands together in satisfaction.

“Now then…welcome to Potions! You are now all officially N.E.W.T. students. I know that must feel like an accomplishment. The O.W.L. exams are easily the most stressful ones you’ll ever have to take, so now that you’ve overcome that hurdle, you know that you are capable enough in Potions to function in the Wizarding World. Unfortunately if you want to be more than just capable – if you want to pursue a career that requires Potions, like one in the Ministry or at St. Mungo’s – you’re only just getting started. You’ll be putting in a lot of work this year…but the fun part about N.E.W.T.-level Potions is that, unlike your previous classes, we will not be using our textbook very much. Textbooks, in the end, are crutches for real hard work. This year we’ll be learning about the intuition that comes with Potion-making. Now you can start learning about the subtleties of the ingredients – which ones mix well and which ones don’t – and developing your own instincts so as to improve your work rather than just blindly follow instructions.”

The class’s focus remained solidly on Ramsay as he talked, devoting nothing but rapt attention to him. Hermione suddenly looked a little nervous – she was a good student largely because of her photographic memory and her meticulous observance of the school textbooks. Telling Hermione to take cues from something other than a book would be like telling Snape to wash his greasy hair.

“I have three Potions I want to share with you today,” said Ramsay. “We’ll be studying each of them in depth over the course of the term.”

He withdrew his wand from the belt of his robes and pointed it at the leftmost cauldron, which looked like it was filled with simple tap water. In an instant, it floated along the aisles so that everyone could see and smell it.

“Can anyone tell me what potion this is?” Ramsay asked.

Hermione’s hand immediately shot into the air.

“Your name, my dear?” said Ramsay.

“Hermione Granger, sir.”

Ramsay’s eyes flickered very briefly to Harry; he then nodded politely at Hermione. “Very nice to meet you. And the potion is called?”

“Veritaserum,” Hermione answered at once, very quickly. “I could tell because of its clear consistency and its lack of odor, making it virtually undetectable – ”

“ – when placed in food and drink,” Ramsay finished for her, smiling wryly. “Very good, darling – five points to Gryffindor. Yes, as Hermione said, this is Truth Potion. Not infallible, of course – there are ways to combat it, should you find yourself drugged with it – but still an excellent way to force the truth out of people.”

He lowered his wand, gently floating the cauldron with Veritaserum back to where it had been. He then turned to the next cauldron, levitating it around the room; this one was full of a bubbling, mud-like mixture that Harry recognized at once, but Hermione’s hand was already in the air, so he stayed quiet.

“Yes, Hermione?” said Ramsay, his eyebrows raised. “Would you like to tell us which one this is?”

“Polyjuice Potion, sir,” Hermione replied promptly. “It helps a witch or wizard take on the form of another.”

“Excellent – take five more points for Gryffindor. Polyjuice Potion must be individually brewed, for it to work properly – it doesn’t keep very well long-term, and you must also have some sort of material from whomever you’d like to impersonate, like a hair or a toenail. Perfectly ghastly stuff…”

With another casual flick of his wand, Ramsay lowered the cauldron back down and turned to the third. This one, which was filled with a shiny, whitish potion, let off wonderful, fragrant fumes as it floated down the aisles. Harry distinctly picked out the scents of treacle tart, the fresh wood of a new broomstick handle, and something flowery he thought he might have smelled at the Burrow.

Hermione’s hand once again punched the air, and Ramsay actually laughed.

“All right, darling, tell us what it is.”

Hermione blushed a little, smiling shyly. “Amortentia – it’s the most powerful Love Potion in the world!”

All the girls in the classroom visibly straightened up, looking over the potion with renewed interest.

“Five points,” Gordon said casually. “Though honestly, calling Amortentia or any other variation a ‘Love Potion’ is something of a misnomer – no magic can perfectly recreate love. It’s more of an ‘Infatuation Potion’ – illogical, high-energy, and very powerful. But be warned if you’re considering brewing one of these…even when brewed correctly, they cause a lot more problems than they solve, I can assure you of that.”

He turned to face the class more fully, waving his wand at the board so that it flipped over, revealing the organized instructions written on it. Along the top were the words “Draught of the Living Death.” Before Ramsay could speak again, however, a Slytherin girl with her hair braided around her head like a crown sitting in the back raised her hand.

“Your name, please, darling?” said Ramsay.

“Daphne Greengrass, Professor,” the girl replied curtly. “You didn’t tell us about that potion.”

She pointed at the fourth and smallest cauldron. Ramsay smiled widely.

“I most certainly did not – five points to Slytherin for reminding me. This one is a little special, if I do say so myself…”

He levitated the cauldron with his wand, floating it over toward Hermione’s desk. The liquid frothed bronze with streaks of gold and silver, swirling around in the pewter basin as if there were little goldfish swimming in spirals just under the surface.

“Do you recognize it, Hermione?” Ramsay asked amusedly.

Hermione, for once, looked lost for words. Looking perfectly ashamed, she shook her head.

“Oh, now, love, don’t wilt on me,” Ramsay said gently. “I’m sure even a fully trained witch would have some difficulty with this one…there’s no need to be disappointed.”

He turned to the rest of the class. “This is my own variation of an incredibly rare and complex potion that you can find in the very back of your textbook. The original brew has much more of a golden color – I merely warmed the ashwinder eggs over a fire before adding them, counteracted the rue with a sprig of peppermint, and added a good clockwise turn of the cauldron after stirring to help the ingredients set, so as to make the potion’s effects last longer and reduce any potentially uncomfortable side effects.”

Hermione’s eyes lit up and she quickly raised her hand, almost bouncing in her seat with excitement.

“Did you figure it out, Hermione?” asked Ramsay.

“It’s Felix Felicis!” she answered eagerly. “Liquid luck!”

The entire class straightened up at once, immediately interested. Even Draco Malfoy, who had been notably quiet and disinterested during the entire class, seemed to gain a little more light in his gray eyes.

“Very good,” Ramsay said with a broad smile. “Ten points to Gryffindor. Felix Felicis is a potion that is highly regulated – it’s illegal to use them for any sort of competition or game, and even using it too much in a single lifetime can lead to dangerous overconfidence and even madness. But in small doses, it can give you some of the best luck you’ll ever have in your life. I’ve only had it once myself, on my birthday – and by the end of it, I met the woman who is now my fiancée. So yes, pretty nice all around.”

The small cauldron finally floated back down to the ground, and Ramsay casually placed a hand on the rim, his face growing a little more serious.

“We won’t be brewing Felix Felicis this year, as even fully trained potion masters have immense difficulty with it…but I brewed this for you for two reasons. One: I wanted to demonstrate for you how you can take a potion and safely modify it – you can do this with anything as simple as a Boil-Curing Potion or as complicated as this, as long as you do it carefully and after putting in the proper amount of study and thought. Two: I wanted to give you something to work for in this lesson. Today we’ll be working on the Draught of the Living Death, which is a rather tricky potion. I want you to use this recipe and your own intuition to try to brew your own Draught. The Draught is only dangerous when it is brewed correctly, so it’ll be very hard for you to cause much damage if you make a mistake. The best attempt tonight will receive a tiny vial of Felix Felicis, good for 24 hours of good luck. We will then also do this exact same test again at the end of the year, and another tiny vial will be given to the student whose potion has improved the most. You will have one hour to finish your potion. Your time starts…now.”

By the end of the class, Harry had won the Felix Felicis, with a little help from the old, battered textbook he’d found in the cabinet. He had felt a bit guilty seeing how upset Hermione was about her own lackluster potion and having lost the challenge, but he had to admit, it had felt so good when Ramsay beamed proudly at him and offhandedly mentioned that his mother had been awfully good at Potions too. It was a little underhanded…but for the first time in his life, Harry actually did well at Potions! That brightened his mood enough that he could overlook the rest…at least for right now.

Chapter Text

Within a few weeks, Potions had quickly become many students’ favorite subject. Professor Ramsay, despite his very high standards, was always there to offer a helping hand if someone was having trouble with their work. He’d shown none of his infamous temper to his students, even when he was severely tested. There was a story circulating in late September about a Muggle-born first year who had accidentally spilled his incomplete, boiling hot potion on Ramsay’s foot, but instead of going off on the boy, Ramsay simply helped the boy clean up the mess and hobbled back to his desk on one foot without raising his voice in the slightest.

“I heard he didn’t even go to Madame Pomfrey afterwards!” Harry heard one first year squeak when she was recounting the story for her friends at the Gryffindor table. “Once class was over, he just hobbled around his office on one foot making his own healing potion. Said he liked washing down those sorts of potions with a good cup of hot chocolate, rather than just taking it out of a bottle.”

It wasn’t until early October that everyone really got to see Ramsay’s temper in action. It all started when Ramsay was heading down to the Hogwarts greenhouses – he had intended to ask Professor Sprout about the condition of her Moonseed and Belladonna plants, for he thought having those materials fresh in two of his upcoming classes would be helpful.

When he arrived at the greenhouse, however, he found that he was early, for neither Professor Sprout nor her class had arrived yet. There was only one person there: a young man of about sixteen with a chubby, round face, who was tending to a gnarled stump-like plant. Ramsay was very quiet in his approach, since he didn’t want to startle the boy as he delicately extracted a pulsating green pod from inside the plant.

“I’m impressed,” Ramsay said at last, once the boy had withdrawn his hand. 

The boy jumped. When he turned around, his face went very white.

“…P-Professor Ramsay!”

“I don’t usually see students that confident around a Snargaluff plant,” Ramsay said with a small smile. “Terribly venomous little buggers – I’ve always needed an extra set of hands whenever I’ve worked with one.”

Ramsay sat down on the bench next to the boy, who was as stiff as a board.

“Here – would it help if I held the pot while you extract those? I seem to recall they like to be rocked.”

The boy, still seeming very nervous, nonetheless gave a weak little nod. Ramsay picked up the plant, bringing it into his lap and rocking it very slowly back and forth as if it were an infant, and after a minute the boy went back to slowly extracting the pods.

“What’s your name, young man?” asked Ramsay.

“Neville Longbottom,” he replied lowly.

A gleam of recognition flickered through Ramsay’s eyes.

“…Nice to meet you.”

There was something odd in his voice, something bubbling under the surface – was it pity? Was it sadness? Neville wasn’t really sure. But whatever it was, Ramsay quickly forced it from his tone when he spoke again.

“So Neville, you’re in sixth year, then?”

“Yes, sir,” Neville answered.

“Amazing,” Ramsay said admiringly. “If I’d been so good at handling a dangerous plant like this at sixteen, I daresay I would be a Herbology professor today.”

Neville flushed a dark red.

“Th-thank you, sir,” he said, pleasantly surprised by the compliment.

“It’s a shame I don’t have you in my class,” Ramsay said lightly. “I would love to see what you could do in Potions, with your talent for Herbology.”

Neville’s smile slid off his face in a second, and he looked away uncomfortably. “Oh…no, you really wouldn’t – I’m terrible at Potions.”

“Really?” Ramsay asked, raising an eyebrow. “Seems to me Herbology and Potions work hand-in-hand.”

“Not for me,” Neville said embarrassedly. “I’ve just never gotten the hang of it. I actually was sort of happy not to take Potions this year,” his voice petered away into a low mumble, “at least until I found out that Professor Snape was teaching Defense Against the Dark Arts…”

Ramsay’s face devolved into a sour frown, and he snorted disapprovingly. “Yes, well…Dumbledore does make some very interesting job appointments. But I’ll grant that Snape, of all the people who work for Dumbledore, does likely know the Dark Arts better than anyone…though I find his temperament rather deplorable. Is it true he blatantly favors his own house over the others?”

“Mm-hmm,” Neville assented with a nod.

“And that he bullies his students?”

Neville gave something of a low, humorless laugh under his breath. “That’s putting it lightly.”

Ramsay relaxed slightly, his face becoming more sympathetic and attentive – clearly he was ready to listen, and that expression encouraged Neville to go on.

“I mean…that’s part of why I just decided…I wasn’t going to work hard to get a Potions OWL. If I got one…then Gran would insist I continue taking it, and I…I don’t know, I just…I couldn’t do it anymore. I’ve had to take classes with Professor Snape every single week for five years, biting my tongue and cowering whenever he called me an idiot or took points off me or ridiculed my potions in front of the whole class. I just…I don’t want to do that anymore. So I wasn’t going to take Potions this year – I wasn’t going to deal with him anymore. But then he took over Defense Against the Dark Arts, which I really like – Harry trained us in Defense last year, when Umbridge had taken over the whole school – and I really want to do well in it, particularly with what’s going on right now! So now I’ve just got to suck it all up again, just to pass the class and learn everything I need to know…”

By the time he’d finished speaking, Neville looked flushed and frustrated, like he’d been keeping his feelings bottled up for a long time and had finally been able to let them all out. Ramsay was visibly disturbed, but he kept his face purposefully stony as he put the Snargaluff plant back on the table.

“Neville…thank you for telling me this,” he said, and although his tone faintly betrayed the anger he felt, he kept it as gentle as he could. “I know it was hard, and I’m very…very sorry you had to deal with that. It’s not your fault, and it’s not fair – and I want you to know I do not think you are any sort of idiot. Okay?”

Neville gave a laugh, choking back a few tears. “…Thanks, Professor.”

Ramsay nodded. Clapping Neville on the back, he then got to his feet.

“Now, forgive me, but I have some business to attend to back at the castle…have a good class, Neville.”

Although Ramsay tried to project a level of cool, however, Neville couldn’t help but watch him leave with a little bit of uncertainty. Ramsay’s hand was running over the silver-tipped wand comfortably sitting in the loop on his belt, and it was visibly twitching.

When Ramsay headed back to the castle, he strode very quickly and with aggressive purpose. Several students heading off to class actually had to dart out of the way so that Ramsay wouldn’t ram into them. When Ramsay approached the Great Hall, he caught sight of a familiar dark-robed figure just outside the large double doors.

“Snape!”

Snape turned, and his black eyes grew very cold as they fell on Ramsay. The white-robed Potions professor strode right up to the black-robed Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, looking visibly angry.

“I want a word, right now,” demanded Ramsay.

“Oh?” said Snape, raising his eyebrows coolly. “Don’t you have plenty of your own, Ramsay? You always have such colorful turns of phrase.”

Ramsay’s eyes flashed dangerously. “Oh, piss off! I have met some real shit stains in my time – but you, Snape, are beyond the pale!”

“And what sin of mine merits that distinction?” Snape asked, though he sounded perfectly disinterested.

“Your treatment of Neville Longbottom,” Ramsay stated harshly. “I’ve just learned that you have been actively and personally bullying that poor boy for the last five years – called him an idiot, threatened to poison his toad, openly mocked him in front of his classmates – according to Neville, he even deliberately failed his Potions OWL because he didn’t want to be pressured to continue taking your fucking class!”

The students in the Great Hall had all hushed inside to listen. Even other students from outside the Hall had backtracked slightly so they could watch the argument.

Snape’s black eyes flickered menacingly.

“Longbottom has always been a hopeless student, which you would be aware of if you ever had the pleasure of teaching him,” he snapped.

“Pleasure of teach – oh, shut the fuck up!” said Ramsay, his voice rising. “Threatening your students doesn’t teach them a damn thing! Giving your own students favoritism for doing fuck-all teaches them even less!”

“I have my teaching methods and you have yours,” Snape replied icily. “Perhaps you should remember which one of us has been teaching longer.”

“Fuck off, you fucking fruit bat!” Ramsay roared.

Ramsay and Snape were now mere inches from each other with Ramsay getting right up in Snape’s face – Snape had always been rather tall compared to the other professors, so it was a little surreal seeing someone exactly his height pointing a finger and yelling at him without having to look up at all.

“You want to talk about how long you’ve been teaching?! All right, then – lost your first job in ’81, after your old boss You-Know-Who got pummeled the first time – ”

“Watch your tongue, Ramsay,” snarled Snape, his yellowish teeth bared.

But Ramsay pressed on, undeterred. “ – got hired here by some fucking miracle – taught children for almost fifteen fucking years – and then somehow in all of that time, never bloody figured out that you teach classes not to stroke your own ego, but to actually teach the goddamn fucking classes!”

“I will not listen to some second-rate cook telling me how to teach!” barked Snape.

“No one else is brave enough to do it, so I guess you’ll fucking well have to, you donkey-faced tosser!” shouted Ramsay.

Bravery,” sneered Snape. “So says the man who, even after learning about the Dark Lord’s return, refused to stand and fight. You wouldn’t know bravery if it stung you in the face, Ramsay.”

This clearly got under Ramsay’s skin. His face paled, his eyes went a little wider and his fists clenched.

“You…pathetic…mold-infested dickhole!” he snarled. “So you fought in the wars! Good on you, you fuck-up! That still doesn’t excuse you being a fucking twat to your students!”

“In your modest opinion,” Snape said sardonically. “Again, I have trouble taking advice from someone who screams like a child because he’s too immature to contain his emotions.”

Ramsay gaped, looking shocked and furious. “Oh my fucking God, mate, are you serious!? I’m the immature one?! Remind me again, who, out of the two of us, is so determined to hate Harry Potter simply because his deceased father once hung him up by the ankle when they were kids?!”

BANG.

Snape had whipped out his wand and in a blast of white light Gordon Ramsay was flung across the room, colliding with a suit of armor on the other side of the hallway. Ramsay took out his wand also, prepared to fight back, but a moment later two large, translucent shields had appeared around them.

“That is enough!”

Professor McGonagall had arrived. She strode over to stand between Snape and Ramsay, her wand and hand both raised and her expression very severe.

“Professors,” she reproached them, her voice quiet but incredibly cold, “I highly advise that you both return to your offices and keep your distance from each other for the remainder of the day. Am I understood?”

“Minerva – ” Ramsay started.

Am I understood, Professor Ramsay?” McGonagall repeated, looking very stern.

Ramsay swallowed, his eyes flaring furiously at Snape over McGonagall’s shoulder. Then he looked at McGonagall and, exhaling loudly in aggravation, he lowered his wand, turned on his heel, and stomped away.

McGonagall’s face softened ever so slightly as she watched him leave. She understood why Ramsay was so upset, but he had acted inappropriately. As Deputy Headmistress, she knew the importance of the professors retaining self-control during these difficult times…and, admittedly, she knew they were in no place to fight amongst themselves, given the bigger enemies they had to face.

McGonagall turned to Snape, whose cold black eyes were blazing just as much as Ramsay’s had been as he lowered his wand.

“I’m very disappointed in you, Severus,” she told him baldly. “I would’ve thought that in Dumbledore’s absence, you would be more focused on holding the fort than engaging in petty squabbles.”

Snape held McGonagall’s gaze for a moment, his eyes narrowing slightly, before turning on his heel just as Ramsay had and sweeping away without a word.

The Transfiguration professor turned to the students who had gathered on the staircases and in the doorway of the Great Hall to watch the fight.

“Move along now, all of you!” she said sharply. “Get to your classes!”

Everyone quickly dispersed. They could tell McGonagall was in no mood for disobedience.

Chapter Text

The blow-up between Snape and Ramsay was on the lips of every student in school for the first two weeks of October. There were rumors swirling that Ramsay had later blown up at Dumbledore and that Dumbledore had spoken to Snape directly about it. Harry believed the gossip, as Snape had been noticeably irritable in all of his classes, but had also refrained from much of his usual bullying. He still would never give Gryffindor points, but at least he wasn't actively taking them at every opportunity. He also very pointedly ignored everything Neville did in Defense Against the Dark Arts, good, bad, or indifferent, though judging by the ferocious glares he'd occasionally shoot in the boy's direction, it was clear that he hated holding his tongue. 

 

Neville, for his part, thoroughly enjoyed the change in behavior.

 

"At least he's not yelling," he told Harry with a shrug and an almost wry smile. 

 

It wasn't until the first Hogsmeade weekend of the year that there was something else to talk about.

 

When Hagrid carried the unconscious Katie Bell back to the castle, Professors McGonagall and Snape appeared immediately to investigate the cursed necklace Katie had touched. After taking testimony from the witnesses (Leanne, Harry, Ron, and Hermione), McGonagall reconvened a meeting in the staff room with the other professors. 

 

Dumbledore arrived a few minutes after the rest of the teachers, taking a seat at the head of the staff table, right between Professors McGonagall and Snape, and looked around at everyone.

 

"Today in Hogsmeade," the Headmaster said gravely, "a Gryffindor student came into the possession of a cursed necklace. From what we have learned from witnesses, she was a victim of the Imperius Curse, which commanded her to take the necklace to the castle in an attempt to cause more damage. Unfortunately she accidentally touched the necklace herself and so was subjected to its dark magic."

 

The other teachers reacted with alarm. Professor Burbage, the Muggle Studies professor, had gone very white. Ramsay shot forward in his seat, grabbing the edge of the table.

 

"She's all right," Dumbledore reassured before Ramsay could ask. "Her hand only grazed the chain. Miss Bell has been sent to St. Mungo's, but the Healers there expect her to make a full recovery."

 

Ramsay closed his mouth and shifted back in his seat, though his forehead was still creased with concern. 

 

"Who gave Miss Bell the necklace, Headmaster?" Burbage asked in a hushed voice.

 

"As of yet, we do not know," Dumbledore said quietly. "But we shall be putting more precautions in place, so as to raise awareness and promote safety in Hogsmeade village. The War is still raging, professors...however safe our school and its grounds may be, we must remain ever vigilant."

 

Ramsay exchanged a solemn look with the Arithmancy teacher, Professor Vector, who sat to his left. When he spoke up, his voice was brisk.

 

"...Dumbledore...if Katie was given that necklace in Hogsmeade, then we need to halt all student outings there until we find the person responsible."

 

Professor Flitwick glanced from Ramsay to Dumbledore in concern. 

 

"Surely there's no need for that?" the tiny man squeaked. "If higher security is enacted..."

 

"We can't know if that extra security'll do any good unless we risk the students' safety," Ramsay cut him off seriously. "Katie was lucky this time -- who is to say the next one will be likewise?"

 

"But..." Professor Sprout interjected, looking concerned as well, "to take away all Hogsmeade privileges, for every student...going to Hogsmeade is so important to them. It'd no doubt feel like a punishment." 

 

"Pomona's right, Gordon," said Burbage gently. "Our students need to get out of the castle -- to mingle, to have fun. With how bad everything is right now...they need that escape."

 

"Charity love, this is an issue of safety," Ramsay argued. "Fun is all well and good, but we cannot allow these children we've been entrusted with get wrapped up in a War they made no choice to fight in."

 

Snape gave a low snort under his breath. Ramsay's eyes went to him like a shot.

 

"Something you'd like to say, Snape?" he said in a challenging tone.

 

The smirk on Snape's face slid off as easily as if he had wiped it off with a napkin. 

 

"These students are in the War, whether they choose it or not," he said seriously. "There are wolves prowling at our gate, and they'll have to be ready to face them -- locking all of our students up in the castle, even in the name of safety, will not do them much good in the long term."

 

Ramsay's eyes narrowed. "This school was not made to churn out little soldiers -- it's to teach, and these children's parents expect us to protect them while we do so!"

 

"No protection we provide will ever be full-proof," Snape said sharply. "Better that they learn to be vigilant now, rather than cripple them through coddling."

 

"Maybe you're all right sending out children to die for your cause, Snape, but I am sure as hell not!" Ramsay snapped. 

 

"I'm well aware of how comfortable you've been, Ramsay," sneered Snape, "staying in your own little bubble for the last two years, pretending that nothing is happening, but the time for that is long since through." 

 

"If you want to fight me, that's fine, but don't you fucking dare scold me for looking after these kids' best interest, you mangy tit!" Ramsay snapped, getting sharply to his feet.

 

"Enough," Dumbledore shut both of them down without raising his voice at all. "Severus, I would ask that you cease demonizing Gordon's reluctance to join the Order when I first asked it of him. He was more than within his rights to decline my offer. And Gordon, please control your temper. No one here has any intention of endangering the children of this school."

 

Ramsay whirled on Dumbledore, his eyes flashing. "Oh yeah? Remind me who in this room, upon the Chamber of Secrets being opened and a bunch of students getting petrified, kept the bloody school open anyway -- "

 

"Gordon!" McGonagall snapped at him fiercely. 

 

Ramsay went silent, still fuming as he slowly settled back down in his chair. Dumbledore looked at Ramsay with nothing but indulgence and patience. 

 

"...Gordon is right."

 

The professors looked startled. 

 

"Headmaster..." started Sprout.

 

"Considering we do not know where the threat in Hogsmeade originated," Dumbledore said quietly, "perhaps it would be best...at least until the culprit is identified...to temporarily halt all student trips. I will make the announcement at dinner this evening."

 

Dumbledore stood. After a moment, the other teachers followed suit and started to file out of the room. Ramsay and Snape shot daggers at each other, but otherwise moved along; Ramsay left the room, Professor Vector just ahead of him.

 

"You won't keep your job long if you keep mouthing off like that," Vector said with a cool smile.

 

Ramsay snorted. "If they can't handle the truth, that's their problem, not mine."

 

"It'll be your problem too, if you lose your job," Vector pointed out. "I know you'll always have your restaurant to go back to...but I don't think your students would be too pleased, would they?"

 

Ramsay glanced at Vector out the corner of his eye, and then with a low sigh acknowledged her words with a single nod.

 

"I suppose."

 

Burbage came up on Ramsay's other side so as to join their conversation. She was much smaller than both Ramsay and Vector, so she had to walk a little faster to keep up with their longer strides. 

 

"We understand your passion, Gordon, truly," said Burbage. "It might just be wiser to use it more productively."

 

Ramsay raised his eyebrows. "I seem to recall hearing that advice before...though you were even shorter then."

 

"And I was having to threaten you with detention so that you wouldn't beat up Donny Goff," Burbage replied lightly. 

 

"Donny Goff was no one worth defending," Vector said, her eyes flashing. "I should know, given that I slept in the bunk under him for seven years."

 

Ramsay smiled wryly. "Felt pretty good on graduation day to be out of there, eh?"

 

"You have no idea," Vector sighed, rolling her eyes up toward the ceiling. 

 

Burbage smiled slightly; then her expression turned much more pensive.

 

"...What I want to know is...who gave Miss Bell that necklace. I can't imagine anyone living in Hogsmeade being a Death Eater, so it must have been someone coming in from outside..."

 

"Not necessarily," Vector said solemnly. "There could be Death Eater sympathizers in the village...people acting as spies, since they're such a fixture that no one would suspect..."

 

"No," Burbage dissented. "We know those people, Septima -- Aberforth, Charlene, Theophilius, Rosmerta...they all hate the Death Eaters. I don't believe any one of them would betray Hogwarts -- betray Dumbledore."

 

"I agree," said Ramsay. "And because of that, I have faith that they'll help us find out who gave Katie that necklace and catch him."

 

"If the person is a Death Eater, catching him might prove difficult," Vector pointed out.

 

"True," said Burbage. "But at least if we know who it was, we can take steps...keep an eye out for that person, take advantage of his weaknesses. Like Fenrir Greyback -- he might be terrifying, but his magical talents are limited. And Avery may be excellent at wizard dueling, but he's notoriously dim-witted..."

 

Vector sighed. "Well, we'll see...I suppose the most important thing to do, in desperate times, is to stay positive."

 

Ramsay bid both of his coworkers goodbye as they headed up into the towers to start their next classes, while he headed down toward the dungeons. Even as he tried to focus on his class, however, he could not force the concern from his mind. 

 

When the First Wizarding War was going on, he'd still been in school. He was only in his sixth year when the Potters died -- when the Longbottoms were driven into insanity -- when the Prewett brothers were killed in the height of battle -- when Dorcas Meadows was taken down by the Dark Lord personally -- when Robert McGonagall was devoured whole by a blast of Fiendfyre -- when Marlene McKinnon and her entire family were slaughtered -- when Benjy Fenwick was blown to smithereens -- 

 

All of them were so young. They'd all joined the Order right out of school and had all died before they'd turned 25. Every single one of them. And Ramsay never, never forgave Dumbledore for leading so many people he'd admired and sometimes even befriended to their doom. It didn't matter what the cause was -- Ramsay hated the Death Eaters just as much as anyone -- but they still had had families and friends and communities, and those were all destroyed upon their deaths. It was the responsibility of the world's elders to defend the world -- to protect the young, and help them thrive -- no young person should have to be obligated to fix an older one's mistakes!

 

Those people -- those young, idealistic people -- had put their loyalty and faith in Dumbledore...and, Ramsay thought, Dumbledore showed them no such loyalty in return. How much did he share with them? How much did he put the Order's members' well-being over the so-called "greater good?" 

 

More than anything...Ramsay just wanted no other students, upon leaving Hogwarts, to have to die carrying Dumbledore's banner into battle. 

Chapter Text

 

The mood at Hogwarts was considerably despondent after Dumbledore's announcement ending Hogsmeade visits. It soon was circulated around school that it had been Professor Ramsay's suggestion, so the student body's favorable impression of Hogwarts's newest teacher had cooled significantly. Ramsay's classes had become noticeably tense, with many students refusing to answer his questions and speaking to him in very clipped, overly formal sentences. Hermione, of course, was one of the few who treated Ramsay with the usual amount of courtesy.

 

As November came and went and Hogsmeade visits were still nonexistent, even Harry found himself feeling some bitterness toward Ramsay. He still did well in Potions thanks to the Prince's book, but he took much less pride in it. He was just glad that he'd been able to get Ron into shape for their Quidditch match against Slytherin – at least Quidditch was one small escape from classes and news from the War against Voldemort.

 

The first week of December Harry, Ron, and Hermione got up early to see if there were any Hogsmeade announcements on the Gryffindor notice board. When they arrived, they found a large crowd already gathered around it -- Ginny emerged from the fold, and at the sight of them, she shook her head.

 

"Still no dates," she grumbled.

 

"Oh, come on!" said Ron angrily. "It's almost Christmas!"

 

"I guess we'll just have to order our gifts by owl," Hermione said quietly.

 

Ginny crossed her arms grumpily and sighed. "At least Ramsay didn't get it in his head to ban Quidditch, I guess...see you later."

 

She headed off through the portrait hole, presumably to get to breakfast.

 

"They'd find the culprit if they just questioned Malfoy," Harry muttered to Hermione and Ron.

 

Hermione groaned in exasperation. "Harry, Professor McGonagall said Malfoy was in detention with her! He couldn't have been in Hogsmeade!"

 

"I know he had something to do with it," Harry insisted. "What he said on the train, about joining Voldemort -- "

 

"I'm very familiar with your theory, Harry, after the couple hundred times you've told it to us," Hermione cut him off tartly. "And I think you need to let it go!"

 

Seeing the tenseness between his two friends, Ron swiftly shifted gears.

 

"This whole thing wouldn't even be so bad if Ramsay hadn't flown so off-the-handle about it," he sighed. "I mean…we could try to catch the culprit and still go to Hogsmeade, right?"

 

Hermione frowned uncomfortably. "Well, it was clearly out of concern for us, wasn't it? Yes, it was...a little harsh...but the choice does make sense, if you think about it – "

 

"It only makes sense if you haven't been at Hogwarts in the last decade," Ron corrected her. "It's not like there are Death Eaters passing out cursed necklaces every other week. Yeah, maybe Hogsmeade got a bit complacent – didn't put up the kind of security measures everyone else has, since they figured they'd be safe out here in the middle of nowhere…but that doesn't mean the whole place is dangerous."

 

Harry nodded. "Right. Death Eaters could be anywhere, when we're outside of school. We just have to be careful, that's all."

 

Pouting slightly, Hermione returned her focus to her Charms homework.

 

"It is a shame we won't be able to go to Hogsmeade for our Christmas shopping," she acknowledged sadly.

 

When Potions class was over that day, Ramsay gave them the treat of no homework over the winter holidays. Although it did relieve the sixth years somewhat, there was still a faintly bitter note as the class filed out.

 

"Harry," Ramsay said abruptly, "may I see you after class, please?"

 

Faintly startled, Harry glanced at Ron and Hermione. Then, nodding at them to go ahead, he waited until everyone had filed out and then walked uncomfortably over to Ramsay's desk.

 

"Yes, Professor?" asked Harry.

 

Ramsay leaned up against the back of his desk, crossing his arms loosely over his chest.

 

"...That was some match last week," he said lightly.

 

Harry blinked. "Oh...thank you."

 

Ramsay studied Harry carefully as if he were X-raying him. Harry almost felt like he was talking to Snape for a second.

 

"Your friend Ron in particular did very well. That last goal he saved, by flipping upside down? Perfectly brilliant."

 

Harry felt very confused and faintly uncomfortable, so he waited for Ramsay to continue.

 

"You do remember, Harry, that I told you that the use of Felix Felicis for any competition or game is against the law?" Ramsay said solemnly.

 

"What?" said Harry.

 

Then it dawned on him.

 

"Oh – no, Professor – you don't understand -- "

 

He took out the tiny Felix bottle from his robes: it was still perfectly stoppered and full.

 

"It was a bluff," Harry explained guiltily, as Ramsay took it from him and examined it. "I made Ron think I'd put it in, to help his confidence...he's really a great Keeper – but he just gets so nervous and doubts himself so much that it hurts his performance. I thought if I could show him that he is that good, even without luck potion…well…then he'd see what I've always seen in him," he finished a bit lamely.

 

Ramsay looked from the tiny bottle to up at Harry. Then his face softened noticeably, with his lips curling up in a wry smile.

 

"...And he did. Very clever, Harry."

 

Harry smiled slightly in relief. "Thank you, sir."

 

Ramsay handed the little bottle back to Harry. "I'm sorry for my suspicion. I saw the bottle in your hand when you were talking to Ron the day of the match, and after seeing the game…well, I admit, I was concerned. James would certainly never have cheated to win a match…but he would've done just about anything to help his friends."

 

Harry's smile widened.

 

"...What position did you play?" he asked curiously, unable to help himself.

 

"Keeper, actually," Ramsay answered. "That's why I was so impressed with Ron's performance – I was almost reminded of myself, for a second."

 

"Ron would be pleased to know that," Harry said with a grin. "He said you were something of a prodigy at Quidditch."

 

Ramsay grinned too. "Oh really? Well, I don't know if I'd go that far...but I was much more than competent, certainly."

 

He then moved to sit behind his desk, adjusting a stack of essays he'd collected.

 

"All right, Harry, that was all. You're free to go."

 

Taking the hint, Harry turned to leave...but something made him hesitate. After a short moment, he turned back to Ramsay.

 

"Professor?"

 

"Yes, Harry?"

 

Harry bit his lip. Part of him really wanted to tell Ramsay about Malfoy, but Hermione's disdain was still fresh in his ears and it made him give pause. So instead he decided to say,

 

"...Is it true you suggested the Hogsmeade ban to Dumbledore?"

 

Ramsay frowned deeply. He put down the essay he’d been ready to start grading.

 

"...Yes, I did. If there are Death Eaters in Hogsmeade, then I don't think it's right that any of you be placed in harm's way."

 

"Yeah...but we're always going to be a little in harm's way," Harry said slowly. "I mean, a War's going on."

 

"And you all are not fighting in it," Ramsay said gravely. "You are students who need to focus on your future and your dreams for it. The Ministry and your teachers are the ones responsible for your safety – they should be the ones worrying about it."

 

"But sometimes the Ministry and the teachers can't deal with it!" said Harry. "Sometimes we have to do things ourselves! If we hadn't had Hogsmeade trips...we would never have formed the D.A. last year. It's somewhere where we can be free to try new things and have a laugh!"

 

Ramsay folded his hands seriously. "Harry, I understand why you're upset, but your safety is more important than you having fun. We professors are responsible for you, and even if the other professors haven't always acted like it, I'm going to."

 

Harry opened his mouth to argue further, but Ramsay shut him down.

 

"If you're going to ask me to tell the Headmaster that I've changed my mind and that we should reinstate Hogsmeade trips, then I'm sorry, but my answer is no."

 

Harry stared Ramsay down for a moment. Then, his green eyes narrowing, he tossed his schoolbag over his shoulder.

 

"Happy Christmas, Professor," he said coldly.

 

He strode out of the classroom, shutting the door sharply behind him and leaving Ramsay alone.

 

Chapter Text

 

As Christmas approached, the air in the castle was dark. Flitwick and Hagrid went all out with the decorations by decking every one of the gigantic Christmas trees with thousands of live pixies and sparkling garlands, but alas, being locked up in the castle had dampened everyone's mood.

 

On the day before Christmas break, Dumbledore started breakfast with the round of usual morning announcements. Just when the students assumed he was going to finish and start breakfast, however, Dumbledore paused. Then with a faintly amused smile, he turned his head slightly to indicate Ramsay, who sat three seats to his left between Professors Vector and Sprout.

 

"Finally...Professor Ramsay has a special announcement to share with you all."

 

Ramsay rose to his feet, looking out at the students of the Hall. Their eyes bore into him with both hesitance and suspicion.

 

"With the Headmaster's permission," Ramsay addressed everyone, putting on his best smile despite the lack of pleasantry in his audience, "I am pleased to announce that this January and February, Hogwarts will be hosting its very first MagicChef Junior competition!"

 

The students released little outbursts of surprise. 

 

"On the second day of term," Ramsay continued, "we will take applicants, and by the end of the week, we will have narrowed our competitors down to a top 12 of best student cooks. Those cooks will be excused from all homework while enrolled in the competition, and each week they will have to cook our panel of judges a spectacular dish that fits a theme of our choice. The winner of MagicChef Junior will not only earn 200 points for their house – " everyone at the student tables gave a great gasp of delight, " – but they will also win 5000 Galleons prize money and a free meal for their family at Hell's Kitchen in Wandsworth Green!"

 

By the time the announcement was complete, every student in the Hall was chattering in excitement.

 

Ramsay beamed. "If you wish to compete, brush up on your best recipes, your herbs and spices, and your cooking and baking flair over Christmas break. Auditions will be held in the dungeons on January 3rd and you’ll have to bake me a fresh batch of your best holiday biscuits for a chance to get into the top 12. Good luck to you all!"

 

He sat down, and Dumbledore led the students in a round of applause.

 

“We look very forward to tasting your efforts,” Dumbledore said with a small smile. “In the meantime, however, I do believe I have left you all in suspense long enough.”

 

He flourished his hands at the tables, and they were suddenly full of breakfast food.

 

“Tuck in!”

 

The announcement about the competition sent all of the students into a frenzy. Quidditch had been a great escape, but now they had something new and different to look forward to. The Ravenclaws were particularly excited as they were behind in points thanks to their loss in the Quidditch match against Hufflepuff, and this contest might be the perfect way for them to catch up. Slytherin seemed very keen to win too, as the loss of Draco Malfoy as Seeker had hit their Quidditch team rather hard.

By the time everyone had gotten on the Hogwarts Express, all anyone was talking about was what cookie recipes they planned to use for the contest auditions.

 

“Do you reckon old fashioned chocolate chip will do?”

 

“No, of course not – this is Gordon Ramsay we’re baking for – you need some finesse!”

 

“I’ll just use one of Grandmother’s old recipes – she was the heir to the Quelle Magique bakery, back before it closed…”

 

Oooh, I so want to make it in!”

 

“I won a blue ribbon for my coconut cream pie back in second grade – this was meant for me!”

 

“Can you put mango in a biscuit?”

 

“Ugh, that sounds disgusting!”

 

“How much you want to bet half those girls thinking about entering are just doing it because they have a crush on Professor Ramsay?” snorted Ron.

 

“I’d say half the people in general,” Harry said amusedly. “Dean said Seamus just about screamed when he heard the announcement – apparently he and his mother Mrs. Finnegan have been sending fan letters to Ramsay for years.”

 

Hermione frowned disapprovingly at them both. “You two are impossible…”

 

She opened the door to an empty compartment and the three settled into it. Harry hoisted his trunk into the luggage rack on the right and Hermione put her suitcase up top on the left before getting Crookshanks out of his carrier. The ginger cat curled up on the window seat beside her with a pleased murr.

 

“Still, just think of it,” Ron said eagerly after he’d shut the compartment door behind them. “5000 Galleons and a free meal for your entire family at one of the best magical restaurants in the world? That’s unbelievable!”

 

“It is pretty cool,” agreed Harry. “I wouldn't have thought everyone would get so into it.”

 

“Well, why not?” asked Ron. “I mean, it’s only a contest hosted by the most famous wizard chef in the country!”

 

Harry shrugged. “I don’t know…I guess since no one really makes their own food around here, I never really thought about if anyone here liked to cook for fun. I mean, I can cook bangers and eggs, but that’s only because Aunt Petunia made me do it. I never really liked doing it.”

 

“Ah, well, you’re kind of an outlier, Harry,” Ron said bracingly. “There are plenty of wizards and witches who like cooking – I mean, Mum adores it! I reckon she’d be a bloody good restaurant chef herself, if she weren’t so busy looking after all of us…”

 

“Your mum’s cooking is the best,” Harry agreed. “Too bad she can’t enter the contest.”

 

Hermione had her finger resting on her lip thoughtfully, her eyes resting absently on Ron.

 

“Ron…why don’t you go for it?” she said abruptly.

 

“Huh?” said Ron.

 

“Why don’t you enter the contest?” Hermione asked, sounding a little more eager. “Your mum can’t do it, but I know you’ve learned some cooking from her!”

 

Harry’s face lit up. “Hey…yeah! Do you think your mum would teach you some recipes?”

 

“Well, sure…I guess she would, if I asked her,” Ron mumbled sheepishly. “I mean, she’s always had us in the kitchen whenever she could – helping her peel potatoes and dice carrots and stuff. Ginny was too stubborn to sit still and help and Fred and George would always try to spike the Shepherd's Pie with Sneezing Powder, so I ended up picking up the load a lot of the time…me and Percy, I mean…”

 

The thought of his estranged brother made Ron’s face contort unpleasantly. Both Harry and Hermione silently agreed in unison to get the conversation off of Percy quickly.

 

“Then why not try, Ron?” Harry asked. “I’m sure Ramsay would be impressed if you did – and you did say your mum’s been trying to get a reservation at Hell’s Kitchen for ages…”

 

Ron’s eyes lit up.

 

“…Yeah!” he said at last. “Yeah, why…why not? I’ll ask Mum! I wonder if I can get her to show me how to make her rosemary butter biscuits – those always impress Dad’s coworkers, around Christmas time!”

 

They talked over the various recipes Ron knew for the rest of the train ride. Hermione personally thought that coconut shortbread sounded best, while Harry was leaning more toward treacle sandwich biscuits. Harry felt a little bit bad that he’d never asked Ron about cooking before; the excited, but thoroughly expert way he talked about it reminded Harry a bit of how Ramsay would talk about Potions.

 

“It’s all sort of a balancing act, see?” Ron explained. “Like, take something sweet, like caramel. Put too much of it in, and it sort of overwhelms the taste buds. But if you counteract all that sweet and salt with something savory, like bacon, or something fruity, like pears, you kind of…wake everything up! The flavor’s not one-note, so it doesn’t get boring – it kind of transforms in your mouth.”

 

When Ron disembarked from the Hogwarts Express with Harry and Hermione several hours later, he had a new bounce in his step as he dashed over to Mr. and Mrs. Weasley on the platform.

 

“Mum!” he shouted jubilantly. “Mum, there’s something I need to tell you!”

Chapter Text

Mrs. Weasley was thrilled at the news of Ramsay's competition. She insisted Ron help her with all of the meals over Christmas break so that he could practice.

 

Over the next two weeks, Ron learned how to cook an egg eleven different ways, quickly dice vegetables, and bake the perfect Shepherd’s Pie. Harry had already loved Mrs. Weasley’s cooking, but Ron helping in the kitchen too only seemed to make it ever better – not just because of Ron's own flair with spices, but because of how happy Mrs. Weasley clearly was to share her cooking knowledge with her youngest son.

 

On Christmas Eve, she gave Ron the reins with dessert. She left him her best chocolate cream pie recipe and then started work on the rest of dinner, while Ron started on the pie, carefully adding some of his favorite spices into the batter.

 

When dinner was over, Ron brought out a perfectly gorgeous-looking pie, to a round of applause from the entire table.

 

"Wow!" said Ginny.

 

"Oh, Ron, it looks delicious," beamed Hermione.

 

Ron's ears went a bright pink and he smiled shyly as he put down the pie and sat down.

 

"Looks like our baby brother can bake after all," said George, grinning. "Who would've thunk it?"

 

"I knew it all the time," Fred said sarcastically.

 

"It looks like something from a real bakery," Lupin said with a smile. "I'm impressed."

 

"Don't be impressed yet!" Mrs. Weasley said sharply, though she was smiling. "Taste always outranks appearances. Let's have a go at it – no, no, Harry, I'll go first, please."

 

She cut into her slice, removing a small piece and placing it gently in her mouth.

 

Her eyes widened. Then, to everyone's surprise, they abruptly filled with tears and her hand flew to her mouth as she let out a quiet squeak.

 

"Mum?" Ron asked anxiously. "Oh no – did I put in too much chili powder? I'm so, so sorry, I thought it'd balance the chocolate – "

 

Mrs. Weasley choked. "No! No, no – it's just – just a little hotter than I expected…"

 

Her face was turning red as she took out her wand, materialized some water in a nearby glass, and chugged it down. Once she’d gathered herself, she exhaled loudly.

 

Whew! That does have a kick,” she laughed.

 

Seeing the look on Ron’s face, Mrs. Weasley quickly bustled over to him.

 

“Oh, Ronald, don’t you fret,” she said soothingly, patting his head gently. “It was a lovely idea! You just need to make sure you taste-test the batter beforehand – all chefs do that if they’re adding onto a recipe, to make sure that the balance of ingredients is right. And in the meantime…”

 

With a wave of her wand, she made everyone’s glasses fill to the brim with cold milk and then added a thick layer of fluffy whipped cream onto Ron’s pie.

 

“…That should help!”

 

Harry had to admit, Ron’s pie definitely left a spicy aftertaste…but for what it was worth, he thought it was actually pretty good. The whole thing sort of dreamily melted in your mouth. 

 

Mrs. Weasley wasn't the only one excited about Ron competing. Bill's fiancée Fleur tried to give Ron some of her own cooking tips; unfortunately her attention was more of a hindrance than a help, since Ron was too distracted by her Veela glamour to take in much of what she said.

 

“You Britons tend to roast ze food and it dries out terribly,” Fleur explained as she roasted a pan of chicken over the fire while Ron watched. “Now when you flambé ze meat with just a hint of wine, it locks in all zat flavor and aroma – ”

 

“Yeah,” Ron said, clearly too dazed to take in everything she was saying. “Cool.”

 

Hermione frowned deeply as she, Harry, and Ginny watched the two of them from the living room.

 

“Hmph! I wonder what Professor Ramsay would say about her attitude toward British food,” she muttered grumpily as she crossed her arms tightly over her chest.

 

“Probably that she’s a hoity-toity twit with her head up her arse and her taste buds stuck back in the Middle Ages,” Ginny said with a smirk.

 

Harry laughed.

 

Christmas was rather fun overall, excluding the awkward visit from the new Minister of Magic, Rufus Scrimgeour. He’d asked to see Harry privately, but the meeting between the two didn’t last long, ending in raised voices and Scrimgeour stomping away from the Burrow in a huff.

 

When Harry, Ron, Hermione, and Ginny all got ready to board the Hogwarts Express again, Mrs. Weasley pulled Ron aside and gave him a big, squeezing hug.

 

“All right, Ron,” she said in a business-like tone, “keep me posted…and if you need any help, send an owl to me anytime, all right?”

 

“Okay, Mum,” Ron said with a nod.

 

Mrs. Weasley patted his cheek proudly. “That’s my boy.”

 

“Good luck at the audition,” said Mr. Weasley brightly. “We’ll keep our fingers crossed!”

 

The train whistle blew, and everyone had to shuffle onboard as it prepared to leave the station. Ron waved to his parents on the platform until they were out of sight – then he, Hermione, Ginny, and Harry started up off the corridor.

 

“We better go meet with the other prefects, Ron,” Hermione reminded him.

 

“Oh,” said Ron, faintly put out. He always felt a little uncomfortable whenever he had to go to prefect meetings – even though Draco Malfoy hadn’t shown up to the last one, they still were always a little stilted. Plus he always hated leaving Harry alone.

 

Ron and Hermione bid Ginny and Harry goodbye and headed up toward the compartment that always held the prefect meetings. When they arrived, they found a few familiar faces amongst the prefects assembled – the two 6th year Hufflepuff prefects, Hannah Abbott and Ernie Macmillan and the two 6th year Ravenclaw prefects Anthony Goldstein and Padma Patil. Noticeably absent, once again, were the two 6th year Slytherin prefects.

 

“So Malfoy and Pansy are no-shows again, huh?” Ron muttered to Hermione under his breath with a bit of a grin. “Man, are you sure today isn’t Christmas?”

 

Hermione stifled her laugh behind her hand, trying to stay serious.

 

“…It is kind of weird,” she murmured back. “I suppose Pansy just doesn’t have any interest in Prefect duties unless she can do them with Malfoy. And if Malfoy’s not here…well, no point in her being here either, right?”

 

“It’s probably just as well,” Ernie Macmillan forcefully interjected himself into their conversation. “They never really upheld the responsibilities of a Prefect.”

 

He smiled and shook each of their hands pompously in turn. “Good to see you, Ron – Hermione.”

 

“Hi, Ernie,” Ron greeted offhandedly.

 

“Did you know Hannah’s going out for the MagicChef contest?” Ernie asked, grinning proudly over his shoulder at her.

 

Ernie,” said Hannah, smiling uncomfortably. “You don’t have to brag about it – ”

 

“I think she’ll make it to the top two easily,” Ernie continued over Hannah’s objections, “despite her modesty.”

 

“Ron’s auditioning too,” said Hermione quickly.

 

Hannah’s face brightened. “You cook too, Ron?”

 

“Well…” Ron started uncomfortably. “I learned from Mum, yeah…she’s always had us in the kitchen…”

 

“He’s perfectly brilliant,” Hermione cut him off forcefully.

 

“Well, we’ll see,” Ernie said with a wry smile. “I have to wonder if Ron could make Yorkshire Pudding quite as well as Hannah – no offense, of course, Ron.”

 

“None…taken?” Ron said awkwardly.

 

“Well, Ron’s chocolate cream pie is the best I’ve ever tasted,” Hermione replied coolly. There was something of a strange edge to her voice – it almost reminded Ron of when Ginny would argue with him about their favorite Quidditch teams.

 

“Just try Hannah’s lemon meringue,” said Ernie, clearly trying to keep toe-to-toe with Hermione even though his tone feigned much more pleasantry. “It’ll put Ramsay himself to shame, just you wait – ”

 

Hannah looked just as uncomfortable as Ron felt during this whole exchange. Hermione opened her mouth to argue further, but Ron stepped in.

 

“All right, time-out!” he said with an awkward chuckle. “Let’s have a nice meeting and leave the competition to Ramsay, eh?”

 

Hannah nodded in overly passionate agreement. “Yes, please!”

 

Ron was very glad to finish up with all the formalities and leave the prefects’ compartment to go find Harry. As he and Hermione walked down the hall, he glanced at her out the corner of his eye.

 

“Hermione?” he said lowly, his ears going pink. “Thanks for sticking up for my cooking…even though my pie wasn’t that great.”

 

Hermione looked at him in surprise. Then she looked away quickly, her cheeks flushing.

 

“Oh! Y-you’re welcome…”

 

She then looked back up at him, her pink face faintly upset.

 

“But really, your pie was lovely! Sure, it was a little spicy, before your mum added the cream and milk, but…well, you’re still learning, right?”

 

“Sounds like Hannah’s a bit ahead of me,” Ron mumbled gloomily. “Getting a meringue right is pretty hard – the consistency has to be both fluffy and yet stiff enough that it doesn’t fall apart when you cut into the pie. That takes a lot of talent…”

 

“You’ll do brilliantly, Ron,” Hermione said sharply. “I know it.”

 

Ron looked up at her, his blush creeping down from his ears to the rest of his face. Hermione looked very pink too, and she looked like she was fighting with herself not to break eye contact.

 

Ron’s mouth slowly curled up into a small smile, and he lightly leaned his shoulder against hers as they walked together.

 

“…Thanks, Hermione.”

Chapter Text

The day of the audition, Ron barely ate anything at breakfast. It was the best indicator to Harry of just how nervous he was, and he and Hermione tried their best to reassure him.

 

“You know the biscuit recipe,” said Hermione sympathetically, “and you know how to bake them – that’s all you have to do in the audition at least, right?”

 

“Right,” said Harry. “You’ve got this, Ron.”

 

Ron smiled weakly, clearly not that comforted but appreciating the gesture all the same.

 

When he went down to the dungeons that morning, he found a long line of students already standing outside Ramsay’s office. Ron inwardly grumbled to himself that he wished he’d brought one of his Martin Miggs comic books to keep him preoccupied, as it took hours for him to get through the line and the waiting only served to make him more nervous.

 

Upon getting closer to the front, he noticed that students were entering in groups of 12 – a ways ahead of him, he noticed Hannah Abbott going in, as well as Padma Patil and the new Slytherin Seeker Roy Harper.

 

Ron glanced around at the people in front of and behind him – he didn’t recognize any of them. Most of them looked to be in Slytherin or Hufflepuff, and they were all younger than him. He caught the eye of one of the Slytherin girls, and to his surprise she actually offered him a small smile.

 

“Nervous?” she asked him.

 

Ron was so startled that he gave a self-conscious laugh. “Heh…yeah, a little bit.”

 

The girl nodded.

 

“It’s my first time competing in something like this too,” she said levelly. “I’ve baked at home before, but never in a competition.”

 

“Me either!” said Ron, pleasantly surprised by her sympathy. “I’ve barely even baked at home…Mum’s always had us in the kitchen, but…well, I’ve never really actively cooked on my own since this last Christmas…”

 

Saying it out loud made Ron feel even worse. He really was a long shot to get much of anywhere in this whole thing. Part of him started to wonder if he shouldn’t just leave the line now and head back upstairs…

 

The girl crossed her arms, her black eyes soft despite the discerning look on her face. Even if she was younger than him, Ron got this feeling she was unusually sharp for her age – even her curly hair and complexion reminded him a bit of Hermione, though she had her hair done in intricate cornrows that pushed all of the braided hair to flow down her right shoulder. 

 

“You’re Ron Weasley, aren’t you?” she asked, though judging by the tone of her voice, she seemed to already know the answer to her question.

 

“Uh…yeah?” Ron replied awkwardly.

 

She smirked. “Well…considering that everyone underestimated you before your last Quidditch match…I most certainly am not going to underestimate you today!”

 

She extended a dark hand to him, offering him an almost daring expression.

 

“May the best novice win!” she said decisively, her black eyes and white smile blazing.

 

Ron was startled by the gesture. Then, his face breaking out into a small smile, he took her hand and shook it.

 

“All right. Yeah.”

 

It was their turn. Ron headed on in with ten others and the Slytherin girl into Ramsay’s classroom – it felt like all of them were holding their breath as they stepped over the threshold.

 

The room had once again been completely transformed. All of the desks were gone and were replaced with twelve cooking stations, complete with a small oven, a set of burners, a short countertop, and a rollaway butcher’s block complete with drawers full of cooking utensils. Ramsay stood at the front of the room, dressed in his usual white robes and his arms lightly crossed over his chest.

 

“Hello, everyone,” he greeted them. “Pick a station, and we’ll get started.”

 

Everyone rushed into place. Most of Ron’s competition bustled up toward the front, but he decided after a moment to just pick the station closest to him. The Slytherin girl with the braids patiently let everyone else run to the front and so ended up in the station just to the top right of Ron. 

 

“Welcome to the auditions for MagicChef Junior,” said Ramsay. Ron didn’t want to even contemplate how many times Ramsay had likely made this speech that day and how many more times he’d have to repeat it, but fortunately the Potions professor acted as though he was saying it for the first time. “You will have exactly 30 minutes to bake me a batch of your best holiday biscuits. You each have a kitchenette, of course…but you’ll also have an assistant during this first challenge.”

 

The room suddenly erupted in cracking noises. Several students flinched and cried out in surprise, but Ron wasn’t one of them, for he recognized the sound. A whole assortment of house elves had appeared in the room, each of them appearing on the countertop of one of the student’s workstations. Ron looked up at the elf at his station and his eyes widened.

 

Dobby!”

 

“Master Weasley, sir!” greeted Dobby brightly. He grabbed onto Ron’s hand, shaking it heartily with both of his. “So good to see you again!”

 

“Good to see you too, Dobby,” said Ron. He noted the ugly red woolen cap on Dobby’s head that the elf had trimmed holes out of so that his bat-like ears could poke out of the top and grinned, knowing full well that Hermione had made that hat (and a couple dozen like it) a few years earlier in an attempt to forcibly free all the Hogwarts house elves.

 

Everyone turned to look at Dobby and Ron as they shook hands. Ramsay smiled.

 

“These house elves work down in the Hogwarts kitchens,” he said. “They will be here to fetch any and all ingredients and tools you need to bake your cookies from their pantry. They have been instructed, however, to not help you with the baking itself – they will only fetch things for you. Your time starts…now.”

 

The classroom immediately erupted in hustle and bustle. The other competitors all started grabbing baking tools and shouting at their house elf partners to get what they needed. Ron took an extra couple of seconds to gather his thoughts – then he turned to Dobby.

 

“All right, um…Dobby, can you get me butter, rosemary, sugar, a lemon…two eggs…flour, baking soda…oh, and salt? Please?”

 

“Right away, Master Weasley!” Dobby said brightly.

 

He disappeared with a crack. A moment later, he’d popped back with the rosemary and butter; then the lemon and eggs. Ron got right to work peeling the lemon and then grating the peel as Dobby returned with the flour, sugar, and baking soda.

 

The next 15 minutes were some of the most fast-paced and grueling Ron had ever known in his life. He couldn’t even pay attention to anything else going on in the kitchen because of the grind that the limited timetable had put him under. He just had to keep focused on one lone fact – his biscuits needed to bake in the oven for 12-15 minutes. Therefore he had to have his unfinished biscuits on the baking sheet and looking perfect in 18 minutes or less.

 

“Fifteen minutes left,” called Ramsay’s voice over the din.

 

All of the students gave panicked outbursts. Ron hurriedly rolled his dough into little balls and soaked each of them in a sugar and butter mix before placing them nimbly on the baking sheet. He glanced up at the Slytherin girl in front of him – she picked up a sheet full of her biscuits, which were cut into little donut-like shapes, and put them in the oven.

 

It was then that Ron realized he’d forgotten something.

 

“Dobby!” he said urgently. “I need a biscuit cutter…can you get me one? It doesn’t matter what kind!”

 

“Right away, sir!” said Dobby.

 

He disappeared with another crack, and Ron hurriedly worked on rolling the rest of his biscuits.

 

The minutes on the clock seemed to drag painfully while Ron waited for Dobby – even though only two minutes had gone by, it had felt like forever before the house elf returned. Unfortunately he returned empty-handed.

 

“There were no biscuit cutters left, Master Weasley,” Dobby said despondently. “The only ones in the cupboard are being used.”

 

The elf pointed to the front of the classroom, at five of Ron’s competitors using star and round biscuit cutters.

 

Ron’s eyes darted up to the clock. He only had thirteen minutes – if he didn’t get the biscuits in the oven right now, there’d be no chance that they’d be done in time. He racked his brain, trying to think of something.

 

‘No biscuit cutters – could I decorate them with frosting? No, the piping alone would take too much time – ’

 

“Are there any biscuit molds in the kitchen, Dobby?” he asked.

 

“I don’t believe so, sir,” Dobby said sadly.

 

‘Damn!’ Ron thought in frustration.

 

His eyes shot from the clock to Dobby and back. What else might the house elves have in the pantry that he could use to decorate the biscuits? They did a lot of cooking – they made everything at mealtimes, from the turkeys to the hot chocolate –

 

The hot chocolate…

 

Ron’s eyes lit up. “Dobby – I need one of the mugs that you all use to put our hot chocolate in – you know, the real old ones?”

 

Dobby didn’t seem to understand, but he nodded. “Yes, sir!”

 

He disappeared with another crack. About fifteen seconds later, he was back, holding an old-fashioned mug emblazoned with the Hogwarts crest in one hand.

 

“Thanks, Dobby!” said Ron, beaming.

 

He took the mug and very gently pressed the bottom of it down on top of his balls of dough to flatten them, before flipping the mug over and lightly pressing the Hogwarts coat of arms into the top of the compressed biscuits. It left a softly marbled impression with the shape of a tiny shield in the center of the dough. Ron quickly snatched up his baking sheet and put it in the oven, turning the oven up as hot as he dared.

 

The next eleven minutes were the longest in Ron’s life. He watched the cookies tensely through the oven window, pacing back and forth. He glanced at his competitors – some of the students in the front were decorating their plates with frosting and garnish. Thinking he needed something to pass the time and distract himself from the tension, Ron took some of the leftover rosemary and chopped it up into sweet little clusters, so as to decorate his plate with them.

 

When the rosemary butter biscuits came out of the oven, they were a light yellowish tan, with the faintest hint of brown around the impressions Ron had made with the mug. They actually looked pretty good!

 

“Thirty seconds!” called Ramsay.

 

Ron hurriedly put on his oven mitt, retrieved the biscuits from the oven, and very carefully scooped them off with a spatula onto his plate.

 

“Ten – nine – eight – ”

 

Ron arranged the biscuits in a disheveled stack.

 

“Six – five – four – ”

 

Ron tossed his sprigs of rosemary onto the plate on either side of the biscuits.

 

“Two – one – time’s up!” said Ramsay. “Hands off your biscuits!”

 

All the students stepped back from their stations. Ron exhaled heavily – his head was pounding and his heart was racing. He looked around at the other competitors and was unsurprised to see similarly overwhelmed faces. One Hufflepuff boy already had tears streaming down his face, while one of the Slytherin girls was holding onto the countertop with a vice grip as if she was trying not to faint.

 

Each of the competitors in turn came up to the front of the classroom to present their biscuits. Most of the students’ work clearly didn’t impress Ramsay, being too dry or underdone, but he was cordial. One exception was the Slytherin girl with the braids, who Ramsay identified as Bridget – she presented a plate of coffee and brown sugar biscuits shaped like donuts, which Ramsay found very inventive and delicious.

 

‘She’ll make it in the top 12 easy,’ Ron thought to himself.

 

When it was his turn to present his biscuits, Ron tried to walk straight and tall, even despite his knocking knees.

 

“Hello, Ron,” Ramsay greeted him pleasantly.

 

Ron smiled weakly. “Hi, Professor.”

 

“What have you made for me today?”

 

“Rosemary butter biscuits…th-they’re my mum’s recipe. She bakes them every year for my dad’s friends at the office.”

 

Ramsay picked up one of Ron’s biscuits, examining it critically.

 

“Your presentation of the biscuits is lacking,” he said slowly. “It’s little more than a stack…but the pattern on top – what did you use for this?”

 

“A…Hogwarts mug, sir,” Ron answered sheepishly.

 

Ramsay blinked – then his expression morphed into a small smile.

 

“Very interesting,” he said. “Why did you use that?”

 

“There were no more biscuit cutters,” Ron answered, “and there were no molds in the kitchen…and I only had a minute left before my biscuits had to be in the oven, for them to finish on time, so…”

 

“So you improvised,” finished Ramsay, his smile widening. “Very good, Ron.”

 

Ron’s heart fluttered in a giddy mixture of relief and excitement.

 

“Thanks!” he breathed.

 

Ramsay’s expression turned more serious as he slowly broke the biscuit in his hand in half.

 

“Looks a touch underdone,” he said lowly. “See how it crumbles, like that? I think a minute more would’ve probably done this some good.”

 

Ron bit his lip as Ramsay took a bite. He chewed and swallowed, his eyes resting on Ron thoughtfully.

 

“…Your rosemary and butter flavors are both excellent,” he said levelly. “They balance each other very nicely. I can see why your mother gets compliments for these.”

 

Ron grinned broadly.

 

“However,” Ramsay continued, his tone not shifting, “the flavors themselves are very muted. They work all right for a holiday potluck – but they’re a touch underwhelming for a student baking competition. Do you think you can step up, if you make it into the top 12?”

 

“Yes, sir!” Ron said at once, even despite his heart pounding against his ribs. “I mean – I’d sure like to try!”

 

Ramsay considered Ron carefully – Ron tried very hard to guess what he was thinking, but his expression was a perfectly unreadable mask. Then Ramsay inclined his head in a nod.

 

“You should be very proud of yourself, Ron,” he said kindly. “Well done on your biscuits.”

 

“…Thank you, sir.”

 

As Ron stepped back, he wasn’t sure how to feel.

 

Had he convinced Ramsay? Had he not? Had he made it? Had he not?

 

Even as he went back up to the Gryffindor common room, told Hermione and Harry about his audition, and went to bed that night, those questions still rattled in his head.

 

Had he convinced Ramsay? Had he not? Had he made it? Had he not?

 

Ron didn’t sleep a wink. When Harry got up the next morning, Ron immediately pressured his best friend to go downstairs with him to go check the notice board.

 

When they reached the bottom of the stairs, they found a common room filled with cheering and screaming people.

 

“Hey, it’s Ron!” said Seamus Finnegan.

 

Everyone cheered, abruptly descending on Ron in a mob to pat his back and chant his name.

 

WEASLEY! WEASLEY! WEASLEY!”

 

“Wha – huh – ?!” Ron said, hardly daring to believe it.

 

Hermione shoved herself through the crowd and threw both of her arms around Ron, squeezing him tightly.

 

“You did it, Ron!” she squealed excitedly as she pulled away. “You were only one of two Gryffindors who made it into the top 12!”

 

Ron glanced at Harry, who was grinning from ear to ear.

 

“Congratulations, Ron!” he said brightly.

 

Ron was stunned. He couldn’t believe it. Was this just an amazing dream, or…?

 

With some difficulty he forced himself to the front of the crowd to look at the notice board.

 

The list of names was divided by house, with their years marked next to them…and there it was, in black and white.

 

Hufflepuff

Rose Zeller (2nd year)

Owen Cauldwell (3rd year)

Kevin Whitby (4th year)

Hannah Abbott (6th year)

 

Ravenclaw

Arjuna Belaji (4th year)

Astoria Greengrass (4th year)

Cho Chang (7th year)

 

Slytherin

Bridget Jaheem (4th year)

Millicent Bulstrode (6th year)

Daphne Greengrass (6th year)

 

Gryffindor

Colin Creevey (5th year)

Ron Weasley (6th year)

 

Chapter Text

Hannah hadn't slept a wink the night before the MagicChef audition results came out either. She'd been too excited to get started in the competition to even think about sleeping!

 

The audition had gone pretty well. Hannah had made Ramsay her favorite mocha chocolate chip biscuits, baked into the shape of tiny cups and served with ice cold milk. Ramsay had been very pleased with her creativity and her flavors, so Hannah was modestly sure that she had a good chance of making it. 

 

The night after the audition Hannah sat up in bed, her wand lit up in her lap as she skimmed through a copy of Enchantment in Baking, making notes in the margins. She was just editing the herbs she would want to add to a good steak and kidney pie when she heard a rustle of the curtains. 

 

"Hannah?"

 

Hannah looked up -- Susan Bones, rubbing the side of her face tiredly, was peeking through her bed curtains.

 

"Oh, sorry," whispered Hannah. "Did I wake you up?"

 

Susan yawned. "No, no...just needed the loo. What are you still doing up?" 

 

"Couldn't sleep," Hannah said with a shrug.

 

Susan sat down on the floor, letting Hannah's bed curtains drape around her as she leaned her head and arms on Hannah's bed. 

 

"...We've got class in the morning, you know," Susan reminded her.

 

"Oh, I know," Hannah answered with a small smile. "I just...I can't help it, I'm excited!"

 

Susan smiled sleepily as Hannah continued.

 

"I mean, you know how long I've been saving up and brushing up on Muggle technology and stuff, so I can go to culinary school...if I had Gordon Ramsay's seal of approval on my cooking too..."

 

"It'd probably be that much easier to open some fancy restaurant somewhere," Susan agreed tiredly.

 

"Right!" said Hannah brightly. 

 

Susan adjusted her arms on the bed, her face getting a little more serious. "I'm sure you'll get in...you're more than good enough. But the competition's sure to be difficult -- Ramsay's got pretty high standards."

 

Hannah looked back down at the page of the cookbook thoughtfully. "Yeah..."

 

She looked up with a small smile. "...Well, I'm willing to work hard to impress him! That's all I can really do, right?"

 

Susan smiled tiredly. "Mm-hm."

 

She yawned again. "Well...I'm going back to bed. Try to get a little sleep, okay?"

 

Hannah nodded, and Susan returned to her bed. Despite her assent, however, Hannah did not get any sleep -- her mind was racing too fast imagining the amazing restaurant she'd open in Diagon Alley after graduation.

 

It'd be bright, and open, and friendly, and warm. Hannah had always loved the idea of long tables, like the sort in a German Biergarten -- ones that allowed all of the guests to sit together in one space, rather than cloistering themselves away in separate, darkened corners. There would be lots of natural light and several large brick fireplaces, and there would be a large mural along the back wall of the restaurant, covered in dragons, hippogriffs, unicorns, and winged horses. Each table would be made of warm oak and each chandelier would be made of crystal. The food would be fresh, hot British comfort food -- Toad in the Hole, Yorkshire Pudding, Fish and Chips, Mince Pies, and Roast Potatoes -- and around Christmas time, the restaurant would host grand parties featuring live musicians and lots of dancing. 

 

With how the War was going...the thought of making a place like that sounded so, so good...

 

Hannah put down her quill for a second. Her eyes drifted up to the hangings over her head.

 

Thirteen Muggles killed last summer -- Stan Shurnpike arrested as a Death Eater -- Katie cursed in Hogsmeade...there was so much fear and confusion and grief to be found everywhere. Hannah had gone down to bake in the kitchens a lot this school year -- keeping her hands busy baking something sweet for her friends always helped her keep her mind busy too, so she didn't have to think about the War.

 

So Hannah returned her mind to the make-believe restaurant in her mind's eye. 

 

It would be such a wonderful place... It'd be a lighthouse in this dark time -- a sanctuary, where everyone would feel welcome, safe, and at home. 

 

When the sun came up, Hannah decided to wait in the common room until the notice was put up. As the common room filled, she passed the time skimming through the recipes she'd annotated, wondering what kinds of food Ramsay would ask them to make for the competition.

 

'I hope there's a round where we can make pies,' Hannah thought brightly. Blackberry was the one she liked baking the most -- it was her mother's favorite, and she loved baking it on her birthday in place of a cake. 

 

When Professor Sprout finally arrived early that morning, paper in hand, it took Hannah all of her self-control not to sneak a peek. When it was up, Hannah found her name near the very top.

 

She couldn't stop herself from cheering out loud.

 

"YEEEEEAAAAH -- "

 

Sprout hushed her quickly, pointing down at the floor to indicate her housemates sleeping downstairs. Hannah covered her mouth with both hands trying to contain her excitement, and Sprout gave her a softer, prouder expression.

 

"Congratulations," Hufflepuff's Head of House whispered. 

 

Hannah grinned from ear to ear.

 

"Thanks!" she squeaked back.

 

She twirled around the room giddily, before packing up her things and heading out of the common room. She had to go bake something in the kitchen to celebrate -- maybe a creme brûlée! 

 

Chapter Text

 

Daphne Greengrass slept poorly after the audition. Ramsay's response to her almond spritz biscuits had been lukewarm to her mind, and to her frustration Daphne had had trouble getting a good fix on what Ramsay was thinking. To make matters worse, she knew Astoria was also competing -- and as much as Daphne knew she'd hate losing, she knew she'd hate it even more if she lost to her younger sister.

 

Daphne woke up the next morning and took her sweet time heading downstairs, picking out her prettiest gold earrings and slowly pinning up her hair. She really didn't want to let on how badly she wanted to make it in, so she figured if she walked downstairs casually, she'd be able to obscure any disappointment she might feel if she wasn't on the list, and hear congratulations from everyone else beforehand if she was. 

 

She put on her dark red lipstick, puckering her lips once to make sure it looked right, before applying her eye shadow and long false lashes. 

 

Daphne was sharp enough to know that in many ways, she was quite superficial. She valued how people presented themselves and looked down on those who did so poorly. But at the same time, she knew that appearances were important -- although they could sometimes be deceiving, if you were sharp enough, they could tell you a lot. The people that dressed poorly often had low self esteem, or just didn't care enough to make a good impression. They didn't care about advancement. They were complacent, lazy, and often ignorant about the world around them. They deluded themselves into thinking that they could just "plug out" and not play the game, and still get everything they wanted anyway. In other words, they were people Daphne wanted nothing to do with. The people who dressed to impress, like she did, understood that people invariably do judge each other...and that if you want to get anywhere, sometimes you just have to work with what you have and project an image that both you and the world will like...

 

That balancing act was hard sometimes...but she was resilient enough. She could handle it. She could handle herself.

 

"Damn," Daphne hissed under her breath; she'd accidentally dropped the lash she'd been applying. 

 

She picked it up and applied it perfectly the second time; looking herself over, she decided she looked presentable, and left the bathroom. Outside waiting for her was her dormmate Pansy Parkinson, who was fixing her hair. 

 

"Ugh, the curl's already come out," she griped. 

 

"Use Foxglove's next time," Daphne advised. "Sleekeasy is a perfect joke when it comes to hair..."

 

Pansy turned around so her hair faced Daphne. "Put it up for me."

 

Daphne indulged her, quickly tying up Pansy's short black bob in a short updo. Pansy never put in the proper work with her hair because she knew Daphne was good at it and could pick up her slack. Daphne would've probably told Pansy to do it herself were it not for her needing to stay on the Parkinson family's good side...and she needed to be on their good side...

 

Once she was done, Pansy looked her hair over in the bathroom mirror. Satisfied, she bustled downstairs. Daphne descended slowly behind her. When she arrived in the common room, Daphne found Pansy milling around the room like a bulldog sniffing around for something. 

 

'Looking for Draco,' Daphne thought to herself with a covert roll of her eyes. She could understand the sway of a romantic girl's emotions, but for the life of her, she would never understand Pansy. Draco was clearly just not interested anymore, but Pansy still clung on like a crazed grindylow. 

 

At that moment Daphne's other dormmate, Tracey Davis, came up to greet her.

 

"Congratulations, Daphne!" she said with a triumphant grin. 

 

Daphne despite herself was taken aback. "What?"

 

"You made it into the top 12," said Tracey. "You and Millicent...and Bridget, you know, the fourth year Muggle-born?"

 

Daphne was stunned -- she made it? Really?

 

She went over to the board and skimmed through the names until she found hers. She stared at it for a long while, before she became aware of the fact that she was grinning from ear to ear. Struggling to regain her composure, since she knew her teeth were not that pretty, she put forward her best closed-mouth smirk as she faced the rest of the common room. She noticed Millicent migrating across the room and inclined her head to her politely. 

 

"Congratulations, Millicent."

 

Millicent looked back with a thoroughly uncaring eye. "Made it then, did I?"

 

"Yes," said Daphne. Despite herself she couldn't help but eye the larger girl curiously. "I'm surprised you went out for it."

 

Millicent shrugged dismissively and headed over to look at the board herself. Daphne watched her go, before quickly strolling back the way she came. Several other students congratulated her as she headed back upstairs.

 

When she reached the 6th year Slytherin girls' dorm, Daphne closed the door and bent down to reach under her bed. She pulled out a worn brown leather book with a tiny silver lock on it; with a tap of her wand, she opened it.

 

Inside were countless magical pictures, drawings, and handwritten paragraphs, all written like journal entries. It was a scrapbook...but there were two different types of writing in the book, and before Daphne's very eyes, an entry was being written, as if by an invisible hand.

 

Jan 4, 1997

Dearest Daphne,

I got many compliments on your silver pocket watch today. Forgive me, but I had to lie and say that Father had purchased it for my birthday, since Tulsa was in earshot. I look at it now and long to be looking into your blazing eyes. I beg of you, let me know of Ramsay's contest as soon as you know. I have our cottage in Bulgaria all picked out, and I have gotten Old Uncle Parkinson's blessing. With his support, I hope to present my intent to marry you to my father this upcoming summer, after your birthday. That summer cannot come fast enough! 

Stay forever of spring, sweet Laurel. обичам те.

Rudolf

 

Daphne beamed at the sight of the wonderful words, perfectly uncaring about how badly her gum line showed in her unattractively toothy grin. She bent down and kissed the page, leaving a soft impression of red lips behind, and then scribbled a quick response.

 

Jan 4th, 1997

My Rudolf,

I made it! Please tape in pictures of our house so that I may see it. I want to imagine the two of us standing outside of it every day of this competition. 

обичам те! To the moon and back I shall love you...

Daphne 

 

Chapter Text

Arjuna Belaji slept very well after the audition. She wanted to make sure she was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed first thing in the morning so that she could see the results first thing. Then she could properly scope out her competition, brush up on braising and sautéing, and memorize all the recipes she could before the first round of the contest. 

 

Arjuna had been confident from the start that she would get a spot in the MagicChef Junior competition. Her mother had taught her everything she knew about cooking, and Arjuna had earned three blue ribbons in local cooking competitions. She'd even once met Ramsay long before he became her teacher at Flourish and Blotts -- he'd signed her copy of his cookbook, Transfiguring Flavor. 

 

Arjuna headed up to bed before anyone else that night, even her friend and dormmate Astoria Greengrass, who had also auditioned. Arjuna knew Astoria would do well, but they both knew full well that they wouldn't go easy on each other. If nothing else, Arjuna had a suspicion what Astoria might want the 5000 Galleon prize money for...

 

'I could always give her some of the money, when I win,' Arjuna comforted herself. 'Papa doesn't need it; we've got more than enough.'

 

When she reached the 4th year Ravenclaw girl's dorm, Arjuna closed the door behind her, sitting down on her neatly made bed and pulling out the top dresser drawer. She took out some candles and lit them one by one with the tip of her wand. Once the smell of jasmine fully permeated the room, she fetched the small crystal ball she'd bought in the Apothecary at Diagon Alley from her suitcase and sat down on her bed, cradling the ball in her hands and allowing her mind to go blank.

 

Arjuna loved the idea of Divination even before she attended Hogwarts. It had always seemed so ethereal and otherworldly. She'd really fallen in love with it, however, after starting the class last year with Professors Trelawney and Firenze. After telling her mother about it, she found out that there was actually some Seer blood in their veins, as Arjuna's great-grandmother had apparently been one. Arjuna sometimes laughed to Astoria that that was why she was so good at guessing the correct answers on pop quizzes.

 

After a moment of meditating and rocking the crystal ball back and forth in her hands, Arjuna placed it gently on the bedspread in front of her and gazed into it. 

 

The mist in the crystal ball was moving -- was that an opening gate? A gate for opportunity...but what was in the gate? Triangular ears, a tail...was it a cat?

 

Arjuna squinted at the strange cat-like shape, confused. Cats, in scrying terms, tended to represent deceit...would someone cheat in the competition?

 

The cat scurried around a bottle, it's tail trailing like smoke around it, before darting away in fear. 

 

'A bottle...success, maybe?'

 

Arjuna considered the crystal ball carefully, her dark eyes running over the glass thoughtfully.

 

'Looks like someone will cheat in the competition...but the cheater will not win.'

 

Arjuna smiled wryly. That was fine by her -- she would certainly never cheat, after all. 

 

'Guess all I have to do is figure out who's going to cheat,' she thought to herself. 'Logically speaking, it's likely to be a Gryffindor or a Slytherin -- they always are the most brutal, when they want to win something. And Hufflepuffs hate cheating, by and large.'

 

Astoria's face rippled through Arjuna's memory.

 

"Sorry, I follow things in the real world -- predicting things like that is just too wooly for my taste."

 

Arjuna bit her lip. She had to remember to be cautious with her interpretation -- even Professor Firenze personally saw all wizarding methods of fortune telling unreliable and only followed the stars. And she certainly hoped that no one would cheat in the competition...

 

Still turning her theory over in her head, Arjuna carefully put away her crystal ball and blew out the candles before tucking herself into bed. 

 

The next morning she woke up bright and early, in time for Flitwick to post the names. Arjuna nodded politely to Flitwick and scanned the list. She smiled at the sight of her and Astoria's names on it. 

 

'All right, then...who is a threat?' Arjuna thought to herself. ' Hannah Abbott...I hear she's pretty good...and so is Bridget Jaheem, her mother owns her own restaurant.'

 

A few other names on the list made her frown. 

 

'Weasley's in the competition? Since when does he cook? Millicent Bulstrode...and Colin Creevey? How weird...'

 

Arjuna shrugged off her confusion. 

 

'Well, Professor Ramsay wouldn't choose any slackers. If they can't keep up, they'll be weeded out quickly enough.'

 

She tossed her long black braid over her shoulder and headed back up the stairs toward the dorm with a satisfied smile. Even if she and Astoria were rivals, that didn't mean they couldn't talk about the competition. 

Chapter Text

Kevin Whitby got to sleep very late the night after the audition. He'd been unable to get to sleep, as his brain had working at a mile a minute, so he kept himself busy with doing homework, playing with his toad Wallace, and finally writing a letter to his parents. 

 

He settled down in bed, drawing the curtains and lighting up his wand so he could see the parchment propped up on a thick book in his lap. Nibbling on the edge of his Self-Inking quill for a minute, he then slowly started to write. 

 

Hey Mum and Dad,

So I just had my audition today! Think I did all right. Professor Ramsay said my lemon ricotta biscuits were very tasty and tart, and he told me to tell Gran that he'd love to get her recipe! I figured that would make her happy.

 

Kevin paused. He wondered for a moment if he should say that Ramsay also warned him about how soft the cookies were, but decided against it. His parents would only want to hear good news -- no sense in worrying them... 

 

There are a lot of really great student cooks competing! In my group, I saw Malcolm Preece, who's one of our Chasers, and these two Ravenclaw girls in my year, Astoria Greengrass and Arjuna Belaji, were also at the auditions. I've heard Arjuna has won blue ribbons for her cooking, so I'm sure she'll make it into the competition. 

Everything is fine here at Hogwarts. Hufflepuff is really looking forward to the Quidditch season coming back on -- with our win against Ravenclaw in the fall, Hufflepuff is in the lead! I'm sure we'll win the Quidditch Cup for sure this year!

 

Once again Kevin decided not to mention that Hogsmeade trips were still cancelled thanks to what happened to Katie Bell. He just couldn't tell his parents about what had happened to her; he knew full well how scared they were about the War. They had to face the consequences of it every day, Mrs. Whitby hunting down Death Eaters with the rest of the Aurors and Mr. Whitby protecting Muggles with his fellow police officers. The very last thing they needed...was being scared for their son's sake. 

 

Weather's lovely up here. The snow is perfectly white and fluffy -- just like the sort we used to see on holiday, at our old cabin. It reminds me of the big fires we'd put in the fireplace, the mince pies we'd bake, and the ghost stories we'd tell at night...

 

'Back then, it was fun to be scared,' Kevin thought to himself. Memories of the three of them laughing and screaming together rippled over his mind. 'Back then...there wasn't really anything to be afraid of...no Death Eaters, no Dark Lord...no...danger...'

 

Plop.

 

A big spot of ink landed on the parchment. It snapped Kevin back down to earth. He couldn't undo the mistake, so he simply ignored it.

 

Miss you both so much! I'll try to get your birthday cake done a little early this year, Dad, so you can bring it into the office! How about a three layer German chocolate cake with caramel and almond shavings?

Love from

Kevin

 

Kevin finally dozed off in the wee hours of the morning. It wasn't until his best friends, Brendan Halkirk and Katsuji Yamazaki, burst into the room and ripped his bed curtains open that he shot awake.

 

"Kevin!" Brendan hollered excitedly. "Kevin, mate, you did it! You made it!"

 

"Wha -- huh?" 

 

Kevin was still half-asleep.

 

"You made it into the top 12!" Katsuji said more calmly, though his smile was just as big. 

 

Kevin rubbed his eyes. "Top 12...what?"

 

Then his brain caught up. He bolted upright.

 

"...I made it into the contest!?"

 

"Uh, yeah!" laughed Brendan. "Merlin, only had to tell you three times for you to get it...come on, get dressed and go look for yourself! 

 

"Go on ahead," Kevin said quickly. "I'll be right behind you!"

 

Brendan and Katsuji left the room and started up the stairs. Kevin snatched up his letter to his parents and scribbled a postscript in messy, oversized letters. 

 

P.S. I MADE IT INTO THE TOP 12! Wish me luck!! 

Chapter Text

Millicent Bulstrode slept in as long as she could the night after the auditions. Everyone's reactions to her auditioning had been negative enough that she figured it would be better to feign indifference if she made it in, rather than get excited. And she had a nagging feeling that she'd done pretty well -- the look in Ramsay's eye when he'd first tasted her pistachio rose macarons had been enough to make her smile despite herself.

 

Millicent honestly wasn't sure if this had been a good idea. She had a very definitive reputation at school -- that of the "tough girl" -- and that would definitely be jeopardized by her putting on a chef's apron. But everyone had been going on and on about Slytherin losing the House Cup because Draco dropped off the Quidditch team, and Millicent finally just got sick enough of it that she decided to try to earn those points back herself. It was definitely not because she actually liked cooking, she'd told everyone -- of course not. 

 

The night after the auditions, Millicent sat alone by the fire in the middle of the Slytherin common room, doing her Defense Against the Dark Arts homework. She ignored her dormmates -- Daphne Greengrass, Pansy Parkinson, and Tracey Davis -- as they headed up to bed. At one point a younger Slytherin boy from the auditions looked as if he was considering sitting by the fire too, but when he caught Millicent's eye and was victim to her cold, quietly aggressive stare, he quickly headed upstairs instead.

 

She waited until the common room was completely deserted. Then, in a hushed, but very clear voice, she spoke into the empty room. 

 

"Winky, please come here."

 

Crack. 

 

In an instant, a tiny house elf with long eyelashes, a mop of black hair, and very big watery eyes appeared in the Slytherin commonroom.

 

"You called, Miss Millicent?" squeaked the elf called Winky. 

 

Millicent's eyes softened significantly upon the elf. 

 

"Yes, I did," she said. "I wanted to thank you for your help at the audition today."

 

Winky blinked in surprise. 

 

"Oh, but Miss Millicent," she squeaked, "Winky only did was what Master Gordon told her to do!"

 

"Yes, but you were still very helpful," Millicent replied patiently, "and I'm positive no one else thanked you lot for your good work, so thank you."

 

Still faintly bemused, Winky nonetheless smiled slightly. 

 

"Oh...well...you're very welcome, Miss Millicent!" 

 

Millicent didn't smile, per say, but her black eyes were quite soft. "That was all. I'll let you get back to work."

 

Winky nodded and, with a new little bounce to her step, she disappeared with another crack.

 

House elves were generally seen as second-class citizens in the Wizarding World. They were almost exclusively servants of old wizard families and frequently were given little respect in the eyes of the Ministry. Although they were incredibly powerful magical beings, they were often treated as lesser creatures in comparison to wizards. 

 

Millicent had felt a lot of compassion for magical Beings -- that is, house elves, centaurs, werewolves, vampires, and hags -- for a long time. She'd even been largely raised by the Bulstrode family house elf, Lowry, since her parents were so often busy with their legal practice. After the First Wizarding War, they'd been very hard at work dealing with the aftermath, especially since so many of their friends had had..."unsavory" allegations swirling around them. That had resulted in Millicent largely raising herself, with help from Lowry the elf. Lowry was unusually spunky for an elf and would covertly sidestep Mr. and Mrs. Bulstrode's strict rules to take Millicent to London and Diagon Alley while they were at work. When Millicent got to Hogwarts, she actively took an interest in house elf history, and that expanded into centaur culture and history upon meeting Professor Firenze through Divination class. She was sure to keep her liberal stance quiet around her parents, however, for they would definitely not take kindly to it; even at Hogwarts, she tried not to make her stance common knowledge, since more than a few of her classmates' parents were friends with her parents and Millicent had little interest in being the butt of anyone's jokes. 

 

Millicent put her finished homework and textbook away in her schoolbag and then quickly headed up the stairs to bed. All of the other girls were sleeping, though Daphne was resting fitfully. Shuffling into bed, Millicent pulled the curtains shut and brought the covers over her so that her feet stuck out at the bottom. She tended to kick in her sleep, and having her feet constrained gave her bad dreams.

 

When she woke up the next morning, Millicent went downstairs to find the common room bustling. Pansy Parkinson and Daphne Greengrass moved past her down the stairs. Tracey Davis, her other roommate, went over and greeted Daphne as Pansy darted off, presumably to look for Draco. Daphne looked at the board, her expression lightly smug as she headed back up toward their dorm; on her way, she gave Millicent a clipped nod. 

 

"Congratulations, Millicent," she said formally. 

 

Millicent tried to look offhand. "...Made it then, did I?"

 

"Yes," said Daphne. Her brown eyes ran over Millicent critically. "I'm surprised you went out for it."

 

Millicent shrugged, not making eye contact with Daphne. Feeling more awkward than she would care to admit, she strolled quickly past Daphne to look at the board herself. 

 

There her name was, right between Bridget Jaheem's and Daphne's. Looks like Potter's friend Weasley was competing too...and Hannah Abbott.

 

'This is going to be interesting,' Millicent thought to herself dully. 'Very interesting...'

Chapter Text

Cho Chang slept intermittently the night after the audition, as per usual. She hadn’t had a full night’s sleep where she hadn’t had to wake up at least once in a very long time…not since…

 

Cho had barely kept it together when she presented her cookies to Ramsay. She hadn’t made her white-chocolate-dipped gingersnap biscuits since Cedric was alive, and even just smelling them had brought all the memories back. Ramsay had been very kind when he tasted them, praising her on her flavors and saying that he could tell her heart had really been in her biscuits, so that had helped somewhat.

 

When Cho woke up the first time that night, it was because of her usual dream. She’d always be flying, at the start. People would be flying around her as if she were in a Quidditch match, except no one’s faces would be very clear and she’d never see anyone actually carrying the Quaffle or scoring goals. She’d be trying to catch the Snitch, which was constantly just out of reach. Then, just as she was about to catch it, the Snitch would be gone…and Cedric would be there in its place, reaching a hand out to her. And as soon as she’d grab his hand…

 

That was always the worst part.

 

In an instant, Cedric’s smiling face would go pale and lifeless, his eyes staring blankly right through her and his shirt covered in dirt. He would look just like he had when Harry brought back his body – after You-Know-Who had murdered him –

 

Cho would always try to pull away, but Cedric’s grip tightened around her, and suddenly she’d be pulled downward – down, down, down – with their brooms flying out of their hands and the darkness inhaling them –

 

Cho would always force herself awake before the acid green Dark Mark appeared out of the black void and swallowed them both whole. If she’d stayed asleep long enough to see that, she would always invariably be shaking in uncontrollable terror when she woke up.

 

Logically, Cho knew that people had gone through a lot worse than she had. Her ex-boyfriend Harry had actually seen Cedric die. She’d talked to Viktor Krum and Fleur Delacour after the Tournament, and both of them had felt survivor’s guilt – Krum especially, as Barty Crouch, Jr. had used the Imperius Curse on him to try to “take out” Harry’s competition (Fleur and Cedric) so that only Harry would’ve taken the Triwizard Cup and gone to the graveyard.

 

“Part of me vishes…that I’d been able to Stun Cedric, too…like I did vith Fleur,” Krum had told her lowly. “But then the other part of me is so, so relieved that Harry stopped me, before I hurt him too.”

 

Both he and Fleur had had nothing but nice things to say about Cedric. Fleur had even brought her arms around Cho to comfort her when she’d started to cry.

 

Cho adjusted herself in bed, placing her hands under her head as she stared up at the top of her four-posted bed and at the sapphire blue hangings set up around it.

 

She’d cried a lot in the year after Cedric’s death. It was one of the main tension points between her and Harry, before they broke up – Harry wanted to forget what had happened, and Cho didn’t. Cedric meant enough to Cho that she couldn’t just not know what had happened, even if the knowledge hurt; she had to know what had happened, in order for it to be real. She had to know what had happened, in order for her to heal. And, she considered to herself as she stared up at the top of her bed…perhaps she had not realized that because Harry already did know what had happened and was traumatized by it…he didn’t really understand her needs as well as she’d thought he might, since he had been mourning Cedric like she was. And in retrospect, she really didn’t blame him for that. After all, he’d only known Cedric for two years. She’d known Cedric almost her entire life.

 

They’d met at a Ministry Christmas function. They both were only children of Ministry employees and had been dragged along by their parents, and being the only two children there, they had immediately run off to play. They snatched food from the potluck table and hid behind the long curtains draped around the enchanted windows, chatting about Quidditch for hours. From then on, play dates were scheduled…and young love blossomed.

 

Cho, being the logical one of the two of them, had not called it love, at the start. Even back then, she knew they were just children – love was something adults did, so what they had had to be just a crush. But Cedric had known. He’d been wiser than her, even though she was in Ravenclaw and he was in Hufflepuff. So when he asked her on their first real date in her third year, Cho had tried putting on the brakes – what if it ruined their friendship forever?

 

Cedric had laughed that off effortlessly.

 

“Cho…you know me better than anyone in the world,” he had said to her, grinning from ear to ear. “Do you think you could ever bring yourself to hate me?”

 

And once she thought, she realized…no. Nothing Cedric could ever do – nothing he would ever do – could ever make her stop caring about him. And she didn’t even need to answer out loud, for Cedric knew her just as well as she knew him, and had already known what her response would be.

 

So their romance began. It honestly wasn’t much different from their friendship, except that Cedric was more open with his hugs and they kissed on a regular basis. They still talked about Quidditch; they still talked about their goal to play on the same professional Quidditch team after school; they still played Gobstones; Cedric still made Cho laugh with his corny jokes; Cho still cooked for him over the winter holidays. The only difference there was that when she was cooking, Cho would sometimes imagine cooking for Cedric in their own house – in their own kitchen – as husband and wife.

 

By the time sixth year rolled around and Cedric entered the Triwizard competition, they’d been dating for three years. Cho had been hoping that after school, Cedric would formally propose to her. Maybe he’d even been planning to do so after winning the Triwizard Tournament, she thought to herself. The prize money for that competition would’ve more than covered the price of a new house in Wandsworth Green…just like Cho had always dreamed…

 

Cho turned over in bed, rubbing her eyes tiredly, and then reached under her bed. Her hand reached around for a minute, before finding her sketchbook. She flipped through the pages until she found the one she was looking for.

 

The prize money…that was this had all come down to. She had a chance to win this competition now – one that suited her talents. She knew Cedric would not have wanted her to pass it up, just as she hadn’t wanted him to pass up the Triwizard Tournament, when he wanted to do it so badly. But there was no point in buying that house in Wandsworth Green anymore. Cho’s old dream wouldn’t be complete, if she bought it now. All she wanted now…was to make sure that no one forgot about Cedric.

 

Her sketch was of a full, life-size statue of Cedric, with tiny writing written in cursive around the base: “Remember Cedric Diggory.”

 

She’d originally sent a copy of her drawing to Mr. Diggory that Christmas, asking if he’d be all right with her wanting to commission one just like it to be placed at Hogwarts, if she won the competition. The next day Mr. Diggory had sent back a letter soaked with tears.

 

“There is no other home more deserving of such an honor,” the letter had said. “I couldn’t be more proud of you, and I know Cedric would be as well, were he here.”

 

Cho ran her hand over her sketch, her black eyes dark with sorrow. Then she very gently put the sketchbook away and tried to fall back to sleep. Her next cluster of dreams she barely remembered when she woke up…but they were much more peaceful than any she’d had in a long time…and she could’ve sworn she’d heard Cedric’s voice in most of them.

 

When she woke up the second time, Cho decided to head downstairs to check the notice board. Her friend Marietta Edgecombe came with her. The terrible blisters Harry’s friend Hermione Granger had cursed onto her face were still as insanely red as ever, but Cho barely saw them anymore – her best friend’s eyes and smile were infinitely more important.

 

A crowd had already formed around the notice board. When some of them noticed Cho, they started cheering and chattering excitedly.

 

“Congratulations, Cho!” said her yearmate Eddie Carmichael. “You made it!”

 

Cho gawked. Marietta grabbed onto her friend’s shoulder, shaking her excitedly.

 

“I knew you’d make it!” she said brightly.

 

“Most of your competition’s in Hufflepuff,” said Carmichael smugly, “so you’ve got this in the bag – they might be pleasant chaps, but they don’t know fine dining – ”

 

“Eddie,” Cho said in a cool, quelling tone, “kindly zip your lips so that I don’t feel the urge to hex them shut.”

 

Carmichael took her at her word, leaving with his hands up by his head in halfhearted surrender. Marietta rolled her eyes, but turned to Cho with a fierce pride in her eyes.

 

“That idiot is right about one thing, Cho – you’ve got this, no question.”

 

Cho smiled at her best friend…and for a moment, she could almost imagine Cedric standing right behind Marietta, smiling just as proudly.

Chapter Text

Colin Creevey got to sleep on time the night after the audition, but woke up in the wee hours of the morning feeling wide awake, like a child anticipating Christmas morning.

 

Feeling restless, Colin strolled down to the abandoned Gryffindor common room and found a spot in one of the comfy chairs set up in front of the fire. He stared into the flames, watching them lick at the darkened firewood and listening to their melodic crackles.

 

It was too bad that he couldn’t use the Floo Network to contact his dad. Sure, it was early, but Mr. Creevey’s route as a milkman always got him up bright and early, so no doubt he’d already be awake. Sadly Mr. Creevey was a Muggle, so his house would not be linked to the Floo Network, and he’d probably have a heart attack seeing his son’s disembodied head in the fireplace.

 

Colin and his brother Dennis were both very close to their dad – how could they not be, when he was all the two boys had? Their mom had left the three of them when Dennis was just a baby – Colin barely remembered her now, but frankly, he didn’t want to remember her, considering how badly she had hurt their dad. He’d tried dating again, after she left…but Colin saw all of those relationships break off one by one, largely thanks to how much trouble his dad had trusting anyone with his heart again. It seemed sometimes like the only people Mr. Creevey trusted unconditionally were his sons.

 

Colin looked out the window. He supposed he could always write his dad a letter and send it by Owl Post…but he’d had to keep them to a minimum, since the Creeveys lived in a very nosy neighborhood and any owls that flocked around their house tended to draw a lot of unnecessary attention. And Colin and Dennis had brought their dad enough negative attention over the years, with their little outbursts of what they had not known at the time was magic.

 

One time Dennis had made an entire trail of flowers sprout up between him and the girl he had a crush on. Another time, when a bully had broken Colin’s camera, Colin had accidentally Transfigured a beehive that had been hanging in a tree overhead onto the bully’s head, and he had been sent to the hospital with hundreds of bee stings covering his face. The two brothers even almost got expelled once when Colin accidentally hexed his brother’s teacher after seeing her use corporal punishment on him in front of her class – he’d tried over and over to explain that he had only shouted at the teacher, and not shoved her into the blackboard. He’d never even touched her! And even if he had, there was no way he’d be that strong – she’d been thrown into the blackboard with so much force that the blackboard had shattered into a hundred pieces!

 

Mr. Creevey had had no better explanation for all of the trouble his sons got into than they did…but he still loved them unconditionally. Many people over the years labeled his behavior as coddling, saying he had been protecting two delinquents who needed correction, but he refused to see it that way. Perhaps he’d been a bit starry-eyed about his two sons, Colin thought to himself – but he had been right. When Professor McGonagall arrived and explained what was really going on, it was the answer that all three of them had wanted to know for years. And after Colin received his Hogwarts letter and learned that he would be going to a school where he could learn to control his weird powers, Colin had made a promise to himself. From that day forward, Colin and Dennis would never embarrass Mr. Creevey again. Mr. Creevey would be proud of them and their accomplishments, and the Creevey name would earn esteem across this amazing new world they’d found themselves a part of…the Wizarding World.

 

And so during every holiday break, Colin showed his dad all of the pictures he took at school – the good, the bad, the embarrassing, and the funny – and told him about everything that he’d been unable to send a letter about. And every year, his dad would always say the same thing – everything was just so “magical.”

 

Colin noticed a copy of the Daily Prophet abandoned on one of the side tables. He inched himself out of the armchair, snatched it up, and then sat back down, opening it up and reading the articles.

 

‘Two more Muggles found dead in Liverpool,’ Colin thought to himself grimly. ‘It looks like the Death Eaters are traveling through the north of England…I wonder if You-Know-Who is trying to taunt Dumbledore, by moving closer and closer to Hogwarts every month. Everyone knows he’s more scared of Dumbledore than anyone…’

 

The thought made Colin’s eyes narrow and his heart blaze with determination.

 

‘Well…when I’m out of school, I’ll join the Order of the Phoenix, and I’ll make sure the Death Eaters never reach Hogwarts!’ he thought. If Hogwarts fell…well, then what would happen to all of the young Muggle-borns? Where would they be? Dennis and he had been able to start making something of themselves here at Hogwarts – would those new Muggle-born students never find anywhere to go, if Hogwarts didn’t exist?

 

Colin flipped through the rest of the paper. Finding the crossword, he put his hand on an abandoned quill on one of the tables and started to fill it out.

 

He couldn’t do anything until he was of age, naturally. Dumbledore wouldn’t let him enlist at only fifteen. So in the meantime, all Colin could do was focus on the rest of his life…as well as he was able.

 

One of the clues was “The head chef of Hell’s Kitchen.” That made Colin grin broadly as he scribbled in the answer.

 

How proud would his dad be, when he won the contest! How amazing would it be for his dad, meeting the best wizard chef in the country and visiting one of the best wizard-owned restaurants in the world! He could hear his dad now: “Oh – it’s just so…magical!”

 

When the sun rose several hours later, Colin had finished the crossword and started writing several letters to the Daily Prophet’s editor regarding various articles. (Some of the mistakes were simply grammar-oriented, but others…Merlin’s beard! Colin wondered if anyone fact-checked things at the paper, sometimes.)

 

Colin was the first one to see Professor McGonagall arrive in the common room with the list of names. He shot to his feet, staring at her avidly as she went over to the board to post it.

 

“Did I make it?” he burst out before he could stop himself.

 

McGonagall glanced at him a bit reproachfully, and Colin winced. She then stepped back and let him dart over to read the names.

 

Colin found the Gryffindor heading…and there it was! His name! Right above Ron Weasley’s!

 

“I took the liberty of sending your father a letter through the Muggle Post,” McGonagall said, and her lips curled up in a small, proud smile. “He should be receiving it in the next two days.”

 

Colin looked up at her, his eyes and smile over-bright.

 

“…Thank you, Professor!”

 

McGonagall inclined her head in a small nod and swept out of the room.

Chapter Text

Astoria Greengrass slept fitfully the night after the auditions. Regardless of how well the audition had gone, Astoria herself had not been pleased with the finished result. Cookies and sweets had never exactly been her strong point – she herself had always disliked very sugary foods and tended to gravitate toward more fruity or savory flavors. Even when she and her sister were little, Daphne’s favorite sweet was Chocolate Frogs – Astoria’s was Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans.

 

Still, Astoria had known she should try to appeal to what most people would prefer, so as to have a better certainty that she’d appeal to Ramsay’s taste buds, and that would mean making a sugary biscuit. So instead of making a mince pie, like the sort she’d make for her Uncle Hyperion, or her personal favorite, cheesy thumbprint biscuits with Tomato Bourbon Jam, she chose an extra hard recipe for vanilla and chocolate Napoleon-inspired biscuits. She’d picked it not just because of the sweeter flavors, but because Napoleons are one of the hardest desserts anyone can get right in their usual form, let alone as a biscuit.

 

Alas, a half hour was precious time, and in the end, her biscuits had not turned out perfectly – Ramsay cited that they were too crispy around the edges and that the chocolate faintly overpowered the vanilla. He still seemed to enjoy them, but Astoria was putout. Despite his praise, she knew she could’ve done better…and if there was anything Astoria was, it was her own worst critic.

 

When she returned back to the Ravenclaw commonroom that evening, she found an armchair by the window and settled down into it comfortably. Her friend Arjuna Belaji, who had been with her at the audition and had gotten great praise for her Nan Khatai biscuits, headed up to bed first, and Astoria gave her a smile and a small wave as she left up the stairs. Astoria then took out her Muggle Studies homework and book from her bag and started writing her essay on Muggle transportation.

 

Just as she was finishing up her paragraph about the London Tube, she suddenly became aware of a commotion just outside the Ravenclaw commonroom. It was loud enough that it got the attention of the other Ravenclaws studying in the room. It almost sounded like a fight, but…no, there was too much cheering for that…

 

The other students went to go check and Astoria bustled after them, trying to make her way through the crowd. When they reached the entrance of the portrait hole and Astoria pushed her way to the front, she was horrified by what she saw.

 

One of the Ravenclaw upperclassmen – a perfect prat of a seventh year named Eddie Carmichael – had strung a Slytherin first year up to one of the chandeliers by the back of his robes and was now hexing those same robes to flash Ravenclaw colors like a light-up neon sign, to the cheers of the entire crowd. The poor Slytherin boy looked terrified but was trying desperately not to cry as he faced down his tormentors.

 

The students who had come out of the commonroom with Astoria merely stood around looking baffled. Astoria, on the other hand, strode forward furiously, whipping her wand out in a single dramatic gesture.

 

Expelliarmus!”

 

Eddie Carmichael’s wand abruptly shot out of his hand and went soaring up into the air. The entire crowd watched the wand spiral around once in mid-air before landing in Astoria’s outstretched hand. Astoria then barreled over to Carmichael, her light blue eyes flashing at him as she stood protectively in front of the first year Slytherin boy.

 

“What are you playing at!?” she demanded.

 

“That…that kid was trying to sneak into Ravenclaw Tower,” Carmichael explained, a little taken aback by her ferocity but standing his ground. “He had this stuff with him – ”

 

He held out a pot of Peruvian Instant Darkness Power and a bottle of green spray paint.

 

“He was going to vandalize the commonroom,” Carmichael said, his hazel eyes flashing at the Slytherin boy behind Astoria in righteous fury. “I just figured we’d send him back to the Snakes with some tagging of our own – ”

 

“Two wrongs do not make a right, Eddie Carmichael,” Astoria snapped back. “Regardless of what he was trying to do, we are above bullying! Or at least, I am – I frankly don’t know or care how you sleep at night!”

 

Carmichael’s eyes narrowed. “Chill out, Greengrass – we weren’t hurting the kid.”

 

“You don’t know the definition of ‘hurt,’ then,” Astoria said coldly. “It takes more than just physical wounds.”

 

She turned around to face the boy. His eyes were still full of tears he was trying desperately to choke back, and he stared at her in a watery mixture of confusion and disbelief. Astoria spared him a small, reassuring smile, before levitating him off the chandelier and back down to the ground. She then disenchanted his clothes, removing the flashing Ravenclaw colors, and helped the boy pull his robes back on, since they’d partially come off in the mayhem.

 

“I want you to go back to your commonroom,” she told the boy quietly, her eyes gentle but her tone very stern, “and if someone dared you to do this, I want you to tell them that Astoria Greengrass says grow a backbone and do the stupid prank yourself. Got it?”

 

The little Slytherin boy nodded silently. Then, his eyes still warily watching the other Ravenclaws, he dashed away as fast as he could.

 

Astoria flashed one more menacing look at Carmichael, before sweeping back into the commonroom to finish her homework. She wanted to finish all of the work she had for the week so far before the night was over, so she knew she had to get cracking.

 

Astoria was something of an oddity in the house of Ravenclaw. Whereas many Ravenclaws thought with their heads primarily, Astoria was a rather emotional person. It was something she had in common with her sister Daphne, even though Daphne had always obscured it from the world at large, just as their parents did and instructed them to do also. But Astoria, who had always been the black sheep of the family, disliked the Greengrass protocol demanding that they hide their intentions and feelings from the world. It seemed to her that in a world like the one they were in, people were often too stupid to look past the surface…and so it was prudent to make your emotions clear. That didn’t mean one had to be completely open about everything, of course – Astoria certainly hid away any insecurities or fears she had – but she didn’t feel the need to stand back and let people just take care of themselves. Uncle Hyperion certainly never felt the urge to do so.

 

Hyperion Carrow, who was one of Astoria’s mother Theia’s older brothers, was also a “black sheep” of the family. He’d been a Slytherin through and through, but he also had something of a rebellious streak. He loved taking risks and learning new things, and at Hogwarts had achieved the rare feat of earning 11 Outstanding OWLS, so he had been a tutor for most of his nieces and nephews before they attended Hogwarts. Astoria adored her uncle – her favorite time of every day had been when Hyperion would tutor her and Daphne, teaching them the history behind the creation of Hogwarts, instructing them on the proper way to hold one’s wand so that it would be harder for someone to disarm you, and showing them how to collect frog spawn in nearby ponds. In retrospect, Astoria thought to herself that it was likely thanks to Uncle Hyperion that she’d grown such a love for books and study – and that love of academics placed her where she was now, rather than in Slytherin house with Daphne.

 

Daphne, her older sister, had always taken more after their parents. When Astoria had popped out a Ravenclaw, Daphne had quickly withdrawn from her sister, just as her parents had. Astoria knew that it was likely Daphne thought she had to follow the self-absorbed principles their parents had taught them and simply look after herself…but that didn’t mean the rejection hadn’t hurt. The last few years had been very hard for Astoria at home – so much so that she’d actively tried to stay at Hogwarts as much as she possibly could. She just couldn’t deal with slinking around like a stray cat, trying not to listen as their parents discussed the state of the War with a measure of satisfaction rather than fear or horror.

 

Astoria could see which way the wind was blowing. Things were getting worse…so she knew she had to get out of her parents’ house as soon as possible. When the hurricane arrived, she knew staying in that house would be tantamount to condemning herself to a life in Azkaban – locked in a home that would no doubt be a gathering place for Death Eaters and pureblood-supremacists. And that was something Astoria’s soft, noble heart could not stand the thought of. It would be difficult living on her own at fourteen…but she knew deep down there was no other option. And she could always contact Professor McGonagall and ask to access the fund set up for impoverished students for her school supplies, so she could be prepared for her OWLS next year. She’d have to get top marks to become a Healer, after all…

 

When Astoria finished her homework a few hours later, she trudged up to bed and tried to will herself to sleep, even though her brain was working at a mile a minute.

 

5000 Galleons…a tenth of that would cover the down payment on an apartment, and then the rest could likely cover her rent for the next eight months…maybe a year, if she took a part-time job over the summer…and if she applied for some Ministry scholarships, then she’d probably be able to stretch that to about two years…maybe even until she was legal age, and could get a better-paying job, maybe at St. Mungo’s…

 

Even when she did fall asleep, these thoughts kept whirling in her head and prevented her from sleeping peacefully.

 

When she woke up the next morning, she showered, brushed her hair, and slipped on her robes in under ten minutes. Just as she was getting ready to head downstairs, Arjuna came upstairs to meet her. She came up behind her, squeezing her in a hug from behind.

 

“Guess what?” Arjuna said in a singsong voice, her smile broad and toothy. “Someone made it into the contest with me…”

 

Astoria gave her friend’s reflection in the mirror a sardonic smile.

 

“Was it Eddie Carmichael?” she asked innocently.

 

Arjuna stuck her tongue out at Astoria. “No! It’s you, silly!”

 

Astoria chuckled quietly. “I know, I know…”

 

Then the information fully kicked in. She turned to look at Arjuna, her mouth spreading into a wide smile.

 

“…So we both made it.”

 

“Yep,” Arjuna said brightly. “You, me, and Cho Chang, for Ravenclaw…though, with all due respect to her, I don’t think she’ll be much competition…”

 

“Being good at flying and good at cooking don’t have to be mutually exclusive things, R.J.,” Astoria said warningly. “R.J.” was Astoria’s nickname for Arjuna – she’d always nicknamed her friends, ever since she was little. Daphne had been “Fifi,” way back when.

 

“Just in your case, then?” teased Arjuna.

 

Astoria gave Arjuna a pointed shove, and Arjuna laughed. Astoria was notoriously awful at flying. She hated heights, and in first year, the broom had refused to jump up into her hand, no matter how hard she tried. When she actually tried getting into the air, she had flown around in chaotic spirals and had been taken to the Hospital Wing after her head collided with a tree branch and she was knocked unconscious.

 

Arjuna looped her arm around Astoria’s, yanking her down the stairs. “Come on – I have some recipes I want to run by you…and I want to know what you’re thinking too – I promise I won’t steal any of your ideas!”

 

Astoria smirked. “If you did, you’d only help me show off that I can do it better.”

 

“In your dreams!”

Chapter Text

Owen slept like a rock the night after the auditions. Once he was asleep, there was never anything in the wide world that could ever wake him. His dormmates liked to joke that even an earthquake wouldn't be enough to stir Owen out of a sound sleep. 

 

Admittedly Owen's audition had gone rather well, as far as he was concerned. Sure, his alfajores biscuits with dulce de leche may not have been as pretty as a lot of his competition, but Ramsay had enjoyed his flavors and had been impressed by his knowledge of South American recipes. Owen had originally thought of making his grandmother's oatmeal raisin, but after thinking it over, he decided that for a competition like this, he'd have to either go big or go home. So he'd rustled through the old compendium of recipes his dad had put together when he was in the Navy traveling overseas and settled on the caramel sandwich biscuits from Argentina that his dad had called alfajores. 

 

Owen had always been a rather laid-back kid with a love of creature comforts, but when he wanted something, he was always the sort to put in the work needed to come out ahead of his competition. Back home in the magical community of Salazar's Grove, he'd been a Hippogriff Scout from the time he was four years old, going camping in magical forests and capturing billywigs so that the troop could make their own handmade Fizzing Whizbees out of their stingers and freshly churned ice cream. His Hippogriff Scout Troop had been a second family for him while his mother was working at the office during the day, and Owen had always loved bringing all of the fun things he'd learned home to her every afternoon when she got home and they and Owen's grandmother, Grandma Trudy, all made dinner together. 

 

Nowadays Owen had an eye on slightly more adventurous pursuits. When he'd heard about the MagicChef contest, his mind raced with the possibility -- not only would there be so many delicious things he, his mom, and his grandmother could try together at Hell's Kitchen, but with the prize money, the three of them could travel all over, sampling all sorts of multi-cultural cuisine! They could try all the amazing food his dad had wrote about and see all the amazing things he'd seen. Owen knew how much that would mean to his mom...and it'd mean an awful lot to him, too.

 

Owen said goodnight to his upperclassmen friends from the Gobstones Club, Tamsin Applebee, Gregory Munslow, and Malcolm Preece, in the commonroom and then to his best friend, Eleanor Bradstone, at the stairs separating the girls’ and boys’ dorms. He then tucked himself into bed, smiling widely.

 

He knew today had gone well. Soon, maybe, he'd be in the contest, and he could get to work getting that money for that amazing world tour he’d always dreamed about.

 

'First, we'll go to Paris, France,' he thought firmly. 'The chef's capitol of the world! We'll tour the Louvre, and Notre Dame, and of course stop by the Paris Opera House for a live show, before stopping by for a meal at the Cockatrice Cellier hidden underneath it...

'Next...Italy! We'll visit the La Befana monument outside the Sicilian Ministry, visit the canals...and try fresh pasta at the best restaurants in town! We'll have to get an enchanted Venetian mask to bring home too, for Grandma to hang in her room!

'Next Greece, and then a train into Istanbul! We can explore the bazaars of Djinnulah, and buy dragon fangs that never lose their fire breath shine! Then we can take a bus into the heart of Africa, and search for wild erumpents in the Nigerian savannah!

'Oh right, and Egypt! We can explore the cursed ruins of Luxor with a real curse-breaker, and maybe we'll see a real sphinx! Then I'll be able to solve one of its riddles...if I can! And if I can't...I'll have to run for my life! Merlin, that'll be a story to tell!

'Then we can ride a magic carpet across the Middle East, into Saudi Arabia and through India...we can see the Taj Mahal and meet Dev Khamun, the youngest professional Seeker in the world! We'll have to make sure we try all of the best restaurants too...maybe we can even visit a hookah lounge!

'And Japan! Oh man, we could spend weeks there – hunting down kappas and exploring old shrines…and imagine all the fresh seafood! All the amazing sushi! And the cherry blossoms!  

'And then…Australia! We can visit the Opera House, and go to the Australian Ministry's headquarters in the Nullarbor Plain! I wonder if any of the officers positioned in Sydney would still remember Dad…?  

'The United States we'd probably have to spend at least a week on – New York City and Los Angeles alone would probably take two days each…and Salem we could probably take three, with all of their witch hunting history! And we could search for thunderbirds in the midwestern plains…!'

 

His thoughts went on and on like this. The thirteen-year-old was way too deep in his dreaming to even consider that there was no way he could pay for everything he'd thought of doing with 5000 Galleons...but the possibility alone was thrilling. The doors that such a prize opened made Owen's heart race.

 

When Owen woke up the next morning, he leapt out of bed and dashed upstairs to go check the schedule. On his way up, he ran right into a tiny girl with brown hair dashing out from the second year girl's dorm. 

 

"Ow!" said Owen. "Watch where you're going!"

 

The girl, however, had barely stopped. Still running down, she merely shot a bemused look back at him.

 

"I am!" she said coolly, showing off the gaps between her teeth when she spoke. "Maybe if you were watching where I was going too, you wouldn't have run into me!"

 

Owen stared after her, shaking his head once in bewilderment. Then, grumbling to himself about how weird girls were, he ran up the rest of the stairs. 

 

When he came up, all of the Hufflepuffs were gathered around the notice board, talking to each other excitedly. Owen saw the obnoxious second year girl reach the board, and upon reading it, she screamed, “I MADE IT! I MADE IT!” A few of the upperclassmen, including the sixth year prefect Ernie Macmillan, congratulated the small girl.

 

His heart beating with anticipation, Owen bustled forward so he could look at the board himself. As he read the names, he suddenly became aware of someone standing just over him reading the board too. The person must have seen his name as soon as he did, for as soon as Owen’s face burst out into a huge grin at the sight of it, the person hugged him from behind, squeezing him tight.

 

“Owen, you made it!” said a voice Owen recognized as Tamsin.

 

“Good on you, Owen,” said Malcolm, who put forward a bit of a sad smile. “Wish I’d made it too.”

 

Owen grinned at the two of them and Gregory, who was also smiling proudly. “Thanks, you guys…”

 

Owen noticed Eleanor coming up the stairs. She caught his eye, looking almost questioningly – he beamed from ear to ear at her, putting both thumbs in the air, and her expression lit up. She dashed over, pushing through the crowd, and gave him a big hug.

 

“Congratulations, Owen!” she said, and for once her quiet voice was shaking with a measure of excitable volume. “Oh, your mum is going to be so proud of you!”

 

Owen’s black eyes softened. “Yeah…”

 

His eyes then lit up with a thought. “You reckon I could send her a Howler, just so she can hear how excited I am?”

 

Eleanor gave him a reproachful smile.

 

“Receiving a Howler would probably scare your mother half to death,” she said levelly, her voice returning to its usual restrained pitch. “I think a letter will do quite nicely.”

 

“Okay, okay,” laughed Owen.

Chapter Text


Rose Zeller stayed up all night like a sugar-high child – which, honestly, she was. Her audition had gone so well that she'd eaten four whole Fizzing Whizbees afterwards. 

 

Rose had taken a gamble with her entry – she'd seen these "stained glass" biscuits in a Christmas catalogue at the supermarket over the holidays and spontaneously decided that she wanted to try making them all by herself for the very first time at the audition. She used stencils to cut star shapes out of her round sugar biscuits and then poured a boiling hot sugar, water, corn syrup, orange extract, and food coloring mixture in each of the cutouts. To her excitement, when the biscuits were done cooking, they turned out perfectly, with the colorful center hardening like rock candy in the center of her soft, sweet sugar biscuits.

 

When Ramsay first bit into it, he chewed it slowly, giving Rose the longest look. 

 

"...Remind everyone, darling," he had said, "how old you are? 15? 14?"

 

Rose had grinned from ear to ear. "...12, sir."

 

"Absolutely brilliant."

 

Those words echoed in Rose's head all day afterwards. She even crowed it a few time to herself, just to help it sink in. 

 

"Absolutely brilliant!" she cheered, disregarding the confused looks she was attracting. "Absolutely brilliant!"

 

Rose immediately wrote a letter to her mom and stepdad back home in Bristol with the collection of multi-colored gel pens she’d smuggled in. She always preferred writing with different colors and as much as school had forced her to write with a quill during class, she still preferred writing with pens. It was just what she was used to…even though her stepfather George was a wizard, she’d been largely raised in the Muggle world and so knew it best.

 

Her mother, Catherine, and George Ketteridge had met quite by chance. Rose had unknowingly cast magic when she and Catherine were out shopping and had made every cookie box on the shelves levitate up toward the ceiling. George had initiated a conversation with Catherine when the strange incident was over, and the next week they went on their first date. They’d been dating for almost two years when Rose got her letter to Hogwarts, and George revealed to Catherine that he, in fact, was a wizard too. He actually was one of the Ministry employees who had modified some of the memories of the Muggles who witnessed Rose’s outburst. George said he’d merely wanted to make sure that Rose and Catherine were all right, since the magical episode had left Catherine shaken and confused, but before he knew it, he’d fallen hard and fast for Catherine and never looked back.

 

George taught Rose and her mother everything he could about the Wizarding World. He brought them to the Ministry, introduced them to all of his coworkers in the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, gave them an in-depth tour of Diagon Alley, and taught Rose how to use the Floo Network both to travel and to communicate. It seemed to Rose that George had been both thrilled and relieved to share his world with them – like having to hide everything he was from them had been burdening him for years and he was so happy to finally share his secret with them. Rose sort of knew how he felt – whenever she visited her father, Patrick Zeller, it was hard not to tell him about what was going on at Hogwarts.

 

Patrick Zeller was still on moderately good terms with his estranged wife and daughter, considering that his stint in prison for burglary was the main reason why they were no longer a family. At the beginning, he had known about Rose’s magic, as per the Ministry bylaws demanding that all immediate family members know of a child’s magic once they turn 11, but not long afterward, Patrick had tried gabbing about the Wizarding World to his friends and had even tried to prove the existence of Diagon Alley to one of his girlfriends. After that, George and a few of his coworkers were sent to deal with the issue and correct the memories of the Muggles Patrick had spoken to. It had also been decided by Minister Fudge that Patrick Zeller was just too big of a liability and had put down the decision that his memory was to be wiped of all knowledge of his daughter’s magical talents. Patrick had been inconsolable throughout the entire ordeal at the thought of forgetting all of the beautiful, magical things he had seen, but he accepted the decision all the same.

 

Despite everything he’d done, Rose bore no ill will toward her father. She was sharp enough and kind enough to see that despite his criminal record and his inability to keep his mouth shut, there was still a lot of good in Patrick Zeller. He still was the funniest, most amiable man she knew. He still carried a picture of Rose as a baby in his wallet and showed it to everyone he met with pride. He still baked Christmas cookies for his coworkers every year. He still without fail sent Rose a new cookbook every Christmas, even when he’d had to work triple-overtime just to afford it. And even though Catherine didn’t speak to Patrick much anymore, she never spoke ill of her ex-husband in front of Rose and she supported Rose’s decision to keep his surname, even when she’d taken George’s.

 

Rose spent all night writing her mother and George’s letter in multicolored ink, before working on a similar, but faintly edited copy for her father. Then she put both in small pink envelopes decorated with blue, green, and purple calligraphy and put them on her bedside table so she could send them in the morning. Then to keep her mind busy waiting for the sun to rise, she started doodling cacti and robots in the spiral notebook she’d brought. She would never understand why wizards didn’t use notebooks– it was so much easier to keep notes in, rather than try to paperclip a whole bunch of loose pieces of parchment together or put them in folders. Her white kitten, Mr. Whiskers, cuddled up in her lap as she doodled, falling asleep on her leg even though his owner was still wide awake.

 

When it was finally a suitable enough time, Rose scooped Mr. Whiskers off of her lap, jumped out of bed, and dashed up the stairs, her sole focus on getting to the common room to see the notice board. On the way, she collided with a dark-skinned boy from the third year boy’s dorm who was also making his way up the stairs.

 

"Ow!" he said. "Watch where you're going!"

 

Undeterred, Rose kept running, shooting the boy a frown over her shoulder as she went.

 

"I am!" she said coolly. "Maybe if you were watching where I was going too, you wouldn't have run into me!"

 

Rose reached the landing at the top of the stairs and practically jaunted over to the notice board, where many other Hufflepuffs were gathered. She squeezed through the crowd to get to the front and found the list of names. And at the very top…

 

Her blue eyes widened and her mouth spread into the hugest grin.

 

I MADE IT!” she screamed at the top of her lungs. “I MADE IT!

 

A batch of the Hufflepuffs around her burst into applause. One of the upperclassman prefects patted Rose on the shoulder.

 

“Well done!” he said in slightly inflated, but still perfectly genuine pride.

 

“Thanks!” Rose chirped brightly.

 

She bounced around the room as if her feet were on springs, right past the dark-skinned third-year boy and back down the stairs. She had to add onto her letters and then get them to the owlery right away!

Chapter Text

Bridget Jaheem slept very well the night after the auditions. Her biscuits had turned out just the way she’d hoped, and Ramsay’s reaction to them had been pretty close to how she’d hoped too.

 

Bridget resisted the urge to write to her mother that very night with some difficulty. Ms. Jaheem had always been Bridget’s very best friend and confidante, but Bridget wanted to know the results of her audition for sure before sending her any letters. So in the meantime, Bridget merely skimmed through her old box of recipes, contemplating which ones she might be able to use in the competition.

 

‘Knowing Ramsay, he’s probably going to try to stretch us by giving us different sorts of foods every round,’ she thought to herself. ‘That way he can get the full breadth of our talents.’

 

Her black eyes rested on a recipe for Potato Soup with Bacon and Asparagus thoughtfully.

 

‘Might be good for a soup challenge,’ she mused. ‘Or perhaps for a savory round…’

 

This Potato Soup recipe always brought the people into Lottie’s, in the chilly days of early spring. From the time Bridget was little, she remembered her mother making that soup in her restaurant kitchen herself while the rest of the kitchen staff worked on the rest of the orders, so as to keep their guests from waiting too long. And the food would always be nice and piping hot when it arrived at the guests’ tables.

 

Lottie’s had always been stretching to make ends meet. Because the restaurant was so small, they could only bring in a certain number of customers at a time, and because they could only serve so many customers, Charlotte Jaheem had trouble covering the space rental with her earnings. The logical solution would’ve been to drive up prices, but Ms. Jaheem was much too sharp for that.

 

“Our regulars are working-class people who want quickly prepared, but savory food,” she once remarked to Bridget. “If we make the prices too high, then no one will come.”

 

So Ms. Jaheem pinched her pennies and she and Bridget made do with what they had. From time to time, they would find windows perfectly washed before any of their employees had even arrived, or dishes that had been shattered would suddenly be completely fixed when they turned around. Back then, of course, neither of them considered that it might’ve been Bridget…or that it might’ve been magic.

 

When Bridget was accepted into Hogwarts, it actually took a load off of Ms. Jaheem for some of the year. There was a school fund set up for impoverished students, so Bridget could get all of the school supplies she needed even if they were second-hand, and while she was at school, Bridget got everything she needed to eat, so Ms. Jaheem had a little bit extra every year to give her employees bonuses or send Bridget little gifts. Bridget’s favorite gifts from her mother, however, even after all these years, were the dishes she’d cook, bundle up, and send to her. In Bridget’s first year Ms. Jaheem had even made an entire green bean casserole and had three owls deliver it to her daughter at Hogwarts Christmas morning.

 

Bridget flipped through her recipes, smiling at each one.

 

‘Pasta primavera – that’d probably be good for a pasta round…mushroom slow-cooked roast beef – that’d probably be good for a roast round, or maybe a comfort food round…black-eyed pea fritters – maybe for a round using legumes?’

 

She shook her head with a smile. As she came to the end of her recipes, she found the picture she always kept at the very back of the stack.

 

The picture was of her, around the age of seven, and her mother. Bridget was dressed in a violet tutu, a horned headband, a black, red, and violet cape, and black ballet shoes, and she was grinning from ear to ear despite her two missing front teeth. Ms. Jaheem had both of her arms wrapped around her daughter and looked as proud as if Bridget had been the prima in the English National Ballet.

 

Bridget loved ballet. She’d started when she was three and she’d intimidated most of her classmates with her confidence and level of talent. Because of her supreme confidence, Bridget had often been cast as the villains in their school productions, as evident by the picture, where she’d been dressed as the evil Fairy Carabosse. That had never discouraged Bridget, though – playing the bad guy in the shows was fun! They were so theatrical and over-the-top! And besides, it was only pretend…she knew she was really a good person, after all.

 

It had broken her heart to stop dancing…but not only had ballet classes become much less affordable for her mother, but with her attending Hogwarts over the fall and spring, there was no way Bridget would be able to keep up with ballet classes over the summer holidays alone and expect to keep up. And so Bridget had had to bow to the circumstances at hand and stop taking classes. She’d tried very hard not to show too much of her disappointment to her mother, but it had still hurt. Still Bridget had cooking…and she had magic! Defense Against the Dark Arts and Potions – Bridget loved those classes too, and she was certainly glad that she wouldn’t have to give those up…

 

Bridget smiled at the picture of herself and her mother together for a long moment. Her mother would be proud like that again, if she won Ramsay’s competition…and for the first time, Lottie’s would actually be ahead of the game financially, rather than having to scrape and cut back.

 

Putting the box away in her nightstand, Bridget turned over in bed and fell asleep, her lips still touched with a smile.

 

The next morning Bridget came downstairs to find the Slytherin commonroom full of activity. When she arrived, her classmates started to applaud politely. Bridget looked around at them, faintly bemused.

 

“Um…what’s everyone clapping for?” she asked, smiling despite her discomfort.

 

The fifth year Slytherin prefect laughed.

 

“They’re clapping because you made it into the contest, smart one!” he teased. “Nice going.”

 

Bridget was startled. She looked around at the other people in the commonroom. There were a few students – the ones who fancied themselves to be blood purists – who were notably silent, but the vast majority of Slytherin’s students were smiling and praising her, clapping, patting her on the back, and complimenting her success. Even in this time, when He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named was so powerful…Slytherin house applauded the success of a Muggle-born student.

 

Bridget’s lips spread into a broad, triumphant, but still excited grin.

 

“…Thanks, guys,” she said loud enough for everyone to hear her. “I swear to you – I’ll do everything I can to get Slytherin the win!”

 

‘I promise, Mum,’ she added to herself as everyone burst into applause again. ‘I’ll win for you.’

Chapter Text

Everyone in school waited with baited breath for January 10th, the date for the first round of MagicChef Junior, to arrive – none more so than the twelve contestants. Harry had never seen Ron in the library so much in his life, not even back in third year when he was helping Hagrid with Buckbeak’s appeal.

 

“Well, we have no idea what Ramsay’s going to have us do in the first round,” Ron explained anxiously to Harry as he put down a stack of heavy magical cookbooks on the table. “So I’ve got to read up as much as I can ahead of time…”

 

The MagicChef round was held in the Quidditch pitch – it was the only place large enough to house all of the students who wanted to watch it. Ron had had to meet Ramsay with the other competitors early in the dungeons, so Harry and Hermione wished him the best of luck before he left that morning, while they headed off to Charms class. It had been very strange for Harry, not having Ron sitting next to him during class…Harry and Ron had always taken all of their classes together, even Divination, which was the only class Hermione had ever dropped out of.

 

When Harry and Hermione arrived in the Quidditch pitch at 4:00 that evening, after classes were over, they found it as transformed as Ramsay’s Potions classroom had been. There were twelve expansive kitchen workspaces, lined up in four rows of three, and each was decorated with the school colors of the competitor the station belonged to. The four houses’ colors also decorated the stands, and the pillars surrounding the stadium had magically appearing text and pictures dancing across them. At that moment, the words “MagicChef Junior: Round 1” were being spelled out letter by letter, and then the Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, and Slytherin crests flashed across the banners one at a time, to the applause of each house in turn. On every seat in the bleachers was a free pair of Omnioculars like the one Harry had back in his trunk in the Gryffindor commonroom.

 

Harry and Hermione found seats next to Ginny, who had decided to sit at the cross-section between the Gryffindor and Ravenclaw stands so she could sit by Luna Lovegood. Luna was looking as odd as ever, wearing earrings that looked like they’d been made out of a bunch of bottle caps that had been strung together.

 

“Hey, Luna,” greeted Harry.

 

“Hello, Harry,” she said dreamily. “I brought some caramelized Toadstools, for a snack…would you like one?”

 

She offered a box of what vaguely looked like mushrooms, except they were blackened and as limp as chewed bubble gum.

 

“No thanks,” Harry said offhandedly.

 

Ginny looked at Harry, her lips twitching with some nerves. “How’s Ron doing?”

 

“All right, I think,” Harry answered.

 

“Ron’s going to have a hard time of it,” Luna said vaguely. “Arjuna Belaji apparently won three blue ribbons for her cooking by the time she was ten…and Cho’s cakes are quite good.”

 

Hermione glanced at Harry uncomfortably. “That’s right – Cho’s in the competition too…I’d forgotten…”

 

Harry had forgotten too. He’d been so excited for Ron that he’d barely given the other competitors much thought. Even when Colin Creevey came up to them to excitedly tell them he’d made it and to wish Ron the best of luck, Harry’s focus had still not widened that much beyond Ron, given how much he wanted to encourage him.

 

Ginny frowned deeply, her eyes darting from Harry to Luna. “Ron’ll kick Cho’s arse – you just wait and see.”

 

After about fifteen minutes in which everyone found their seats, four figures started striding up the lawn. In the lead was Ramsay; just behind him were Dumbledore and two others Harry didn’t recognize. The first was a tall older woman with full lips, dark skin, and a mane of curly black-brown hair, dressed in ridiculously bright orange dress robes. The second was a man who, at first glance, rather resembled a walrus, with a silver handlebar mustache and a very short, portly frame that he decked out in emerald green velvet robes complete with a brown hound’s-tooth waistcoat with gold buttons.

 

Hermione grabbed Harry’s arm.

 

“That woman is Millicent Bagnold!” she hissed in his ear. “She was the Minister of Magic before Fudge!”

 

Now that Hermione said it, Harry realized he had heard the name before, in one of Dumbledore’s memories in the Pensieve. She’d been the Minister who’d been in charge during the First Wizarding War and who had overseen the prosecution of most of Voldemort’s followers after it – she’d been the one who sent Sirius to Azkaban. The thought left a sour taste in Harry’s mouth.

 

Ramsay faced the crowd. Taking out his silver-tipped wand, he placed it up against his mouth and magically magnified his voice with the spell “Sonorous!”

 

“Good evening, one and all!” he greeted. “Welcome to the first round of the very first MagicChef Junior competition, hosted here at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry!”

 

Harry noticed several white flashes coming from the teachers’ box. When he glanced over, he noticed a rather excitable-looking woman with very curly blue-dyed hair put up in a high ponytail snapping away – her pink cat’s eye glasses reminded him irritably of Rita Skeeter.

 

‘Guess she must be from the Daily Prophet,’ he supposed. He wondered if Ramsay’s reputation alone had earned this event press coverage, or if Ramsay had actively sought it out – either way, he seemed all too comfortable in front of the cameras.

 

“Firstly, let me introduce the four judges for this competition,” said Ramsay. “In essence of fairness, each house will be represented by a judge who is an alumnus of that house. First off, we have your school headmaster, Albus Dumbledore,” he indicated Dumbledore with none of the distrust he usually showed, “representing the noble house of Gryffindor…”

 

The Gryffindors all screamed and applauded. Dumbledore waved airily at the crowd with his good hand, his elderly face crinkled up with the tiniest traces of a smile.

 

“Next, we have an alumnus of the Hogwarts staff, who taught the art of Potions for almost thirty years and who singularly funded the renovation and expansion of the Hogwarts kitchens out of his own pocket…Horace Slughorn, representing the peerless house of Slytherin.”

 

“Ramsay mentioned him – when I first met him!” Harry whispered to Hermione, as the walrus-mustached man waved at the applauding and cheering Slytherins in the stands. “He said Slughorn was his teacher, back at school…”

 

“Third, we have a former Minister of Magic who, in retirement, has written almost fifteen books, including eight wonderful cookbooks…Millicent Bagnold, representing the brilliant house of Ravenclaw.”

 

The Ravenclaw stands burst into applause even before Ramsay had finished speaking. Bagnold gave them a dewy smile and a wave that Harry thought came across as awfully staged – like she’d done that exact same wave a thousand times, so as to make sure she looked flawless in any pictures that might be taken of her.

 

“And finally, you’ve got me,” said Ramsay, his mouth spreading into a large grin as his voice rose to a triumphant shout himself, “representing the best of the entire lot, the house of Hufflepuff!”

 

The Hufflepuff side of the stands erupted in whooping, clapping, and stomping, so much so that even when some members from the other houses tried booing, all anyone could really hear was Hufflepuff’s happiness.

 

Bagnold, her lips twitching with a daring smile, used her own wand to magnify her voice too.

 

“Oh, now, Gordon,” she proclaimed to the stands in a tone that once again sounded rehearsed to Harry's ears, “don’t go riling up the children with house pride. The best competitor shall be the victor, regardless of house…” her voice rose amusedly, “…and we all know Ravenclaw has the sharpest and most creative minds of them all!”

 

The Ravenclaw stands echoed her with more applause. Slughorn, with a chuckle, stepped forward, bringing his own wand to his mouth to magnify his voice too.

 

“Mind the ego, Millie, my dear,” he said jovially. “After all, brilliance and creativity are only two things we’ll be judging today. A good chef also needs resourcefulness and the ability to take risks…something Slytherin house has in spades!” he finished, his voice having risen to a perfect bellow.

 

The Slytherin stands screamed and cheered.

 

When Dumbledore stepped forward, resting his own wand on the top of his white beard to magnify his voice, everyone was on the edge of their seat to hear his response. The other judges turned to look at him too. Dumbledore looked around, smiling pleasantly at them all; then, after a long moment, he spoke.

 

“…Gryffindor.”

 

The one word hung in the air for one, two, three seconds…and then Dumbledore lowered his wand, clearly thinking he didn’t need to say anything else.

 

Harry was the first one to start laughing, and the laughter that overtook Gryffindor’s side of the stands quickly evolved into a huge roar of applause. Dumbledore smiled wryly at the other judges, who shot him faintly frustrated, but still amused looks.

 

“And now, we’ll introduce our twelve competitors!” said Ramsay. “From my house of Hufflepuff, I give to you…Rose Zeller! Owen Cauldwell! Kevin Whitby! And Hannah Abbott!”

 

The four Hufflepuffs dashed out from the left-hand side of the pitch, skipping across the green over to their stations one by one, to the applause of their house. Rose, who had been twirling and dancing the whole way, made it to her station first, while Owen took his time, waving around at everyone in the crowd as he strolled leisurely to his station.

 

“From Ravenclaw,” said Bagnold, “I am pleased to introduce…Arjuna Belaji! Astoria Greengrass! And Cho Chang!”

 

The three Ravenclaw girls came out from the right side of the pitch, waving at the cheering crowd as they walked quickly to their stations. Of the three, Astoria looked the least comfortable – Cho looked perfectly at ease in front of the crowd, and even Arjuna smiled politely and waved quite gracefully, but Astoria seemed to be waving more out of expectation than out of any particular excitement.

 

“From Slytherin,” said Slughorn, “I proudly present…Bridget Jaheem! Millicent Bulstrode! And Daphne Greengrass!”

 

The three Slytherin girls strode out from the back of the pitch, all looking effortlessly confident as they marched to their stations in a straight, military-like line to the hollers and cheers of their housemates. Bridget even flashed a white smile and blew a kiss to the stands.

 

Dumbledore raised his wand to his mouth again. “And finally…from Gryffindor house…I call forward Colin Creevey…and Ron Weasley!”

 

Colin and Ron darted out from under the stands and up the field. Colin turned as he walked, waving at his friends in the stands, but Ron didn’t turn back once, instead just barreling right to his station even as the Gryffindors burst into deafening cheers. Harry recognized the stiffness in his friend's posture and he felt his blood run cold.

 

“He looks anxious,” Hermione whispered, and she sounded just as concerned.

 

Harry knew it was much worse. Ron had gone this way before Quidditch matches before – he would think that he couldn’t do it, and then he would just stew in those thoughts longer and longer until his mind went blank and he forgot absolutely everything.

 

Ginny, noticing the concern on both of their faces, turned to watch her brother in the stands apprehensively.

 

“Come on, Ron,” she murmured under her breath, “don’t blow it…”

 

“These are your top 12 best student chefs, Hogwarts!” proclaimed Ramsay. “In this competition, they will have to use both their baking and magical talents to try to get to the top of the heap in this competition – and the prize of 5000 Galleons, 200 points for their house, a free reservation for their family at Hell’s Kitchen, and the title of the very first MagicChef Junior!”

 

The crowd applauded and cheered. Hermione turned to Harry and Ginny confusedly.

 

“Magical talent?” she repeated, confused, as Ramsay kept speaking to the crowd. “I didn’t know they’d be allowed to use magic in the competition…”

 

“Well, sure,” said Ginny. “A lot of witches and wizards use magic in their cooking, to mix ingredients and help things cook a certain way…Mum tends to see it sort of like cheating, but she’s been known to levitate things out of the oven when she’s got a lot to do. With how restrictive their time tables are going to be, I’m willing to bet they’ll have to use magic to stay ahead…”

 

“Seems to me that puts the younger students at a disadvantage,” Hermione said with a frown.

 

“And Ron, too,” pointed out Luna, her vague tone punctuated by grimness. “Did your mother teach him how to use magic while he was cooking, Ginny?”

Ginny blinked, not having considered this.

 

“I…I don’t know,” she said slowly, her brown eyes growing very concerned. “I think she was more focused on him learning about flavors, and textures, and stuff like that…I mean, Ron had never cooked on his own before, so he had a lot to catch up on…” She glanced at the others. “Harry, Hermione, do you remember her mentioning magic to him?”

 

“I don’t think so,” Hermione replied meekly. She looked at Ron in the stands, her gloved fists resting over her mouth anxiously. “Oh, Ron…no wonder he’s nervous…”

 

“...Here to support you in your challenges,” said Ramsay, “are your house-elf partners, who each chose to be your resource and help you during your time in the competition.”

 

“Colin,” said Dumbledore, “you were selected by Qubie – who, if I may say, is easily the fastest at making a delicious hot chocolate of any elf I have ever met.”

 

A house elf with big blue eyes appeared on top of Colin’s station. The Gryffindor boy amiably offered Qubie a handshake, which startled the elf, but he obliged.

 

“And Ron…I do believe you’ll be very happy with your partner during this competition,” Dumbledore said with a twinkle in his eye.

 

Dobby the house elf, still dressed in his earless red cap and decked out in the mismatched Christmas socks he’d gotten from Harry last year, appeared at Ron’s station. He immediately grabbed both of Ron’s hands and shook them gleefully.

 

“Oh, Dobby got to be Ron’s partner!” whispered Hermione, delighted. “That’s wonderful!”

 

“Rose,” said Ramsay with a smile, “you were chosen by Tip, who I think is the only elf who can keep up with your level of energy. Owen, your partner is Joly – a risk-taker with flavors, just like you are. Kevin, you’ll be working with Niknak – who, honestly, were he a wizard, I think would’ve been Sorted in Hufflepuff himself. And finally, Hannah…you were chosen by Pilo, a chef who always takes charge in the Hogwarts kitchens.”

 

Each house elf appeared on top of the students’ stations; Rose, like Colin, immediately moved to shake her elf’s hand, but the other wizard-born students merely greeted them with pleasant smiles.

 

“Arjuna,” said Bagnold, her tone swimming in the sort of dignified and restrained amusement that Harry had heard in Fudge’s voice before, “your elf will be Didi – she is the most loyal companion you could hope to find. For Astoria, we have Poppy, who is quick on her feet and sharp of mind. And Cho, you will be working with Reddy, who, true to his name, is ready to work and to win.”

 

All the Ravenclaw girls, being of magical heritage, merely greeted their elves politely when they appeared, though Cho gave her elf something of an abbreviated bow of the head, which pleased him greatly.

 

“And finally,” boomed Slughorn jovially, “to my students! My sweet Bridget, you’ll be working with Hardy – a perfect rock of an elf, who will always be there to help with whatever you need. And my beautiful Daphne, your help will be Koko, who has written her own recipes for her fellow elves to use in the kitchens. And my dear Millicent, you will be working with Winky – in her words, there was no other chef she wanted to work with but you!”

 

When the Slytherins’ elves appeared, Bridget, like Colin and Rose, shook her elf’s hand. To the surprise of everyone, however, Winky, upon appearing at Millicent’s station, immediately started chattering to her excitedly, and Millicent actually smiled back!

 

“Winky didn’t want to work with any other chef…but Millicent Bulstrode?” Hermione couldn’t help but repeat, dumbfounded. “Why?”

 

Harry shrugged. “Well, Winky was always sort of weird…I mean, her last owner was Crouch, and she would’ve set herself on fire for him.”

 

Hermione frowned disapprovingly at Harry.

 

“The teams are assembled,” Ramsay finished dramatically, “the judges’ table is set, and the kitchen is calling…MagicChef Junior starts right now!”

Chapter Text

“Our first challenge,” proclaimed Dumbledore, “will entail one of my personal favorite breakfast foods…”

 

With a wave of his wand, he summoned a box that had been sitting at the judges’ table set up on the sidelines. Tapping the box, he made it fade away into smoke, leaving behind a plate in his hand. On the plate was a small stack of…

 

“…Pancakes,” Dumbledore finished with a small smile.

 

They did look delicious. The crepe-like English pancakes looked soft and warm, and they were decorated with some lemon wedges and lots of sugar.

 

“For this challenge,” said Dumbledore, “each chef will have to make as many perfectly cooked pancakes as possible in five minutes.”

 

“Making pancakes quickly is harder than it sounds,” interjected Ramsay. “If you flip them too soon, they’ll break and you’ll make a big mess. If you take too much time, you have the potential of burning your pancakes, and of course you won’t make as many. It’s a very tricky balancing act that a good chef must be able to master.”

 

“Once you have completed your pancakes, we will remove any that are too small, too thin, too thick, too underdone, or too overdone,” said Bagnold. “We will then count that final number of perfect pancakes, and the one with the highest amount will receive an advantage in the next round. But there is another wrinkle…”

 

With a wave of her wand, she summoned a set of four chairs to sit at the judges’ table. At the top of each chair was a large clear container filled with a white, batter-like liquid.

 

“The winner of this challenge,” Bagnold said, her tone quite controlled even though the students in the stands and at the kitchen stations were looking at the chairs with incredulous disbelief, “will save their house representative from being drenched in five liters of pancake batter.”

 

Most of the competitors started to laugh. Hannah tried desperately to stifle her giggles behind her hands, while Colin burst out into full laughter.

 

“Hufflepuffs,” Ramsay said, putting on a tone of mock fragility, “while you’re making your pancakes, please consider…how much work I put into my hair every morning…and how much that batter could ruin it.”

 

Both the stands and the chefs laughed.

 

“My robes are made of elf-sewn velvet,” Slughorn said, giving the Slytherin girls an over-the-top pout that even seemed to make his silver mustache droop. “And they match my eyes just so…”

 

Everyone laughed a little harder – even Slughorn chuckled a bit at his own joke.

 

“Your five minutes,” announced Bagnold, “to make as many pancakes as possible starts…now!”

 

The next five minutes were positively insane. The crowd started shouting words of encouragement, while the competitors dashed around, sifting flour, breaking eggs, and making batter. Within thirty seconds, all the competitors had made their batter – though, as Harry had feared, Ron was the last to finish his. The youngest Weasley boy looked very frazzled as he started pouring his batter into a pan.

 

“Come on, Ron!” roared Harry as loud as he could, praying that some way Ron would hear him over all the other voices. “You can do it!”

 

Harry could barely focus on any of the other competitors, keeping his Omnioculars squarely on Ron. Hermione, however, was looking around at the other student chefs, and she kept murmuring comments to Harry about them.

 

“Arjuna Belaji is using a Levitation Charm to flip all of hers…that’s brilliant! That way she wouldn’t break them if she tries flipping them too soon, like she would with a spatula –Millicent Bulstrode is using the Cold Fire enchantment at her kitchen, so she can have more than four burners at her station – Hannah’s moving a little slower, but her pancakes all look perfect – wow, look at Colin! He’s flipping his so fast!”

 

Ron, however, was struggling. Harry saw several of Ron’s pancakes break as soon as he tried flipping them, and Ron was starting to sweat.

 

“Get it together, Ron!” screamed Ginny, who was watching Ron through her Omnioculars too.

 

By the time Ramsay counted down the last few seconds on the clock and called “time,” the stands had almost screamed themselves hoarse and the competitors looked close to fainting. Each student chef had a stack of pancakes in front of them – the judges came to look over each stack, shedding all the ones that didn’t fit their standards. Arjuna’s impressive stack of pancakes was left untouched. Poor Owen Cauldwell had half of his stack taken out for being too small.

 

When it was Ron’s turn, Dumbledore looked over his stack (noticeably smaller than the others)…and then proceeded to take one – two – five – eight –

 

Harry’s mouth dropped open in fury. “What is he doing?!”

 

“They must be underdone!” said Hermione, and she also looked very upset.

 

The Gryffindors started to yell and boo angrily as Ron’s stack shrunk – by the time Dumbledore was finished, Ron only had two lone pancakes left on his plate, and he looked close to tears.

 

Dumbledore, noticing Ron’s upset, placed a hand on his shoulder and whispered some words that looked like they had to be comforting. Ron, however, was numb, unable to be comforted in the least, as Dumbledore swept back to the judges’ table. The judges commiserated amongst themselves.

 

“The most pancakes I counted,” said Ramsay, “was from Hannah Abbott – 11 pancakes.”

 

Hufflepuff’s stands cheered. Hannah looked very proud of herself.

 

“The most pancakes I counted,” said Bagnold, “was from Arjuna Belaji – 16 pancakes.”

 

Ravenclaw’s stands started screaming. Luna gave a polite golfer’s clap as Arjuna waved to the stands, smiling widely.

 

“The most pancakes I counted,” said Slughorn, “was from Bridget Jaheem – 15 pancakes.”

 

The Slytherins gave faint groans, clearly disappointed that Bridget was two short from beating Arjuna, but clapped for their competitor anyway. Bridget, however, didn’t look the least bit disappointed – she was smiling wider than Arjuna and had her arms crossed confidently.

 

“The most pancakes I counted,” said Dumbledore, taking his time a bit more than the other judges so as to build up suspense, “was from Colin Creevey…with 19 pancakes.”

 

Gryffindor’s stands gave surprised outbursts – then the surprise gave way to a roar of applause. Colin proudly threw both arms into the air, beaming widely with triumph.

 

“And so,” Dumbledore said in satisfaction, “I am safe from the batter over my head. The other judges, I’m afraid to say…are not so lucky. Colin…would you do the honors and tilt those canisters over?”

 

Colin looked both thrilled and a little terrified. Dumbledore beckoned him forward, and he came up behind Slughorn first, as the Slytherin judge was closest. Gryffindor’s stands cheered, and Colin looked from them to Slughorn.

 

“…Are you sure it’s all right?” he asked a little nervously.

 

“A game’s a game, m’boy,” Slughorn said jovially. “Go on.”

 

With that reassurance, Colin beamed at Slughorn and tipped the batter over. It splattered on top of Slughorn’s bald, round head, trickling through his handlebar mustache and staining his emerald robes as the crowd and many of the student chefs burst into laughter. Even Daphne Greengrass hid an amused smile behind her hand.

 

Next came Millicent Bagnold. When Colin came up behind her, she gave an airy sigh. He poured the batter over her head too – it trailed through her dark curls, dripping off onto her orange robes and caking her face in white. She exhaled heavily, licking her lips as the crowd started laughing again.

 

“Well…this pancake batter is an improvement over the mud that usually gets thrown at me from the Daily Prophet,” she said coolly. “If nothing else, it tastes a lot better.”

 

Colin came up behind Ramsay next – even the Hufflepuff stands were shouting and cheering at this point. Ramsay looked up at Colin with a wry smile.

 

“Any chance for mercy, Colin?” he asked coyly. “For my hair?”

 

The crowd burst into a mix of laughter and jeering. Colin grinned.

 

“Nope,” he said, shaking his head.

 

And he tilted the canister above Ramsay’s head over. The batter spilled out in a flood over his head, soaking his hair and splashing onto his shoulders. Ramsay inhaled and exhaled, his cheeks puffing out like a puffer fish as the crowd went wild.

 

Dumbledore smiled down the row at the other judges soaked in batter, letting the crowd quiet down before speaking again.

 

“Dear me,” he said nonchalantly. “It seems I’m no longer dressed for the occasion. Colin?”

 

“Yes, sir?” said Colin.

 

Dumbledore waved his wand at the canister over his head – suddenly it was filled to the brim with even more pancake batter.

 

“…Kindly tip mine over as well, would you?”

 

The crowd roared with approval. Colin, looking more eager than ever, dashed forward and, with a little difficulty, tipped the full-to-the-brim canister over.

 

The white batter soaked Dumbledore’s pointed wizard’s hat, making it flop over into his face. One could barely make out where the batter landed in his white beard, but the spatters and splashes were perfectly noticeable on the front and shoulders of his star-patterned purple robes and on his smiling, wrinkled face. Dumbledore chuckled too as the stands burst into a round of applause punctuated by even more laughter.

 

“Now that we’re a proper set,” he said evenly, “I believe we’ll just need a few minutes to…freshen up again. In that time, chefs, please take a short break…and we’ll begin our elimination challenge shortly.”

Chapter Text

About fifteen minutes later, the judges were back, dressed in new robes. Dumbledore was now wearing midnight blue decorated with constellations. Slughorn wore elegant black robes made from Egyptian cotton and decorated with gold trim. Bagnold wore pastel pink robes with a high collar and bell-shaped sleeves with tight white arm-warmers underneath. Ramsay, contrary to the other judges, wore robes almost comically identical to the white chef-like ones he’d been wearing before.

 

“Now then,” Ramsay said, running a hand through his once-again-presentable hair, “chefs…it’s time for our elimination challenge. This challenge will, like our timed preheat, involve breakfast food. Your house elves will each provide you a card with one of three breakfast staples written on it – eggs, bacon, or milk – which you must incorporate in a breakfast entrée. The hard part, however, is that you will be limited on how many ingredients you can use.”

 

He took out his wand and gestured to each plate of pancakes still set up at each kitchen station. With a wave, he materialized glowing yellow numbers in mid-air over each of the plates – 10 over Astoria’s, 8 over Kevin’s, 16 over Arjuna’s, 9 over Daphne’s, 10 over Rose’s, 19 over Colin’s, 12 over Millicent’s, 11 over Hannah’s, 15 over Bridget’s, 6 over Owen’s, 13 over Cho's, and finally 2 over Ron’s.

 

“Those numbers represent how many perfect pancakes you made during the last round,” said Ramsay, “and you may use up to that number of ingredients, including the one we provide for you, to make your breakfast entrée. You may use less…but if you use more, then it will count against you.”

 

Hermione’s hands flew to her mouth. “But…but that means…!”

 

“Ron can only use two ingredients in his next dish?!” shouted Ginny, looking both horrified and outraged. “How is he supposed to make anything with just two ingredients – especially if one of them is already assigned to him?!”

 

Down in the pitch, Ron had gone as white as a sheet.

 

“At the end of this round,” continued Ramsay, “two of you will be leaving the competition.”

 

“You will have one hour to complete your dish,” said Slughorn. “Your time starts…now!”

 

All of the student chefs turned to their elves, looking over the cards they were given. Bridget looked up from her card to Hardy the house elf, quickly listing off everything she was going to need. Colin ran to take out a mixing bowl, a pan, and a couple dozen cooking utensils, while also chattering with Qubie about his entrée idea. Ron, however, didn’t immediately run to start making his dish – instead all he could do was stare at his card, likely reading it over and over as he tried desperately to think.

 

“He’s panicking,” Harry muttered, and he swore under his breath. Racking his brain, he tried desperately to think of something. He had to snap Ron out of it – he had to remind Ron that he could do it – like he did with the Quidditch match –

 

The memory triggered a thought in Harry’s brain. The idea quickly taking root, he opened his mouth and abruptly started singing at the top of his lungs.

 

“Weasley can save anything!”

 

His loud, off-key voice made Hermione turn and gawk at him. Through a thick blush, Harry pressed on.

 

“He never leaves a single ring!

That’s why Gryffindors all sing

Weasley is our king!”

 

A few other Gryffindors turned around to stare at Harry. Quickly figuring out what Harry was doing, Ginny joined in, shouting the song just as badly.

 

“Weasley is a gem within!

He’s true and loyal to his kin!”

 

Hermione and Luna jumped in, sounding just as awful.

 

“Weasley will make sure we win!”

 

Neville, Seamus and Dean, who’d been sitting close by, helped out too.

 

“Weasley is our king!”

 

Soon all the other Gryffindors were catching on. The song started to bubble up over the crowd, starting off rather quiet, but then rising to a roar loud enough that everyone could hear it with perfect clarity, including all of the student chefs.

 

“Weasley can save anything!

He never leaves a single ring!

That’s why Gryffindors all sing

Weasley is our king!

 

Weasley is a gem within!

He’s true and loyal to his kin!

Weasley will make sure we win!

Weasley is our king!

 

Weasley is our king!

Weasley is our king!

He didn’t let the Quaffle in!

Weasley is our king!”

 

Ron stared out at the crowd as they sang the song a second time. His eyes rippled with emotion and disbelief, unable to believe what was happening – and then he realized there was another voice that had jumped in too.

 

He turned around and saw that Colin, who was in the middle of mixing various ingredients in a bowl at his station, was also singing the song through a big grin, while also giving a thumbs-up.

 

His heart fluttering in response to the encouragement, Ron gave Colin a small smile and a thumbs-up in return. Colin stopped singing and went back to cooking, and Ron hurried to grab a small bowl and a whisk from the cabinet and turned to Dobby, commiserating over ingredients. His flurry of activity made the Gryffindors cheer, and then finally quiet as all the competitors started to cook.

 

As the end of the hour approached, all the students were hard at work. Astoria had accidentally burned a piece of her hair while trying to cook her breakfast bread pudding faster using magic. Rose had finished her braided Nutella banana bread a little early, and so was now decorating both the slices and the plate with butter rosettes and edible glitter. Kevin had not only made a delicious-looking breakfast pie with a bacon lattice crust, but he was also rushing to make a homemade maple syrup glaze that he could layer on top. Hannah took her beignets out of the oven and with only a minute left on the clock was tapping each one with her wand, enchanting them to change colors and to levitate over the plate, wafting their amazing smell around the work stations. Cho had had to start over, as she’d burned the handmade milk and caramel frosting she’d made for her cinnamon rolls.

 

When the timer was up, all the student chefs were breathing hard as they stepped back from their kitchens. The crowd burst into applause, and then the judging began.

 

Each dish in turn was levitated off of the student chef’s countertop and brought to the judge’s table. The student who had cooked it would then step forward to face the judges, as they went down the line, from Dumbledore to Ramsay to Bagnold to Slughorn, and tasted each dish.

 

First was Cho. Her milk and caramel frosting turned out better the second time she’d made it, but alas, the frosting overpowered the flavor of her cinnamon rolls. Still, Slughorn praised the softness of her pastry and didn’t hold back in finishing it off.

 

Next was Colin. He had decided to use the full amount of ingredients he was allowed to use – including his assigned flavor of bacon, as well as eggs, maple syrup, jam, dates, prunes, figs, and about five different spices – to create an astounding 19-ingredient omelet. When Dumbledore took a bite of it, he successfully fought back a shudder – Ramsay, Bagnold, and Slughorn did not. They applauded Colin’s ambition, but had to acknowledge that the many disparate flavors just fought with each other too much to make a cohesive whole.

 

Next, Rose. Her braided Nutella and banana bread wowed the judges, particularly since most of them had never tried Nutella before. Ramsay, the lone judge who had, critiqued Rose’s presentation, saying that she might want to lay off on the edible glitter, while also opening his mouth wide to show off the solidly gold interior pointedly.

 

Next came Kevin. The judges all praised his flavors and Slughorn applauded his beautiful latticing, but Bagnold felt that the dish overall was a touch too crispy and that the maple syrup glaze was too thick.

 

Next was Astoria. Her breakfast bread pudding really appealed to Bagnold and Slughorn’s taste buds, but Dumbledore and Ramsay were a little less enthused. Ramsay also pointed out that Astoria’s pudding was not baked consistently all the way through and told her he was disappointed she didn’t take more risks.

 

Next, Millicent. Her smoked-salmon scrambled eggs, which she’d placed on top of a slice of wheat toast, charmed the judges, though Bagnold expressed disappointment that Millicent had not had more time, so she could’ve shopped around or baked her own bread with more unique flavors, rather than having to use standard, pre-made bread from the pantry.

 

Next came Owen. He had gotten it in his head to make a “breakfast milkshake” with lots of maple syrup, ice cream, and hand-baked donuts. The result ended up being too sweet for the majority of the judges (though Dumbledore said he’d be willing to eat it in stages), but Ramsay praised Owen’s creativity, vision, and variety of cooking techniques.

 

Next was Arjuna. Bagnold compared her Sali Par Edu to something out of a cookbook, with her eggs being perfectly cooked and her potatoes being expertly deep-fried, and the judges loved Arjuna’s Charm work that made little fireworks burst around the plate every time the entrée was sampled.

 

Next, Daphne. Her blackberry-mint breakfast scones were quite tasty, but Ramsay was very disappointed that she’d had to use frozen blackberries, as the fruit was out-of-season. He suggested substituting the blackberries with a citrus like orange, which was in season during the winter.

 

Finally it was Ron’s turn. He went up before the judges, keeping his head high despite his nerves. He knew everyone was behind him – he could do this…

 

“Hello, Ron,” Ramsay greeted him.

 

“Hi, professor,” Ron responded, his voice much more level than he thought it would be.

 

“Can you tell us, please, what ingredient you were assigned, how many ingredients you were allowed to use, and finally, what you’ve made for us?”

 

Ron took a deep breath.

 

“…Well…I was assigned eggs…and I was only allowed to use two ingredients…so I’ve made for you bacon and eggs, three different ways. The first is a hardboiled egg with a grilled bacon filling; the second is scrambled eggs with bacon bits; and the third is a modified toad-in-the-hole, with a sunny-side-up egg inside of an engorged slice of bacon.”

 

As the judges sampled Ron’s dishes one by one, their expressions were thoughtful. Finally Dumbledore spoke.

 

“Ron…you, more than any other competitor today, had the steepest mountain to climb,” he said solemnly. “Your disappointing display in the preheat placed you at a distinct disadvantage, with you only being allowed to use two ingredients in your dish. However…” he smiled, “…you handled that disadvantage very well.”

 

Ron exhaled in immense relief. “…Thank you, sir!”

 

“Ron, is it?” asked Bagnold. “Tell me, how did you put your grilled bacon filling into your hard-boiled egg?”

 

“I transfigured it,” Ron answered eagerly. “I used a Switching Spell and supplemented the egg yolk with the bacon…”

 

“Well, Minerva McGonagall should be very proud, indeed!” boomed Slughorn. “And using an Engorgement Charm on your bacon to make it big enough to hold the sunny-side-up was a lovely idea! Excellent use of magic!”

 

Ramsay nodded politely to Slughorn and then turned to Ron. “…I will admit, Ron, that without any additional ingredients, your flavors are quite bland. This dish is not up-to-par with the rest in this competition. But considering your limitations, you performed admirably.”

 

Ron nodded. “…Thank you.”

 

He walked back to his station, too overwhelmed to hear the cheering of the Gryffindors or even to focus on the critiques made on the rest of the participants’ dishes.

 

The judges had been impressed with what he had done…but would it be enough to save him from elimination?

 

After the last dishes had been reviewed, the judges talked amongst themselves for about ten minutes. Then they came out from behind their table and addressed both the crowd and the student chefs, who stood in a line just in front of the stands awaiting the results.

 

“My dear chefs…all of you performed very admirably in this first round,” said Slughorn. “You should be very proud of what you have accomplished here today. But some of you, more than the others, thoroughly impressed us. Those chefs are…Rose – ”

 

Rose gave a quiet little squeal of joy, jumping up and down twice like a giddy kangaroo.

 

“ – Bridget – ”

 

Bridget grinned, her pearl white teeth gleaming as she glanced at her fellow Slytherin competitors standing on either side of her.

 

“ – Arjuna – ”

 

Arjuna’s lips spread into a proud smile and she inclined her head politely to the judges.

 

“ – and Hannah.”

 

Hannah clutched her heart with both hands, her eyes closing in relief and excitement.

 

“Of those four chefs, however, only one can win this opening round,” Slughorn added with a wag of his finger. “That chef is…”

 

The Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, and Slytherin stands all sat stock-still, awaiting the answer. The four girls also looked like they were on tenterhooks.

 

“…Arjuna.”

 

Ravenclaw’s stands burst into cheers and applause. Arjuna beamed, and she waved up to her classmates as if she were in a beauty pageant.

 

“Congratulations, Arjuna,” Bagnold said proudly. “Your Sali Par Edu was flawlessly executed, with every piece of the dish deliciously prepared. I think even a full-grown chef would have trouble doing better.”

 

She then turned to the remaining eight student chefs.

 

“Some of you have also more than proved your worth this round…enough that we feel very comfortable in you proceeding. Those chefs are…Millicent – ”

 

Millicent exhaled quietly, her eyes sliding closed as she bowed her head.

 

“ – Kevin – ”

 

Kevin beamed from ear to ear; clasping his hands together, he mouthed “thank you!” to the judges.

 

“ – Daphne – ”

 

Daphne relaxed, her lips curling up in a faintly relieved smile.

 

“ – and Cho.”

 

Cho covered her face with both hands, clearly trying to pull herself together.

 

“That leaves,” said Ramsay, “Astoria – Owen – Colin – and Ron. Please step forward.”

 

The four took a step forward, away from the remainder of the chefs. Ron glanced out the corner of his eye at the others. Owen looked very nervous – he kept biting the inside of his cheek. Colin’s shoulders were hunched as if he was shrinking before Ron’s eyes. Astoria had gone very white, but stubbornly stared the judges right in the eye.

 

“Astoria,” said Ramsay. “Your breakfast bread pudding was not evenly cooked and your flavors left the judges split.

“Owen. Your maple donut milkshake was much too sweet, and quite honestly, a milkshake really screams ‘dessert’ more than ‘breakfast food.’

“Colin. Your ambitious 19-ingredient omelet was almost inedible. Your flavors fought for domination in your dish, and unfortunately not one of them won.

“Ron. Your bacon-and-eggs three different ways was incredibly bland, largely due to the fact that you only were able to make two suitable pancakes during the preheat.”

 

He looked around at the four chefs, his expression unreadable. Ron’s knees started knocking.

 

“The two chefs who will end their journey today are…”

 

It felt like the entire arena was holding its breath.

 

“…Colin and Owen.”

 

Ron felt like he was going to deflate like a balloon. His shoulders fell sharply and he let out a huge exhale of relief. He was going on! He’d actually made it through!

 

“I’m sorry, boys,” Ramsay said gently. “You are both excellent chefs, and we are sad to lose you. Hufflepuff…Gryffindor…please give a round of applause to your student chefs, for their wonderful effort!”

 

The students in the stands started to clap. Astoria whispered something kind to Owen, and he smiled politely and thanked her. Ron glanced at Colin and saw that the poor boy was fighting back tears. Ron instantly felt ashamed of himself for how relieved he’d felt.

 

With only the faintest hesitance, the Gryffindor prefect took a step toward Colin and grabbed hold of his shoulder. The younger boy looked up, startled.

 

“I’m really sorry, Colin,” Ron muttered lowly, squeezing Colin’s shoulder.

 

Tears flooding his eyes, Colin nonetheless beamed at Ron.

 

“Aw, it’s…” he sniffed, “it’s okay…it’s just…I kind of blew it…that’s all…”

 

“You did not,” Ron argued. “You made more pancakes than any of us.”

 

“Yeah – but that advantage I got for it…I didn’t use it right,” Colin mumbled. “You had no advantage – you had the biggest disadvantage of all, and you…you made your dish work anyway. Doesn’t matter how fast I can flip pancakes…if I can’t get my flavors right…”

 

“You’d have done better, if you had another chance,” Ron said stubbornly.

 

Colin’s smile broadened as tears streaked down his face. Then he stepped forward and actually gave Ron a hug, which the older boy accepted after he’d successfully gotten over his surprise. The Gryffindor stands started clapping a little louder, and a few people even cried both Colin and Ron’s names.

 

“Looks like you’ll be the only Gryffindor left!” Colin whispered in Ron’s ear, his tone bright even through his tears. “So go get ‘em! Okay?”

 

Ron patted the younger boy on the back. “…Okay.”

 

Ramsay smiled at the two of them, before facing the applauding crowd again.

 

“The next round, with our top 10 chefs, will take place right here, a week from now! Please show your student chefs your support before they face their next challenge…and we look forward to seeing you then!”

Chapter Text

Over the next few days, all the students of Hogwarts were chattering breathlessly about the first round’s results, as well as what they thought might happen next. Some people even started theorizing and placing bets about whom they thought would be eliminated in the next round.

 

Arjuna Belaji quickly became the favorite to win the competition. Harry noticed that she was stopped in the hallway a lot by fellow Ravenclaws and even some students from the other houses asking her questions and wishing her luck in the next round. Arjuna’s friend Astoria, on the other hand, most people assumed wouldn’t last much longer, since she’d already been in the bottom four.

 

“It’s one of Ravenclaw house’s worst flaws, sad to say,” Luna said serenely. “We may be more open to people being different or having a unique point of view…but many of us can’t help but look down on failure.”

 

Harry had a meeting scheduled with Dumbledore that Monday, so while Harry went to the meeting and Hermione headed off to Ancient Runes, Ron made his way down to the library. He hoped to find a few more good cookbooks that he could study over the course of the day while Harry and Hermione did their homework in the evening – and hopefully, since so many of the younger classes were still in session, he’d beat the rush of fifth year students going to the library to study for their OWLS.

 

When he reached the library, Ron shuffled through the rows to the section that housed all the magical cookbooks. When he got there, however, he found someone else already perusing the titles.

 

It was Cho.

 

She turned at the sound of his approach – when they locked eyes, they immediately looked away in discomfort.

 

“…Hello,” Ron mumbled.

 

“Hello,” Cho replied back stiffly.

 

An awkward silence fell between them as they scanned book titles, occasionally slipping one out to get a better look.

 

Ron and Cho had never particularly gotten on. Not only was Cho Ron’s best friend’s ex-girlfriend, but also Ron and Cho’s first real interaction involved Ron getting up in her face about her favorite Quidditch team, the Tutshill Tornados. And of course Cho was the Seeker on the Ravenclaw team, meaning she frequently opposed Harry, who was the Gryffindor Seeker.

 

At one point Ron reached for a book, but Cho reached it first.

 

“Sorry,” he mumbled as he let her take it.

 

She didn’t answer. The silence between them lengthened from one minute to two. Ron stubbornly wanted to stay quiet, but the twitchy uneasiness got to him after a while, so finally he broke down and looked up from the book he’d buried his nose in.

 

“…Good job in the last round,” he said awkwardly. “Your cinnamon rolls…they looked great.”

 

Cho looked up from the book in her hands, taken aback. Her gaze then slid back to the pages. “…Thanks.”

 

Silence fell again. After another few minutes, Cho took a turn to break it.

 

“…You did…pretty well, too. I don’t know what I would’ve done, if I’d only been allowed to use two ingredients.”

 

Ron’s ears went pink. “Ah well…I just did what I could…”

 

Once again the two went quiet, but the discomfort was very, very slowly ebbing away now. The two flipped through several more books, making their own stacks to check out side by side, with Ron towering over Cho’s more diminutive frame.

 

“Did you want to get your cookbooks before the crowds came too?” asked Ron.

 

“Yeah,” said Cho. “With OWLS and NEWTS coming up, the library just gets so swamped…I can never focus when it gets like that.”

 

“Hermione can’t either,” said Ron with a fond smile. A second later, he realized he shouldn’t have said that (Hermione and Cho got on even less than they did, after the whole D.A. debacle), and he very quickly tried to back-pedal. “I mean – ”

 

“It’s all right,” Cho cut him off, though the coolness of her tone said otherwise. “She’s one of your best friends – you can’t help but bring her up. Like Harry.”

 

Ron’s stomach squirmed uncomfortably. Having no idea how to respond, he looked down at his book again, and the awkward silence congealed once more.

 

After another minute or two, Cho closed the book in her hand with a quiet snap and turned to face Ron more fully.

 

“…Ron…why did you decide to enter the contest?”

 

The question surprised Ron.

 

“I’m just curious,” Cho continued thoughtfully. “I’ve been hearing a few things about the others and why they’re in…Arjuna’s been winning cooking competitions since she was five…Bridget’s mum apparently owns her own restaurant, and they’re both sort of struggling to make ends meet…I even heard that Astoria might be trying to rent her own place. I guess I’m wondering…if having something to work hard for plays any role in who succeeds and who doesn’t.”

 

Ron considered Cho thoughtfully. Then, licking his lips, he took a deep breath.

 

“Well…I guess I mostly did it for my mum. She’s the cook of the family, not me. She’s cooked everything for us – breakfast, lunch, dinner, birthday cakes, Christmas fudge, chocolate Easter eggs – every day, for my entire life.”

 

“Sounds like she could be a chef herself,” commented Cho with a small smile.

 

“Yeah!” Ron agreed. “The first thing I thought was how she’d win the contest like that, if she could enter. But she can’t, so…I figured I’d do it. She’s wanted to take the whole family to Hell’s Kitchen for ages, but…well…there’d be no way we could afford it,” he finished as an uncomfortable mumble, his eyes falling to the floor.

 

Cho nodded mutely, taking in Ron’s answer slowly. She glanced back at the bookshelves, her black eyes running absently over the bindings.

 

“…I want to commission a memorial…for Cedric,” she admitted quietly.

 

Ron looked up at her, visibly startled. His blue eyes then softened slightly, as he closed his cookbook and slipped it under his arm.

 

“…The prize money would cover that pretty nicely, huh?”

 

Cho bowed her head. “Yeah. I want to put it here at Hogwarts…where everyone can see it. Even though I know he’s gone…and it is getting easier, day-by-day, to remember all the wonderful times we had together, and not just focus on the bad…I want everyone else to do the same. I want everyone to remember him.”

 

“You really cared about him, didn’t you?” Ron said quietly.

 

“Yes.”

 

Ron bit the inside of his lip, looking deep in thought. Then he offered Cho his best, though still faintly self-conscious smile.

 

“…I think that’s really cool – what you want to do. I really hope you get to make it.”

 

Cho smiled slightly in return. “…Thanks, Ron. You know…you’re really quite a nice guy, sometimes – even if you have no taste in Quidditch teams.”

 

Ron scowled, but it was in pretty good humor all the same. Cho picked up her stack of cookbooks and strolled past him, tossing her long black hair over her shoulder as she went.

 

“Good luck in the next round,” she called over her shoulder.

 

“You too!” Ron called back.

 

Madame Pince abruptly poked her head around the closest bookcase and, glowering fiercely, gave a loud “SHHHH!”

 

Ron winced embarrassedly. “Heh…sorry.”

 

Not long later, Ron headed back to the common room, holding a stack of about five cookbooks under his arm. He weaved through the students bustling down the corridors, stopping just momentarily to smile at the few people who waved to him or wished him luck in the next round. He’d just climbed onto the staircase that led to the Gryffindor common room when he heard a familiar voice call his name.

 

“Hey! Ron!”

 

It was Bridget. She dashed over to greet him, her patched forest green school bag flopping against her side.

 

“Bridget…hi,” Ron greeted her.

 

Bridget gave him a big white grin. “Nice job in the last round.”

 

Ron gave a self-conscious laugh. “Ha – shouldn’t I be saying that to you?”

 

“Oh, sure,” laughed Bridget. “But I think saying it to you is still appropriate – using a Switching Spell with your hardboiled egg was pretty brilliant.”

 

“I guess,” Ron said self-effacingly, “but come on – using bacon and maple syrup to make breakfast meatballs? That’s the real brilliant thing.”

 

Bridget gave Ron a light punch to the arm, smirking broadly. “You really need to learn how to take a bloody compliment, Weasley.”

 

Ron laughed a little more fully.

 

“Anyway, I wanted to talk to you,” Bridget said more straightforwardly. “Hannah Abbott and I are organizing a bit of a get-together down in the kitchens tomorrow night so we can swap recipes and practice before the next round. What do you say?”

 

Ron blinked. “Swap recipes? But…why would you want to help the others? It’s a contest.”

 

“Sure…but, as Hannah said, everyone’s going to have their own strengths and weaknesses and be given their own challenges to work through. I mean, you had to work with eggs, I had to work with bacon, and some of the others had to work with milk – and I’ll bet it’ll only get harder and more specialized from there. And honestly, I know I have a lot to learn in the kitchen still, and I figure I might learn something from you all, so why not return the favor? So what do you think? You up for it?”

 

Ron considered the matter for a moment. There were definitely a lot of really talented chefs in the competition – and if Hannah and Bridget were both willing to share some of what they knew with him even though he’d come close to being eliminated in the last round, it seemed foolish not to accept the offer.

 

“…All right,” he said. “I’m in.”

 

“Great!” said Bridget, her teeth bared again in another bright smile. “Hannah’s already gotten Rose and Kevin on board, and I was able to convince Daphne to come too…now all that’s left is to chat it up with Cho, Astoria, and Arjuna.”

 

She turned around, waving at Ron over her shoulder as she headed down the stairs. “Meet us down in the kitchens at 7, okay?”

 

“Okay!” Ron called back.

 

As Bridget dashed away, he felt a little twitch of excited nerves in his stomach. It might be a bit weird, and a bit intimidating, to work with all of those chefs…but it might be cool to learn more about cooking from more places than just the library. It’d been much more fun to learn how to cook various things in the kitchen with Mrs. Weasley than it was trying to memorize entire cookbooks…

 

When he reached the common room, Ron found Harry and Hermione already talking in front of the fireplace. He forced the miffed frown that had wound its way onto his face seeing his friends hanging out without him and called over to them, all smiles.

 

“Hey, Harry! Hermione!”

 

The two turned to him, their faces lighting up as he sat down in the chair between them.

 

“There you are!” said Harry. “I was just telling Hermione about my meeting with Dumbledore.”

 

“How’d it go?” Ron asked eagerly, putting his stack of cookbooks down on the side table.

 

“Well…he’s got a job for me to do,” said Harry, lowering his voice. “Apparently Slughorn – you know, the new Slytherin judge – taught Tom Riddle at school too, fifty years ago.”

 

Ron’s eyes widened. “Whoa.”

 

“Yeah,” Harry agreed. “Slughorn gave Dumbledore one of his memories for his Pensieve…but the problem is, he modified it. He cut it off kind of abruptly, and everything was all blurry and disorienting and weird.”

 

“If he censored it, then it’s likely he has something to hide,” Hermione surmised. “Something he didn’t want Dumbledore to see.”

 

“That’s what Dumbledore thinks too. But he told me that while Slughorn’s visiting Hogwarts these next two months, I might be able to coax him into talking. Ramsay told me that Slughorn apparently likes to ‘collect’ kids – anyone he thinks will be successful – so he can mentor them and feed off of their fame…and Dumbledore reckons Slughorn would probably love to collect me, so I should just…let him, and use that to get the real memory.”

 

Ron brought a hand up to his mouth, considering the matter. “Hmm…maybe I can ask Ramsay when Slughorn and Bagnold are going to be around school…so you can ‘coincidentally’ run into Slughorn and start up a conversation.”

 

“That’s a great idea!” said Hermione. “You could always say you wanted to ask the judges about some of their kitchen experience – I’m sure that would impress Professor Ramsay, you wanting to learn more from the experts…”

 

“Speaking of which,” said Ron, “there’s gonna be this big get-together in the kitchens tomorrow night, for the student chefs. Bridget and Hannah are organizing it – they figured we could all use the practice before the next round. I don’t really get why they thought we should all cook together, if we’re competing against each other…but I guess I shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth, right?”

 

“Well, there might be reason to question a Slytherin invitation,” said Harry skeptically, “but I guess if Hannah’s organizing it too, it’s probably safe.”

 

“Hey, Bridget’s pretty nice, as Slytherins go,” Ron said defensively. “I heard she’s in the contest trying to earn money for her mum’s restaurant – from the sound of things, the two of them are kind of like Mum and Dad and the rest of us…working to make ends meet.”

 

“It’s like Ramsay told you, remember, Harry?” Hermione pointed out. “Every student is ‘full of potential?’

 

“Even Crabbe and Goyle?” Harry asked amusedly.

 

“…Maybe not every student,” granted Ron.

 

Harry laughed.

Chapter Text

Tuesday night Ron parted ways with Harry and Hermione after dinner. They waved to him as he departed down the hall for the kitchens, looking just as uncomfortable with his departure as he was. He wasn’t sure if he’d ever be fully comfortable doing so many things without the two of them around…

 

Ron walked down in the direction of the dungeons, turning down a hallway and coming to a stop in front of a portrait of a fruit bowl. He reached out and tickled the painted pear, and with a loud guffaw, the painting swung open like a door, and Ron stepped into the Hogwarts kitchens.

 

The stations closest to the doorway were empty – it seemed the house elves had all cleaned them up early, in anticipation for the student chefs using the space. When Ron entered, he immediately picked out some of the other competitors – dark-haired, forebodingly attractive Daphne; curly brown-haired Kevin, with his big, long-lashed brown eyes; tiny Rose, with her brown pigtails and pudgy cheeks; fair-haired, smiling Hannah; and Bridget, who’d tied her black hair up in a tight ballerina-like bun. All of them looked up as he approached.

 

“Ron, you made it!” said Hannah brightly.

 

Ron gave an awkward laugh. “Yeah – hey.”

 

He glanced at the others. The two younger Hufflepuffs gave smiles and waves, but Daphne stared Ron down like he was some cockroach that had just entered the room. He shot her a glare just as sharp in return.

 

“Where are the Ravenclaws?” asked Ron. “Are they coming?”         

 

“Arjuna said she’s already been practicing on her own in the kitchens every morning before sunrise, so she doesn’t need any extra help,” Bridget answered, her sleek tone betraying some disdain. “Since Arjuna wasn’t interested, Astoria said no too. And Cho had already promised one of her friends that they’d start working on their thirty-page thesis for Defense Against the Dark Arts tonight…honestly, with how rough Snape’s been with his NEWT class, I can’t say I blame her.”

 

“She doesn’t have to do that homework,” Daphne pointed out coolly. “She gets a pass from it, being in this competition.”

 

“Yeah, but you know how Ravenclaws are,” Bridget said cynically. “Schoolwork is their religion.”

 

Daphne smirked too. Hannah smiled disapprovingly at them.

 

“Oh, come on, you two,” the Hufflepuff prefect said patiently, “that thesis might be due after the competition is over, so maybe Cho wants to get on top of it early. Or she could just be helping out her friend – no one can blame her for that…”

 

“What about Millicent?” Rose asked innocently.

 

Ron couldn’t fully bite back a laugh – to his surprise, neither could Daphne.

 

“Darling…you don’t know Millicent,” Daphne said coolly.

 

Hannah crossed her arms, her patient face not shifting, as she turned to Rose gently. “Millicent has a bit of a reputation around school – she generally keeps to herself, and she can be a bit…stand-offish around people.”

 

“As in she’ll pummel anyone who so much as looks at her funny,” Ron snorted.

 

Bridget gave Ron a playful shove. “That’s mostly just the image she puts off, I think. But honestly, I didn’t think she’d accept any help. She’s too proud – and I can understand that. Anyway…” her tone became more straightforward as she gestured to Daphne, “Daphne and I thought it’d be fun to make our own pasta – we’ll have to use the same materials, so that means we’ll have to work together at the start, but then we can branch off on our own and add in our own flavors. Have you made pasta before, Ron?”

 

“Not from scratch – ” Ron admitted.

 

He was cut off, however, by the sound of another person entering behind him. The group turned to see Astoria climbing through the portrait hole, looking a little disheveled as she entered the kitchen.

 

“Astoria!” said Bridget, startled. “I thought you weren’t coming.”

 

Astoria looked around at everyone, her light blue eyes betraying great discomfort despite her stony face.

 

“…I hope I’m not intruding,” she said lowly.

 

Her gaze lingered a little longer on Daphne, who stared her down with just as flinty of an expression.

 

“Of course not!” said Hannah warmly, and she rushed forward and grabbed Astoria’s hand, pulling her forward. “We’re glad you changed your mind! Come on, we were just about to start on the pasta!”

 

Hannah pulled Astoria over toward her side of the kitchen, which was opposite to where Daphne and Bridget had already put down their things. Since the final spot in the kitchen seemed to be between Daphne and Kevin, Ron awkwardly stepped up into the space and put down his own schoolbag on the floor, rolling up his sleeves and shooting another distrustful look toward Daphne.

 

“So the first step,” said Daphne, her tone taking on a much more educational tone as she cracked open an egg and started beating it, “is to make the pasta dough. For that, you’ll need a cup of flour, an egg, and some salt.”

 

Bridget picked up her cue and grabbed the flour and a measuring cup. Ron fumbled around for a box of salt.

 

“Put the cup of flour in a bowl and add half a tablespoon of salt,” Daphne instructed.

 

Once Ron and Bridget were through, Daphne then poured her yellowish egg mixture into it, snatched up the bowl, and started mixing the ingredients all together. It was amazing how ferociously she mixed, despite her apparent lack of strength.

 

“Bridget, I’ll need a floured surface, once this is done,” barked Daphne.

 

Not the least bit offended by her blunt orders, Bridget put down some wax paper and lightly dusted it with flour. Daphne meanwhile kept mixing the dough, even though it was clearly becoming difficult for her.

 

“Once you’ve mixed it…it’ll be really stiff,” Daphne huffed, “so you’ll need a little bit of water, to make it malleable enough to mold – Weasley, get that, will you?”

 

Frowning slightly at her derisive tone, Ron nonetheless grabbed the measuring cup and dashed to the faucet, filling it halfway with water.

 

“Just a little,” Daphne warned him, as he raised the measuring cup over the bowl and made to pour some in, “just a little – stop! Just that!”

 

Ron withdrew the cup of water, and Daphne put the mixing bowl down on the counter. She then started taking the dough out of the bowl in both hands, bringing it in pieces down onto the floured countertop.

 

“Now the most important thing about making pasta,” she dictated, as her hands worked at the dough, “is to do it quickly. If you dawdle, then the pasta dries out.”

 

She grabbed a rolling pin and started flattening the mound down into a thin sheet. She even once used her wand (which she had skewered neatly through her bun like a hair accessory) to stretch the batter out in mid-air.

 

“You can either use a roller to smooth it out, or you can use magic to stretch it, like this –Extendenalata! Just make sure you flick your wrist and trail it down the dough as it spreads out. Be careful not to stretch it too far, or the dough will break. Depending on the kind of pasta you’re making, you’ll want a different thickness, but for this, I’m doing angel hair, so my sheet will be very long and very thin. From there, you can either stick this in a pasta maker that will cut it up, or you can use magic to do it yourself with a Severing Charm.”

 

“The Severing Charm’s incantation is Diffindo,” another voice quietly cut in.

 

Daphne shot a fierce glare at Astoria – the younger Greengrass sister’s blue eyes were on Rose, who had looked a little confused.

 

“I don’t need your help,” Daphne snapped.

 

Astoria looked up at her sister, her blue eyes faintly wounded despite her otherwise stoic expression.

 

“She was just explaining it to Rose, Daphne,” Hannah tried to soothe her. “Rose probably hasn’t learned the Severing Charm yet…”

 

“I can more than cover that on my own,” Daphne cut her off coldly. “If Rose wanted me to explain, then she could’ve asked.”

“Astoria just wanted to help,” Kevin tried to placate Daphne too.

 

“As I said, I don’t need help – especially from her.”

 

Astoria looked away. Ron recognized something in her posture that he’d only ever seen in one other person before – for a moment, he was reminded of Neville, whenever he had to bite his tongue and endure Draco Malfoy’s bullying. The memory made Ron turn on Daphne with a fierce look.

 

“What’s your deal?” he demanded.

 

Daphne turned to him coldly. “Excuse me?”

 

“All she thought to do was give you a hand, and all you can think of doing is biting it off,” Ron snapped. “So what if you don’t need help? She was still doing you a favor!”

 

“She didn’t think I could handle it on my own,” Daphne shot back, her tone contrasting Ron’s by going both quieter and colder.

 

“She was being nice! Not that you deserve it, clearly – ”

 

“Shut it!”

 

Everyone turned to Astoria. Her blue eyes were blazing as they stared down both Ron and Daphne.

 

“Clearly I shouldn’t have come at all,” she said quietly. “I’ll go now.”

 

“No!” Hannah pleaded desperately, even as Astoria grabbed her things. “No, Astoria, don’t do that – ”

 

“Astoria, stop walking and listen to me, or I’ll Leg-Lock you where you stand.”

 

Everyone turned to Bridget, who had taken her wand out and was pointing it at Astoria. The younger Greengrass stopped, looking back at Bridget with an unreadable expression.

 

“If you don’t care about winning the competition and getting the prize money, then go on – clear out,” said Bridget, and her quiet, yet clear tone was cutting. “But you’re in no place to claim that you can win on your own, when you were in the bottom four last week…”

 

Bridget then turned to Daphne, her black eyes just as spiteful. “…Something you just barely avoided. We all have our reasons for doing this competition – I frankly don’t care to know what yours are, but I know we’re all working for something. And I know that each of us has our own strengths. And if you all just bicker and snipe at each other, you’ll be chasing your pride and not what’s in your best interest. I know I need to learn how to cook things with magic, if I’m to survive in this competition. I know Ron needs to learn how to make a perfect pancake. I know you wanted to learn how to use a Switching Spell to place one food inside another, Daphne,” she added with a snide smirk.

 

Ron looked up, surprised, just in time to see Daphne flush.

 

“I know it’s weird to ask for help from the people we’re competing against,” Bridget said coolly, “but if we all ask each other about the things we need to learn, and we share our knowledge with each other, then we’ll all be a step ahead. You scratch my back, I scratch yours, you know?”

 

“Right,” Kevin cut in at this point, his tone much lighter and more positive than Bridget’s. “This competition won’t mean anything if we’re not on an equal playing field. I know I’ve cooked longer than some of you…probably less than others too…but I don’t want to win unless I know I’ve really earned it.”

 

“Me either,” said Hannah softly. Rose nodded in agreement.

 

Kevin went over to Astoria and brought an arm around her shoulders. “Come on…let’s start rolling out our own dough, eh? You know how to make pasta too, right?”

 

Astoria’s blue eyes slid from the floor to up at Daphne, who looked back at her with similarly unreadable dark eyes.

 

“…Yeah,” she said quietly. “I know how.”

 

Daphne looked away, bringing her gaze back to the pasta dough in front of her.

 

“All right, then,” Hannah said patiently, “let’s start again! We’ll make a new batch of dough on this side, whisk the eggs, mix the flour and salt…”

 

As the chefs on the other side started making their own batch of dough as per Daphne’s instructions, Ron turned to the elder Greengrass.

 

“…You really wanted to learn about how to Switch foods into other ones?”

 

Daphne kept her back turned and gave a loud huff, trying to obscure her embarrassment.

 

“It was a clever trick, what you did,” she said moodily. “I figured it’d be a good shortcut in making my chocolate-liqueur lava cake.”

 

Ron considered this. “…Supplementing the cake center with the chocolate and liqueur filling, so you don’t have to put the cakes together in stages. That’s a cool idea.”

 

Daphne turned to look at him, her dark eyes rippling with cool scorn.

 

“Well, if you’d like, I can show you,” Ron said awkwardly. “I mean…it’s really just a standard Switching Spell, honestly…though you have to make sure you can visualize the interior of whatever you’re switching the food into, so that you get everything you want out and not leave any residue…here, let me show you – ”

 

He grabbed one of the eggs out of the carton, as well as a fistful of flour. Bridget curiously looked on over Daphne’s shoulder.

 

“So say I want to put flour into this egg. I visualize the eye yolk in my mind – start with my wand on the flour – then, trailing my wand from the flour to the egg and back in a sharp noose shape, I cast the spell – Hocest Mutatio!”

 

With a flare of white light, the flour vanished. Ron then picked up the egg and with a tap, he emptied its new flour-y contents onto the counter.

 

“See? Easy.”

 

Daphne’s expression had cleared slightly, losing some of its condescension. “Not bad, Weasley.”

 

“Translation – she’s impressed,” Bridget said coolly.

 

“I did not say that,” Daphne shot back prudishly.

 

“Of course not – but Gryffindors don’t speak Slytherin. They’re too dim.”

 

Ron smirked slightly despite himself. “Oh yeah? And yet it was a Gryffindor that figured out how to Switch foods into each other, and not the Slytherins.”

 

“Touché,” Bridget answered with a laugh.

 

Daphne smiled a bit too.

 

“…Weasley, do you know how to make a Shepherd’s Pie?”

 

“Well, sure,” Ron said, blinking in surprise. “Doesn’t everybody?”

 

“Mother and Father never served Shepherd’s Pie at home,” Daphne said demurely. “They saw it as too ‘low class,’ and discouraged Uncle Hyperion from teaching us how to make it.”

 

Ron noticed that Astoria had been covertly listening in, but she turned away as soon as she and Ron made eye contact.

 

“…Well, then,” said Ron placidly, “let’s fix that!”

 

He turned fully around to face the other side of the kitchen.

 

“Hey Astoria,” he called over, beckoning her over with a hand, “you want to make a Shepherd’s Pie with us, when you’re done making that pasta dough?”

 

Astoria looked up at him, startled. She glanced at Daphne, who merely looked away uncomfortably. Then she offered Ron the smallest trace of a smile.

 

“…Okay.”

Chapter Text

When Harry woke up the next morning, Ron had had a gleam in his eye that Harry hadn’t seen since he won Gryffindor their last Quidditch match. At breakfast that morning, Ron told him and Hermione excitedly about all the great things he’d learned. Hannah had taught them all how to change a food’s coloring with magic; Daphne and Astoria had shown them how to make pasta from scratch and make a great red wine sauce for a coq au vin; Rose had demonstrated to the others how to safely flambé something; Kevin had helped the others out in how to make a flawless meringue; and Bridget had shared her tips in making croissants so that they were perfectly light and airy.

 

“And get this – Daphne? She asked me to show her how to make a Shepherd’s Pie, since her family never taught her and Astoria how to make one,” Ron told Harry and Hermione as they headed down for breakfast, keeping his voice low despite his animated gestures. “So I showed them how to make Mum’s recipe, and when we were done, we all tried it, and I swear, Daphne was smiling like a kid at Christmas!”

 

Harry looked dumbfounded. “Seriously?”

 

“Yeah!” Ron said with a big grin. “It was crazy! I mean – the Greengrass family has their reputation and all, yeah, but more importantly Daphne’s supposed to be buddy-buddy with Pansy Parkinson and that lot. Yet last night, we were actually able to cook together and be sort of nice-like…”

 

“Well, I suppose since Daphne has a sister in Ravenclaw, she’s got to be a little more reasonable than some of the other Slytherins,” said Hermione thoughtfully.

 

Ron shook his head. “No, I don’t think so. There’s some sort of bad blood between Astoria and Daphne – I saw it when we all first arrived. Don’t really get it, but I figure it might be the house thing. I mean, all the Greengrasses have probably been in Slytherin for ages, and they’re a pretty dysfunctional lot.”

 

“Like the Malfoys,” supposed Harry.

 

“Yeah, ‘cept the Greengrasses were never Death Eaters. I mean, yeah, there was a lot of suspicion around the Malfoys before old Lucius got arrested at the Department of Mysteries, but from what Dad’s told me no one’s ever been able to confirm that the Greengrasses supported You-Know-Who back in the day. But they still socialize with people who did support You-Know-Who, so they’re probably just quieter in their support than others.”

 

“It is weird, then,” Hermione said with a frown, “that Daphne and Astoria worked with you that well. I mean, if their parents are friends with Voldemort supporters – ” Ron flinched at the name, but she ignored him, “ – then they’d probably not like your family much, right?”

 

Once Ron had recovered enough, he nodded in agreement. “…Right. And Bridget and Rose are both Muggle-born too. I had already thought Astoria might be different, since she’s a Ravenclaw…but I reckon Daphne doesn’t actually believe in that blood purity crap either…even if she’s weird about expressing it.”

 

Thanks to Ron talking to Ramsay after Potions class, Harry learned that Slughorn would be arriving one day before each round, mostly to help set up everything for the next set of challenge with the other judges. That Thursday Harry slyly “bumped into” Slughorn and started up a conversation – unfortunately Harry had revealed his hand too early and tried to ask about the memory, and in response Slughorn had withdrawn immediately like a gnome going back into its hole.

 

“You’ll just have to try again after the next round,” Hermione reassured him.

 

“Yeah,” said Ron. “You’ve just got to come at it more patiently – I think Slytherins might not be upfront with things very much…unless they’re Bridget.”

 

Harry didn’t really see how he could be that patient, though, while knowing how much Dumbledore was counting on him to get the real memory. He clearly thought it was very important…that meant he had to get it as soon as possible…

 

Fortunately Harry didn’t have to worry too much about Ron in the next round. His positive attitude endured for the rest of the week, to the extent that when the day of the competition came, he seemed pretty assured of himself.

 

“I think I’ll be okay,” Ron told Hermione and Harry before he left to meet with the other competitors. “I mean, I’ll never be fully prepared, since the judges will want to surprise us…but I think I can figure it out.”

 

“You know it,” Harry said, grinning from ear to ear as he patted Ron on the back. “Go get ‘em.”

 

“You’ll do great, Ron,” Hermione added, her cheeks flushing slightly as she put forward as confident and logical of a voice as she could. “I mean, really, you've always done well, when it really counts...”

 

Ron’s face turned a dark crimson, even as his mouth spread into a smile that seemed too big for his face. “…Thanks, Hermione. Well…see you.”

 

Harry and Hermione waved goodbye to Ron, and he headed off for the dungeons to meet up with the other contestants.

 

That evening the entire school once again gathered in the stands. Each part of the stadium had their own banners waving – some for their house, some for specific students. Gryffindor had it easy, having only one competitor left in the contest, and so whether they were waving “Weasley is our King” or “Go Go Gryffindor!” banners, it didn’t make much difference. Hufflepuff solely depicted house colors and Hufflepuff slogans on their banners; Ravenclaw, in contrast, was almost excusively waving banners with the words “Arjuna is our Ace” written on them in blue and bronze calligraphy that magically grew and shrank at random. Slytherin had a pretty even swath of banners for all three of their competitors – Harry noticed Pansy Parkinson holding a banner with a blown-up picture of Daphne’s face on it, but she seemed to be looking for someone in the stands and was too distracted to hold it up.

 

“Probably looking for Malfoy,” Hermione said with a faint smirk. “He’s been avoiding her almost all year…but from I gather, she’s the only person who hasn’t gotten the hint…”

 

Ginny scoffed, her lips also touched with a smirk. “The only living thing in the universe that hasn’t, more like. Even a Pygmy Puff could tell Malfoy’s not interested.”

 

This got Harry’s brain racing. Where was Malfoy? Everyone and their mother was here at the competition – it’d be a perfect distraction, if someone wanted to do something away from prying eyes…

 

Harry almost thought to leave the stands and go get the Marauders’ Map from his suitcase back in his dorm room, but at that moment, Ginny grabbed his arm, which drew his attention away.

 

“Look, here they come!”

 

The judges strode out onto the field, each one leading their competitors in a line. Dumbledore and Ron’s arrival made the entire Gryffindor stands scream themselves hoarse – Ron waved up at them, his face spread in a grin that made him look a little punch drunk.

 

“Good morning, everyone!” greeted Ramsay. His voice was warmer than ever, almost jolly. “Welcome to the next round of MagicChef Junior! We’re excited to have you with us!”

 

Slughorn gave a wide, charming smile to each section of the crowd in turn. “In the last round, we challenged our competitors to serve up their best breakfast cuisine.”

 

“In this next round,” said Bagnold, her voice misty and serene, “we hope to…switch things up…in an attempt to remind our student chefs to stay on their toes.”

 

Dumbledore brought a hand down on Ron’s shoulder and smiled; Ron looked up and noticed a wry twinkle in the Headmaster’s blue eye before he looked up to face the crowd.

 

“In this round,” Dumbledore pronounced, his voice oddly grounded to Harry’s ears, “we’ll be dealing with…Imposters. And I don’t just mean your judges, either.”

 

All of the student chefs looked up at their respective judges, startled, and the crowd gave a rumbling murmur as Dumbledore, still keeping one hand on Ron’s shoulder, withdrew a large bottle from inside his robes. Inside burbled a disgusting mud-like potion – one both Harry and Hermione recognized at once as –

 

Polyjuice Potion!” they burst out in loud unison.

 

Yes!” Dumbledore cried, baring his teeth in a wide, confident smile. “Like your dishes, your judges are not what they appear to be! May I introduce Horace Slughorn – ”

 

The judge everyone had thought was Ramsay gave a little bow from his place between the Hufflepuff chefs.

 

“ – Millicent Bagnold – ”

 

The judge who resembled Slughorn smiled around at the crowd over the heads of the Slytherin girls.

 

“ – Albus Dumbledore – ”

 

The judge wearing Millicent Bagnold’s face gave an airy wave to the onlookers, while also passing a wry wink to the Ravenclaw girls beside him.

 

“ – And finally myself,” finished the judge who everyone assumed was Dumbledore, “Gordon Ramsay!”

 

There was a smattering of polite applause from the crowd. After a few seconds Ramsay talked over them, continuing the introduction.

 

“In this challenge today, you will find a card at your station that will either instruct you to make a sweet or savory dish. You will then have to make that dish resemble another food that is the opposite. For instance, let’s say you get ‘sweet’ and decide you want to make ice cream. You would then have to make that ice cream look like a savory dish – for instance, a baked potato. You will be judged not only on your flavors and creativity, but the believability of your dish.”

 

“You will have 30 minutes to complete this challenge, and the winner will receive a rather helpful advantage in the elimination round,” Dumbledore said, tossing some of Bagnold’s curls over his shoulder casually. “Your time starts…now.”

 

The student chefs all dashed to their stations like horses at a derby, and the crowd at once started cheering slogans and shouting encouragement as the contestants received their cards from their elf partners and got straight to work.

 

This challenge went infinitely better for Ron than the first one, even though the pace was no less hurried. Like before, Harry kept his Omnioculars squarely on Ron, while Hermione kept her eye on his competition.

 

“It looks like Kevin’s doing some sort of meatloaf…I think it’s chocolate cake? Hannah is doing a pizza with white chocolate for the cheese and blended strawberries for the tomato sauce – that’s clever…wow, Astoria’s almost done…they look like donuts, but I guess they can’t really be donuts…”

 

Ron took a tall, round cake out of the oven, while also keeping one eye on something that looked like a sauce made of treacle that was cooking on the stove. It took Harry a while to figure out what he was doing, but by the time Ron had taken out his wand and started to etch a series of light grooves into his cake with a carefully controlled Incendio charm, Harry figured it out. He turned to Ginny, his eyes lighting up.

 

“Ron’s making a – ” he started.

 

“Yeah!” Ginny cut him off, looking just as excited as Harry.

 

When the 30 minutes were up, all of the student chefs, their energy once again spent, went up to face the judges one by one. The judges were still disguised as each other, but clearly had gotten tired of it already.

 

“How in the world do you deal with this beard, Dumbledore?” Ramsay asked him irritably, as he tossed the sheet of white hair over his shoulder to get it out of his way. “Such a bloody cumbersome thing…”

 

“It takes decades of practice, my dear Gordon,” Dumbledore replied coolly.

 

Kevin had made a “meatloaf” that was really a chocolate cake decorated with a red-velvet-cake inspired sauce. Slughorn thought that the red velvet sauce was too sweet and suggested that a strawberry sauce would’ve improved it, but otherwise the judges liked Kevin’s vision and flavors.

 

Astoria had made “frosted donuts” that were in truth soft pretzels covered in a Jalapeno-cheese sauce that she’d charmed a light pink color. The judges were wowed by how realistic her donuts looked and praised her creativity, though Bagnold suggested that some “sprinkles” made of salt would’ve improved them.

 

Cho had made an “ice cream sundae,” made of mashed potatoes, beef gravy, and a bacon “cherry” on top. The judges liked her flavor choices, but Ramsay had expressed disappointment by her lack of originality – after all, he had cited ice cream and potatoes before the round had even started.

 

Rose had made “candy corn” made of three different kinds of cheese and charmed different colors. Although Ramsay applauded her creativity, most of the other judges were not familiar with candy corn (it being a Muggle sweet), and they had wished she’d maybe chosen another candy as her model.

 

Then it was Ron’s turn. When Ron came up before the judges, his heart was racing, but his posture was strong.

 

“Hello, Ron,” greeted Ramsay.

 

“Hello, Professor Dumbledore,” Ron answered back coolly.

 

The Gryffindor stands burst into laughter. Dumbledore gave Ron a covert wink that looked bizarre on Bagnold’s sophisticated face. Ramsay bowed his head, grinning from ear to ear as he tried to suppress his amusement, before he raised his head again after a few seconds, still smiling widely.

 

“Tell us what you’ve made for us.”

 

“Well,” Ron started with a small smile, “since I didn’t make you guys that many pancakes last week…I decided to make you a big stack of them today! This is a vanilla sponge cake with pieces of candied ginger baked inside that looks like a huge stack of American-style savory bacon pancakes, drizzled with a treacle sauce that is supposed to stand in for maple syrup.”

 

By the time Ron was finished, his "pan" cake had gone from Dumbledore to Ramsay to Bagnold to Slughorn. The Slytherin judge, who still resembled Ramsay, took a bite and gave a jovial laugh.

 

“Well, I must say, my boy – I am very impressed! This cake is positively scrumptious.”

 

Bagnold, who was still wearing Slughorn’s face, nodded politely as Slughorn helped himself to another few bites. “The cake is wonderfully moist, and your design is quite clever. I particularly like the addition of the candied ginger as your bacon -- very inventive.”

 

“I suspect you ran out of time before you could airbrush or enchant some coloring to the top," supposed Ramsay, "to make it look more golden brown, like the top of a real American pancake?”

 

“Yes, sir,” Ron answered sheepishly. “I guess I took a little too long, carving out each pancake…”

 

“Perhaps in the future, if you make this again, you can either make the cake a little shorter or just make the ‘pancakes’ about half an inch thicker so you don’t have to carve as many…though I suppose if you do make this in the future, you likely won’t have such a time constraint put upon you,” Ramsay added, smirking slightly. “Excellent work overall, Ron – well done.”

 

“Thank you,” said Ron.

 

He went back to his station, his face spread into a huge grin as the Gryffindors sang a rousing chorus of “Weasley is our King.” As he walked away from the judges, Bridget walked up as if to take his place, and on the way up, she raised a hand into the air beside her. Ron took the cue and gave her a high five as they passed each other, sharing big grins. Most of the students in the stands started mumbling confusedly.

 

“What’s that about…?” muttered Ginny, her eyebrows knitting together suspiciously.

 

Harry was one of the few completely nonplussed by the action. “Probably just congratulating each other, that’s all.”

 

“Yeah, but why?” asked Ginny, still baffled. “I mean…she’s a Slytherin.”

 

“Ron says Bridget’s actually pretty nice, for a Slytherin,” said Hermione.

 

“Nice or not, she’s his rival in the competition,” Ginny persisted, her brown eyes narrowing upon Bridget as the judges looked over her “cake,” which instead turned out to be a meatloaf covered in garlic mashed potatoes. “And Slytherins do whatever they have to in order to win – who’s to say she’s not playing nice with Ron in the hopes it’ll get her the prize?”

 

Hermione looked down at her lap, her eyebrows knitting together too as she contemplated this. Harry frowned, also feeling unsure of how best to respond. He trusted Ron’s judgment…but what if Ginny was right? What if all of this stuff Bridget had done around Ron – being nice to him, inviting him to cook with her and the others – was really just some underhanded trick meant to lure Ron into a false sense of security?

 

When the judges were finished, they once again discussed the results with each other, before facing the crowd once more.

 

“Congratulations, student chefs,” said Dumbledore. “Your Food Imposters were all very creative, inventive, and of course…delicious. The dishes that were the most convincing, however, were made by…Hannah – ”

 

Hannah’s clasped hands came up to rest over her beaming lips.

 

“ – Astoria – ”

 

Astoria looked startled and delighted.

 

“ – Arjuna – ”

 

Arjuna smiled proudly, her black eyes sparkling.

 

“ – and Ron.”

 

Ron looked like he’d been hit over the head with a blunt instrument. His head shot around as he looking around at Dobby and then at the stands, as the Gryffindors once again burst into song – then he looked at the judges, his mouth spread in a huge open-mouthed grin and his blue eyes thrilled.

 

“Only one chef, of course,” Dumbledore continued, “may receive the advantage in the next round. That chef is…”

 

Everyone in the stands tensely shifted forward in their seats.

 

“…Arjuna.”

 

The Ravenclaws all burst into cheers and applause. Arjuna waved at her supporters, her face touched by a demure smile.

 

“Arjuna,” Slughorn spoke over the cheers of her classmates, “your dessert kebob had so many different flavors, and you used magic to cook each fruit and cake you used to perfection. Congratulations, my dear.”

 

Once the cheers had quieted down, Ramsay spoke up.

 

“Now then…we’ll take a ten minute break, at the end of which the Polyjuice Potion’s effects should hopefully have completely worn off, and we judges will be ready to initiate the elimination round. Prepare yourselves – this next challenge will be a doozy.”

Chapter Text

When the judges returned (Dumbledore in mauve, Slughorn in midnight blue, Bagnold in lime green, and Ramsay in predictable chef’s white), they stood in a line in front of the student chefs. All four of them looked infinitely more relaxed now that they resembled their proper selves again.

 

“In this competition,” stated Ramsay, “you have each had to prove your grit and talent, pulling out all the stops in an attempt to get ahead of your competition. In this challenge, however, that will change.”

 

Bagnold stepped forward and raised her wand. In stylistic swirls of wordless magic, she summoned tomatoes and basil leaves and hovered them in two batches in front of her for the crowd to see.

 

“Individually one can be a unique, marvelous talent,” she said, her tone rippling with weight and, in Harry’s opinion, a touch too much drama. “But when two talented people are paired together – that’s when true magic can happen!”

 

In a tiny explosion of magical fireworks, the ingredients vanished, and with another summoning charm, Bagnold levitated a bowl of streaming tomato soup into the air.

 

“Today, chefs, you will be tested,” she proclaimed with a wide smile that was stunning from all angles, “by being partnered off in pairs of two and, as a team, having to make a delicious enchanted entrée for us! This entrée can be anything you like, but you must include some sort of magic in it – whether a potion or an enchantment – that creates some sort of a magical effect on the judges. This special variation of tomato and basil soup, for example, I infuse with a Sleeping Enchantment, so as to help my grandchildren get to sleep when they’re sick in bed.”

 

“To keep this challenge from being too…easy, of course,” Dumbledore said wryly, his blue eyes twinkling, “you will have to team up with someone who is not from your house…and at the end of this round, the weakest of the pairs will be eliminated.”

 

The stands at once started mumbling in concern. Ron noticed, however, that only the competitors who had not met in the kitchens Monday night – Cho, Arjuna, and Millicent – seemed anxious.

 

“Arjuna m’dear,” said Slughorn, “since you won the advantage in the last round, you will get to assign the teams.”

 

Now it was Ron’s turn to be nervous. Arjuna, from the start, had been a pretty threatening opponent. She’d only lost the first preheat challenge by a hair and had won both of the other challenges easily, receiving nothing but enthusiastic praise from all of the judges. Plus Cho said she’d won, like, four blue ribbons before even coming to Hogwarts, right? On top of that, Ron knew Ravenclaws were, by and large, very competitive. Whenever Gryffindor had faced Ravenclaw in Quidditch, Ravenclaw’s players always flew as nimbly and strategically as a professional team.

 

Arjuna glanced around at the other chefs with her eyes narrowed thoughtfully, clearly sizing up her competition. Then she spoke with methodical calm.

 

“…Astoria with Kevin…”

 

Astoria and Kevin exchanged a small smile.

 

“Cho with Daphne…”

 

Cho hesitantly glanced at Daphne, who returned her gaze with an icy, distrustful stare.

 

“Bridget with…”

 

Ron tensed up, hoping beyond hope –

 

“…Rose…”

 

Ron’s shoulders dropped. Rose smiled brightly at Bridget, who gave her a small wry smile in return – Ron, however, noticed that Bridget’s eyes also flickered coolly toward Arjuna.

 

“…And Ron with Millicent.”

 

Ron felt like his stomach had fallen out of his chest. The Gryffindor and Slytherin stands all immediately started booing and screaming angrily.

 

“What a cheat!” Ginny yelled, her cheeks flushing a furious red. “‘Arjuna the Ace,’ yeah, right – more like Arjuna the Ass – !”

 

Unfortunately Ginny was sitting next to Luna, and therefore the Ravenclaw stands, so her outburst was shouted down by a bunch of Ravenclaws who were holding an “Arjuna is our Ace” banner close by.

 

Gaping, Ron shot his gaze over to Millicent. She looked almost more appalled than he was – although her mouth was closed, her brown eyes rather resembled those of a deer in the headlights…if that deer was also carrying an AK-47 and prepared to go on a rampage.

 

“That leaves Hannah as my partner,” Arjuna finished smoothly, clearly unfazed by the Gryffindor and Slytherin outbursts.

 

“Very good,” Bagnold said in satisfaction. “Teams, please move to one of the five front stations.”

 

Ron shot Bridget an uneasy look, before he walked over to the station just in front of where he usually worked. Millicent lumbered over to stand at his side, though they both worked to keep a healthy berth between them.

 

“Now that the teams are decided,” said Dumbledore, “there’s one last thing we must add.”

 

With a wave of his wand, he materialized a set of golden chains and cuffs on each of the competitor’s ankles that connected them to their partner. All of the chefs – even Kevin and Astoria, who’d looked rather pleased with their match-up – flinched in response.

 

“This will ensure that you must work together, during this challenge,” Dumbledore said with amused satisfaction.

 

“You will have 90 minutes to make your enchanted entrée,” said Ramsay. “Your time starts…now!”

 

Kevin and Astoria, Hannah and Arjuna, and Rose and Bridget got to work right away. Cho and Daphne started a little more hesitantly, with Cho trying to reach out to Daphne and Daphne reluctantly going along with her. In Ron and Millicent’s case, however, Ron was startled when Millicent immediately shot forward toward the station countertop with no warning, yanking him along after her.

 

“H-hey!” he yelped in a mixture of pain and anger.

 

“Pick up your feet,” Millicent snapped back at him. “We only have 90 minutes, and I’m not going to let you blow this for me – ”

 

Ron yanked the chain back with all his strength, making her stumble backward.

 

“Whoa, horsie,” he retorted coldly. “We can’t get to work if we don’t have a game plan. We haven’t even figured out what we’re making!”

 

Millicent whirled on him, her tiny brown eyes flashing. “You haven’t figured out what we’re making. I know exactly what I’m doing – so just let me do it, and we’ll both get through this.”

 

Ron gave a bark-like laugh. “Oh yeah, that sounds right! Just sit back and silently entrust you with my place in the contest? As if I’m going to do that!”

 

“I have no time to hold your hand, Weasley!”

 

“Good! Can’t imagine who’d want to hold your hand – ”

 

Millicent seized Ron by the collar, raising a fist as if to punch him full on in the face.

 

“Master Weasley!”

 

“Miss Millicent!”

 

Winky and Dobby both placed themselves in between their student chefs, putting their long-fingered hands up defensively.

 

“Please, please don’t fight, Miss Millicent!” Winky whimpered.

 

“Master Weasley can’t finish the challenge, if he’s fighting!” squeaked Dobby. “And if Master Weasley doesn’t have a dish, then Master Weasley will lose the challenge!”

 

Ron and Millicent glared at each other with pure hatred, flaring blue on fearsome brown. Then, slowly, reluctantly, Millicent released Ron’s collar, though her hand still stayed threateningly close to his throat as if she was still itching to choke him.

 

“…We’re making a Potato, Celery, and Shallots Soup,” she said very lowly. Her tone seemed to dare Ron to argue.

 

Ron gave a curt, distrustful nod. “Okay. And the magical element?”

 

“I’ll figure that out later,” Millicent said dismissively, as she turned back to the station and started filling a pot with olive oil.

 

“No,” Ron said firmly. “We’re figuring it out now. If we’re adding in a charm, then we’ll have to fold the spell into the soup while we’re mixing it – Hannah taught us that, when she showed us how to change the color of liquids…”

 

“Then we’ll use a potion,” Millicent said coolly. She kept her gaze firmly on her pot of olive oil, which she’d put on the stove so that it could boil.

 

“…Okay,” Ron granted, his tone still twitching with irritation.

 

Dobby and Winky reappeared with armfuls of potatoes, celery, and shallots. Ron grabbed some potatoes and started chopping them up. The flurry of action helped him work out enough of his aggression that he could talk a little more levelly.

 

“…How about we add in a Calming Draught?” he asked in a hard, brooding tone, as he continued to quickly cut up the potatoes. “That’d be a good effect for a soup to have.”

 

“The asphodel would react badly with the shallots,” Millicent answered seriously.

 

“Really?” Ron asked, startled.

 

“Onion-like plants don’t go with asphodel – they die instantly upon even the slightest contact. One time our house elf Lowry made the mistake of planting onions next to asphodel in Mother’s garden, and they all turned horribly black and rotten.”

 

“Yikes. No Calming Draught, then.”

 

Millicent nodded curtly. The two worked silently for a moment, with Millicent preparing the shallots and Ron cutting up celery and potatoes. Dobby and Winky watched them nervously, waiting on tenterhooks for any more requests.

 

“Though…” Millicent murmured, her hard tone becoming a little mistier when it was quietly hovering in the back of her throat, “we could substitute a Pepper-Up Potion.”

 

“Yeah…” Ron said slowly. “Yeah, that’d work! I mean, plenty of people drink soup when they’re sick – Bagnold mentioned it herself – ”

 

“And it’s not like we’d be taking her idea,” Millicent interjected thoughtfully. “We are using a different approach – ”

 

“I’ve got it!” Ron said excitedly. “Why don’t we add red peppers to the soup too? Then we can have a Red Pepper soup – ”

 

“ – With Pepper-Up Potion in it,” Millicent finished, her eyes widening.

 

“Right!”

 

Millicent’s small brown eyes actually lit up as she considered this. “…That’s actually a really good idea.”

 

“Curb your surprise, will you?” said Ron sarcastically.

 

Millicent’s eyes narrowed, though this time they had something almost like good humor in them. “All right – Weasley, why don’t you handle mixing in the ingredients, while I get to work brewing the Potion?”

 

“Sounds good,” said Ron.

 

He turned to Dobby. “Can you get us a small cauldron?”

 

“Right away, Master Weasley!” Dobby said, beaming from ear to ear as he disappeared with a crack.

 

Millicent also turned to Winky. “Winky…could you bring me beetle eyes, dandelion root, ground alietotsy, and a vial of honeywater from Professor Snape’s storeroom, please?”

 

“Yes, Miss Millicent!” Winky answered dutifully. “Of course!”

 

“Only if Professor Snape allows you to!” Millicent said forcefully before Winky could disappear too. “Before you go to the cupboard, go find him in the stands and tell him that Millicent needs these things for her dish. Only get the materials if he says yes – you understand?”

 

Winky nodded. “Yes, miss!”

 

With that, she disappeared with a crack.

 

Ron glanced at Millicent, confused. “What, you don’t think Snape will let you use whatever you want?”

 

Millicent scoffed. “Of course he will.”

 

Ron frowned. Then a thought struck him, and his blue eyes slowly widened.

 

“…You just don’t want Winky to get in trouble for taking things without asking.”

 

Millicent shrugged, acting as flippant as she could. “House elves get punished for stupid things – better for them to ask permission for something they know they can have than to presume they can just take it.”

 

Ron considered Millicent for a minute. Then, after a short silence, he offered her a small, wry smile.

 

“…Hey, Millicent?”

 

“What?”

 

“If we make it through this round…remind me to tell you about S.P.E.W.”

 

Once Winky came back with the potion materials and Dobby came back with the cauldron, Millicent and Ron plowed right in, and the round soon rushed by. Millicent and Ron finished their soup about a minute before time was up, and so were able to pour it into four separate bowls for the judges and add cheese and cilantro for decoration.

 

Rose and Bridget were up first. They had made a pork pie infused with a Cheering Charm. Unfortunately the Cheering Charm ended up reacting badly with the pork filling, making it overly chewy and moist. The Charm’s effects came through, but at the cost of the textures and flavors. Ramsay also noted that Rose and Bridget had had some trouble working together as well – Rose, being much more impulsive and excitable, was put at odds with Bridget, who was more methodical and thoughtful. They came together pretty well despite their opposite approaches and their lack of magical cooking knowledge, but those things clearly hurt their finished product.

 

‘That’s why Arjuna put Bridget with Rose,’ Ron realized. ‘They’re both Muggle-borns, and Rose is only in second year. Of course they’d be at a disadvantage, having to make a magical entrée together.’

 

Astoria and Kevin were next. They had made a cinnamon-spiced beef stroganoff imbued with a Silencing Charm – in Astoria’s words, they’d wanted to “leave the judges speechless” with their dish. The Charm worked beautifully and forced the four judges to respond by writing words in the air over their heads with their wands. Bagnold praised the mix of sweet and savory flavors in their dish, though she admitted she couldn’t see much appeal to a Silencing Charm in a fine dish, excluding the potential humor. Ramsay praised Kevin and Astoria’s teamwork in how they married their sensibilities – Astoria favoring savory flavors and Kevin preferring sweet ones – together in one cohesive dish.

 

Then it was Millicent and Ron’s turn. When the two walked up together, the chains still linking them by the ankles, Ron had to purposefully shrink his steps so that the shorter, rounder Millicent could keep up with him more easily.

 

“Hello, Ron, Millicent,” greeted Dumbledore pleasantly.

 

“Hi, Professor,” said Ron. Millicent inclined her head politely.

 

“Can you tell us what you’ve made for us, please?”

 

Ron glanced at Millicent out the corner of his eye. Millicent nodded, giving him silent permission to answer.

 

“…We’ve made you…a ‘Red Pepper-Up Potion Soup.’ It’s made of red peppers, potatoes, celery, and shallots, with Pepper-Up Potion mixed in and decorated with grated Parmesan cheese and cilantro.”

 

As the judges each tried the soup in turn, they licked their lips…and one by one, each judge suddenly found steam coming out of their ears.

 

“Who made the Pepper-Up Potion?” Slughorn asked eagerly, looking perfectly thrilled by the steam coming out of his head. “These steam clouds are some of the prettiest I’ve seen in years!”

 

Ron grinned at Millicent. She didn’t answer, instead just bowing her head, but Slughorn took it in stride.

 

“Superb work!” he said, clapping his hands. “Masterful Potion-making!”

 

“You should be very proud of yourself, Millicent,” Ramsay agreed. “And Ron, I thought I heard you suggest the red peppers?”

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

“Very clever,” said Ramsay. “Unfortunately the soup itself is a little thin – I think when you’re adding something like Pepper-Up Potion to a soup like this, you have to compensate the thinning quality of the sunflower root by adding in about a cup more of milk. I also noticed,” he brought his folded hands down on the table and leaned forward slightly, examining Millicent and Ron critically, “a lot of turmoil at your station. May I know what the issue was?”

 

Ron opened his mouth but faltered, not quite sure how to explain. To his surprise, Millicent stepped in.

 

“I’ve always cooked on my own. I’ve always done my own thing, my own way…and I didn’t really want any help.”

 

“That’s not a beneficial attitude, whether you’re a chef or not,” Ramsay stated seriously. “While I often like cooking my own recipes in my own way, I have cooked more than long enough to know how valuable an extra set of hands and an extra brain can be in the kitchen – and the same goes for everything else. Independence is good – but isolation is not.”

 

Millicent did not verbally reply, though Ron noticed, despite the feigned indifference on her face, how misty her brown eyes looked. She was definitely thinking, even if she didn’t know what to say.

 

“…I probably wasn’t helping much either,” Ron interjected. “I was sort of raring for a fight at the start…even though it was stupid.”

 

Millicent glanced at Ron out the corner of her eye, her expression unreadable. Bagnold smiled slightly.

 

“It’s good that you are aware of your own shortcomings,” Bagnold said kindly. “And of course, you two did pull together, in the end…that is really what matters. Well done.”

 

“Thank you,” Ron and Millicent murmured in broken unison.

 

They headed back to their station, the chains around their ankles disappearing as they went.

 

“You didn’t have to say those things,” Millicent said under her breath.

 

“No,” Ron said casually. “But I wanted to.”

 

“Why?”

 

“I didn’t like the thought of you getting all the blame, I guess.”

 

“So you did it to make yourself feel better?” asked Millicent.

 

“I wouldn’t say that,” Ron mumbled, frowning reproachfully at her. “Are you really that upset that I tried to be nice for a change?”

 

“No,” Millicent answered coolly. Her brown eyes actually softened slightly despite the lack of the smile on her face. “I can see why you and Bridget get along, though – she also has that inclination to be nice to people who’ve shown her no kindness whatsoever.”

 

Ron smirked slightly. “Well…it’s a little easier when you find out those people are decent enough, under all their stupid playacting.”

 

“I believe the word you’re looking for is ‘bullshit,’” Millicent said darkly, though her eyes twinkled with something like amusement.

 

Once the judges were finished looking over the dishes, they discussed the results. It took them a little longer than usual; it seemed Ramsay was in disagreement with the other three about something. When the four faced the crowd, Ramsay still didn’t look that happy.

 

“Well done, chefs,” said Bagnold, smiling warmly around at the stands. The camera of the Daily Prophet reporter flashed a few times on her, yet she didn’t flinch once. “All of you have performed admirably…but today, one team stood above the rest. That team is…Arjuna and Hannah!”

 

“Arjuna again,” grumbled Ginny, as the Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs both cheered. “I’m really getting sick of her…”

 

“I told you she was good,” Luna said dreamily. “There’s no sense in getting mad about someone being good in the field she’s competing in…”

 

“Your roast chicken with coconut chutney was a delicious meeting of the minds,” said Slughorn warmly. “Your Elixir to Induce Euphoria complimented your food beautifully, and your chutney in particular looked like something out of a professional cookbook!”

 

“That’s because it probably is,” Millicent muttered under her breath.

 

Ron turned to her. “Huh?”

 

“I know that dish – Ramsay put his own variation of coconut chutney in one of his cookbooks. I bet Arjuna used that exact recipe.”

 

Ron looked from Arjuna to Ramsay. “…No, that doesn’t make sense – I mean…Ramsay couldn’t be that cross if Arjuna used his recipe, right?”

 

“He could be if he thinks she didn’t put in as much thought into her dish as the rest of us did,” Millicent said lowly. “It’s like he said in Potions class – textbooks are a crutch for real hard work.”

 

Ron’s eyes again drifted from Arjuna to Ramsay. Ramsay caught Ron’s eye, and his irritated expression cleared up at once, fading away into a small smile. Ron smiled back awkwardly.

 

‘I wonder if he’d wanted to vote for Millicent and me,’ he thought. ‘Though I guess he might have liked Astoria and Kevin, too…’

 

“The other teams safe this week,” said Slughorn, “are Astoria and Kevin…and Ron and Millicent.”

 

All four chefs exhaled in immense relief.

 

“That leaves,” said Dumbledore, “Daphne, Cho, Bridget, and Rose. Please step forward.”

 

All four girls broke apart from the others, leaving their stations and coming up to the front. Rose was the worst off of the four – she’d started shaking. Cho had gone very white. The two Slytherins, however, remained stoic.

 

“Daphne and Cho. Your chocolate soufflé mixed with a Beauty Spell had conflicting flavors and a spell that was only mixed partway through. Your teamwork was also lacking, with one relinquishing the reins almost instantly to the other and constructive criticism giving way to bitterness.

“Bridget and Rose. Your pork pie infused with a Cheering Charm, although magically effective, was runny and chewy to the point of being unappetizing. Your inexperience in cooking with magic was a great hindrance, as were your opposite styles in the kitchen.”

 

Ron looked around at the student chefs facing elimination, feeling terrible. He didn’t want any of them to be cut – all of them deserved to stay…

 

Dumbledore looked around at all four girls solemnly. “The chefs who will be leaving the competition today are…”

 

The students in the stands all held their breath. Rose started to tremble.

 

“…Cho and Daphne.”

 

Rose collapsed onto her knees in utter relief. Cho closed her eyes and bowed her head, hiding her face in her hands. Bridget immediately turned to Daphne, who had barely reacted to the announcement, and wrapped an arm around her. Daphne tilted her head down so that her long brown hair fell into her eyes and no one could see her expression.

 

“Ravenclaw, Slytherin,” said Dumbledore, “please applaud your student chefs.”

 

A polite round of applause made its way through the stands. Arjuna clapped quietly; Hannah, Kevin, and Astoria tried to clap along too, but they clearly were not comforted at all by the gesture. His heart swelling with empathy and sorrow, Ron strode forward, leaving Millicent behind at their station. He walked right over to Cho and brought a hand onto her shoulder. Cho looked up just in time for him to give her a big hug.

 

“I’m really sorry,” he told her quietly.

 

Cho’s eyes filled up with tears and, to the surprise of all the Ravenclaws in the stands, she brought her arms around Ron’s neck and hugged him back.

 

“I won’t stop fighting,” she said lowly. “I will get it put up one day – somehow.”

 

Ron pulled away, offering her a small smile. “I’m glad.”

 

He then turned to Daphne, who’d looked up in some surprise when he’d hugged Cho.

 

“You probably don’t want a hug too,” Ron surmised good-naturedly.

 

“No,” said Daphne.

 

But through the small traces of tears in her eyes she was smiling.

Chapter Text

After the second round, the rivalry between Ravenclaw and Gryffindor became a little more intense. Harry was reminded of his time during the Triwizard Tournament when he noticed people wearing buttons saying “Weasley is Our King” or “Arjuna and Astoria are our Aces” in the hallways. With Astoria’s success in the last round, all of the Ravenclaws had gathered around to support her just as much as they had Arjuna…but Astoria was not particularly enthused. The day after the second round, Ron noticed Astoria throwing one of the “Arjuna and Astoria” buttons in the trash with a look of great bitterness stamped on her face – unfortunately Ron had been unable to catch her before she’d dashed down the hall toward the Charms classroom.

 

On Monday morning, Astoria’s feelings on Ravenclaw’s shift in approval came to full light when she and Arjuna got into a big argument in the Great Hall. It had all started when a first year Ravenclaw boy asked Arjuna and Astoria for their autographs. Arjuna indulged the star-struck boy, but Astoria dismissed him.

 

“I have no interest in being anyone’s celebrity,” she’d told the boy lowly. “Now run along.”

 

The boy, looking quite hurt, slunk off toward the other end of the Ravenclaw table, his head down.

 

Arjuna frowned at Astoria. “Stori, you should’ve just given it to him. It’s not a big deal.”

 

“He only wanted my autograph because I did well in the last round,” Astoria replied coldly.

 

“He wanted your autograph because he supports you,” Arjuna corrected.

 

“Because I did well in the last round. Who supported me after the first round, huh? No one.”

 

I supported you,” Arjuna said quietly.

 

Astoria’s face stayed blank, but her light blue eyes flashed. “Oh really.”

 

“Yes, really!” Arjuna shot back, flabbergasted by Astoria’s tone. “I’ve always wanted you to do well! I was really glad that they kept you – I mean, honestly, you were the only one who really deserved to stay – ”

 

Deserved to stay?” Astoria cut her off harshly. “What do you know about ‘deserving’ to stay?”

 

Astoria’s voice had risen enough that people were starting to listen in.

 

“Cho had wanted to build a monument for Cedric!” Astoria snapped. “She told me after the round that she was going to use the prize money to pay for it. Bridget is trying to help her mother’s restaurant! And I’m trying to get out of my parents’ house before it’s too late!”

 

“Stori – ” Arjuna started, but Astoria cut her off.

 

“What do you have to fight for!? All you want in this competition is to win! You don’t know anything about who deserves to win!”

 

Arjuna’s mouth had fallen open as she listened to Astoria rattle on. By the time Astoria was done, her eyes had narrowed sharply.

 

“This is a contest, Astoria,” she retorted. By now, everyone had quieted down to listen. “This isn’t some morality play where the noblest motivation wins. It’s about talent – and I’ve loved cooking since I was a kid! You know how excited I was when I heard Professor Ramsay was going to teach us!”

 

“It’s no skin off your nose if you lose,” Astoria shot back.

 

Arjuna’s face started to flush in anger. “It’s no skin off anyone’s nose! Who says Cho can’t still get that statue built without the prize money, or Bridget can’t help her mother, or you can’t get your apartment?”

 

“Some of us don’t have time to wait!”

 

Time!?” repeated Arjuna. Her voice had started to rise too. “What, are you suddenly looking into the future too, Miss ‘I Follow Things in the Real World?’

 

“I am following things in the real world!” yelled Astoria. “Thirteen Muggles killed in one summer! Three more killed this month! Katie Bell getting cursed in Hogsmeade! Things are getting worse!”

 

“It’s always darkest before sunrise, and you don’t know when that sunrise will be – or even if things are not already the worst they’re going to be!”

 

“I’m not going to take that chance! Go ahead and play around in this contest like it’s some petty Quidditch match if you want, but this is important to me!”

 

Arjuna’s eyes widened in a kind of fury that could’ve made Lord Voldemort himself shudder.

 

“…How…dare you try to put me down just because I don’t have some sappy soap opera reason for doing this competition? You need to get out of your parents’ house before it’s too late? Too late for what?! Your parents aren’t Death Eaters – you’ve told me they’ve never been Death Eaters! They’re not abusive – they don’t hit you or neglect you or demean you – you’ve told me that! Sure, they’ve been a little distant, but that’s not the end of the world! And even if you do have it in your head that everything is going to go to Hell in a hand basket, what do you have to fear? YOU’RE A PUREBLOOD!”

 

Arjuna’s tirade had sideswiped Astoria completely. It was clear that Arjuna had never lost her temper like this before, since not only had Astoria gone very pale, but also her light blue eyes had started filling up with tears. Arjuna noticed the tears right away, and her fearsome anger flickered and died. She reached a hand out to her friend.

 

“Stori – ”

 

But Astoria didn’t want to hear it. Grabbing her schoolbag, she ran out of the Great Hall, leaving Arjuna alone at the Ravenclaw table.

 

Astoria stowed away in an unused classroom, hiding under one of the desks out of view of any of the windows in a crumpled-up ball. She didn’t hold back her tears – but she still refused to let anyone see them.

 

Or, at least, she had refused to let anyone see them, until the door to the unused classroom opened and a familiar voice echoed through the room.

 

“Astoria?”

 

It was Kevin.

 

Astoria looked up just in time for Kevin to catch sight of her. His eyes widening slightly, he immediately closed the door and quietly walked over to her. He slowly bent down beside her, his brown eyes very gentle.

 

“…Are you okay?”

 

Astoria looked down at the floor and shook her head mutely. She just couldn’t summon any words, given how difficult it was for her to simply choke back her sobs.

 

His eyes rippling sadly, Kevin eased himself down onto the floor so he could sit beside her, placing his shoulder right beside hers. He was quiet for a moment, clearly considering his words carefully. Then he turned to Astoria.

 

“…Would you like a sherbet lemon?”

 

Astoria looked up at him through her tears, startled. “What?”

 

“A sherbet lemon,” Kevin repeated.

 

He took a handful of wrapped yellow candies out of a pocket inside his robes.

 

“It’s a Muggle sweet,” he explained with a faintly awkward smile. “My parents always eat one whenever they’re feeling mad or upset.”

 

Astoria looked down at the candies, up at Kevin’s face, and back. Then she slowly took one, unwrapped it, and popped it in her mouth. The sourness immediately hit her, making her pucker her lips.

 

Kevin gave a quiet laugh. “They are sour, aren’t they?”

 

“Yeah,” Astoria murmured uncomfortably through her puckering lips.

 

Kevin smiled softly, as his eyes glided away to rest on the wall ahead of them. “That’s why Mum and Dad eat them. Dad started it – whenever he and Mum would get in an argument, he would go into the loo, find a mirror, and eat a sherbet lemon. The look on his face while he was eating it would look so silly that he’d be able to calm down and forget whatever he was angry about…”

 

Several students passed by the window of the classroom, unaware of Kevin and Astoria hiding inside, and their shadows passed over Kevin and Astoria’s faces as they went.

 

“…Mum and Dad have been eating a lot of them, lately.”

 

Astoria looked up at Kevin. His warm, charming face had suddenly become a lot less happy and more brooding – it was actually sort of a bizarre expression for Kevin to wear.

 

“Why?” asked Astoria.

 

Kevin adjusted himself in his place on the floor, leaning up against the leg of the desk.

 

“My mum works in the Auror department,” he explained, “and my dad’s a bobby – that’s like a Muggle Auror. They’ve both been really scared about the War…about our family’s safety, about…each other. Mum’s been trying to tell Dad to leave the force…maybe go into hiding with me, while she continues the fight at home…but Dad’s refused. He knows he can’t leave his friends at work to deal with things alone, particularly since they don’t know what’s happening, and he does. And of course it’s just as dangerous for Mum to stay as it is for Dad – having magic only does so much to keep you safe, really…especially if you’re an Auror, and you’re on the front lines…”

 

Kevin turned to Astoria. His lips were tugged up in a weak smile, even though his eyes were rippling sadly.

 

“…That’s why I entered the contest, see? I’ve been writing to Mum and Dad about it – telling them about all the great things I’ve learned and the new friends I’ve made – so that they can focus on something good, around all the bad they’ve got to deal with at home. It’s not much…but it’s all I can do.”

 

Astoria instantly felt guilty. She’d gone on and on about how her motivation had been so much better than Arjuna, who simply wanted to win the contest because she loved cooking. By those standards, Kevin’s motivation wouldn’t have been as important either…but it clearly meant a lot to him, all the same.

 

Astoria wasn’t quite sure how to express these feelings, but judging by the soft look on Kevin’s face, she almost felt like she didn’t have to. Kevin leaned his shoulder up against Astoria’s and offered her another sherbet lemon.

 

“Here – let’s have one more each, and then we can head out, eh?”

 

Astoria attempted a weak smile of her own and with a small nod she took another piece of candy. She and Kevin both ate their pieces and giggled amongst themselves at the silly, puckered looks on each other’s faces, before Kevin helped Astoria to her feet and they headed out of the room together.

 

Astoria headed up to the Ravenclaw commonroom, ignoring the side-glances and whispers of the people in the halls on the way. When she reached it, she found who she was looking for in their dorm, sitting on her bed with her crystal ball in her lap.

 

At the sight of Astoria, Arjuna bolted up, barely catching her crystal ball before it fell to the floor and shattered. Her hands clutched at the ball in her hands as she turned to Astoria, her black eyes rippling pitifully.

 

“Astoria, I – ”

 

Astoria didn’t give her the chance to finish. She descended upon her friend with a swoop, wrapping both of her arms around her neck and hugging her tightly.

 

“I’m really sorry,” she mumbled under her breath.

 

Arjuna’s eyes rippled with upset too as she put the crystal ball down on the bed and clung to Astoria in return. “No, I’m sorry – I wasn’t thinking about your feelings or…what you thought about the others. I know you’ve gotten around to liking most of them, after they helped you out in the kitchen…”

 

“But you were right,” Astoria dissented. “My reasoning isn’t more important than yours, or anyone else’s…”

 

Arjuna pulled away, her lips tugged up in a soft smile.

 

“I’d always had it in my head,” she confessed, “that we’d make it all the way to the end together – the two of us. I dreamed that we’d push each other to our limit, doing everything we could to win – and that Ravenclaw house would be able to celebrate having the two best student chefs in the world! And in the end…it wouldn’t matter who won – because we would’ve worked our very hardest, and we would’ve supported each other regardless…”

 

Astoria smiled, touched by the emotion in Arjuna’s voice. Arjuna gave a soft laugh under her breath.

 

“I know that doesn’t sound like much.”

 

“I think it’s wonderful,” Astoria said softly.

 

She put her schoolbag down on her bed, removing the two cookbooks she’d checked out of the library the previous day.

 

“Would you like to go over some recipes this afternoon?”

 

“Sure,” said Arjuna. “Are you planning on going down to the kitchens again tonight?”

 

“Yeah – do you want to come?”

 

“Nah,” Arjuna shook her head lightly. “I think I’m okay.”

 

“They’re really very nice,” Astoria said encouragingly. “Sure, Ron’s a bit rough around the edges, but he still taught Daphne and me how to make a Shepherd’s Pie.”

 

“That was very nice of him,” Arjuna agreed. “But really, I’ll be all right – I wrote to Mum and Dad and they were able to send me a whole bunch of new recipes. I can’t wait to use them!”

 

Despite her faint disappointment, Astoria let it slide. Arjuna had always been a rather independent person, just like she was – it often took a lot to make her ask for help.

 

“Okay…if you say so.”

 

Arjuna picked up one of Astoria’s cookbooks and opened it so that they could read the recipes together. “Here, let’s start with Chicken Tikka Marsala – just let me know when you’re ready to turn the page.”

 

Chapter Text

Potions class that Monday afternoon went pretty well. Ramsay praised Harry for his Wiggenweld Potion (which Harry once again got some help with, thanks to the Half-Blood Prince), and on Ron’s suggestion, Harry took the opportunity to talk with Ramsay after class was over about Slughorn, in the hopes that Ramsay might give him some insight on how to butter him up for information.

 

Ron and Hermione were waiting outside the Potions classroom when, to their surprise, they saw Professor Sprout striding down the hall right toward Ramsay’s classroom.

 

“Miss Granger – Mr. Weasley,” she greeted politely, but otherwise did not acknowledge them as she opened the door to Ramsay’s classroom. “Gordon, I need to speak with you – immediately, please.”

 

Harry and Ramsay both looked startled. Ramsay, recovering first, turned to Harry.

 

“Horace will be back again this upcoming Thursday,” he said gently. “I’m sure you’ll be able to speak to him then.”

 

“…Thank you, sir,” said Harry, glancing back at Professor Sprout out the corner of his eye.

 

Ramsay noticed his divided attention and added rather firmly, “Now run along – you won’t want to miss the feast.”

 

Harry gave a weak nod, before obediently turning around and walking out of the room. Sprout closed the door sharply behind him – rather than heading to the feast, however, Harry, Ron, and Hermione all hung back in unison to listen in at the door.

 

“It’s happened again, Gordon,” Sprout’s concerned voice came muffled through the doorway. “Five more Mandrake leaves, taken right off the plant. This wasn’t some accident – someone actively stole them from greenhouse three – likely when everyone was at the stadium watching your contest…”

 

Harry glanced at Ron and Hermione, who both looked baffled. Ramsay didn’t reply, so Sprout pressed on.

 

“I’ve already informed Albus about the matter…but I want every teacher to be on the look-out for any student exhibiting the behavior ascribed to the enchantment – ”

 

“Pomona, it might not have been a student,” argued Ramsay. “They wouldn’t know what to use mandrake leaves for – that’s highly advanced magic. Even the potions requiring mandrake leaves are well above N.E.W.T. level. It could have been some member of the staff – plenty of them didn’t come to the last round of the contest – ”

 

“No professor would steal from my greenhouses,” Sprout cut him off solemnly.

 

“I’m just saying it’s possible, Pomona,” Ramsay said calmingly. “But I will look out for it, all the same.”

 

“Thank you. I’ll also be locking the greenhouses up nice and tight at night, just to be safe.”

 

Footsteps echoed on the floor of the classroom, coming back toward the door. Harry, Ron, and Hermione all quickly ran to hide behind the corridor as Sprout left the room and headed back up the stairs. Glancing at Ron and Hermione significantly, Harry quickly took his Invisibility Cloak out from his schoolbag and the three huddled under it so that they could head past the open classroom door and up the stairs without being noticed by Ramsay. When they reached the landing at the top of the stairs, they removed it, and started walking toward the Great Hall together.

 

“What was that about?” muttered Ron.

 

“It must’ve been Malfoy,” Harry said at once.

 

Hermione looked exasperated. “Harry – ”

 

“Think about it! He wasn’t there at the last round – the contest would’ve been the perfect distraction for him and go and take those Mandrake leaves – ”

 

Harry,” growled Hermione. “Plenty of people weren’t at the last round – Professor Ramsay said so himself!”

 

“The only question is,” Harry pressed on, undeterred, “what could Malfoy want Mandrake leaves for?”

 

“Maybe for some sort of healing tonic?” Ron suggested halfheartedly. “You know, like what they used to heal everyone who got petrified in second year – ”

 

“Don’t encourage him!” Hermione reproached, and Ron deflated slightly. “Harry, all year you’ve been determined to prove Malfoy is up to something, all without any proof! I don’t care how much of a prat he is, but in case you’ve forgotten, there are more important things for you to worry about!”

 

“Like what?” Harry snapped back, his temper rising.

 

“Like getting the real memory from Slughorn, for one!”

 

“Oh yeah!” Ron realized brightly, turning to Harry. “How’d it go with Ramsay?”

 

Harry’s anger ebbed away as he faced Ron.

 

“…Oh…pretty well, I guess.”

 

“How’d you get Ramsay to help you?” asked Ron.

 

Harry at once looked very guilty.

 

“…I told him that I wanted to ask Slughorn about my mum and dad, since he’d taught them at school…it was all I could think of!” he added defensively, upon seeing Hermione’s accusing expression. “I knew I couldn’t tell him about Dumbledore’s mission, or how the information would help the Order – Ramsay would never help Dumbledore, and besides, he doesn’t think any of us should be involved with the War, because we’re only ‘children,’” he spat the word with contempt. “…He wouldn’t have helped me if I’d told the truth.”

 

Hermione still looked uncomfortable, but seemed to acknowledge Harry was right. She nodded silently, encouraging him to go on.

 

“Anyway…I’d said I’d tried approaching Slughorn last week, and I ended up accidentally offending him somehow. Ramsay suggested I write to Slughorn, or that he could write a letter for me, but I told him I really wanted to have the conversation in person, one on one. Ramsay said that Slughorn really liked my mother at school, so it’d probably be easy to get him to talk about her. He said Slughorn’s proud, but he’s also a bit sentimental – like, he didn’t prop students up just to elevate himself, but also because he’s very fond of them and so sees their success as his greatest achievement.”

 

“So maybe you could use Slughorn’s fondness for your mother as a way to get him to open up to you?” Hermione said thoughtfully.

 

“Right.”

 

Ron smiled in satisfaction. “So it all worked out! Come on…let’s go grab some dinner! I’m starving.”

 

The feast was as delicious as ever. Ron was delighted by the number of people who’d stopped to congratulate him on his work in the last round and wish him luck for the next one – it felt like he would never be pale and freckly again, given how steadily the happy blush conquered his face and ears.

 

“Keep it up and you’ll be pinker than a Valentine’s Day card,” Harry said amusedly.

 

“Oh, piss off,” mumbled Ron through his big grin.

 

At one point Colin came up to meet them, his trademark camera hanging from his neck.

 

“Hi, Ron!” he greeted brightly.

 

“Hey, Colin,” said Ron.

 

Colin’s grin, as always, was much too big for his face. “I got a copy of this printed for you – figured you’d want it, maybe to send to your folks – ”

 

He held out an enchanted photograph – Ron took it from him to get a better look.

 

It was of himself, presenting his “pan” cake to the judges. His photographic self was smirking wryly and Ramsay (disguised as Dumbledore) was smiling in warm amusement – clearly this was the moment where Ron had teased him for his disguise.

 

“I took a few for the others too,” Colin gabbed brightly. “Bridget loved hers – said she could see me making money with my pictures someday! I told her I wanted to work at the Prophet, and she thought that was cool…she’s an awful nice sort, for a Slytherin…”

 

“Yeah, she is,” Ron agreed absently, his eyes still watching the photo.

 

He had been so nervous at the time that picture was taken…but in that one moment Colin had captured on film, Ron had only been focusing on the humor of Ramsay impersonating Dumbledore, and not on the stakes.

 

Was that why he looked so confident – so much more confident than he’d ever thought he could be…?

 

Colin waited for Ron to say anything more; when he didn’t, he pressed on.

 

“Well…good luck in the next round, Ron! Dennis and I’ll be cheering you on!”

 

He turned away and headed back up toward the front of the table. Ron watched him go. Then, like a bolt of lightning, an impulse struck him so hard that he called after him.

 

“Hey! Colin!”

 

Colin halted, looking back at Ron.

 

“The MagicChef contestants are having a little cooking session down in the kitchens tonight,” Ron said awkwardly. “I know you’re not in the contest anymore, but…well, d’you want to come? Since you like cooking and all…”

 

Ron had been unsure about what he was suggesting and had felt even more so with every word that fell out of his mouth…but Colin reacted with nothing short of delight.

 

“…Yeah!” he said breathlessly, his eyes lighting up brighter than a car’s headlights. “That’d be awesome! Sure!”

 

Ron gave a faintly awkward smile. “Great! We’re meeting at 7, right after dinner.”

 

Colin beamed. “Awesome! S-see you then!”

 

With a new skip in his step, he scampered back toward the top of the table to sit with his brother Dennis.

 

“That was really nice of you, Ron,” said Hermione, her voice unusually soft.

 

Ron blushed darker still. “Don’t know why I did it, really…I mean, it’s not like he has to practice or anything…but I don’t know, I just…felt like it, you know?”

 

Harry nodded. “Yeah.”

 

Cho walked right past them at that moment to get to the Ravenclaw table. Harry and Cho deliberately avoided eye contact as she passed. Ron watched her sit down next to Marietta Edgecombe and, after contemplating the matter for a minute, got up and headed over to talk to her.

 

When Ron came back, Hermione was frowning slightly.

 

“Did you ask her to come too?” she asked. Her tone wasn’t reproachful, but it was a little less soft than it had been for Colin.

 

“Yeah,” said Ron defensively. “I mean…she is a good cook. And I feel sort of bad that she didn’t get what she wanted…”

 

Harry looked away, his face visibly uncomfortable. Ron had told him about what Cho had planned to do with the prize money, and Harry himself had acknowledged that it would’ve been a nice cause to work towards…but that didn’t make it any more comfortable for him. Even though he didn’t want anyone to ever forget Cedric, the idea of having to look at Cedric’s face every day, even if it was only made of marble, gave Harry no solace. All it would do would bring back memories of the last time Harry had seen that face, over and over again…telling Harry to bring his body back…

 

“Well, at least she won’t be dragging Marietta along this time, right?” Hermione asked coolly.

 

Ron frowned a bit reproachfully, but said nothing except “…No, she won’t.”

 

He glanced over at the Slytherin table, his blue eyes running along it until they found Daphne, sitting across from Pansy Parkinson but not engaging in conversation. Although her posture was proud and her dark hair was as beautifully pinned up as ever, her eyes looked a little red, as if she’d been crying. Ron’s mouth twisted into a frown as he returned to eating his steak and kidney pudding.

 

‘I can’t just walk over,’ he thought to himself dryly. ‘Imagine how badly Daphne would take it if I just bounded up to the Slytherin table and invited her with her whole house listening in…she’d properly murder me on the spot.’

 

He frowned around a mouthful of pudding. If only he’d thought up this idea earlier…then he might actually have had time to ask Daphne when no one else was around…

 

After dinner, he bid Harry and Hermione goodbye. Before doing so, he pulled Harry aside briefly.

 

“Hey, um…maybe lay off on the Malfoy stuff around Hermione?” he whispered to him. “I mean, I know you think he’s up to something, and I know there’s been a lot of dodgy stuff going on…but you know how she is. She believes in what she can see – nothing else.”

 

Harry frowned deeply. “But…if Malfoy does have some nasty plan in the works – ”

 

“Then I’m sure he’ll get caught in it,” Ron said soothingly. “Malfoy’s not that smart – remember, this was the idiot who once dressed up as a dementor to try to sabotage you during a Quidditch match.”

 

Despite his misgivings Harry couldn’t help but crack a small smile. Ron patted his shoulder.

 

“He’ll slip up, you wait and see. In the meantime…try to relax a little.”

 

Harry wasn’t entirely comforted, but he attempted his best smile. Ron smiled back much more assuredly, before turning and heading toward the kitchens. As Ron walked off, Colin Creevey dashed after him in an attempt to catch up.

 

“Hey, Ron! Wait for me!”

 

Ron slowed down just enough so that Colin would walk alongside him and the two walked down the stairs toward the kitchens and out of sight.

 

The two boys walked side by side, Colin chattering away the entire time. Ron tuned him out during much of their one-sided conversation, nodding politely and saying “Mm” and “Yeah” whenever Colin would stop to take a breath.

 

“ – And the way Arjuna chops things up with magic – wow! I could never be that fast, with just a knife! Dad showed me how to dice things – he used to cook a lot at his old job, back when he worked at Tom’s Diner – that was before he became a milkman, see – he likes being a milkman much better now, though, since now he’s off for most of the day, so he gets to see us more…back when we were little, he always got home super late, and we’d have to stay with babysitters – though one of them, Miss Julie, taught me how to bake pies, so that was cool! I heard Hannah’s good at making pies too – wonder if we’d be able to bake one together, if she wants to, I mean – ”

 

When Ron stopped in front of the portrait of the fruit bowl and Colin followed suit, they finally noticed the clip-clop of an extra pair of shoes just behind them. Ron looked up and smiled at the sight of Cho bounding up to them.

 

“Hey,” he greeted.

 

“Hi,” said Cho politely, before also nodding to Colin.

 

Colin showed none of Cho’s restraint – he instead took a step forward and spoke very candidly.

 

“I’m awful sorry you got cut,” he said at once. “I thought your mashed potato sundae looked delicious! And I love chocolate soufflés – my brother and I tried to make one once, and it ended up imploding in the oven – still tasted pretty good, though – ”

 

“Thank you,” Cho cut him off with a quiet laugh.

 

Ron took the opportunity to tickle the pear; the painted fruit giggled, and the painting swung open, allowing Ron to step inside. Standing around the kitchen once again were Bridget, Hannah, Rose, Kevin, and Astoria, and they all brightened up at the sight of him.

 

“Hey, Ron!” greeted Bridget.

 

She and Ron exchanged a high five that solidified into a sort of static, masculine handshake in mid-air. Ron then turned to Astoria, looking concerned.

 

“Are you okay?” he asked. “I heard about your argument with Ar – ”

 

“Everything’s okay,” Astoria cut him off calmly. “Arjuna and I talked things over – it’s all forgotten.”

 

Ron frowned uncomfortably. “Well…that’s good…”

 

Colin and Cho entered behind him at that moment, so Ron gave a half-hearted gesture toward them.

 

“Hope you don’t mind, but I brought some friends,” he said bashfully, as Colin waved cheerfully at everyone.

 

Bridget smirked. “Hope you don’t mind, but I invited one too.”

 

She nodded over her shoulder to the last person in the corner, who put down the pie she was making with Winky the house elf and glanced over her shoulder at the others.

 

“Millicent,” Ron greeted with a wry smile.

 

“Weasley,” Millicent responded, inclining her head in a short nod.

 

“I thought you always liked to do things your way.”

 

A ghostly smirk kissed the corners of Millicent’s lips.

 

“I do,” she answered evenly. “But I’m smart enough to know when things need to change.”

 

Ron grinned.

 

“I wanted to invite Daphne too,” he admitted to Bridget regretfully, “but I didn’t think of inviting anyone until dinnertime, and…well, I figured Daphne wouldn’t like me blaring out an invitation for everyone to hear.”

 

“She wouldn’t,” Astoria agreed coolly before Bridget could reply.

 

Bridget frowned, bringing a fist up to rest on her chin thoughtfully. “…Well…if we are inviting old friends to this little party…I suppose a late invitation’s better than nothing…”

 

She glanced at Millicent significantly. The heavyset Slytherin girl turned to Winky.

 

“Winky…could you please deliver a private message to Daphne Greengrass inviting her to cook down in the kitchens tonight?” she asked lowly.

 

“Of course, Miss Millicent!” Winky said brightly.

 

“Invite Owen Cauldwell too,” Kevin added firmly. “He’ll be in the third year Hufflepuff boy’s dorms.”

 

“Yes, sir!” squeaked Winky.

 

And with a crack she disappeared.

Chapter Text

That Tuesday morning Ron woke up in an amazingly good mood – it was dampened somewhat, however, when he found Harry already awake and, before Ron could tell him anything of what had happened the previous night, Harry had started into a long tirade.

 

“I realized something last night,” he explained. Ron noted the dark circles under his friend’s eyes. “Malfoy never talks anymore. Someone can ask him a direct question and he’ll either completely ignore them or just shake his head. Last night as Hermione and I were heading off to bed, we ran into Pansy and Malfoy having a row, and I swear, Malfoy refused to say anything to her, even when she was screaming and trying to provoke him. I mean – this is Malfoy. Normally he never shuts up, and yet he didn’t say one word to fight back. Weird, right?”

 

“Right,” Ron granted, though he was a bit putout that they were discussing this again.

 

“I couldn’t follow him because he disappeared into a crowd of first years,” Harry continued, “so I watched him on the Marauder’s Map last night, and he was sneaking around hours after curfew. He sneaked into the Astronomy Tower at one point and was up there for almost 30 whole minutes. But there’s something else – at one point he went down an abandoned hallway…and then suddenly disappeared from the Map all together.”

 

“Really?” said Ron, his eyebrows coming together in confusion.

 

“Yeah!” said Harry, infinitely more fascinated in the subject than Ron was and clearly not realizing it. “He was gone for almost twenty minutes before reappearing again in the same place.”

 

Ron frowned. “Maybe it’s a glitch in the Map?”

 

“The Marauder’s Map never lies,” Harry said insistently, his face deep in thought now. “The only question is…where is he disappearing to…?”

 

“Beats me,” Ron said dismissively, as he tried to steer the conversation back where he wanted. “Well, I had a busy night last night too – after I invited Cho and Colin to come down, Millicent sent Winky along with an invitation for Daphne and Owen too, so we all had a big cooking session in the kitchens together!”

 

“Oh,” said Harry. He looked startled by the sudden change of subject, as well as a bit dismayed that Ron had not been more interested in his theory about Malfoy. “Cool.”

 

“It was awesome!” Ron said eagerly. “Owen showed us this old journal that belonged to his dad – he was in the Muggle Navy, see – where he wrote down all these old recipes he’d collected from out of the country…we baked a loaf of fresh Hawaiian sweet bread, and bloody hell, Harry, it was brilliant! I asked Owen to let me copy the recipe so I could send it to Mum – I think it’ll be perfect with Christmas dinner next year…”

 

“Sounds fun,” Harry said halfheartedly.

 

Ron could sense Harry’s disinterest, and his smile faltered slightly. It seemed Harry wasn’t any more interested in hearing about his cooking session than Ron had been about Malfoy…

 

Rather than bring attention to this, though, Ron decided to simply drop the conversation.

 

“…I…guess we’d better get dressed.”

 

“Yeah,” Harry agreed, his tone similarly low and uncomfortable.

 

The two boys headed downstairs and headed down to breakfast, trying to put their uncomfortable morning behind them. When Hermione joined them, she plopped an old yearbook down in front of Harry at the Gryffindor table.

 

“There you go, Harry!” she said brightly.

 

Harry looked down at the book, perplexed. “…What’s this for?”

 

“This yearbook is from when Slughorn taught your parents!” Hermione explained, her face flushed with pride. “I found it in the library. I thought it’d be the perfect ammunition you need for your meeting with Slughorn – you know, use it as a guide post for your conversation, like, ‘Professor, I found a picture in this old yearbook with you and my mum, with the subtitle of ‘Slug Club.’ What was that, exactly? Was it a Potions club, or a club for young academic achievers?’

 

“Oh,” said Harry. He sounded just as startled and putout as he had when Ron had changed the subject on him. “Okay.”

 

Noticing this, Ron shot Hermione a warning shake of the head over Harry’s shoulder; then he put a hand on Harry’s shoulder to make him look at him.

 

“Don’t worry, you still have two days until Slughorn’s supposed to arrive…you’ve got time.”

 

Hermione frowned. “Yes, but you should use that time to prepare! Dumbledore said it was very important that you get that memory – I don’t think you should focus on anything else until you get it – ”

 

Hermione,” Ron cut her off, shooting her another admonishing look, “don’t stress him out. He knows it’s important…don’t you, Harry?”

 

“…Right,” Harry said lowly, though he couldn’t look either Ron or Hermione in the eye.

 

On Ron’s advice, Harry tried to speak to Slughorn a little more casually the next time they ran into each other that Thursday. Harry said Slughorn still seemed a little suspicious, but had relaxed enough to tell him about the Slug Club and some of its other members. Apparently Sirius’s brother Regulus had been in it too. Harry seemed rather disinterested as he recounted everything – Hermione took his disinterest to mean he was simply being impatient about how long he’d have to wait to get the information he needed, but Ron had a sneaking suspicion that Harry had had other things on his mind.

 

Friday morning before the next round, a lot of Gryffindors came up to Ron to wish him luck, including Lavender Brown.

 

“Good luck today, Ron!” she said breathlessly.

 

She swooped in to give him a quick peck to the cheek before running off to find Parvati at the far end of the table.

 

Ron was left staring after her, dumbfounded.

 

“What the bloody hell was that about?” he muttered.

 

“Search me,” said Harry.

 

He saw Hermione avert her eyes and immediately busy herself with the Yorkshire pudding in front of her so she wouldn’t have to answer.

 

Ron bid Harry and Hermione goodbye as usual, before heading off to meet up with the other student chefs down in the dungeons. Then that afternoon, as usual, the students gathered in the stadium ready to cheer on their competitors. Gryffindor’s stands were filled with the usual array of “Weasley is our King” and “Go Go Gryffindor” banners. Something that wasn’t usual, however, was that Harry had smuggled out the Marauder’s Map and hid it in his school bag this time. If Malfoy pulled anything during this round, Harry wanted to see him do it with his own eyes.

 

The judges came out one by one, leading their house’s student chefs onto the field as the crowd went wild.

 

“Ron looks excited,” Hermione murmured proudly.

 

“Mm,” said Harry, as he tried to angle his bag on the ground by his feet in just such a way that he could glance down and look at the Map without having to take it out.

 

“Welcome, one and all, to round three of MagicChef Junior!” Slughorn announced brightly. “In this round, our chefs will face a particularly difficult challenge in this opening pre-heat.”

 

Dumbledore’s light blue eyes swept over the competitors. “In this contest, some of you have settled comfortably into your own little niche…becoming – shall we say – a large fish in a small pond. Today, however…you will have to stretch yourselves, by preparing a certain fish for us.”

 

He wordlessly levitated a box-shaped object hidden underneath a purple velvet sheet into the air, hovering just over the judges’ heads. Raising his uninjured hand, Dumbledore then swept the sheet off, to reveal a large fish tank holding a bizarre-looking, ball-like fish with two feeble, spindly legs.

 

“The plimpy!” said Bagnold with a wide, charismatic smile. “A common water pest, which is best known for nibbling on the toes of unsuspecting swimmers – and also, to any good chef, a delicious meal, when cooked correctly.”

 

Ramsay summoned a long table over to him, which had a dead plimpy already set up on a cutting board; then, with a flick of his wrist, his silver-tipped wand transfigured itself into a chef’s knife.

 

“Perfectly filleting a plimpy takes the best chefs a long time to master,” he said, as he sharpened his blade by scraping it against another knife set up on the table. “Watch carefully…for I shall only demonstrate this once.”

 

He set to work right away, lobbing off both of the plimpy’s legs with his kitchen knife.

 

“First you chop off the legs – they’re all sinew and cartilage anyhow, so there’s no point in trying to cook them. Then you make an incision, right at the base of the head. The plimpy has a very thick hide, so you’ll have to put in considerable strength when you make your incision, but do not cut its head off! You must stop when you reach the spine! The only problem is that the spine of a plimpy is made completely out of cartilage – no bones – so if you’re not careful, you run the risk of cutting through the skeleton and completely severing the head. If you do that, getting the rest of the meat out will only be harder. Once you cut through the hide, though, you’ll find very soft meat on the inside – cut along the plimpy’s spine, swooping out the back – and put that meat aside. Then flip it on its other side, and do the same thing: cut through the hide, stop, cut along the spine, and there!”

 

Ramsay held the head of the plimpy perfectly connected to the flimsy spine up for everyone to see.

 

“There should be no yellow meat left on the spine – nothing but white fat.”

 

Tossing the waste aside, Ramsay then started cutting up the plimpy meat into neat, even-sized slabs.

 

“When you’re finished, you should have twelve perfectly portioned fillets in front of you – like so.”

 

Ramsay withdrew his knife and pushed the cutting board forward so everyone could see. The onlookers burst into polite applause, and Ramsay smiled at all of them before, with a flick of his wrist, changing his knife back into his silver-tipped wand.

 

“There will be an addition to this challenge, however,” he said, his blue eyes flickering over each of the chefs in turn as he spoke. “We are well aware that some of you – namely, those who grew up in magical households – may be more familiar with filleting plimpies than the others. To try to balance out this discrepancy, we’ve decided that in this preheat round, you may only use your knives – no magic.”

 

The crowd started to chatter anxiously. Millicent, Astoria, and Hannah suddenly looked very nervous, but no one looked more horrified than Arjuna, whose expression resembled a deer in the headlights.

 

“You will have to make us twelve perfectly sized plimpy fillets as fast as you can,” said Dumbledore. “You will then be given two scores – one based on your speed and the other based on the quality of the fillets themselves. Your time starts…now.”

 

As the round started, the student chefs dashed to their stations, grabbing their knives and preparing the plimpies set up on their counters. Hermione watched through her Omnioculars, studying each of the competitors in turn.

 

“Rose is sort of sawing through the hide, since she’s not that strong…ooh, Millicent Bulstrode chopped the head off – now she’ll have to play catch-up…wow, Arjuna’s barely gotten through the hide at all…”

 

Ginny looked up at Harry, ready to say something, but instead of looking down at the field, he seemed to be preoccupied with his bag.

 

“Harry,” Ginny said sternly.

 

Harry’s head shot up abruptly. “What?”

 

Ginny crossed her arms, her brown eyes narrowing upon his bag suspiciously. “Got some really riveting homework you’re dying to get to?”

 

“No,” Harry said quickly, as he shifted his bag around so she couldn’t peek inside. “I just – think I forgot my Omnioculars…”

 

Ginny cocked an eyebrow at him. Luna, who was sitting on her other side, gave Harry a dreamily pleasant smile.

 

“Here you go, Harry,” she said, and she put her own pair in his hand. “You can use mine.”

 

Harry’s cheeks darkened in a blush.

 

“…Thanks,” he mumbled halfheartedly.

 

The Slytherin stands abruptly burst into applause – Bridget had just finished cutting up her fillets, and a smoky gold number “1” appeared over her head. A few minutes later, the Hufflepuff stands applauded Rose, and then the Gryffindor stands started roaring when Ron finished. Hannah, Astoria, Millicent, Kevin, and Arjuna followed.

 

In just under thirty minutes, all of the chefs had completed their preheat task. The judges then went around one by one, judging the fillets. Once they deliberated, they addressed both the crowd and the chefs.

 

“After much deliberation,” said Bagnold, “our ranking for fillet quality in this round goes thusly – at number 8…Millicent Bulstrode. Number 7…Kevin Whitby. Number 6…Rose Zeller. Number 5…Arjuna Belaji. Number 4…Ron Weasley. Number 3…Bridget Jaheem. Number 2…Astoria Greengrass. And finally…number 1, Hannah Abbott!

 

Hufflepuff’s stands burst into applause. Hannah hugged herself gleefully, as if she was trying desperately to hold in her excitement. Bridget and Ron exchanged grins. Arjuna, on the other hand, looked close to tears. These new numbers appeared in smoky silver next to the gold ones over each student chef.

 

“These two little numbers will make a big difference in the next round,” said Slughorn with a roguish wink. “So, student chefs, take a short break while your elves clean up your stations and prepare them for your elimination challenge! Which two chefs will end their journey with us tonight, I wonder…?”

Chapter Text

“In this elimination challenge,” Ramsay announced, “you’ll be tackling a British chef’s worst nightmare…”

 

He levitated several pastries and enchanted them to dance over the chefs’ heads, wafting their savory smell into the air.

 

“…Hand-raised meat pies.”

 

“Meat pies, on their own, are nothing too difficult,” said Bagnold, “but hand-raising one – in other words, not using a cooking pan or tin when you put it in the oven– is singularly difficult. Your crust must be incredibly strong, as it will have no supports to keep it from falling apart or leaking while it’s baking. And of course it must still have the proper balance of flavor and texture ascribed to a typical meat pie.”

 

“We have randomly selected eight different types of meat for you, which are written on cards left at your stations,” said Slughorn. “You will then have to make us a hand-raised meat pie made with the ingredient on your card…once again, without the use of magic.”

 

This statement alone upset both the crowd and the student chefs, but Slughorn wasn’t finished.

 

“You will not, however…all start at the same time,” he said with a wry smile. “Remember those little numbers we gave you?”

 

He indicated the gold and silver smoke numbers still wafting over each station with his wand; in an instant the numbers melded together and, with a puff of smoke, transformed into new, white numbers above each station. Bridget’s “1” and “3” became “4”; Arjuna’s numbers became “13”; Rose’s became “8”; Hannah’s became “5”; Millicent’s and Kevin’s became “14”; and Ron and Astoria’s became “7.”

 

“Your total scores from the last round will determine the order in which each student will be allowed to start their pie,” Slughorn explained. “We’ll give additional preparation time to each student based on their totals – Bridget, having the lowest score, gets an additional 30 minutes; Hannah, being second, receives 25 minutes; Ron and Astoria 20, Rose 15; Arjuna 10; and Millicent and Kevin 5. Once all of our competitors have started, we shall then start the clock officially, and you will have two hours to finish your pies. Keep in mind, all of my non-chefs out there,” he added, when the eight chefs looked around at each other in dismay, “that a good meat pie requires an hour and a half to two hours of baking in the oven.”

 

“That gives Kevin and Millicent almost no preparation time,” whispered Hermione.

 

“Arjuna, too,” said Ginny with a satisfied smirk. “Look how white she is – she knows she’s in trouble.”

 

The Ravenclaws holding an “Arjuna and Astoria are our Aces” banner on the other side of Luna shot death glares at Ginny.

 

“Bridget,” Dumbledore said airily, “your time starts…now!”

 

Bridget dashed over to her station, picking up the card on the counter and unfolding it. Once she’d read it, she turned to her house elf, Hardy, and while Hardy disappeared (presumably to grab her ingredients), Bridget took out a pan and put it down on the stove before fumbling around for a mixing bowl. Once Hardy came back with the right supplies, she immediately started mixing her dough together.

 

Five minutes later, Dumbledore called, “Hannah!” and Hannah darted over to her station. Once she’d read her card, she got to work immediately, with her house elf Pilo reappearing with ingredients little by little while Hannah worked on her pie’s filling.

 

Then five minutes after that, Dumbledore called, “Ron! Astoria!” and both chefs ran to their stations, likewise reading their cards and getting to work on their pies.

 

It was once Ron had started and looked comfortable in what he was doing that Harry allowed his mind to wander and his eyes to dart back to his schoolbag.

 

There was some movement with Malfoy’s dot on the Map. As Harry had suspected, he was far away from the stadium – he was skulking around outside…near the entrance to the Forbidden Forest…

 

Harry’s eyebrows furrowed. The last time Malfoy had been in the Forbidden Forest, he’d run away screaming from what Harry and he had not realized at the time was Professor Quirrel, temporarily possessed by Voldemort. Under any normal circumstances, Malfoy would’ve been much too terrified to go anywhere near it…

 

There was a sudden small boom that made Harry abruptly look up. Down on the field, the oven at Arjuna’s workstation had abruptly burst into white flames, covering half of the stations in unnatural purple smoke.

 

“Looks like her oven malfunctioned,” Luna said with only mild interest.

 

“But she only just started!” said Hermione, her mouth twisting into a confused frown. “She couldn’t have put anything in the oven yet…”

 

Ginny sneered. “Maybe the pressure is finally getting to old ‘Acejuna’ and she accidentally set the oven off with a stray spell…”

 

“Maybe…” murmured Hermione, her eyes locked on Arjuna’s workstation through her Omnioculars.

 

Once the judges had Banished the smoke and repaired Arjuna’s oven, the round resumed as usual. Millicent and Kevin started, and five minutes later the official two hours kicked off; as the round got fully underway, Harry felt very comfortable once again letting his attention slide back down to the Map.

 

Malfoy was still milling around in the Forest, going deep enough that he was almost on the edge of the Map, and certainly far enough away that nobody would’ve been able to see him there.

 

‘Hold on,’ Harry realized, ‘isn’t that around the same area that Ron and I found Aragog?’

 

For a split second he visualized Malfoy running into Aragog’s den and felt a smirk glide over his face. Just as suddenly it disappeared when he noticed a familiar dot moving toward the same batch of trees Malfoy was hiding in.

 

Rubeus Hagrid…?

 

Harry!”

 

Harry looked up, to see Hermione looking irritated.

 

“Harry, did you hear anything I just said?” she demanded.

 

“Uh…”

 

Harry was at a loss. Looking utterly frustrated, Hermione gave a great huff, got to her feet, and immediately shoved down the row and out of the stands.

 

Harry turned to Ginny and Luna, utterly perplexed.

 

“Don’t look at me, she was talking to you,” Ginny said coldly, her brown eyes shifting back to the competition and staying there.

 

The rest of the round went as expected, with the chefs working at a mile a minute to get their pies finished on time. When time was up, all the student chefs held their hands up away from their stations, breathing hard. Ron wiped his sopping forehead on his sleeve.

 

The judges’ table, however, was deserted. The student chefs and the crowd were left waiting for two minutes – three – four – as they looked around for some sign of Dumbledore, Ramsay, Bagnold, or Slughorn.

 

“What’s going on?” muttered Ginny, her eyebrows coming together suspiciously.

 

His attention solely on the competition for the first time, Harry raised Luna’s Omnioculars to his eyes, looking around for some sign of the judges. Finally he caught sight of them walking up the pitch – Ramsay was holding a pair of Omnioculars in his hand.

 

“They’re coming now,” said Harry. “Ramsay looks furious.”

 

A moment later, Hermione came back up through the stands to rejoin Harry, Ginny, and Luna.

 

“Where’ve you been?” Harry asked her. Hermione pointedly ignored him, keeping her narrowed eyes upon the judges down on the field as they faced the line of student chefs standing in front of their stations.

 

“We apologize for the delay,” said Ramsay.

 

He had his arms crossed behind his back. His voice was measured, but only so much as a crust hardening on top of boiling lava.

 

“While we were waiting to taste your meat pies,” he continued stridently, “we were made aware by a spectator watching the proceedings of some foul play going on at your stations.”

 

The crowd started to mumble amongst themselves. The student chefs all reacted with visible shock. Harry glanced at Hermione, startled, but she still refused to look at him.

 

“Didi,” said Ramsay, “will you come here, please?”

 

The brown-eyed house elf assigned to Arjuna gave a visible start. Then, with only a slight hesitation, she obediently disappeared from Arjuna’s station with a crack and reappeared in front of the judges.

 

“Didi,” Ramsay said sternly, “did you purposefully damage Arjuna’s oven?”

 

Didi quaked under Ramsay’s solemn gaze. She glanced back at Arjuna, who looked very dismayed, and then up at Ramsay.

 

“Didi did…not do nothing, sir,” the elf squeaked hesitantly.

 

Ramsay’s eyebrows furrowed in a way that made Didi quiver.

 

“Didi,” he said again, his voice harder still, “you may not know this about me…but there are few things in this world I can stand less than being lied to. I order you to tell me the truth – did you damage Arjuna’s oven?”

 

The elf crumpled up like she’d been hit in the stomach.

 

“D-Didi…didn’t do nothing, sir!” she repeated, her brown eyes filling up with tears.

 

“We have evidence that says otherwise,” said Ramsay, his voice rising as he held up the pair of Omnioculars. “Now I will ask this one last time calmly, and I want a yes or no answer – did you damage Arjuna’s oven and make it spew smoke?”

 

“Didi did not – donothing, sir!” Didi wailed as if in pain, tears streaming from her eyes.

 

Arjuna looked visibly upset by how the elf was writhing and contorting. Her black eyes darted up to the Ravenclaw stands, to the judges, and to Didi sobbing in a ball on the floor.

 

Ramsay opened his mouth as if prepared to angrily confront the elf, but, to everyone’s surprise, Millicent stepped in.

 

“She can’t give any other answer!” she said loudly, her brown eyes narrowed and her tone accusatory. “An elf has to follow a master or masters’ direct orders – it’s part of the magic inherent to their race – so she’s using double negatives to fulfill your order the best she can without hurting anyone else in the process! Demanding a different answer from her only serves to put her through more pain!”

 

Everyone was left stunned. Millicent flushed, seeming both horrified and humiliated by her outburst, but retained the best posture she could. Ramsay, who was also taken aback, stared at Millicent for a moment, before looking down at the sobbing wreck of an elf plastered on the floor. Before he could say anything, though, he was interrupted again.

 

“Professor Ramsay, don’t blame Didi.”

 

Everyone turned to Arjuna. Her eyes had abruptly flooded with tears and her hands had flown to either side of her face as if she was trying desperately to keep her head from falling off.

 

“It was my fault,” she admitted, choking as she tried desperately to restrain her tears. “I asked Didi to make that smokescreen. I…I read the note I had at my station…and it told me I had to use beef. I can’t cook with beef – cows are sacred in my family – we don’t eat beef – ”

 

Ramsay’s eyes widened just slightly.

 

“So…so I thought I’d switch my ingredient with Millicent’s,” Arjuna admitted weakly. “Her station was next to mine – and she’d be starting after me, so it wouldn’t be like I’d be hurting her chances…I knew she could cook beef…a-and it wouldn’t give either of us a leg up, in the actual cooking…so…I thought there’d be no harm in it…”

 

She covered her face in her hands, distraught and ashamed. The people in the stands immediately started whispering conspiratorially – the Ravenclaw stands, however, were notably silent.

 

The judges exchanged looks. Then, after a moment, Bagnold stepped forward and brought a gentle arm around Arjuna in an attempt to comfort her.

 

“Arjuna…thank you for telling the truth,” she said gently. “That was very noble of you, under the circumstances.”

 

Sadly Arjuna didn’t seem very comforted by this – even though she looked up at the judges, tears still kept streaming down her cheeks.

 

“We understand why you felt tempted to cheat,” Slughorn said sympathetically, even though his face was solemn. “But you know, there were other options – you could have come to us and asked for another ingredient, one that wouldn’t oppose your beliefs…”

 

“Or,” said Ramsay, “you could have cooked something else and simply explained to us after the fact why you did not cook with your assigned ingredient. If your meat pie had been excellent even without the beef, it could have possibly saved you.”

 

Arjuna actually looked stunned – it seemed that she hadn’t considered either of these choices at the time.

 

“Because you were truthful, I shall take no points from Ravenclaw house,” Dumbledore said gravely, “but I'm afraid, although your motivation was understandable...your transgression cannot be overlooked...and so we will have to eliminate you from the competition.”

 

Arjuna nodded feebly, her black eyes locked on the floor as even more tears streamed down her face.

 

“…Yes, sir,” she whispered in a tone that was the vocal equivalent of shattered glass.

 

Ramsay took a step forward to stand next to Bagnold in front of Arjuna.

 

“Even so,” he said, and his tone was significantly softer this time, “you are an astonishingly talented young chef, and we hope that you will improve your craft in the future.”

 

Covering her face in both hands, Arjuna fully broke down, her shoulders shaking with full-blown sobs.

 

“Come here,” murmured Ramsay, and he brought both of his arms around Arjuna and gave her a big bear hug. “There now – it’s okay…”

 

Once Arjuna had pulled herself together, she left the field, and, on Dumbledore’s direction, the remaining house elves brought the still crying Didi back to the kitchens to rest. Astoria watched Arjuna leave, her light blue eyes also filled with tears, but was forced to stay where she was while the judges went over the meat pies the other student chefs had made.

 

Rose had made a ham, eggs, and cheese meat pie cut in the shape of a heart. Unfortunately the pie ended up leaking a bit from the bottom and the eggs were slightly undercooked, but the judges applauded her creativity.

 

Hannah had made a classic steak and kidney pie. Her flavors were very good, but not only was the crust a bit too thin and so the filling leaked out of the corners, but Ramsay commented that Hannah could have taken more risks with her dish.

 

Astoria had made a venison pie with potatoes, cheese, carrots, celery and garlic. Astoria’s textures and flavors impressed the judges, but like Rose, her filling soaked through the bottom.

 

Kevin had made a sweet mince pie with mutton, cinnamon, and cloves. Although the flavors were delicious, the pie had imploded in the oven, making its filling spill out the sides, and so ended up looking a bit misshapen.

 

Millicent, since Arjuna had swapped her original ingredient (chicken) with hers, had made a meat pie with ground beef, curry powder, and caramelized onions. Slughorn praised Millicent’s taste for spices, though Ramsay pointed out that the filling was soaking through the corners and slowly peeling them apart.

 

Bridget had made a game pie with rabbit meat and celery and onion gravy. It was the only pie of the group that did not leak at all, and the judges praised Bridget’s flavors, though Bagnold said that a little apple cider would’ve made it perfect.

 

Finally it was Ron’s turn. When he greeted the judges, he held his head up high.

 

“Hello, Ron,” greeted Bagnold.

 

“Hello, ma'am,” he answered politely.

 

“And what have you made for us, young man?”

 

“I was assigned clams,” said Ron, “so I’ve made for you a clam and lobster pie with a gravy made with leeks, onions, fennel, garlic, and cayenne pepper.”

 

Dumbledore sampled the pie and then passed it along the table for the other judges to taste.

 

“Very interesting flavors,” the Headmaster said with a small smile. “Was there a reason you picked these, in particular?”

 

Ron flushed. “Well, uh – I-I was thinking of bouillabaisse…”

 

“Ah yes, the French stew!” Bagnold said genially.

 

“Yeah!” said Ron, torn between nerves and zeal. “A…good friend of mine tried it while she was on vacation in France one year, and…well…I dunno, it just popped to mind…”

 

Harry did not miss Hermione looking down in a vain attempt to hide both her blush and the huge grin that had spread over her face behind her bushy hair.

 

“Very good, indeed!” said Slughorn brightly. “Though…I think I know what Gordon’s going to say…”

 

He eased open the pie with his knife and fork, revealing the filling slowly soaking out of the bottom. Ron winced visibly, but Ramsay merely smiled.

 

“Yes, that is a small flaw – but other than that, a very creative and perfectly delicious pie. Well done, Ron.”

 

Ron was so startled by Ramsay’s short, thoroughly positive answer that he struggled to recover himself.

 

“…Th-thank you.”

 

With that, he returned back to his station. The judges did not take long to deliberate before coming forward with their results.

 

“This round had complications we could not have foreseen,” said Ramsay solemnly, “but that does not change the sheer amount of pure talent that we have seen from all of you. The best meat pies today were made by…Ron – ”

 

Ron looked up at the Gryffindor stands, throwing both of his fists into the air triumphantly, as a chorus of “Weasley is our King” rippled through the crowd.

 

“ – Millicent – ”

 

Millicent nodded politely to the judges, even though she did not spare a smile.

 

“ – and Bridget.”

 

Unlike Millicent, Bridget did not hold back a huge white grin.

 

“Only one of you, however, baked their hand-pressed meat pie to perfection,” said Ramsay, “and that chef is…Bridget.”

 

The Slytherins in the stands started hooting and hollering. Bridget blew a kiss to them, beaming from ear to ear. Neither Millicent nor Ron begrudged Bridget for her victory, though – she had more than earned it.

 

“The other two chefs safe from elimination this week are…Rose – ”

 

Rose deflated like a balloon, bending over and hugging herself as she exhaled in relief.

 

“ – and Astoria.”

 

Astoria gave a small, halfhearted smile, her light blue eyes drawn away to the side of the field that Arjuna had left through ten minutes ago.

 

“That leaves Hannah and Kevin,” said Slughorn solemnly. “Please step forward.”

 

Both Hufflepuffs looked incredibly nervous as they stepped away from the other chefs. Kevin amazingly kept his composure, but Hannah had gone very pale.

 

“Hannah – your steak and kidney pie was classic, but almost conventional. Your crust was also too thin to contain your filling.

“Kevin – your mince pie with mutton had filling spilling out the top, which made it shapeless and messy.”

 

Hannah bit her lip anxiously. Kevin bowed his head, closing his eyes.

 

“The chef who will be leaving the competition today is…Kevin. Hufflepuff, please applaud your student chef.”

 

Kevin gave a small nod, as if he’d expected as much; he then, without skipping a beat, put on his best smile and waved up at the Hufflepuff stands as they applauded. He then turned to Hannah, shaking her hand and quietly whispering his congratulations. Hannah shook his hand, but then moved forward to give him a big hug. Encouraged by the gesture, Ron stepped forward to shake Kevin’s hand too; then Bridget stepped up and did the same.

 

Kevin and Astoria locked eyes at one point – Kevin’s smile flickered slightly when he noticed the upset look on her face.

 

“It’s okay,” he mouthed to her gently, his brown eyes gaining a sad glint despite the smile still attached to his lips.

 

It was at that moment that Astoria realized just how strong of a person Kevin was. Despite him being so disappointed, he could still keep his smile on, so as to help keep smiles on the faces of others.

Chapter Text

With the contest halfway through, the houses were rallying behind their respective competitors with more gusto. Many people considered Bridget the new favorite to win, though Hufflepuff still threw all of their support behind Rose and Hannah and of course Gryffindor frequently burst into choruses of “Weasley is Our King” with little prompting.

 

Arjuna had gone from Ravenclaw’s ace to Ravenclaw’s disgrace overnight. It was incredible to Harry how in just one day, she seemed to have lost every friend and admirer she’d ever had – all except for Astoria, who stubbornly stuck by her friend’s side and threatened to hex anyone who said a single sour word to her.

 

“I feel kind of bad for her,” Hermione admitted quietly Monday morning at breakfast. “Arjuna, I mean. I thought she was cheating to get ahead, because she didn’t think she could win…I didn’t know that she actually couldn’t cook what she was given…”

 

“She should’ve been upfront about it from the start,” said Ron with a frown. “I mean…those foods were assigned randomly, so if she knew she couldn’t cook beef, she should have said something before the contest even started.”

 

“Yes, but…imagine how hard that’d be, having to tell that to someone you really look up to,” said Hermione. “If I was in her place, I’d want to impress the judges – I think it’d be really hard for me to say I couldn’t do something, particularly if I was in a contest trying to prove I could do it…”

 

Harry put down the Daily Prophet he’d been reading for a moment to look at the others; Ron noticed his face was ashen and upset.

 

“Something wrong, Harry?”

 

Harry passed Ron the paper.

 

“Three more Death Eater attacks,” he said lowly. “One in London, one in Helmsdale, and one in Dufftown.”

 

“Dufftown?” repeated Hermione, alarmed. “That’s not far from here…”

 

“They’re moving closer to Hogwarts,” said Harry grimly.

 

Ron skimmed through the articles too, his blue eyes growing smaller with each line.

 

“In London, it looks like they can’t even properly identify the bodies…” he said slowly. “They used a Death’s Head Shell to set off a huge explosion, and the acid leftover ended up burning most of the bodies beyond recognition…”

 

He shoved the article away, unable to read anymore.

 

At that very moment, Hagrid left the staff table and walked down the aisle so he could leave the Hall. He looked even more miserable than Harry had been.

 

“Hullo, Harry,” he greeted. “Hullo, Ron…Hermione.”

 

Harry straightened up at once at the sight of him.

 

“Hagrid,” he whispered urgently, “were you in the Forbidden Forest last night?”

 

Hagrid looked startled. “…Yeah, I was. ‘S my job, ain’t it…being the Gamekeeper?” He gave an awkward chuckle, before adding as a gloomier undertone, “Besides…gotta check up on Aragog…bring him some food…help keep ‘im comfortable, ye know…”

 

He sniffled, wiping some tears from his eye with his sleeve.

 

“Did you see Malfoy in the Forest?” Harry asked sharply.

 

Hermione opened her mouth as if to snap at Harry, but Ron elbowed her in the ribs to quiet her. Hagrid frowned in confusion.

 

Malfoy? No…can’t say I did.”

 

“There wasn’t anything weird in the Forest that night?” Harry pressed him. “Anything out of the ordinary?”

 

Hagrid frowned. “Well…now that ye mention it…there was a hive o’ Death’s Head Hawkmoths that had been moved from where it was las’. I’d hoped I could bring some of ‘em t’ Aragog on my way, since they’re right by ‘is den, an’ they’re a nice treat, fo’ spiders…but really, one o’ Aragog’s clan could’ve already gotten to ‘em, I s’pose,” he acknowledged with a shrug.

 

From the look on Harry’s face, he didn’t look so sure. Before he could say anything more, however, Hermione firmly stepped in to end the conversation.

 

“Thank you, Hagrid.”

 

Despite his lingering confusion about Harry’s interrogation, Hagrid nonetheless gave a casual shrug and a smile.

 

“…Y’re welcome. Well…better go start my rounds. Ye lot stay outta trouble now!”

 

Hagrid left. Hermione whirled on Harry.

 

“Harry, I told you to forget about – ”

 

Death’s Head Hawkmoths,” Harry repeated, his green eyes very wide. “Whenever we use them in potions, they tend to blow things up – I bet that’s the exact stuff that’s in those Shells the Death Eaters used in London! And if Malfoy was there – ”

 

“Harry – ”

 

“ – and the Moths’ hive went missing around that time – ”

 

Harry – ”

 

“ – then he must have smuggled them to the Death Eaters so they could use them in their attacks!”

 

ENOUGH!” roared Hermione.

 

Everyone turned around to look at them. Ron quickly tried to tamper her down, bringing his hands down on her shoulders.

 

“Hermione, cool it,” he hissed, his eyes darting significantly around at the bystanders.

 

Still flushed with anger that she had no idea what to do with, Hermione forcibly quieted her voice but did not restrain her emotions.

 

“Those Shells were no doubt bought in Knockturn Alley, like all the other shady things in London,” she spat under her breath, “and even if they weren’t, it would’ve taken longer than a few measly hours to send those materials across the countryside and make anything destructive out of them – not to mention the fact that Hogwarts has the strongest magical shields in the world surrounding it, made by Dumbledore himself!”

 

She slammed her hands down on the table, facing Harry head on with her eyes blazing.

 

“If you want to focus on stopping the Death Eaters, then go work on what Dumbledore needs you to do – don’t play around like we’re first years trying to solve some silly mystery!”

 

Harry’s green eyes flashed. “‘Trying to solve some silly mystery’ resulted in us stopping Voldemort from getting the Philosopher’s Stone.”

 

“But you were wrong about who was responsible then just as much as you are wrong now!” snapped Hermione, ignoring Ron’s flinch at Voldemort’s name.

 

I was wrong?” repeated Harry, his temper rising even though he struggled to keep his voice down. “You thought it just as much as I did! And Ron too! And that doesn’t change the fact that we were right about the most important part – namely, that Voldemort was trying to steal the Stone on the exact night Dumbledore was away, and that we were the only ones who could stop him! Maybe my details aren’t as clean as you’d like, but I’m not going to just sit back and watch people get hurt just because no one else sees the truth!”

 

“Guys, stop it!” Ron cut in, trying desperately to deescalate the fight. “Just…stop.”

 

Hermione looked at Ron, her eyes filling up with frustrated tears. Then, with a big, aggravated huff, she got up and stormed out of the Hall, tossing her bag over her shoulder as she went.

 

Harry and Hermione didn’t talk for the remainder of the day. Ron stuck with Harry, but had promised to himself that he’d seek out Hermione later and try to talk her down, after he’d done the same with Harry.

 

“Harry,” Ron said seriously, after they left Transfiguration and headed back up toward the common room for a break, “I know you’re worried about Malfoy and all, but…honestly, what could he really do, in all fairness?”

 

“Be the perfect eyes and ears inside Hogwarts for Voldemort, perhaps?” Harry asked dryly.

 

As usual, Ron flinched at the name. “You don’t know that – Malfoy’s done plenty of rotten stuff before, without You-Know-Who’s approval. Just…put him out of your mind, for a little while – I told you, he’ll slip up eventually…”

 

Harry looked very cross. “Ron, I know he’s up to no good. This isn’t just some stupid prank he’s working on – if it was, he’d have roped in Crabbe and Goyle or something! He wouldn’t be skulking around by himself like some stray cat – ”

 

“I know, it’s dodgy,” Ron said earnestly. “But…well, you can’t just worry 24 hours a day about it. There are other things going on – the upcoming Quidditch season – the MagicChef contest…”

 

“Ron, the Death Eaters are closing in!” Harry shot back, his tone wrinkled by frustration and desperation. “What will any of that stuff matter, if Malfoy’s a Death Eater too and he’s able to do something really awful right underneath everyone’s nose?”

 

Ron’s face went noticeably whiter, making his freckles stick out against his face.

 

“…What will it matter?” he repeated, his voice a shadow of its usual self, as though it came from a hundred miles away. “Is that what you think? That the contest doesn’t matter?”

 

“That’s not what I meant,” Harry said at once.

 

“What did you mean, then?” Ron challenged him, looking mad for the first time.

 

“Just – well – there’s a War going on! All these people are dying and going missing – contests might be fun and all, but there are more important things than winning – ”

 

“Easy for you to say!” Ron shot back, his voice actually going a little higher in pitch as his face started to flush. “I’ve never won anything on my own! I’ve never once had anything that was mine – solely mine, in my whole life! Sure, I did better at Quidditch this year, but even then, I had to share the glory with you and the rest of the team!”

 

“Ron – ”

 

“And you – you got to win the Triwizard Tournament, all by yourself, with everything handed to you on a silver platter!”

 

“Oh sure!” Harry retorted, his tone cracking with upset and righteous anger. “That’s something to be jealous of – getting some stupid prize just because a Dark Wizard wanted to resurrect himself with my blood and I just happened to be the only person to make it back alive!”

 

By this point Ron’s face had turned a dark maroon.

 

“The point is, you’ve always had a chance to shine, and I’ve always stood behind you, cheering you on – and the one time I have the chance to really do well in something – to really prove myself, on my own – you can’t bother to do the same!”

 

“I do support you!” Harry said desperately.

 

“You sure don’t bloody well act like it!”

 

“Ron, you’ve never had to prove yourself – you’re my best friend! You started the D.A. with me – you’ve saved Hermione’s and my lives plenty of times – you’re a perfectly brilliant Keeper, and everyone in Gryffindor knows it! I want you to do well, but if Hogwarts is in danger – ”

 

“I don’t care what you think about me! Sorry, Harry, but I’m not doing this for you, or for Gryffindor, or for anyone else – I’m doing it for me!

 

“A fancy contest title isn’t going to protect you from Voldemort!” Harry shot back, his tone oddly tense despite the escalating anger in the conversation.

 

Despite the predictable flinch at the name, Ron stood tall, his blue eyes boring into Harry’s green like acid.

 

“Maybe not – but I’m not going to shut out all the little joys of life just because everything in the world is going to pot…and if you think that’s stupid of me, then go the hell ahead!”

 

Harry, still looking upset, opened his mouth as if to answer, but Ron shoved past him, knocking his shoulder roughly against his as he went.

 

Ron left down the opposite staircase, not really sure where he was going. Maybe the grounds by the Lake, to clear his head…or maybe to go find Hermione – maybe she was at the Library…

 

It was as he headed downstairs toward the front double doors, however, that he was stopped by the sound of a terrible wail.

 

Ron turned. At the base of another staircase, not far from the Great Hall, were Susan Bones and Hannah Abbott. Susan was on the floor with both of her arms around Hannah, who was curled up in a ball and hiding her face in both hands as she sobbed uncontrollably. A letter lay abandoned on the ground a short ways away.

 

“Hannah!”

 

Ron dashed over, his face full of concern.

 

“Hannah, what…what happened?”

 

Hannah was so lost in her tears that she was unable to answer. Susan looked up at Ron sadly, shaking her head slowly.

 

“It’s her mum,” she said quietly. “She’d been shopping in London yesterday, near where the Flare went off. Her dad went to the Ministry, and…he picked out her body, in a line-up. …He recognized her by her brooch,” she added in a murmur so soft it was barely audible.

 

Hannah gave a terrible, grief-filled scream that sounded like it was being ripped out of her, before crumpling in on herself, clutching her own forearms desperately as she sobbed harder.

 

Ron was left speechless, not sure what in the world he could say. To lose your mother, and then to find out by post – with your father only being able to recognize her based on what she was wearing, rather than her face –

 

All he could think of to do was bend down next to Hannah and hold her hand. He wanted to say something too…but “I’m sorry” just felt like such an insignificant, stupid, meaningless phrase.

Chapter Text

Hannah left Hogwarts that same day, with plans not to return until the following week. News of what had happened to her mother swept through the school quickly, leaving most of the students wondering if she’d have to forfeit her place in the contest too.

 

Tuesday night Ron went down to the kitchens to meet up with Bridget and the others. He was the last to arrive, and he was startled when he found Arjuna and Astoria already standing in the middle of the group, talking to everyone. They both stopped at once, though, when he entered.

 

“Hey, Ron,” said Bridget. Her dark face was notably solemn, without a single touch of a smile.

 

She walked over to him and they clapped their hands together in their usual static, masculine handshake. Ron then glanced at Arjuna with some suspicion.

 

“Arjuna had an idea of something we can do for Hannah,” Kevin explained, noticing the tension between the two at once and gently trying to pacify it.

 

Ron raised an eyebrow. “For Hannah?”

 

Arjuna gave a weak nod.

 

“Look,” she started slowly, trying to project confidence even though her tone sounded choked in the back of her throat, “I know I did wrong in the contest…but whatever you think of me, I never thought ill of any of you. And more importantly…what Hannah’s going through…that’s my worst nightmare. My mum – she’s really good with Charms, but…nothing else. She only received the one NEWT, when she was at school. She can cook like nobody’s business, and her Charms are amazing, but…she’s no Auror. If she were there…where Hannah’s mum had been…” She swallowed. “…I know she would’ve been no match for the Death Eaters…”

 

Despite himself Ron felt his distrust ebb away.

 

Astoria wrapped her arm around Arjuna supportively. This encouraged Arjuna to continue a little more assuredly.

 

“So I hoped you’d…help me make a few care packages, for her and her father,” she said. “I brought some enchanted food containers,” she indicated a small pile of bright blue dishes and Tupperware on the counter, “that we can pack all the food in, to keep it hot and fresh…I thought it might make them feel better, to receive some nice, hot food made just for them.”

 

The others looked at Ron. Ron didn’t have to consider the idea long before his mouth spread into a very small smile and he nodded.

 

“…Sure.”

 

Over the next two hours, the student chefs pitched in, cooking and baking delicious dishes to send to the Abbott house. Colin and Kevin worked together on a chocolate soufflé. Astoria made a spinach and cheese breakfast quiche. Daphne baked Sally Lunn bread, and Owen mixed together a cinnamon vanilla butter to go with it. Rose made an apple pound cake with a caramel glaze. Millicent made a Pesto Lasagna with creamy bechamel sauce. Cho made a carrot cake decorated with white frosting and little yellow icing hearts. Bridget cooked up a big bowl of Potato Soup with Bacon and Asparagus. Arjuna baked a delicious Indian bread she called Aloo Paratha, while also enclosing two little covered cups of fresh chutney that Owen had made for it. Ron made a new variation of his chocolate cream pie with curry powder, this time taking the time to taste the batter beforehand to make sure the spice was not overpowering.

 

Once they’d sealed all of the food in their containers, Astoria decided that they should send little notes for Hannah on each of the dishes. Most of the group was able to scribble something down quickly, but Ron was at a loss. He bit his lip as he stared down at the blank piece of parchment.

 

“What is it?” Daphne asked him, as she secured her note to her bread tin.

 

Ron shook his head. “…I don’t know what to say. I mean – what can I say? She lost her mum. I’ve never lost a family member that close before…”

 

“I have.”

 

Everyone looked up at Owen. The third year was leaning up against the edge of the kitchen counter with his arms crossed, his casually slouching posture making him look much smaller than he actually was.

 

“I lost my dad when I was seven,” he said quietly. His voice was amazingly level, given the subject matter. “He’d gotten this disease called Lupus – it attacks the immune system and makes you sick all the time. He was a Muggle, so he stayed at a hospital about an hour from our house. Mum and I had gone to visit him just the day before – he’d said he felt great and was excited to get back home and build that treehouse he’d promised me. Then late that night, Mum was called to the hospital and she left me sleeping at home with Grandma Trudy. When Mum came back the next morning…she told me he was gone. From what Mum told me later, he’d had a heart attack that night and the doctors were struggling to restart his heart and keep him alive…but when they did, all they saved was his body – he’d already lost all brain function when he’d had the heart attack.”

 

The other chefs all looked horrified. Owen lifted himself fully to his feet, straightening up as he stared Ron down.

 

“Would you like to know what I would’ve wanted to hear…if someone had written me a letter after it happened?”

 

Ron was so stunned that all he could do was give a shaky nod.

 

“Don’t say you’re sorry,” said Owen. “Don’t give your condolences. I heard those words over and over, and after a while, they lose all meaning. Even though you know that the person means well and you appreciate the effort, it doesn’t really comfort you at all. It doesn’t matter if they feel sad about what happened – what matters is knowing they’ll be there to listen…not that they’ll spout the words that we’re all trained to say.”

 

Everyone was left speechless, except for Cho, who gave a small nod.

 

“Sometimes you need to follow that person’s lead…when they lose someone,” she said softly. “When Cedric died…all I ever heard was people telling me they were sorry…but they couldn’t give me what I needed, which was…well, to know why it had happened. No one could tell me why…except for Harry…”

 

The end of her sentence trailed off into nothing. Kevin glanced from Cho to Owen, before he walked over to the counter and picked up another sheet of parchment and a quill and handed them to Owen.

 

“…Owen…why don’t you write a letter, from all of us?” he said gently.

 

The others nodded in agreement. Owen looked at the parchment and then up at Kevin; then he took them both and wrote out a quick note.

 

Dear Hannah,

 

This is the first of several packages we’ll be sending your way. We missed having you down in the kitchens, so we cooked with you and your father in mind. The containers are enchanted to keep the food warm, so hopefully they’ll help fight the chill in the air.

 

Take your time and please take care of yourself. We’re all here for you.

 

He then signed his name at the bottom. Arjuna added her name, then Kevin, then Daphne, then Bridget, then Rose and Colin, then Astoria, Millicent, and Ron.

 

As Ron read over the letter, a thought flickered to his mind.

 

“I think…” he said, his eyes drifting to Bridget, Rose, Millicent, and Astoria, “…I think we should tell Ramsay that we want to put the contest on hold, until Hannah gets back.”

 

Astoria smiled. “I think that’s a great idea.”

 

Rose and Millicent nodded too.

 

“Go ahead and add it to the letter,” said Bridget with a small smile.

 

So Ron took the quill and added his own postscript.

 

P.S. We’ll convince Ramsay to hold off on the next round until you come back. Can’t wait to see you in the kitchen again!

 

The next morning Ron left the dorm early that morning to send off his chocolate cream pie with one of the Hogwarts owls (Pig was too small to lift it). Then, avoiding Harry when he tried to flag him down at the Gryffindor table, Ron grabbed a piece of toast and stuck it in his mouth before heading down to the dungeons.

 

He met the four other remaining contestants – Bridget, Astoria, Rose, and Millicent – just outside Ramsay’s office. Bridget rapped on the door before opening it.

 

“Professor Ramsay?”

 

Ramsay, who’d been sitting at his desk grading papers, raised his head as they entered the room.

 

“Hello, Bridget,” he greeted. His voice was noticeably grim. “Hello, Astoria – Rose – Millicent – Ron.”

 

“Professor,” Ron stated firmly, “we’ve talked it over, and…we don’t want Hannah to have to quit the contest.”

 

Both of Ramsay’s eyebrows rose.

 

“Hannah’s one of the best of us, easily!” said Rose earnestly. “She just lost her mum – I know she’d hate not being able to finish the contest too!”

 

“If she’s up to it when she gets back, then she should still be allowed to compete,” Astoria agreed firmly. “We’ll wait.”

 

Bridget and Millicent both nodded. Ramsay looked around at all of them, still visibly surprised – then his mouth spread into a proud smile.

 

“…I was hoping to send a letter to Hannah about her place in the contest today,” he admitted. “Fortunately you came to see me before that letter was sent…so now I can add that we’ll all be happy to wait until she returns to school.”

 

Ron grinned broadly at Bridget.

 

“Thanks, Professor,” he said.

 

Ramsay nodded. “Now you all should get to class – use this time off to catch up on your studying, even if you still don’t have to do the homework.”

 

The five students left the room, breaking apart and heading off in different directions. Bridget stuck with Ron as the two strolled out toward the Lake.

 

“When I heard about the attack in London, I was worried,” said Bridget. “Mum’s restaurant wasn’t far from where the attack happened…fortunately I got a letter from her the same day telling me she was all right…”

 

“That’s good,” Ron mumbled.

 

Bridget sat down under the tree, Ron following her lead. Bridget lay down in the grass with her arms behind her head.

 

“Do you reckon Hannah will like everything?” she asked.

 

“Sure,” Ron said, startled. “I mean, it all smelled amazing.”

 

Bridget gave a weak smile.

 

“I had no idea what to make. Mum’s Potato Soup always does really well in the winter, but…what do you make for someone when they’re grieving? I’ve lost plenty of friends before, sure, but that’s not really the same thing, is it?”

 

Ron looked at her in concern. “Lost plenty of friends?”

 

Bridget shrugged. “Not to death or anything – just…lost ‘em. Sometimes it was their fault…but most of the time it was mine.”

 

Ron’s expression seemed to demand explanation, so Bridget went on.

 

“I have something of a self-destructive tendency, when it comes to friends. I remember Georgette – she’s one of our prefects, in Slytherin house – saying it’s a problem a lot of us Snakes have…like, we get overprotective of our friends to the extent that we’re baring our fangs at any perceived threat that comes their way…or worse, going out of our way to make ourselves look good to them, no matter what…”

 

Bridget’s eyes drifted up toward the clouds absently.

 

“…One time, back in ballet class, I made friends with this girl named Lila, right? She was beautiful – she had long, brown hair and big green eyes. I think she would’ve been in Gryffindor for sure, if she’d gone to Hogwarts. But…well, I knew what she thought about people who were different or weird, so…I played myself up, trying to blend in and seem normal. I’d chat with her about boys…pretend that I had crushes on random boy bands…all because it made me happy, being around her, and I was desperate to make sure she liked me too. But then one day I looked in the mirror…and I was disgusted by what I saw. I was fake and phony – and it was all because I was trying to impress Lila. And whenever I had tried to be honest…well, she didn’t want to hear it. So one day…I just stopped talking to her…even when she tried to meet up, I would brush her off, not knowing how to be honest about how I felt…until finally, she blew up at me, calling me a traitor and a loser and saying we were through. And that was that.”

 

It looked like thoughts were swirling in Bridget’s eyes.

 

“I still miss Lila sometimes,” she admitted quietly. “She was great at making people laugh, when the situation called for it.”

 

“It wasn’t good for you, though, clearly,” said Ron, frowning deeply.

 

“Oh, sure,” Bridget granted, “I know the situation wasn’t healthy…but it still hurt just as much to break it off as it did to stay there.”

 

“Because you cared about her,” surmised Ron.

 

“Mm.”

 

Ron shrugged. “Well, she clearly wasn’t a true friend, if she couldn’t accept you as you were.”

 

Bridget smirked. “Hn – well, you’ve certainly never had that problem, I’d wager. You, Potter, and Granger are inseparable, aren’t you?”

 

Ron looked away uncomfortably. Bridget turned over so that she was on her stomach, propping her chin up on her hands.

 

“…Not so much?” she asked, her face scrunched up in concern.

 

Ron sighed. “It’s complicated…”

 

He tried to explain what was going on between him and Harry without going into too much detail about Dumbledore’s mission. Bridget listened patiently, nodding every-so-often as she took it all in. When Ron was done, she raised her eyebrows dully.

 

“Sounds like Potter’s got a bit of Slytherin in him.”

 

“What do you mean?” asked Ron.

 

“Self-destructive tendencies,” Bridget said simply. “You said he’s worried about Draco Malfoy being a Death Eater – sure, that’s stupid, but if Draco was a Death Eater, that would threaten Hogwarts and everyone in it, wouldn’t it?”

 

“I suppose,” granted Ron.

 

“And everyone at the Daily Prophet has been crowing about how Potter’s some 'Chosen One' destined to defeat You-Know-Who and all that, yeah?”

 

“Yeah…but all of that’s sort of rubbish,” Ron said quickly, knowing full well that Harry didn’t want everyone to know about the prophecy, “You-Know-Who’s just put a big target on Harry’s back, that’s all…”

 

“Exactly,” said Bridget. “And if he has a target on his back, then what about the people he cares about?”

 

She casually tossed her braids over her shoulder. “From where I stand, it sounds like Potter’s gotten a bit paranoid – and who can blame him, really? He’s not being selfish – he’s just caring too much in the wrong ways. You shouldn’t forgive him for that, mind you – he needs to figure out his mistakes on his own first – but at least it might make it easier for you to forgive him, once he’s screwed his head on straight.”

 

Ron leaned back against the tree trunk, gazing up at the sky too.

 

“I guess so…”

 

“Ron!”

 

Bridget and Ron both looked up at the same time, to see Hermione running up to them.

 

There you are!” said Hermione. “I was looking – ”

 

She then caught sight of Bridget, who she hadn’t noticed before. She abruptly fell silent.

 

“…Oh. I’m sorry, I…didn’t mean to interrupt…”

 

“You didn’t,” Ron said quickly, getting to his feet. “We were just talking.”

 

Hermione’s eyes floated from Ron to Bridget, a weird glint flickering through them.

 

“…Well, you missed Transfiguration,” she said stiffly. “I know you don’t have to do the homework, but I didn’t think you would just skip it…”

 

“Oh! No, I just lost track of time,” Ron said sheepishly. He turned to Bridget. “See you later, then?”

 

“Bye,” Bridget said coolly.

 

Hermione turned on her heel and started back up toward the castle. Ron dashed a bit to catch up with her.

 

“You could’ve told me where you were going this morning,” Hermione said accusingly. “Unless you thought just because I was mad with Harry meant that I wasn’t talking to you either…”

 

“No, I…hadn’t thought that,” Ron said awkwardly. “We just planned to meet with Ramsay first thing, to talk to him about Hannah – ”

 

“You and Bridget?” Hermione asked with a raised eyebrow.

 

Ron frowned. “And Astoria, Millicent, and Rose, yeah.”

 

Hermione didn’t reply, keeping her focus solely ahead as her grip tightened around the books under her arms.

 

“What’s with you?” asked Ron, feeling defensive for a reason he couldn’t quite put into words.

 

“Nothing,” sniffed Hermione.

 

“Come on,” snapped Ron. “You’re acting bonkers.”

 

Hermione stopped walking and whirled on him. “Am I? Well, maybe that’s because you just skipped class to play hooky with Bridget!”

 

“I wasn’t playing hooky! We were just talking about stuff and I lost track of time!”

 

“And what was so engaging, exactly?”

 

“I was telling her about Harry, if you must know.”

 

“Something you couldn’t have talked about with me?”

 

“You weren’t there!”

 

“I’ve always been there!” Hermione shot back, her voice cracking. “Always! You and Harry were my first friends, ever, and you – you just don’t understand that, do you?”

 

She turned away and dashed away up the hall, leaving Ron feeling perfectly lost.

Chapter Text

After getting into two big arguments with his two best friends in one day, Harry was left alone and full of self-loathing. His concern about Malfoy, however justified he felt in it, had driven away the two people he had always thought he could rely on…and having neither Ron nor Hermione to sit next to in lessons was difficult. He’d taken to sitting with Neville, who showed him a little sympathy.

 

“You’re right in a way, Harry,” Neville had said bracingly that Thursday. “I mean, yeah, in a big sense, no one’s really going to think about who won or lost a contest when You-Know-Who comes knocking on your door…but still, you were being sort of a jerk about it.”

 

“Tell me something I don’t know,” Harry muttered gloomily.

 

Neville frowned. “Okay, then – how about this: if you want to fix things, maybe you should try to show Ron and Hermione that your priorities have changed? It’s like Gran says – actions speak louder than words…”

 

Harry considered this advice over the rest of the day. Several times he saw Ron in the hallway and tried to reach out to him, but it seemed that whenever he tried, Ron was occupied elsewhere. Harry didn’t even see Ron in the dorms at night or in the morning before class, since he was out until very late and then up very early – Harry suspected that Ron had been spending all of his time in the kitchens. Was it to practice for the contest, or was it just to avoid him? Harry wasn’t sure…but it seemed that Ron wasn’t speaking to Hermione either, so maybe Ron wasn’t just avoiding Harry…

 

Regardless, Harry came to the conclusion that he couldn’t just wallow around in self-pity desperately trying to get Ron’s attention. If Hermione didn’t want to talk to him and Ron wasn’t going to slow down enough to let him apologize properly, well, then he’d just have to do something about it.

 

That Sunday Harry saw Slughorn going down to the dungeons to visit Ramsay in his office, and he made up his mind. If Slughorn was still visiting Hogwarts even though the contest round had been put off, then it was the chance he needed to get that memory. All he needed was a little luck, he realized…and he knew exactly where he could get some.

 


 

Just after 1 AM on Monday morning, Hermione had fallen asleep in one of the cozy chairs in front of the Gryffindor fireplace. She’d taken to hiding out in the library a lot that last week – it was something she’d used to do in first year, back when she didn’t have anybody to talk to. In the library you were generally not supposed to talk, after all, so the silence wasn’t nearly so lonely…

 

She awoke out of a deep sleep to someone grabbing her shoulder and shaking it.

 

“Hermione – Hermione!”

 

Her eyes blinked open sleepily, to see Harry smiling broadly at her.

 

“Hermione, I did it!” he whispered gleefully. “I got the memory for Dumbledore!”

 

Hermione gave a start. “What?”

 

“I thought about what you said, and…you were right,” he said. “I wasn’t putting the attention on what Dumbledore needed me to do that I should’ve…and I saw Slughorn going down to meet Ramsay, so I thought it’d be the perfect time to talk to him. I knew I’d need some luck to make sure I could catch him while he was alone, so I used some of the Felix Felicis Ramsay gave me – ”

 

He took out the tiny bottle from his robes – it was now half-empty.

 

“ – And Felix told me to go see Hagrid, right? On the way over, I found Slughorn at the greenhouses…”

 

Harry went into the whole story as Hermione listened. He told her about how Slughorn and he had found Hagrid sobbing over a dead Aragog at the edge of the Forest and had helped him bury the large spider; about how Slughorn and Hagrid got drunk back at Hagrid’s cabin and Harry was able to coax the intoxicated Slughorn to give him the real memory; and finally what the memory was and what it meant.

 

“So these things – Horcruxes,” Hermione said slowly, “hold pieces of your soul?”

 

“Yeah,” said Harry. “Voldemort wanted to make seven of them, but he lost his chance in making the seventh when he failed to kill me. Dumbledore says they’ll try to possess people and can sometimes even carry some of the owner’s personality too – ”

 

Tom Riddle’s diary!” Hermione realized.

 

“Exactly! I destroyed one of them by accident by stabbing the diary with the basilisk fang, and Dumbledore’s already destroyed another, which was Slytherin’s ring…so all that’s left to do is find the other four! Slytherin’s locket – Helga Hufflepuff’s cup – Nagini – and something of Gryffindor or Ravenclaw’s…”

 

Hermione’s entire face had lit up. “Oh, Harry, this is fantastic! Now that you and Dumbledore know about Voldemort’s Horcruxes, we know what we have to do to stop him once and for all! Now we have a plan!”

 

She took Harry’s hand and squeezed it.

 

“I’m so proud of you,” she said. “I knew you could manage it.”

 

“I’m sorry I was being such a prat,” Harry muttered.

 

Hermione gave a small smile. “And I’m sorry I yelled.”

 

She got to her feet, yawning as she closed her copy of Standard Book of Spells, Grade 6, which had flopped over onto the floor when she had dozed off.

 

“Well, I’m going to tuck in…see you in the morning.”

 

“Night.”

 

When Harry went up to the Gryffindor boys’ dorms, he found that Ron had still not arrived yet. Harry tried to stay up for him, but ended up dozing off around 2 AM.

 

When he woke up Harry caught sight of Ron, already fully dressed, darting out of the dorm. Harry stumbled out of bed, still in his uniform from the day before, and tried to chase after him.

 

“Ron!”

 

But Ron didn’t answer – he hadn’t heard him. Or chose not to hear him…

 

Begrudgingly Harry got dressed and headed down to breakfast. He met Hermione on the way down, but once again, Ron was nowhere to be found.

 

“I think he’s spending most of his time down in the kitchens with Bridget,” Hermione muttered bitterly. “Dobby’s been Apparating him into the dorm, so he won’t get in trouble for being out of bed after hours.”

 

Harry frowned. “Well…I guess even if the contest round is put off, he should put in the practice…”

 

Hermione gave a disapproving sniff. Harry glanced at her out the corner of his eye – she looked rather despondent. She kept skewering her Shepherd’s Pie with her fork.

 

“…Come to think of it, why are you two fighting?” Harry asked, his frown deepening.

 

“Who says we’re fighting?” grumbled Hermione.

 

Harry shot Hermione a dry look. “I might wear glasses, Hermione, but I’m not blind.”

 

Hermione’s head fell slightly. She pushed her Shepherd’s Pie away, as if she suddenly felt too sick to eat it.

 

“…Harry…has Ron ever talked to you about Bridget?”

 

Harry blinked. “No…I mean, nothing that he didn’t also tell you…”

 

Hermione bit her lip.

 

“Parvati was passing rumors around that maybe they were…seeing each other,” she mumbled.

 

Harry gave an incredulous laugh. “What?”

 

Hermione flushed. “Well, he’s always really friendly around her – smiling at her during the contest, shaking hands, whispering – her, too – ”

 

“Hermione, being friendly doesn’t mean you like a girl,” Harry said incredulously. “It’s that kind of thinking that got Rita Skeeter thinking I was dating you, remember?”

 

This seemed to make Hermione feel a little better. She attempted a weak smile.

 

“So…you don’t think there’s something between them?”

 

“I don’t think Ron would keep it from us if there was,” Harry said nonchalantly.

 

The smile slid off Hermione’s face as she returned her gaze to her abandoned pie.

 

“…I don’t know if that’s true.”

 

Harry quirked an eyebrow at her.

 

“Well, I mean – ” Hermione stammered, her voice getting a little higher, “ – people don’t always say how they feel – sometimes…sometimes they just can’t admit it – you know what that’s like…”

 

A familiar mane of long red hair flickered through Harry’s mind. His eyes fell down to his plate.

 

“…Yeah…I do.”

 

Hermione looked up at him, her brown eyes very watery.

 

“I’ve wanted to be honest,” she admitted. “I think Ron has too. But I just…I don’t want to ruin anything – and I know he probably feels the same way…”

 

She sighed quietly, resting her head in her hands.

 

“…I guess I’d always thought…that it wouldn’t be easy for him to move on…that maybe we’d have to talk it over, at some point. But…well, Ron’s getting all this attention now, thanks to him being a big Quidditch star and in the running to win Ramsay’s contest…you have no idea what it’s like, having to listen to Lavender gush about how much she’d like to bake cookies with him – ”

 

Harry made a face.

 

“It’s not that I don’t want Ron to be happy,” Hermione said insistently. “I’d always sort of assumed that…we’d agree that we wouldn’t want to endanger our friendship, in the end…but…it still doesn’t feel any better when Ron’s seeing other girls…I know it’s stupid of me, and selfish, but…”

 

“But you feel like you’re stuck,” finished Harry.

 

“Mm-hm.”

 

Harry noticed Ginny leaving the Great Hall. Dean was following behind her, as if trying to make her slow down and talk to him, but Ginny looked like she was having none of it. He watched them go before moving forward and leaning his shoulder against Hermione’s. Hermione rested her head on his shoulder as she forced back her tears. They sat together at the table for a minute, before Hermione forcefully brushed her hair out of her eyes.

 

“Come on,” she said thickly. “We’ve got Charms.”

 


 

As the day went on, Harry and Hermione caught almost no glimpse of Ron. It was like he’d put on Harry’s Invisibility Cloak and disappeared – he wasn’t even in any of their classes that day. Harry couldn’t help but feel a little irritated at Ron for avoiding them, particularly whenever he caught sight of Hermione’s downcast face, but then he’d remember how badly they’d ended their last conversation and felt rather humbled again.

 

Still, by the end of the day, it bothered Harry enough that when he and Hermione sat down for dinner, he abruptly put down his knife and fork and got to his feet before taking a bite.

 

“Come on,” he told Hermione, before immediately striding out of the hall.

 

Hermione looked bewildered as she rushed to follow him. “What – where are we going?”

 

“To the kitchens,” said Harry. “If Ron’s going to spend all his time there, well, then we’ll just have to go find him.”

 

“But – ” stammered Hermione, “what if he doesn’t want to see us? What if – ”

 

“Sorry, he’s had more than enough time without us,” Harry answered, a slight edge to his voice. “I’m certainly not going to toss out our friendship just because of some stupid fight.”

 

It didn’t take them long to get downstairs. Harry reached out and tickled the pear, making it guffaw with laughter before the oil painting swung open to reveal the kitchens.

 

All of Ron’s fellow chefs – Astoria, Arjuna, Cho, Owen, Kevin, Rose, Millicent, Bridget, Daphne, and Colin – were inside, working at different countertops, and they all looked up when Harry and Hermione entered, visibly surprised. Millicent and Daphne suddenly gained very stony expressions, while Colin waved jovially to them.

 

“Hi, Harry! Hi, Hermione!”

 

“Hi, Colin,” said Harry uncomfortably. “Is Ron here?”

 

“Not yet,” said Cho quietly. She pointedly avoided eye contact with either Harry or Hermione. “I think he’s sending one last owl to Hannah, letting her know we’re sending another round of packages tonight.”

 

“Packages?” recurred Hermione.

 

“Care packages,” explained Kevin. “We sent her and her father several dishes last week and we thought we’d send another round of them tonight, instead of just practicing like we usually do…”

 

“Besides,” said Bridget, “we couldn’t just let Ron do all the work.”

 

Harry blinked. “Ron?”

 

Bridget crossed her arms. “Owen figured that Hannah and her father probably haven’t been able to think about cooking any meals, while dealing with the funeral arrangements…so we’ve been down in the kitchens, making and sending them meals. We were supposed to just take turns around classes, but…well, Ron just didn’t seem to ever want to go, so he stayed here for most of it.”

 

Hermione and Harry both glanced at each other, their faces both rippling with guilt. Bridget picked up on their reactions at once and her black eyes narrowed critically at them.

 

“What do you want with Ron?”

 

Hermione looked affronted by the question.

 

“I’ll have you know we’re his friends,” she shot back sharply.

 

“Sure haven’t acted like it, from what I’ve gathered,” Bridget answered coolly.

 

Hermione looked like she wanted to smack her; fortunately Astoria interceded, stepping between the two of them and bringing both her hands up to stop them from moving at all.

 

“Bridget, quit it,” Astoria murmured reproachfully. “Whatever difficulty Ron’s having with his friends is none of our business.”

 

“I’m making it my business,” challenged Bridget, her eyes flashing at Hermione almost tauntingly. “If all they want to do is cause Ron trouble, then they can clear out.”

 

Hermione opened her mouth furiously, but Harry cut across her.

 

“We’re through causing Ron trouble,” he said. “I’ve been trying to tell him that all week, but he walks away before I ever get the chance. So…so when he gets here, just…tell him that Harry and Hermione are sorry…and we miss him. Okay?”

 

Bridget’s eyes softened significantly despite the lingering distrust on her face.

 

“I forgive you,” a voice murmured from behind them.

 

Harry and Hermione both whirled around as Ron slowly edged the portrait open and stepped into the kitchen, his mouth spread in a weak smile.

 

Harry immediately moved forward, and in a second he and Ron were hugging like brothers, grinning from ear to ear. When they broke apart, Ron was almost thrown off his feet when Hermione abruptly ran to him too, throwing both of her arms around his neck and crying into his shoulder.

 

“Oh, Ron, I’m sorry – I’m so sorry, I was – b-being so – stupid – and selfish and – ”

 

“Hey, hey!” Ron said weakly, looking perfectly terrified by Hermione’s reaction. “Easy, Hermione, it – wasn’t as bad as all that…”

 

But her words clearly made him feel better, judging by his over-the-top attempt at sounding casual. He secured an arm around her, squeezing her shoulder in an attempt to comfort her, as he looked up at the others. His fellow chefs were all smiling – not more so than Bridget.

 

“Good to see you’ve finally made up,” she said.

 

Hermione blinked through her tears at Bridget, looking flabbergasted. “But – you said – ”

 

“I figured Ron would be showing up pretty soon,” Bridget said smugly, “so I thought if I put enough pressure on you, you’d just blurt out what needed to be said – and I was right. As usual, the Slytherin outthinks the Gryffindors…”

 

Ron shot Bridget an attempt at a reproachful glare, but it didn’t succeed, mostly because he couldn’t keep the smile about having his two best friends back off his face.

 

“Hey, uh,” Ron said to Harry and Hermione awkwardly, “maybe tonight, we can catch up in the common room? I mean, I don’t think you’d want to stick around for our practice – ”

 

“I’d love to,” Harry cut him off abruptly.

 

Ron blinked. “You…you would?”

 

“Well, you’re always so excited talking about them afterwards,” said Harry with a shrug. “This way you won’t have to tell us. That is…if you guys don’t mind having someone to taste things, when you’re done?”

 

The student chefs glanced around at each other – although Millicent and Daphne didn’t look quite sure, Kevin took charge and immediately answered, “Of course not.”

 

Ron beamed from ear to ear as Harry pulled up some stools for him and Hermione so they could watch the others cook.

 

“Oh yeah!” he recalled, “Hermione? I-I told Millicent about S.P.E.W. the other day…”

 

“You…did?” said Hermione, looking stunned.

 

“Yeah!” Ron said with a nervous laugh. “She thinks – ”

 

“Let me take this, Weasley,” Millicent said dryly.

 

She turned to Hermione, her brown eyes very cold despite how fast she was mixing the batter in the bowl in her hands.

 

“Granger,” she said curtly. “This organization of yours…is interesting.”

 

Both Harry and Hermione were taken aback.

 

“…Really?” said Hermione.

 

“Interesting, but misguided,” Millicent continued sharply. “Have you talked to any house elves about your movement?”

 

“Well…yes,” said Hermione awkwardly, but she infused righteousness into her voice, “though thanks to the unjust system they’ve been forced under, they’ve been conditioned into believing that it’s right that they serve masters – ”

 

To everyone’s surprise, Millicent actually laughed. It was a rough, barking sound – it almost reminded Harry of Sirius.

 

“Granger, serving is part of the house elves’ culture,” said Millicent, her tone rippling with incredulity and dark amusement. “It's not human conditioning -- it's their heritage. Don’t you know anything about house elf history?”

 

Hermione looked startled. “Why…no. There are no books about it in the library – no doubt because no wizard ever thought it was important enough to write down…” she added scornfully under her breath.

 

Millicent smirked. She poured her dough onto the counter and started molding it, continuing to talk to Hermione even though her eyes were now on her work.

 

“Here…let me give you a quick run-down.”

 

As the chefs all worked on their dishes for Hannah, Millicent gave a short lecture about elf history to Hermione, who took it all in with great interest. Hermione asked plenty of questions and put in suggestions, and Millicent and she continued to discuss the issue on and off throughout the rest of the cooking session. When all the dishes were cooked and packaged up, Harry, Ron, and Hermione hurried back upstairs together, since it was still plenty early enough for them to get up to bed without needing to be Apparated upstairs by any of the house elves.

 

“I’m sorry I avoided you this whole week,” said Ron lowly. “I guess I was just so depressed, having both of you mad at me, that I sort of buried myself in cooking so I wouldn’t have to think about it…”

 

“It’s okay,” said Harry.

 

Hermione smoothed some of her hair behind her ear, smiling at Ron over her shoulder.

 

“I can see why you like spending time with them, Ron,” she said. “They’re really quite nice – even Bridget’s not all that bad, even if she is a bit shady. And I can’t believe Millicent Bulstrode actually cares about elf rights! I mean – Millicent Bulstrode…”

 

“Yeah,” assented Ron. “Only, try not to broadcast that – from what I gather, most Slytherins have to keep things like that quiet, since they’ve got to share a commonroom with prats like Malfoy…”

 

For once, Harry completely ignored the introduction of Malfoy into the conversation. Instead he simply wrapped both of his arms around his best friends’ shoulders and walked side by side with them up the stairs toward Gryffindor Tower.

 

“As nice as they are, Ron…I know you’ll kick every last one of their arses on Friday.”

Chapter Text

Hannah returned to school on Tuesday. Almost the entire student body came by to give her their condolences, which Hannah accepted graciously, but when she ran into Harry, Ron, and Hermione in the hallway one day, she didn’t hesitate in striding right over to Ron and giving him a hug.

 

“Thanks for the chocolate cream pie,” she mumbled. “And everything else too, but…Dad really liked the pie.”

 

Ron patted her back lightly. “You’re welcome.”

 

When Hannah broke the hug, Hermione took a step forward to stand beside Ron.

 

“I’m so sorry, Hannah,” she murmured. “It wasn’t right, what happened…I wish it hadn’t.”

 

Hannah smiled sadly. “Thank you – that’s kind of you to say.”

 

Harry wanted to give verbal condolences too, but he remembered how much he’d hated everyone doing nothing but walking on eggshells around him after Sirius died – so instead, he changed the subject.

 

“Have you decided if you still want to do the contest?” he asked gently.

 

Ron and Hermione seemed concerned that Harry had brought this up, but Hannah instead seemed quite comforted by it.

 

“I have,” she said, a little more of her usual grounded warmth returning to her voice. “I want to go on. I know it’ll be hard, but…well, I can’t just give up. …Mum wouldn’t have wanted me to do that.”

 

Harry put a hand on her shoulder.

 

“I’m sure she’d be really proud of you.”

 

Hannah’s brown eyes flooded with tears. She choked quietly, her smile trembling; then she brought her arms out and gave Harry a big hug too.

 

“Thank you, Harry,” she whispered, clearly touched, as her tears streaked down her cheeks.

 

On Rose’s urging, the student chefs helped Hannah practice in the kitchens over the next two days, to help her get back into the swing of things before the next round.

 

“Well, there’s no way we’re going to let you fall behind just because you weren’t able to cook with us this last week!” Rose had told Hannah in an almost aggressively positive tone. “I may look cute, but don’t you dare go easy on me – I expect you to beat me into the ground with your dishes! Cook me into the grave!”

 

Rose’s fierce encouragement and Hannah’s laughter in response to it brightened up the whole kitchen.

 

When Friday arrived, the entire school was buzzing with excitement. As Ron prepared to head down to the dungeons, Harry and Hermione both gave him a hug and wished him the best of luck. Just as Ron was about to leave, though, Lavender Brown dashed over.

 

“Good luck today, Ron!” she said breathlessly.

 

Ron blinked. “Oh, uh – thanks, Lavender…”

 

“I know you’ll be brilliant,” she said. “I mean, you always are – even when you’re at your lowest, you always turn it around!”

 

Ron attempted a laugh. “Well, uh – ”

 

“And you never play it safe,” Lavender continued passionately, her words coming together so tightly that it was difficult to get a word in. “That’s always been Hannah’s problem, I think – she’s too careful, in how she cooks – she’s a perfectly lovely person, of course, but you’ve got her beat in the kitchen, no question – ”

 

Harry noticed Hermione’s eyes flash as she stepped between Lavender and Ron almost protectively.

 

“Professor Ramsay will be waiting,” she said firmly, resting a hand on Ron’s back as she swiveled him around toward the door. “You don’t want to be late.”

 

“Oh…y-yeah!” Ron said, and he smiled in relief despite himself.

 

Hermione gave him the tiniest little shove toward the large open doors, just enough to put some space between them but not forceful in the least.

 

“Do your best!” she told him, her tone oddly gentle. “Don’t worry about winning, just – we’ll be proud of you, regardless…”

 

This startled both Ron and Harry. Hermione was relentless in seeking perfection and top grades in everything, so hearing her being so…well, for lack of a better word, encouraging…was a little strange. It made Ron smile so widely that the grin took up almost his entire face, and he backtracked, bringing his arms around Hermione in an even bigger hug and sinking a hand into her bushy hair.

 

“I will,” he whispered.

 

Both Hermione and Lavender were left a bit flustered when Ron turned and headed out of the Great Hall, though for very different reasons.

 

That evening the student body once again gathered in the Quidditch pitch, banners in hand. All of the Ravenclaw banners had been edited to solely read “Astoria is our Ace”; there was one banner, however, that stood out from the rest. Arjuna carried her own poster decorated with enchanted shooting stars and sparkling gray and baby blue calligraphy that read, “Go Stori Go!”

 

“You know,” admitted Ginny, when she noticed Arjuna sitting by herself in the stands, waving her handmade sign, “maybe she’s obnoxious when she’s winning everything in sight…but at least she’s a good friend.”

 

The judges came out onto the field, once again escorting their house’s competitors. Bagnold and Dumbledore now only had one contestant left each (Astoria and Ron), while Hannah and Rose both followed Ramsay and Bridget and Millicent flanked Slughorn on either side. The student chefs were applauded and cheered on by the crowd as they made a line in front of their stations, and the judges stepped forward to address their audience.

 

“Welcome, everyone, to round four of MagicChef Junior!” proclaimed Bagnold. “We are now half-way through the competition – six marvelous chefs have left our ranks…and now we have but six remaining. Who shall win the title of the very first MagicChef Junior?”

 

The stands burst into cheers – all the Gryffindors burst into an exhilarated chorus of “Weasley is Our King.”

 

“Today,” said Ramsay, “our chefs will be facing a unique challenge. This dish is still quite new to the magical cooking scene, but over the span of a decade, it has already become a staple in wizard-owned restaurants in America and Europe…”

 

With a wave of his wand, he summoned a large, thin, circular plate to hover over the students’ heads, wafting the smell of cheese and tomato into the air.

 

Harry turned to Ginny, confused. “Pizza? But…pizza’s not new, it’s been around for a long time.”

 

Ginny frowned. “Really? I remember Dad once saying that the Gerardis only opened up their pizzeria in Wandsworth Green after the War was over…I don’t know, maybe that wasn’t the first one, but I’d always sort of assumed it was…”

 

The rest of the crowd was murmuring too, clearly just as puzzled as Harry and Ginny.

 

“Pizza has a long history in the Muggle world,” said Dumbledore pleasantly, “but has only just recently become popular in the Wizarding World. There are many varieties…but all one truly needs to make a pizza is a dough crust, tomato sauce, and shredded cheese. From there, a chef has a wide swath of toppings to choose from…should he or she desire any decoration.”

 

“Unfortunately,” Ramsay said coolly, “making a good pizza is not as easy as it sounds. There are many different styles, and doing each style justice is a challenge onto itself. No one would accept a New York style pizza with a thick crust…and if you made a round Sicilian pizza, you’d be laughed out of Italy. Today, chefs, you will be assigned a type of pizza and you will have to make us a delicious, full-size pizza of that type, with your choice of toppings. To make things easier, the dough has already been pre-made by your house elf partners, but everything else – sauce, toppings, cheese, crust thickness, size – is all up to you.”

 

“Your ovens have been upgraded with Dragonfire wood-burners,” said Slughorn, “specially equipped to bake pizzas to perfection. The chefs who make the two best pizzas for this challenge will receive a special advantage in the elimination round. You will have 30 minutes, and your time starts…now!”

 

The chefs dashed over to their stations. Their house elf partners handed them their cards, and in a flash, they were off, hurrying to prepare their pizzas.

 

Harry had never made a pizza before, but judging by how much Ron was running around his station, trying to roll out his dough with a rolling pin and cook his sauce at the stove at the same time, Harry decided that he would just stick to going to a pizzeria, rather than trying to make one by hand.

 

Hermione kept her eye on the other chefs through her Omnioculars.

 

“Astoria’s sauce looks more like a paste – I don’t think it’s supposed to look like that – Rose’s putting pineapple and ham on hers…I guess she’s making an Hawaiian pizza…?”

 

After a while, the delicious smell of fresh pizzas baking in the oven filled the Quidditch pitch. Even though Harry had already had a delicious dinner feast in the Great Hall less than an hour ago, his stomach gave a low gurgle. As time began to run out, the chefs rushed to get their pizzas out of the oven and cut them up – Rose had some trouble cutting hers up neatly.

 

After time was called, the pizzas were levitated to the judges’ table one by one, and each chef stepped forward for the judges’ verdict.

 

Millicent had been assigned a New York style pizza, and she’d topped it with anchovies and tomatoes. The judges praised her dish, though Bagnold pointed out that her crust was a just a touch too thick.

 

Rose had had to make a Greek pizza, but she’d decorated it Hawaiian style, using feta cheese, pineapple, and sliced ham. Ramsay gave Rose a raised eyebrow and a wry smile when he picked up his slice, asking sarcastically if she was aware of the fact that one does not put pineapple on pizza.

 

Rose grinned from ear to ear. “…Well, I did!”

 

The judges all laughed.

 

Bridget had been assigned a Neapolitan pizza, and she played it traditionally, topping it only with tomatoes and basil. The judges praised this approach for being very true of a Neapolitan pizza, but unfortunately Bridget had made her pizza a little too big, which resulted in its center being a bit soggy. Despite this minor setback, all four agreed that it was still delicious.

 

Hannah had been asked to make a New York style pizza, and she’d topped it with pepperoni, basil, oregano, and grated Parmesan cheese. Bagnold in particular complimented her work, saying that it tasted just like the pizzas she’d had when she visited New York City as Minister of Magic.

 

Astoria had been assigned a Greek pizza, and she had chosen less “adventurous” ingredients than Rose – feta cheese, spinach, olives, and a dash of garlic. All of the judges agreed that Astoria’s pizza was easily the best cooked of the day – Ramsay in particular noted how Astoria had even gotten the sauce, which should be more paste-like in a Greek pizza, exactly right.

 

Finally Ron came forward to face the judges.

 

“He looks a little nervous,” said Hermione.

 

Harry noticed it too. Ron was smiling, but there was a bit of a tremble in his lips. Harry couldn’t see why, though – his pizza looked great!

 

“Hello, Ron,” said Dumbledore.

 

“Hi, professor,” Ron answered nervously.

 

“Could you tell us, please, what pizza you were assigned, and what you’ve made for us?”

 

Ron swallowed.

 

“…I was assigned a…Neapolitan pizza. I’ve never had one before…but I know in Italy, they like proscuitto…so I’ve made for you an eggplant and proscuitto pizza with mozzarella cheese.”

 

Each judge took a bite of the pizza – most of them frowned slightly as they chewed, as if thinking hard.

 

“…Ron,” Ramsay said at last, “before I say anything else, let me just say that this is a very good pizza. Your flavors are wonderful, and I’d be happy to eat the entire thing, if I could. Unfortunately…you did not make a Neapolitan pizza. Not only did you add too many toppings for it to be authentic, but also your crust is much too crispy. Did you use a rolling pin?”

 

Ron flinched. “…Yes, sir.”

 

“That would do it,” Ramsay said with a curt nod. “Rolling out a pizza too much with a rolling pin presses out all of the lovely air bubbles that make the crust nice and soft. That thin, yet soft crust is what helps define a Neapolitan – the crispier crust makes this much more like a New York style pizza, though quite a bit flimsier than one usually sees…”

 

Noticing the despondent look on Ron’s face, Slughorn spoke up.

 

“It’s a very tasty pie, young man,” he said kindly. “You should be very proud of what you’ve made. It just doesn’t fill the requirement of this particular challenge.”

 

Ron gave a weak nod.

 

“Thank you,” he mumbled halfheartedly.

 

But he looked no more encouraged as he headed back to his station. Hermione’s hands clenched around her Omnioculars tensely.

 

“Poor Ron,” she whispered. “Even though the judges liked it, they still had to grade him poorly…”

 

The judges talked amongst themselves for about ten minutes before they came forward with the results.

 

“Chefs…you have all done spectacularly in this round,” said Dumbledore. “Every single pizza we tasted today was worthy of a prize – but we can only pick the two best pizzas and give those two chefs the special advantage in the next round. Those two best pizzas were made by…Astoria – ”

 

Ravenclaw’s stands burst into cheers.

 

“ – and Hannah.”

 

The joyful screams coming from the Hufflepuffs quickly overpowered the Ravenclaws. Harry, Ginny, Luna, and Hermione clapped too.

 

“All right, Hannah!” cried Harry.

 

Hannah hugged herself tightly, as if trying to keep the glee from bursting out of her chest. Astoria moved forward to give her a hug, which Hannah returned in full. Rose then moved forward to hug Hannah too; Bridget and Ron followed. Millicent didn’t hug Hannah, but she did squeeze her shoulder and whisper her congratulations under her breath.

 

“We will take a fifteen minute break, and then move onto the next round,” Bagnold announced. “Our next challenge will be quite difficult…so chefs, prepare yourselves for a battle.”

Chapter Text

“Chefs,” said Slughorn, “for our elimination challenge today, you will have to make one of my personal favorite holiday treats, which my dear Aunt Aimee made every year when the entire family came to visit her country estate…”

 

With a wave of his wand, he summoned a table, which carried a large tower of creampuffs stacked high on a plate. Harry had never seen anything like it, though Bridget and Hannah’s faces both lit up at the sight.

 

“This,” said Slughorn, “is a croqembouche tower. It’s a French dessert that traditionally takes about two days to make. Today, however, you will have only three hours.”

 

The student chefs exchanged nervous looks.

 

“Hold on, Horace,” Ramsay added with a wry smile, “we forgot to mention – you won’t be making your towers alone, because this challenge will be…a team challenge.”

 

The crowd started muttering amongst themselves, sounding even more nervous. The chefs, however, all looked a bit relieved. Some of them, like Rose, were even smiling.

 

“Astoria, Hannah,” said Ramsay, “you’ll be team captains. You’ll select your teammates and choose a name for yourselves, and hopefully, you’ll then lead that team to victory.”

 

“At the end of this round…two members of the losing team will be eliminated,” said Dumbledore, “so consider your teammates carefully.”

 

“We’ll use a coin toss to determine who will pick first,” said Bagnold. She held up a gold Galleon. “Hannah – heads or tails?”

 

“Heads,” said Hannah quickly.

 

Bagnold flipped the coin, catching it nimbly on the back of her hand. When she revealed it, the dragon tail was facing up.

 

“Tails. Astoria, you shall pick first.”

 

Astoria glanced around at her competition, her light blue eyes contemplative. Finally she looked up at the judges and said quietly,

 

“…Bridget.”

 

“Very good,” said Bagnold, as Bridget shifted to stand beside Astoria. “Hannah?”

 

“Rose,” Hannah said decisively. The Hufflepuff stands applauded as the two girls exchanged smiles.

 

“Excellent,” said Bagnold. “Astoria?”

 

Astoria’s eyes drifted between Ron and Millicent, lingering on the second thoughtfully. Ron looked away. He knew full well that he’d screwed up badly in the last round, and it would be more than logical to keep the Slytherins on the same team like Hannah had for Hufflepuff – he didn’t want to hear the inevitable answer –

 

“…Ron.”

 

Ron was taken completely aback. So were the people in the stands. Even Bagnold looked a little surprised.

 

“…All right,” she said, “and that leaves Millicent for Hannah.”

 

Hannah and Millicent looked quite pleased by this result, exchanging respectful nods.

 

“Next, you’ll decide your team names, based on a magical creature of your choice,” said Ramsay. “Take a minute, if you need it – ”

 

“The Dragons,” Astoria said immediately.

 

Suddenly remembering that she hadn’t asked the others’ opinions, she glanced at Ron and Bridget out the corner of her eye for any objections. They both gave shrugs of mild assent.

 

“All right, then,” Ramsay said, quirking an eyebrow at Astoria. With a wave of his silver-tipped wand, an icon of a black dragon spewing fire appeared on the front of Ron, Bridget, and Astoria’s aprons.

 

Hannah whispered quickly to the others – both of them nodded, and Hannah looked up.

 

“We choose the Unicorns,” she said proudly.

 

“Unicorns it is,” said Bagnold. With a swish of her wand, an icon of a white, rearing unicorn appeared on the front of the three girls’ aprons.

 

“Unicorns – Dragons,” proclaimed Dumbledore, “as stated, you shall have three hours to construct a beautiful and delicious croqembouche tower. You shall be judged not just on your finished product, but also on your teamwork. Your time starts…now!”

 

The two teams ran to their stations. As soon as they arrived at the counter, Astoria turned to Bridget urgently.

 

“Okay,” she said, “Bridget – what do you know about croqembouche?”

 

“They’re stuffed creampuffs,” Bridget explained. “The name is French for ‘cracks in the mouth.’ They’re made of pate a choux– you know, the stuff you use to make éclairs?”

 

The other two nodded, encouraging her to go on.

 

“The finished puffs have a crunchy shell on the outside and they’re hollow on the inside, and you’re supposed to stuff them with a creamy filling…then you stick the puffs together with a caramel drizzle that hardens and keeps them in place.”

 

“So it’s usually a sweet dessert,” Astoria presumed, her tone very thoughtful.

 

“Yeah – they’re usually made around Christmas, but sometimes they’re done in place of wedding cakes too.”

 

Astoria turned to Ron. “Ron – what flavors would you pair with caramel?”

 

Ron looked startled that Astoria wanted his opinion.

 

“Well,” he said slowly, “caramel goes with lots of stuff – apple, chocolate, cinnamon – but those are all pretty standard…raspberry would be cool – ”

 

“Anything savory?” asked Astoria.

 

Ron frowned in thought. “Mm…well, you could always caramelize a meat, I guess…though I don’t know how you’d make that into any kind of cream…”

 

The gears in his brain were turning quickly. He turned to Bridget.

 

“…Bridget, do we have to use caramel, for this?”

 

“Caramel is traditional,” Bridget assented. “It’s what sticks everything together so that the tower doesn’t fall apart.”

 

Ron’s frown grew. He knew he couldn’t afford to go too far a field – he’d made that mistake before. But…

 

“…Can you add other flavors to the caramel?”

 

Bridget considered this. “…I guess you could – as long as it’s still sticky and it hardens enough to hold the tower together.”

 

“And do you have to use cream on the inside?” Ron asked, his mind still whirling.

 

“Well, they are called creampuffs – so yeah.”

 

“Okay…does the cream have to be sweet?”

 

“I guess not.”

 

Ron’s face lit up. “…I have an idea! Mum once made these savory creampuffs with a ham, cheese, and cream cheese filling, back when Bill first brought Fleur home. If this is a holiday dessert and we want to make it savory…why don’t we use a ham, cheese, and cream cheese filling? Then we can add honey to the caramel drizzle, and we’ll have a – ”

 

“ – Honey-baked ham themed croqembouche!” finished Bridget, her mouth spreading into a blinding white smile. “Great idea, Ron!”

 

Astoria’s light blue eyes sparkled – she liked it too.

 

“All right,” she said in a business-like tone, “the best thing to do is to split up the workload. Ron, you work on the glaze, Bridget, you start the cream, and I’ll do the pate a choux.”

 

The two teams’ work had begun. It was more grueling than anything they’d done yet, and Harry could see why – in order to make a tower of creampuffs, one needed to make a whole lot of them, and baking them just right was clearly a challenge.

 

“Looks like Millicent’s puffs are falling apart,” said Hermione, as she watched the Unicorns baking through her Omnioculars. “At least Rose and Hannah are making their own too, so they can pick up her slack…”

 

On the Dragons’ side, however, there was trouble brewing. Ron seemed to be having trouble getting the right consistency of honey and caramel for his glaze and, when he tested it, it wasn’t hardening properly. Bridget had put down the cream she was working on and had jumped in to help Ron, and this irritated Astoria.

 

“Bridget, the cream!” she reminded her.

 

“Ron needs help!” Bridget shot back.

 

“He’s got it – get back to the cream,” Astoria urged her.

 

But Bridget was reluctant to go back to her work and kept trying to help Ron put his glaze right. Ron, for his part, looked quite anxious – his eyes were very wide and empty and it seemed like he was barely hearing anything Bridget said.

 

“He’s panicking,” muttered Harry.

 

Ginny tried leading the stands in a chorus of “Weasley is our King,” but a lot of the spectators were too focused on the flurry of activity to get whipped up into a frenzy.

 

Astoria, sensing her team was falling apart, put down the dough she was working on and interceded, stepping between Bridget and Ron.

 

“Time out!” she told both of them sharply. “Time out.”

 

She seized Ron’s arm and yanked him to the side. When they’d distanced themselves enough from the kitchen, she turned to him, her posture strict but her eyes very patient.

 

“Ron – what’s wrong?”

 

Ron had gone very pale – his freckles stuck out obnoxiously against his face. “I’m – I’m sorry, I – ”

 

“Don’t apologize, just tell me what you’re having trouble with,” Astoria said patiently.

 

Ron swallowed. “I – I don’t know, I can’t – I can’t seem to get the balance right – I want to add in enough honey that the flavor comes through…but if it doesn’t stick, then our tower won’t stay together and it won’t be a tower – ”

 

“It’s okay,” Astoria assured him. “That kind of balance is tricky – you’ll get it – ”

 

“Of course I’d bollocks everything up again, after how bad I did last round,” mumbled Ron. His head had dropped and his red bangs fell into his eyes. “And because of my mistake…now I’ve jeopardized your and Bridget’s places in the contest too! You should never have picked me…”

 

Astoria’s light blue eyes hardened, but it made them no less calm.

 

“Ron,” she said quietly, “do you want to know why I picked you?”

 

Ron didn’t answer. Astoria took his silence as encouragement to go on.

 

“Because you have something I don’t have. Bridget has the cooking knowledge and experience – but you have the creativity. You think out of the box – maybe in the last round you went too far, but that’s what Bridget and I are here for. If we’re going to win this, we have to think differently than the others – we can’t afford to play it safe, when we’re this close to the end.”

 

Ron looked up as Astoria grabbed hold of his shoulder.

 

“I couldn’t be more confident than I am right now working with you and Bridget,” she said with a smile. “I don’t think any of us will leave the contest today.”

 

Ron, his face still very white, attempted a weak smile. Astoria smiled back as she led him back to Bridget at their kitchen station.

 

“I think we need a new game plan,” she said. “Bridget – can you bake the pate a choux?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Ron…do you think you can finish Bridget’s filling?”

 

“Sure…I think I remember how Mum made hers.”

 

“Then we’ll switch. Ron, you make the filling – Bridget, the pate a choux – and I’ll work on that honey caramel. We only have two hours left, so let’s move!”

 

After this misstep, the Dragons got right back on track, racing to get their croqembouche done. It seemed that their new jobs suited them much better – even though Astoria was still having some trouble getting the balance right with the honey caramel glaze, she stayed calm. Eventually she decided to add a little honey extract to add in more of the flavor without sacrificing the consistency of the caramel.

 

Meanwhile Bridget had started filling the puffs with Ron’s cream and stacking them. She noticed the Unicorns were all filling and stacking creampuffs of various sizes and dusting them with powdered sugar.

 

“We need to figure out how we’re decorating this,” she told the others.

 

Ron glanced over as the Unicorns’ unfinished tower. ‘They seem to be doing some sort of a snowy theme…’

 

“…If this is a holiday dessert,” he said slowly, “why don’t we make ours a Christmas tree? The tower Slughorn showed us already sort of looked like a tree…”

 

Astoria’s face brightened with a huge smile. “…And the creampuffs can be our Christmas baubles! Ron, that’s brilliant!”

 

Ron flushed with pride.

 

Bridget and Ron got to work enchanting the puffs different colors. At one point Bridget paused, creampuff in hand, and turned to Ron with a grin.

 

“Hey, I know…let’s make the ‘baubles’ our secondary house colors – gold, bronze, and silver! That’ll make ‘em nice and shiny. Then we can airbrush the rest green by hand, to give it that texture.”

 

“Great idea!” said Ron.

 

Astoria had just finished the caramel glaze and she brought it over to sit on the stove next to their incomplete tree.

 

“If we’re making this a tree,” she said, “we’ll need some sort of decoration for the top. It looks like the other team is baking cookie snowflakes for theirs – we could always bake something for the top…”

 

Ron’s eyes lit up with another thought. “Or…we could use candied sugar! A candy star would be a great topping.”

 

“We haven’t had the chance to show off any sugar work yet,” agreed Astoria. “Can you work with candied sugar, Bridget?”

 

“Sort of,” said Bridget uncomfortably. “I’ve only done it once…but if I had a mold, I could manage it.”

 

“Okay,” said Astoria. “Now that I’m done with the glaze, Ron and I can take care of the tower – that leaves you, Bridget, open to work on the star.”

 

Bridget turned to her button-nosed elf partner. “Hardy, could you find me a star mold?”

 

“Right away, Miss Bridget,” he said in a slightly lower voice than the other elves, and he disappeared with a crack. Bridget got to work on her candied sugar mixture at the stove.

 

When the mixture had come to a boil, Astoria and Ron were just about done stacking all the puffs when Hardy returned. They were startled to find, however, that the elf’s brown eyes were full of tears.

 

“Hardy looked everywhere for the star mold,” he said hopelessly. “Everywhere – then Joly told Hardy that they got rid of the old one because it was broken.”

 

The Dragons exchanged anxious looks. Then, almost as a unit, they looked up at the clock – there was only ten minutes remaining – there wasn’t any time to bake any cookies now.

 

“Don’t worry about it!” Bridget told them sharply. “I’ll think of something – you guys just finish decorating that tower!”

 

Astoria and Ron had no choice but to trust Bridget – they returned to the tower, while Bridget turned to Hardy.

 

“Hardy, could you get me a pair of thick dragon hide gloves and a star cookie stencil?”

 

“Yes, Miss Bridget!”

 

Crack. Bridget grabbed a piping bag and cut a hole in the top. About a minute later, Hardy had returned with both of the items Bridget had requested. Putting the gloves on, Bridget then proceeded to pour her boiling hot sugar candy mixture into the piping bag and used the cookie stencil as a guide of how to shape her star, which was about three sizes bigger. Her face was contorted with pain as she worked, but she pressed on stubbornly.

 

“Five minutes!” Ramsay called.

 

Both stations were working like crazy. Bridget had just finished filling in her star – her hands throbbing with hot pain, she stepped back, trying to collect herself. Astoria and Ron dashed over to her.

 

“Bridget, are you okay?” Ron asked.

 

Bridget forcefully breathed in and out. “I’m okay – I’m okay – ”

 

Astoria helped her take off her gloves, as Bridget was in too much pain to do it herself. Her hands had a few small, ugly-looking calluses on the sides of her fingers.

 

“Hardy, get Madame Pomfrey!” said Astoria, her voice panicked yet urgent.

 

No!” Bridget argued. “Don’t go, Hardy, I’m fine – ”

 

“Don’t be daft, those are second degree burns!” Astoria shut her down. “Hardy, get Madame Pomfrey now.”

 

Hardy inclined his head respectfully to Astoria and quickly disappeared.

 

“But – ” said Bridget, “the star’s not done – ”

 

“We’ve got it,” Ron assured her.

 

He took out his wand, pointing it at the candy star and casting the charm “Velox Frigus!” A controlled mist started flowing out his wand like dry ice, slowly cooling down the candied sugar so it could harden.

 

Hardy returned with Madame Pomfrey less than a minute later. At the sight of the nurse, Ramsay dashed over to their station as well.

 

“Bridget, are you all right?” he asked urgently.

 

“I’m fine – ” she attempted.

 

“Shut it, Bridget, you’re not fine,” Ron cut her off, though his tone was hard with concern.

 

Madame Pomfrey immediately set to work applying some healing potion to Bridget’s burned fingers with a cotton ball.

 

“You’ve done enough, Bridget,” Astoria reproached her, though her voice was still gentle enough that it was clear that she admired Bridget’s effort. “We’ll handle the rest.”

 

Ramsay nodded to Astoria and Ron. “See that you do…and Bridget,” he turned to her more gently, “take a breath. You’re okay.”

 

As Bridget reluctantly sat with Madame Pomfrey, Astoria and Ron worked on the finishing touches for their croqembouche tree, airbrushing texture, adding in some edible glitter, and securing the yellow sugar candy star to the top. It was a little small for the size of the tree, but there was no time to make it bigger – if Ron tried using an Engorgement Charm, he ran the risk of shattering it.

 

Finally the round came to an end, and the two teams stepped up to face the judges.

 

The Unicorns’ croqembouche had turned out beautifully. It was themed for a “Winter Wonderland,” with powdered sugar and iced snowflake sugar cookies as decoration. The creampuffs themselves were stuffed with a sweet apple and vanilla filling that Slughorn said was just like the sort his aunt used to make. About the only criticism that any of the judges could offer was that the creampuffs were a little inconsistent, all being different sizes and with varying amounts of cream inside.

 

The Dragons’ croqembouche turned out pretty well, as far as Ron was concerned. It really looked a lot like a Christmas tree with shiny bronze, silver, and gold baubles and a slightly-too-small star on top. Bridget’s hands were healed, but she still kept them pretty close to her chest – likely they were still twitching with pain.

 

“Hello, Dragons,” greeted Slughorn.

 

“Hello, sir,” the three replied in broken unison.

 

“Astoria…could you please tell us about what you’ve made?”

 

Astoria took a step forward.

 

“We’ve made for you a savory croqembouche Christmas tree, with flavors inspired by a honey-baked ham. The creampuffs are filled with a ham, cheese, and cream cheese filling, the tower is covered with a honey caramel drizzle, and we decorated the puffs to look like Christmas baubles and added a handmade sugar candy star on top.”

 

The judges sampled the creampuffs in front of them. When Slughorn bit into his, however, he frowned deeply.

 

“…I don’t know,” he said broodingly, “how I feel about this…”

 

He continued to eat it. The Dragons all held their breath.

 

“…You know,” he said slowly, “…I think I might love this.”

 

The Dragons let out a huge sigh of relief, their faces breaking out into smiles.

 

“In fact,” Slughorn said brightly, “can someone pass me another? I’d like another!”

 

“Your design is really very creative,” said Bagnold, as Dumbledore handed Slughorn another puff. “I saw ‘Christmas tree’ long before you said it, Astoria – I can definitely see those shiny puffs as your ornaments, and I love your star.”

 

“You put a lot into that star, Bridget, and your passion shows through,” Dumbledore said gently. “Excellent work.”

 

Bridget grinned, her white teeth shining. “Thank you, sir.”

 

“I admit, the star is small,” said Ramsay, “and not all your puffs have the same amount of cream – I notice the one Horace is eating right now has a lot more than the one I had,” he indicated the puff that Slughorn was enjoying, “but overall, a beautiful dish. Well done.”

 

“Thank you,” said Astoria, and she, Ron, and Bridget shared smiles.

 

The judges took a whole half hour to discuss the results. It left both the stands and the contestants waiting on tenterhooks, looking around at each other nervously.

 

“I wonder what they’re saying,” said Harry.

 

“It’s probably a really difficult decision,” said Ginny. “I mean…I have no idea who I’d cut, at this point – they all did really well. It’ll probably come down to the tiniest details…”

 

Hermione bit her lip anxiously, her brown eyes locked on Ron. Finally the judges came forward with their decision.

 

“Today we were faced with two perfectly gorgeous croqembouche towers,” pronounced Dumbledore. “In any other competition, both these entries would have won their team the whole lot…but alas, we were only allowed to select one. This team was chosen as our winner not just because of their tower, but also the teamwork they showed despite immense adversity. The winner of this challenge is…”

 

The contestants and spectators alike all held their breath.

 

“…The Dragons.”

 

Ron felt like he was going to collapse. Bridget threw both arms into the air and screamed, “YEAAAAAH!” at the top of her lungs. Astoria brought her arms around both of her teammates, and the three came together in a huddle-like hug. Meanwhile both the Gryffindor and Ravenclaws stands burst into applause, delighted that both of their contestants were safe.

 

“Dragons,” Dumbledore continued, when the noise had died down, “you took an immense risk with your savory croqembouche tower and it more than paid off. You pushed each other further than any of you could have gone on your own, and it resulted in a beautiful, daring dessert.”

 

“That leaves,” Ramsay said lowly, “the Unicorns.”

 

There was a chill in the air that had not been there before as all eyes turned toward the other team. All of them looked like they were in line for the gallows – like they had expected such a result, but were no more ready for it.

 

“I’ll be honest, girls,” Bagnold said sadly, “this was a very, very hard decision. If I had my way, we would not be eliminating two people from the same team this week…but alas, those were the ground rules we established before the round began…”

 

“Minister,” Hannah burst out suddenly, looking upset, “please save Rose or Millicent.”

 

Everyone stared at Hannah, startled. She had started to cry.

 

“I led the team,” she said in a choked voice, “therefore our loss is my fault, not theirs – ”

 

“Hannah, don’t.”

 

Rose took Hannah’s hand – Hannah turned to her, tears still stuck to her eyelashes.

 

“Two of us have to go this week, and the judges have already decided who those two are,” Rose said firmly, as she offered Hannah a weak smile. “You’re not to blame – we were a team, remember? There’s no ‘I’ in ‘team.’ And no matter who stays and who goes…we’re still the Unicorns! And I know whoever goes will support whoever stays…with all their hearts!”

 

Millicent nodded in mute agreement, her eyes softer than usual in her gaze upon Hannah. Hannah’s eyes flooded with even more tears; she took both of her teammates’ hands, squeezing them tightly. Slughorn actually had to covertly wipe a tear from his eye as well.

 

“…The two chefs,” Bagnold said at last, though her voice was clearly pained as well, “who will be leaving us today are…Rose and Millicent.”

 

Hannah covered her face with both hands and burst into sobs. Rose and Millicent, who looked like they’d expected that result, both moved forward and brought their arms around Hannah to comfort her.

 

“Hufflepuff…Slytherin – please applaud your student chefs.”

 

And they did. They applauded very loudly, as the Dragons moved forward to comfort the Unicorns as well. And for that moment, it was like everyone had forgotten this was supposed to be a competition – there was so much genuine affection between these supposed-rivals that it felt like any loss was an injustice and like every single chef aught to be a winner.

Chapter Text

Valentine’s Day was coming up. Although Harry only had eyes on the 14th because it was the date for the next MagicChef round, there was some excitement in the air from the female members of the student body. Hermione had already had to confiscate several bottles of love potion in less than two days – one of them she snatched right out of a Gryffindor underclassman’s hands during breakfast Sunday morning as soon as it arrived via owl post.

 

“Trust me, Harry,” she’d said coolly, after Harry had quirked an eyebrow at her. “If you’d heard half the stuff Romilda Vane was saying she wanted to do with you yesterday, you would’ve done the same thing.”

 

Harry frowned, but decided to go back to reading the Daily Prophet rather than answer. Hermione turned to Ron.

 

“Ron, you really should tell Fred and George to be more careful about the people they sell their love potions to,” she told him solemnly.

 

“Oh yeah, that would work,” Ron said sarcastically. “‘Say, Fred, George, I was thinking – maybe you should do a background check on absolutely everyone who tries to buy one of your love potions, just to make sure that they don’t do something stupid.’ ‘Gee whiz, Ron, that’s a bloody fantastic idea! I mean, sure, we get lots of money selling those potions, but it makes perfect sense to spend all of those profits investigating every customer buying our product and in the process warding them off from buying anything else…’

 

“Ron, I’m serious,” Hermione retorted impatiently. “A love potion in the wrong hands could cause a lot of trouble – just look at Voldemort’s parents!”

 

“Could you not use the name?” moaned Ron, clapping both hands over his ears and scowling at her. “And even if they sometimes cause problems, that’s not going to stop Fred and George – they’re not going to be warded off by the risk of upsetting somebody…”

 

Hermione opened her mouth to answer, but at that moment Harry rather abruptly slammed the Daily Prophet down on the table, looking furious.

 

“Guys, read this.”

 

Ron and Hermione swiveled around to get a better look at the article Harry had rested his hand under, which was in the Opinion section of the paper, toward the back.

 

(cont. from page 3) outside papers have been asking a question that this paper has yet to touch upon – the correlation between magical talent and ancestry.

 

Now of course, no one is arguing that magical children from Muggle families (often called “Muggle-borns”) are any less deserving of education or cannot, in some cases, go on to become respectable figures in the Wizarding World. Some anonymous sources from inside the Department of Mysteries, however, have admitted to studies into what prompts the emergence of magical children from non-magical families, and even after over 100 years of research, they have yet to find any concrete answer for where such magic may originate. These same anonymous sources also reveal that many studies reveal an odd discrepancy in how many students from Muggle families go on to earn positions of power in the Wizarding World compared to students from purely magical ones. At Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, we’ve seen new evidence of this discrepancy in its amateur cooking competition hosted by Gordon Ramsay, the foul-mouthed head chef of Hell’s Kitchen. Of the final four contestants, three of them are from magical families that can be found amongst the ranks of the Sacred Twenty-Eight. Is it not conceivable, therefore, that students from Muggle families have a genetic disposition that puts them at a disadvantage compared to those from magical families?

 

Now I’m sure many people will say, “Oh, but I know a Muggle-born who is unbelievably talented at magic!” But such a sentiment only proves the unusual nature of your experience – after all, if there were so many talented Muggle-borns, why would they not be better known? The fact that we associate them more with Muggles than with our magical world by calling them “Muggle-borns” says more than enough, I think.

 

In conclusion, I write this as a humble request to the Minister of Magic – Minister Scrimgeour, in the light of the Dark Lord’s return and persecution of “Muggle-borns,” can you not do more about these vulnerable members of our society?

 

Hermione’s mouth had dropped open in disbelief. Ron looked furious.

 

“What – the – BLOODY HELL is that?!” he roared. His face was beet red and his teeth were bared like he was a mad dog. “‘Vulnerable members of our society’ – who wrote this shite?!”

 

“Some prat called Uric Cuffe,” Harry snarled. “I think he’s related to the editor – Slughorn mentioned some other Cuffe who was a member of the Slug Club back in the day…”

 

Hermione picked up the paper, flipping to the front of the article.

 

“…‘Uric Cuffe, 28 years, Hogwarts alumnus of house Gryffindor, is Head Reporter and Correspondent for the freelance paper The Stormer,’” she read his biography aloud, her eyebrows coming together in confusion. “I’ve never heard of that paper before…”

 

“That’s because it’s garbage!” Ron burst out furiously. “It’s this anti-Muggle conspiracy paper – like the Quibbler, except worse! It likes to blame every single problem the Wizarding World’s had in the last decade on the friction between wizards and Muggles! Merlin, no wonder that editorial is such a piece of – ”

 

Hermione tried desperately to quiet Ron’s tirade, as the next flurry of swears out of his mouth could’ve put Ramsay to shame.

 

“I don’t even get it,” said Harry. “What was the Prophet thinking, publishing something that stupid? I mean, no one thinks that you, Hannah, and Astoria got this far in the contest because of your blood – everyone knows it’s based on talent!”

 

“Right!” Ron snarled in agreement. “And Bridget’s a better, more experienced chef than I’ll ever be!”

 

“Clearly everyone doesn’t know that, though,” Hermione said lowly, and her voice rippled with both sorrow and righteous fury. “I mean – you see what this person’s arguing, right? Not as many Muggle-borns get positions of power in the Wizarding World – even if that is true, that isn’t necessarily because of blood – it could be about dormant prejudices that no one wants to talk about…ones that could also explain why many great Muggle-born witches and wizards aren’t better known…and yet Cuffe is using it to prove his argument about blood purity.”

 

Harry slapped a hand on the article and crumpled it up in one hand, his green eyes blazing behind his round glasses.

 

“Well, he wrote that trash for nothing,” he said coldly. “There’s no way anyone could be stupid enough to believe that…”

 

Unfortunately Harry was wrong. Cuffe’s editorial had gotten everyone in the school talking that day, and although it angered most of the student body, there were a few who reacted differently. Some seemed to think that Cuffe’s words were being taken out of context.

 

“He’s just worried about them, that’s all,” one Hufflepuff argued. “If Muggle-borns do have weaker magic than Purebloods, then we do need to do something about it…”

 

Others got mad, but still thought that maybe Cuffe had a point.

 

“I mean, clearly, saying that Muggle-borns are genetically poorer at magic than Purebloods is silly,” one Ravenclaw said, “but he is right, I mean, they should get special protection from the Ministry…and, well, they’re not going to be as good at magic as Purebloods are, considering the lack of magical support they get from their families…”

 

But this was nothing compared to the students who openly used the article to prop up their personal prejudices. Hermione and Harry had had to grab hold of Ron’s arms and hold him back to keep him from hexing the Slytherin Quidditch Captain when he heard him theorizing to the rest of his team that the only reason Uric Cuffe hadn’t just come out and used the “proper” word (“Mudblood”) was because his uncle Barnabas, who edited the Prophet, had made him censor himself.

 

“The worst part is,” Ron growled to Harry and Hermione as they left Charms, “I have a bad feeling that he might be right…”

 

Colin walked past them at that moment, only he seemed not see them; his brown eyes glared furiously at his feet as he walked.

 

“Colin?” Ron called after him when Colin had strolled past them without a word.

 

Colin looked up, startled. At the sight of them, he attempted a smile.

 

“Oh, ah…hi, Ron! Hi, Harry…Hermione. H-how’s it going?”

 

Ron noticed a twitch in Colin’s smile – the boy was clearly upset.

 

“Colin, are you okay?”

 

“Oh…yeah, I’m fine,” Colin said quickly, but Ron didn’t believe him, given that he immediately turned away and his tone took on a faintly cold edge. “Just fine…”

 

Ron exchanged a concerned look with Hermione out the corner of his eye.

 

“Colin…” Hermione attempted weakly, “you seem a little, um…upset.”

 

“Me? Upset?” asked Colin, his voice rising with a rather unpleasant, slightly higher-pitched passive-aggressiveness. “Why would I be upset? I mean, there’s nothing going on right now that could make me upset – no stupid, brainless, badly-edited article that rants about how people from non-magic families are these fragile flowers who need protection – ”

 

“Colin, that article was garbage,” Harry cut him off firmly. “Anyone with a brain knows that.”

 

Colin gave a loud, sarcastic laugh. “HA! You’d think that, wouldn’t you?! Yet I still have to listen to our precious Head Boy try to tell me that Cuffe was right – that I’m never going to be as powerful as people from magical families are and so I shouldn’t even try to fight You-Know-Who when I graduate – because I needed protection from the Heir of Slytherin, right? Right?!”

 

Colin’s bile left Harry, Ron, and Hermione stunned.

 

“I shot a Head-Shrinking Hex at him, so his head would better suit the size of his brain,” he grumbled, as he choked back bitter, frustrated tears, “but Professor McGonagall caught me and gave me detention. She wanted to know why I did it, but…I don’t want to explain! Because she’ll never know why I did it – she has magical blood! She’s never had to listen to people tell her that her parents are worthless just because they don’t have magic! She doesn’t know what it’s like, having to live a secret life that you have to hide from absolutely everyone back home! How could she know how I feel?!”

 

There was a silence. Ron glanced at Harry and Hermione, unsure of what to say. Hermione finally stepped forward and brought her arms around Colin in a hug – it wasn’t difficult, given that he was only an inch taller than her.

 

I know how you feel,” she said quietly.

 

Colin didn’t hug her back, but he clearly appreciated the gesture as he closed his eyes and his angry tears streaked down his face.

 

Colin wasn’t the only one upset by Uric Cuffe's editorial. Hermione told Harry and Ron after Arithmancy that she saw that Justin Finch-Fletchley -- a Hufflepuff in their year who also took the class -- was mysteriously absent, and that she had overheard Susan Bones telling a friend that Justin claimed he wasn’t feeling well and had gone back to his dorm.

 

“The worse part was that Susan’s friend actually tried to suggest that Justin doesn’t have to take what Cuffe said personally,” Hermione muttered furiously, as they headed into the Great Hall for lunch. “I mean – how can you not? He said that Muggle-born students are generally weaker than Purebloods are – how can that not be taken personally?”

 

Harry shook his head as they sat down at the Gryffindor table together.

 

“I just don’t get it,” mumbled Ron angrily. “Where are all these rats coming from, all of a sudden? Everyone’s getting along fine; then one person says something stupid, and suddenly everyone’s turning into an as – ”

 

Before Ron could finish, though, he was interrupted by a loud, shrill cackle of laughter.

 

The three turned to look at the Slytherin table – Pansy Parkinson was talking loudly with a cluster of other Slytherins, including Blaise Zabini, Crabbe, Goyle, Montague, and Tracey Davis.

 

“And – and that little addendum,” mocked Pansy. “‘Now of course Muggle-borns are no less deserving of education’ – sure, but what education? I daresay there are a few lessons we could teach the filth around here, about respecting their betters – ”

 

Ron made as if to stand, but Hermione seized his arm with both hands and pulled him back down.

 

“Don’t,” she whispered, squeezing his arm tightly. “Don’t bother – ”

 

“He clearly censored himself a lot, to get even that much to print,” said Tracey dully. “I mean, we all know how much the Prophet has been shutting out all free thought in favor of their so-called ‘news’ promoting Scrimgeour’s pro-Muggle agenda…”

 

“Yeah,” snorted Goyle.

 

“Well, with Cuffe getting that in print, maybe more people will think to go back to the source,” said Zabini with a wry smirk.

 

“Right!” laughed Crabbe stupidly. “Then they’ll get the real story, not that stuff the Daily Puppet puts out…”

 

Bridget entered the Hall, walking past the group of sixth year Slytherins to take a seat by herself at the end of the table, about a yard away. Pansy and her friends all watched her go like cats hungrily watching a bird landing on a nearby branch.

 

“Honestly,” said Pansy, her voice taking on a melodramatic tone that could’ve put Malfoy to shame, “now that Daphne and Millicent are out of the running, I frankly don’t want Slytherin to win.”

 

Bridget stiffened slightly from her place at the table.

 

“Neither do I,” said Zabini coolly, his eyes flickering over to Bridget. Like Pansy, he made sure that his voice was more than easy enough to hear from far away. “After all, Slytherin has standards – we shouldn’t be expected to shout the praises of just anyone. I mean, could you imagine us putting a trophy for someone named ‘Jaheem’ in our commonroom?”

 

“Yeah,” said Montague cruelly, “who’s ever heard of ‘Jaheem?’

 

Crabbe and Goyle snorted in stupid laughter. Bridget was clearly trying to ignore them; although her grip on her fork tightened slightly, she didn’t answer or even look up.

 

“At this rate, we should just support Astoria,” said Tracey lightly. “I mean, she is Daphne’s sister…and she’s a pureblood, unlike that half-blood Abbott…”

 

“And she’s not a blood traitor like Weasley,” added Montague.

 

“True,” said Zabini. “After all, what joy could we find in victory, if it’s at the hands of a Mudblood who cheated her betters out of their rightful prize?”

 

Ron abruptly shot to his feet, pulling himself out of Hermione’s grip, and stormed over, yanking his wand out as he went.

 

“Ron, no!” yelped Hermione.

 

But it was too late – Ron had grabbed Zabini by the back of his robes, roughly pulled him to his feet, and stuck his wand in his face.

 

Take that back!” he spat furiously.

 

The other Slytherins shot to their feet too. Bridget whirled around to look up at Ron and Zabini, her black eyes very wide.

 

“Take what back?” hissed Zabini, and his lips curled into a sneer. “The bit about you being a blood traitor, or about how you desperately want to screw a Mudblood pig? Oh wait, I only thought that last one – ”

 

Ron’s wand flared with dangerous red sparks.

 

“Ron, stop!” cried Hermione. Harry dashed to Ron’s side, pulling his wand out as well.

 

Enough!”

 

Snape had arrived. Harry stopped mid-run, ending up just behind Ron, as the Defense Against Dark Arts professor swept over, his black robes billowing.

 

“Put Zabini down, Weasley,” he spat.

 

Ron looked like he dearly wanted to tell Snape to go take a hike, but he decided against it, releasing Zabini’s robes but glaring at him fiercely.

 

“50 points from Gryffindor, I’d say, for that lack of decorum,” Snape sneered.

 

“Only if we also take 50 points from Slytherin for instigating that ‘lack of decorum’ in the first place.”

 

Ramsay had come down from the staff table and stopped on the other side of the students, his blue eyes flashing at Snape significantly over their heads.

 

“I may not have heard the entire argument,” he said coldly, his arms crossed over his chest, “but I know that Ron was not unprovoked in his reaction – after all, I doubt even you would condone the use of that word…right, Snape?”

 

Although Snape’s face remained as stony as ever, there was a strange flicker in his cold black eyes that Harry had never seen before.

 

“…Very well,” Snape said begrudgingly.

 

He flashed an unpleasant look at Zabini, as if silently reproaching his student, and then glared at Harry, Ron, and Hermione.

 

“Back to your table – now.”

 

Harry and Hermione reluctantly headed back to the Gryffindor table. Ron took a little longer, as he turned to look at Bridget. Bridget, however, was avoiding his gaze – her black eyes were locked on the plates of food stacked high in front of her.

 

Now, Weasley,” snapped Snape.

 

Ron glowered at Slytherin’s Head of House, but reluctantly obeyed and slumped away. He had never felt more cowardly in his life than he did migrating back to the Gryffindor table like a dog with his tail between his legs.

Chapter Text

By the time Monday was over, Harry felt physically ill. It was like the disgust he had felt after first reading the editorial was bleeding through his pores like mud. It left him feeling just as gross as all the students who had given Cuffe any molecule of credit…and the feeling only got worse over the course of the next two days.

 

On Tuesday, there was a tussle between a pair of Gryffindor first years (one Pureblood and one Muggle-born) where the Muggle-born decided to prove he was good at magic by trying to Switch the other boy’s head with his rear-end, only for both boys to end up in the Hospital Wing stuck together. Later that same day another Muggle-born ended up losing Ravenclaw 50 points after hexing a classmate who insinuated that because she’d done most of the work in their paired assignment, the Muggle-born should have to pay her back. Then, during lunch on Wednesday, Hannah blew up at the Hufflepuff table, screaming through angry tears at Ernie Macmillan that she didn’t want his support, if he thought that she would win because of her blood and not her cooking talent.

 

“Brainless prat,” muttered Ron. “Probably thought that he was being encouraging, by saying her competition had no chance against her…”

 

He looked for Bridget at the Slytherin table, but she was nowhere to be found. The student chefs had all met down in the kitchens on Monday night as usual, but for the first time, Bridget had not shown up. At the time Ron had interrogated Daphne and Millicent about how Bridget was doing, but they couldn’t offer much.

 

“But…but you’re in her house,” Ron had implored them. “You had to have seen her!”

 

“Of course we saw her,” Millicent answered dully.

 

“Well, how was she? Did she look okay? Was she upset? Mad?”

 

“She acted like she was fine, when I talked to her,” Daphne said, “but that doesn’t mean a thing, to a Slytherin. We always put our best face forward. If we’re upset, most of us don’t feel like letting the world know it – unless you’re Draco, but even he’s been going off by himself a lot this year – ”

 

“But – can’t you tell, if she’s putting on airs? If you guys do it – ”

 

“Ron,” Daphne had cut him off, her voice unusually gentle, “just because you put on a mask everyday doesn’t mean you can see through everyone else’s.”

 

Feeling despondent, Ron turned to the Ravenclaw table and found Astoria. She and Arjuna had rather pointedly placed themselves at the far end, so as to avoid Pansy and her friends sitting at the Slytherin table, but Ron couldn’t help but notice how unhappy Astoria looked at all the attention she was receiving. There was a group of Ravenclaw girls who had gathered around Astoria but seemed to have no idea just how uncomfortable their presence made her.

 

“She must feel awful,” Hermione whispered, when she noticed where Ron was looking. “I mean – how must it feel, to know that people only want you to do well because you winning would prove their gross theories about blood purity?”

 

“I know,” muttered Harry. “Who’d want to win with that hanging over your head?”

 

Arjuna abruptly got to her feet at that moment, her black eyes flashing furiously.

 

“You shallow-minded doxies!” she snapped, her voice raising enough that everyone could now hear her. “Believe anything you read, do you? Or do you just believe it if it gets published in the Daily Prophet? Did you learn nothing from Fudge covering up You-Know-Who’s return last year?!”

 

Astoria tried to soothe her by grabbing hold of her arm, but Arjuna yanked out of her grip, getting right up in the other Ravenclaw girls’ faces with ferocity.

 

“My father works in the Department of Mysteries! He may not talk about his work at home, but I know for a fact that the studies they work on are about the advancement of magic as a whole – not to bolster bogus theories about magical eugenics!”

 

“No offense, Arjuna,” their button-nosed, blond dormmate Hilary Erskine said solemnly, “but anything you claim we sort of have to take with a grain of salt, given your track record with the truth – ”

 

Astoria opened her mouth, looking furious as well. Before she could speak, however, a very tall figure stepped in and not so subtly shoved his way into the crowd of girls, making them scatter so as to not get trodden upon.

 

“Ladies, I think it’s time all of you clear out before I decide to make you,” Eddie Carmichael told the underclassmen coolly.

 

“Wha – is that a threat?” stammered Hilary, clearly trying to sound brave, but only giving a pitiful attempt at righteous fury.

 

Carmichael fixed her with a perfectly fearless look, his hazel eyes narrowing slightly. Hilary visibly trembled.

 

“Why yes,” he said lowly. “I suppose it is.”

 

The girls exchanged looks among themselves, before the group reluctantly dissolved and they all went their separate ways. Carmichael glanced over his shoulder at Astoria.

 

“You okay, Greengrass?”

 

Astoria frowned at him. “Why did you do that?”

 

“Here I thought there’d be only two possible answers to my question, yes or no,” Carmichael said sardonically, “yet it seems you’ve thought of a third one – ignoring the question all together.”

 

Astoria’s light blue eyes narrowed slightly. Carmichael turned around to face her better.

 

“I saw those girls bothering you and I wanted to help, that’s all.”

 

“We could’ve handled it on our own,” muttered Astoria.

 

“Never said you couldn’t,” Carmichael said lightly.

 

“Yet you still felt the need to stick your nose where it didn’t belong,” Arjuna shot back coolly.

 

Carmichael crossed his arms. “Look, Belaji, I know we’ve never gotten on – ”

 

“Oh, is that what you call Transfiguring my braids into candle wax in my first year just to prove you could?” Arjuna snorted derisively.

 

“Fine, I’ve been a prat, I’ll buy that,” Carmichael said dully, “but whatever you think of me, I know for a fact that you guys did well in the contest because you put in the work, not because of any specialness in your family tree. As far as I’m concerned,” he glanced at Astoria, “anyone who tries to put you up on a pedestal for being a pureblood is doing you a disservice. And maybe you can handle those jerks on your own…but, for what it’s worth, you shouldn’t have to…and I don’t want to sit down and be quiet.”

 

Astoria and Arjuna both stared at Carmichael, stunned, as he turned and started walking back up the table to rejoin his crowd of friends. Then Arjuna turned to Astoria, a faint smile dusting her lips.

 

“…Well! I wasn’t expecting that.”

 

“Me either,” agreed Astoria uncomfortably. “Thanks for what you said too, by the way.”

 

“How could I do anything else?” said Arjuna dismissively. “They were being completely obtuse – and there’s no way I’d let them badmouth Bridget and Hannah in front of you – I know how much you like spending time with them…”

 

She lightly bumped her shoulder up against Astoria’s, her smile becoming a little softer.

 

Someone’s got to protect that sensitive heart of yours – at least until you finally find that Prince Charming I keep seeing in your Tarot readings.”

 

Astoria bit back a laugh.

 

“…Thanks, R.J.”

 

As much as the voices disgusted by Cuffe’s article outnumbered those who defended it, it still seemed as though that minority was a vocal thorn in the side of everyone else. Even the teachers got fed up with it. Professor McGonagall had taken to patrolling the halls more and had successfully stopped about ten more incidents before they started. Professor Flitwick had taken to inviting Muggle-born students to his office for a cup of herbal tea and some of his homemade Cheering-Charm-infused sugar biscuits. Professor Burbage had given her Muggle Studies classes the assignment of writing a short paper debunking Cuffe’s theory and had offered extra credit to those students who sent a copy of it to the Prophet via owl post. And for the first time in Harry’s memory, Snape was actively bullying his own students in Slytherin – when he caught them using the word “Mudblood,” he’d pull them to the side and threaten to put them in detention for a month if he heard it from them again.

 

Considering the reputations each member of the staff had built up at school, however, it was unsurprising that the teacher who really went off the deep-end in his temper was Professor Ramsay.

 

It all started when Slughorn and Bagnold had arrived that Thursday in preparation for the next round. No one had really given the two judges’ arrival much thought until they, Ramsay, and Dumbledore went into the teachers’ breakroom to chat about the upcoming round and, within twenty minutes, had entered into a heated discussion that made Ramsay’s voice echo with perfect clarity through the closed door.

 

“HAD A POINT?”

 

Harry had been walking down the hall with Ron and Hermione at the time and, upon recognizing Ramsay’s voice, stopped where he was, trying to listen. Ron and Hermione stopped just ahead of him, turning around and quieting as well.

 

“Horace, are you bloody daft?!”

 

Harry migrated over to the teachers’ breakroom, standing beside the closed door to listen. Ron darted over to the other side of the door, while Hermione hesitantly hid on Harry’s other side.

 

“Gordon, calm down,” Bagnold’s voice came through the door, sounding a little anxious but staying firm.

 

“Don’t tell me to calm down when I’m stuck listening to some brain-dead donkey try to argue that it’s perfectly acceptable to make sweeping claims about an entire group of people based solely on their fucking ancestry!”

 

“Gordon, that’s not what I meant!” Slughorn said shakily. “After all, Uric even s-says there are exceptions – but if the Department of Mysteries has done studies – ”

 

Fuck me!” Ramsay bellowed. “You can’t tell me you actually believe that shite, about studies?! The Stormer’s claimed that crap for years, saying they’ve got this precious anonymous source from the Department of Mysteries who’s happy to divulge his secrets to them, because they’ll tell the world the truth – yeah, well, it’s crystal-fucking-clear that the only reason that source says he’s from the Department of Mysteries is because we won’t bloody well question why he’s fucking anonymous!”

 

“Gordon, please!” Bagnold said loudly, in a vain attempt to restore calm. “That information rings with at least some truth – I remember there was a study done just before I resigned, and it found that Muggle-borns often end up in jobs that require less magical talent – ”

 

“A later study of the same variety, however,” Dumbledore said coolly, “found that those Muggle-borns often had earned the same amount of NEWTs as so-called ‘Purebloods’ who had ended up in higher positions – sometimes more.”

 

“Regardless,” said Bagnold, though she sounded a bit flustered, “the point still stands that there is a correlation – one that’s worth discussing, whatever the cause – and even if the editorial itself has little value, it at least opened up that discussion.”

 

This seemed to enrage Ramsay further. “…Are you fucking serious?! Cuffe was in no mood to discuss anything! He urged the Minister to do something about the Muggle-borns – we all know what the hell that’s fucking code for!”

 

“Gordon, that boy’s the nephew of an old student of mine,” Slughorn tried to sooth him. “Barnabas has never shown any prejudice against Muggle-borns…I doubt very highly that the boy meant that…”

 

“That so-called ‘boy’ you’re talking about is 28 years old and a fucking adult!” roared Ramsay. “He knew exactly what the hell he was saying – and if he somehow didn’t, then his brain clearly has gone past its expiration date, and I’ll dig the remains out of his skull with a spoon before letting him pick up a quill again!”

 

“Gordon, please mind your volume,” Dumbledore said patiently, though judging by the coldness of his tone, he seemed to agree with Ramsay’s sentiment.

 

“Gordon, I know why you’re upset,” Bagnold said sympathetically. “This article was bound to upset you, given your ancestry – after all, you yourself were never able to reach your fullest potential, thanks to your NEWT scores – ”

 

“DON’T – YOU – DARE!”

 

Harry, Ron, and Hermione all flinched back – Ramsay’s voice had suddenly gone louder and more furious than they’d ever heard it before.

 

“DON’T YOU FUCKING DARE CLAIM I’M ANGRY JUST BECAUSE MY PRECIOUS FEELINGS GOT HURT! HAVE YOU FUCKING LOST YOUR MEMORY OF THE LAST TWENTY YEARS – HAVE YOU FORGOTTEN THAT WE LOST HUNDREDS OF GOOD, INNOCENT PEOPLE TO YOU-KNOW-WHO THE LAST TIME HE CAME TO POWER, ALL BECAUSE PEOPLE RALLIED IN THE THOUSANDS TO FIGHT FOR HIM?!”

 

“I most certainly have not,” Bagnold shot back, her tone ringing with pain and righteous fury, “given that I was leader of the entire Wizarding World during those events and witnessed more than my fair share of friends and family die at the hands of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named! I will never forget that, however much I may wish to!”

 

“Yet you have the gall to not give a shit when some condescending, dick-faced, shit-for-brains asshat tries to drum up support for new Death Eaters in the most popular paper in the Wizarding World!”

 

Enough,” said Dumbledore sharply.

 

There was a painful silence.

 

“Millicent, Horace…I’m afraid we’ll have to reschedule this meeting to later this evening. I’m afraid I’ve suddenly come down with an illness and must return to my office forthwith.”

 

From his low, harsh tone of voice, however, it was very clear that Dumbledore’s illness had an external source.

 

There was a shuffle; barely five seconds later, Dumbledore had opened the door. Harry, Ron, and Hermione stumbled back, not having been fast enough to avoid getting caught.

 

Dumbledore peered down at Harry through his half-moon spectacles, his light blue eyes misty and hard to read. Harry held his ground, even though his face was flushing.

 

“…I heard raised voices,” he said lowly. “I wanted to make sure everything was okay.”

 

Dumbledore’s eyes moved over Harry’s face, clearly scanning his expression and eyes for any signs of dishonesty. Then the Headmaster gave him the very slightest and softest of smiles.

 

“…Very true to you, Harry.”

 

With this, he swept down the hall. When Harry glanced over his shoulder to watch Dumbledore go, he noticed for the first time how many other students had stopped in the halls behind him, Ron, and Hermione, also clearly wanting to listen in.

 

Harry then looked through the open door at the three judges left behind in the breakroom, all of whom appeared stunned by the size of their audience. Bagnold looked like a deer in the headlights; Slughorn’s mouth was left slightly open. Ramsay stared at Harry for a moment, his blue eyes running over his face – then he recovered, getting to his feet and strolling quickly into the hall as well.

 

“All of you move along,” he told the students in the hall under his breath. “The class bell won’t wait up for you lot – so take off.”

Chapter Text

With how things were going, it was unsurprising that everyone at school was looking forward to the next round of MagicChef Junior even more than usual. It seemed like the contest and the promise of Quidditch matches returning in March were the only enduring glints of sunshine that kept the students going.

 

The morning of Valentine’s Day Harry, Ron, and Hermione came down to breakfast as usual, trying to ignore the cutesy, overly romantic air of the place as girls and boys greeted each other with magically sprouting flowers and singing cards.

 

“Is it just me, or does it get more and more schmaltzy every year?” Ron joked.

 

“It’s not just you,” said Harry.

 

He glanced over at Ginny, who was already sitting at the Gryffindor table and had already gotten divebombed with a whole stack of badly singing Valentine’s Day cards by a flock of owls. When she couldn’t seem to silence them, she angrily set them on fire with her wand. Harry couldn’t help but smile fondly.

 

“Oh!” Ron said abruptly. “I almost forgot!”

 

He dashed over to the Ravenclaw table. Harry and Hermione, looking at each other in confusion, followed him.

 

“Astoria!” said Ron as he came to a halt in front of her and Arjuna. “Happy birthday.”

 

Astoria looked surprised, but smiled anyway. “…Thanks, Ron.”

 

“It’s your birthday today?” asked Hermione.

 

“Unfortunately,” Astoria said sardonically.

 

Arjuna lightly punched Astoria’s shoulder.

 

“Stori’s always hated having her birthday on Valentine’s Day,” she said lightly, her lips curled up in a fondly wry smile. “I told her it suits her, but she doesn’t believe me.”

 

“Sorry if I don’t quite see myself in a day that somehow makes red roses boring,” Astoria replied coolly.

 

Ron laughed. “Well, maybe after the round is over, we can bake you a little cake, eh?”

 

“Only if I make it to the next round,” Astoria said with a wry smirk. “If I don’t, I’ll have to make my own cake.”

 

“Suit yourself. Well…see you this afternoon!"

 

Harry, Ron, and Hermione waved goodbye to Arjuna and Astoria and headed back toward the Gryffindor table. As they made to sit down, however, Ramsay strode up to them.

 

“Good morning, Ron.”

 

Ron looked up at Ramsay, startled. “Oh – morning, Professor.”

 

“We’ll be meeting a little earlier than usual today,” Ramsay told him. “After breakfast, come straight down to my classroom, and we’ll go over the next challenge.”

 

“…Okay,” said Ron, sounding a little surprised and confused but smiling all the same.

 

Ramsay gave Ron a small smile in return. His blue eyes flickered over to Harry and Hermione as well.

 

“…Look…” he said slowly, “about what happened the other day…I’m sorry you had to overhear that.”

 

“Why?” said Hermione, frowning deeply. “You didn’t say anything bad…it was Minister Bagnold and Mr. Slughorn who were in the wrong – ”

 

Ramsay shook his head politely. “Regardless of how you feel about Millicent and Horace – and I assure you, they’re decent enough people, even if they might lack self-awareness – ”

 

“From what I heard, it sounded like they lack a few other things, too,” Ron muttered sourly. “A moral compass…brain size…”

 

Ramsay placed a hand on Ron’s shoulder, his expression quite grave.

 

“Careful, Ron – I know it’s easy to label Horace and Millicent as purely bad people, after hearing something like that…but please do not judge someone based solely on one conversation. Are Millicent and Horace prejudiced? Yes. Were they wrong? Definitely. Are they evil? No. They may not help the situation, as they can be enablers to actual evil…but there is a difference between someone who makes faulty judgments about an entire group of people and someone who deems himself superior to them. Millicent thinks that we must treat everyone’s opinion with value, even if that person is a radical blood purist. Horace thinks that coming from a powerful magical family improves the likelihood of your success, even if some of his best students contradict this. They do not, however, consider themselves or other Purebloods superior to Muggle-borns…and both of them have been friends to me. That is why I was so angry with them – because I know they can be better than how they acted yesterday.”

 

Harry, Hermione, and Ron exchanged glances, not wholly convinced.

 

“And besides,” Ramsay continued solemnly, as he withdrew his hand, “I would’ve preferred that you hadn’t heard any of the argument at all…I’m your teacher, and I’m supposed to set a good example…”

 

“I reckon you did,” Harry said plainly, his eyebrows raised.

 

Ramsay turned to Harry, staring at him for a moment. There was something misty in his eyes, something thoughtful – yet his gaze almost seemed to go right through Harry, seeing something no one else could see.

 

Then he smiled a little more fully, his blue eyes becoming oddly soft.

 

“…Thank you, Harry.”

 

He then turned to Ron. “See you downstairs.”

 

“Kay!” Ron called after him as Ramsay walked out of the Hall.

 

Harry and Hermione bid Ron goodbye after breakfast, heading upstairs to Defense Against the Dark Arts with Snape while Ron headed downstairs toward the dungeons.

 

When Ron arrived, the other contestants were already there. Astoria was the only one of the three standing; she was leaning against the wall casually, her arms folded behind her back to serve as a cushion between her back and the cold stone. Hannah sat in a chair behind a desk, slouching slightly and her arms resting in her lap. Bridget was sitting idly on top of the desk in front of Hannah, one leg crossed over the other and looking as effortlessly confident as always.

 

“Hey, Bridget,” greeted Ron, heading over to her at once.

 

Bridget looked up. At the sight of him, she smiled.

 

“Hi, Ron.”

 

Ron’s blue eyes ran over her face, scanning it carefully. She didn’t look upset – she looked the same as ever, really…yet Ron couldn’t help but feel like she shouldn’t look the same as ever, given what had happened and how much she’d avoided him. Had she recovered on her own? Possibly…

 

Bridget clearly noticed the concern painted on Ron’s face, and her smile faltered slightly.

 

“Ron, I’m fine,” she reassured him, her white teeth blazing in a confident smirk as she waved her hand dismissively. “Pansy and her friends are jerks – why would I care about what they think?”

 

Ron almost believed her – until he noticed the strange, almost cruel glint in the corner of her black eyes.

 

“Bridget – ”

 

He was interrupted, however, by the judges’ arrival.

 

Dumbledore, Ramsay, Bagnold, and Slughorn entered the room one by one. When they stood side by side, Dumbledore stood firmly between Ramsay and Bagnold and Slughorn like a physical barrier, and all four of them kept their focus exclusively on the students, rather than looking at each other. It was clear they’d jointly decided to act like the argument the other day had not happened, even if the tension between them had not fully cleared.

 

“Good morning, chefs,” said Dumbledore. “Today you shall face your most grueling challenge yet. This round, however…will take place in a brand new location.”

 

Ron felt something yank at his pant leg. He looked down and was faced with the tennis-ball-like green eyes of Dobby the house elf.

 

“Take Dobby’s hand, Master Weasley!” he said brightly. “Dobby will take Master Weasley to his work station.”

 

Blinking in surprise, Ron nonetheless gave a nod and took hold of the elf’s outstretched, long-fingered hand.

 

Crack.

 

In an instant, they had left Ramsay’s classroom and were suddenly standing in a more than familiar space, which was stuffed to brim with house elves darting across the floor carrying tall stacks of dirty dishes.

 

“Welcome to the Hogwarts kitchens,” Slughorn said jovially, as he released Koko’s gnarled hand. “I believe you all are quite familiar with this space already, am I right?”

 

Ron couldn’t help but shoot Slughorn a sour expression – what he’d recently heard from the Slytherin judge made it hard not to hear his pleasantry as condescension, no matter what Ramsay had said. He then glanced around at the other chefs, who were all holding their respective elves’ hands too and looked just as surprised by their change in environment.

 

Ramsay stepped forward, his lips curled up in a wry smile.

 

“In this challenge, we’ll be pulling a fast one on your classmates. They think that this round will take place at the Quidditch pitch at 7:00 as usual, but instead it will actually take place at dinnertime – with you four taking the place of the Hogwarts house elves and cooking the dishes.”

 

Ron went very white. They’d have to cook the entire feast by themselves – just the four of them? He glanced at the others, who looked similarly intimidated. Bridget looked the bravest of them, but even she looked a little shaken.

 

“Not to worry,” said Bagnold kindly, “you won’t be without help. Your house elf partners – Dobby, Pilo, Poppy, and Hardy – will be working alongside you as your equals. They will not only be allowed to act as a resource, but they can also jump in to help you more than they have in the past. You can ask them for cooking advice, or to mind your burner while you work on something else, or even to help you cook a particular dish if you’re running behind. With their help, you will be able to prepare every dish that goes out onto the tables upstairs. Each dish you prepare will be placed on a plate of a certain color, to help us keep track of which chef made what. Astoria, your food will go on bronze dishes; Hannah, on diamond; Ron, on gold; and Bridget, on silver.”

 

She held up each of the plates in turn for them to see – they gleamed in the candlelight overheard, bouncing colorful light onto the ceiling and nearby wall.

 

“This round will test your endurance, patience, skill, and composure,” said Dumbledore. “There will be no glamour or glory during this round – merely grueling, stressful work that you will somehow have to come out the other end of with a smile on your face. You will be put under astounding pressure, to keep up with demand. You will have to prepare dishes quickly…but you’ll also have to prepare them well enough to coax the people sitting around the plates to sample them. It’s the elves’ policy that any dish left untouched after ten minutes is immediately brought back to the kitchen and treated as if it was sent back. That means all other dishes are put on hold until that one is fixed. Empty plates are also brought back, and an empty plate must be replaced by a fresh version of the dish as quickly as possible. After the feast…we will select the top two student chefs who will go on to compete in the finale.”

 

“As your Headmaster will have to be upstairs during the feast,” said Bagnold, “you will be overseen largely by the Hogwarts house elves, who will give us their final report at the end. One of your judges has also volunteered to stay behind and lead you as Head Chef…” She smiled wryly. “…Can you guess who it is?”

 

The student chefs had a bad feeling they knew exactly who. As a unit, they all very, very slowly trailed their eyes over to Ramsay, who smiled broadly.

 

“Me,” he said, his eyes twinkling with mischief as he crossed his arms over his broad chest.

 

Despite how pleasant Ramsay had always been to him, Ron was no less terrified by this revelation. Everyone knew about Ramsay’s relentless, strict attitude in the kitchen and about how loud and brutal he could get if things were not up to his standards…and the idea of having to face Ramsay’s temper head-on was more than a little intimidating.

 

“You’re here nice and early,” said Ramsay, pushing his rolled-up sleeves a little higher up his arms, “so that the house elves can show you how to make all of the different dishes. Some of these I’m quite sure you already know how to make…but some you probably have not. To make sure we’re all on the same page, we’ll go through all sixteen of them.”

 

And so the grueling training session began. The elves worked on dishes four at a time, with each student chef going around in a circle observing each one. By the end, the elves had instructed them how to properly prepare all the entrées (roast chicken, steak-and-kidney pie, cottage pie, shepherd’s pie, lamb chops, and Yorkshire pudding) and the sides of roast, mashed, and boiled potatoes, as well as apple pie, chocolate gateau, treacle tart, and hand-churned chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, raspberry, and butterscotch ice cream. It was dizzying and anxiety inducing – Ron was a bit comforted by how most of the things they were making were things he’d seen made at home, but he was also concerned by how precise everything was. The elves seemed to have little interest in spontaneity – every dish was regimented and had to be consistent in taste and in quality. It was nothing like how Mrs. Weasley cooked at home or how he’d cooked in this competition – it’d been so fun to cook whatever he wanted however he wanted…but this time he’d have to follow everything right to the letter.

 

The food that the elves had prepared ended up being a little private feast for the four student chefs and Ramsay. They sat around a small table that the elves had set up in the corner, enjoying their lunch. Ron didn’t think he’d even seen Ramsay looking more jovial than he did enjoying the elves’ delicious food.

 

Excellent Yorkshire, I must say,” he said, indicating the pie with his fork.

 

“Yeah,” Ron agreed through a mouthful of pudding. The others nodded too.

 

Ramsay rested his hand on the side of the table, still holding his fork in a loose grip.

 

“So how are you all feeling? I know we’ve thrown a lot at you, all at once…”

 

“Yeah…but I think I can manage,” answered Bridget with a smile.

 

Once again Ron had the feeling that Bridget shouldn’t be as confident as she was acting. Ramsay seemed to feel the same way.

 

“It’s not just an issue of you managing it,” he said patiently. “You four are all talented chefs – but this round it’ll be all about you coming together as a cohesive team and getting the job done.”

 

“I’m sure we’ll do just fine!” Hannah offered brightly, even though she still looked a little worried. “I mean, we’ve done team challenges before…”

 

“Yes, you have,” granted Ramsay, “but I’ll warn you right now – working in a real kitchen is different than cooking for a panel of judges. It’s exhausting, it’s thankless, and it’s very, very hard…and that’s just for cooking for adult diners, let alone children.”

 

Ron’s stomach twitched with nerves. He glanced at Astoria, who also looked a little concerned.

 

“…Well,” he said with a weak smile, “at least we won’t have an audience watching us while we’re running around like chickens with our heads cut off, eh?”

 

Hannah giggled; Astoria smiled broadly.

 

“That is one benefit, yes,” Ramsay said with a wry smile.

Chapter Text

The four student chefs began their ordeal at 4:00 PM, just one hour before dinner was to start, when they had to make the first round of dishes. By the time they were done about an hour later, they had to immediately start prepping for the next round that would invariably follow.

 

It was more than a little draining – Ron felt very fortunate that he was strong and fast enough to carry multiple plates of food to the chef’s window at a time and also do it quickly. At one point Ramsay had scolded him (without curse words, miraculously!) for his Yorkshire Pudding being underdone and refused to send it out the way it was; Ron quickly fixed it and sent it back out three minutes later, and Ramsay deemed it satisfactory the second time. Despite that hiccup, though, his dishes weren’t turning out too badly. Given that he grew up in a family of nine, Ron was more than used to stress in the kitchen – Mrs. Weasley was always bustling around like crazy whenever she had company around, so all the hustle and bustle felt almost normal.

 

The others, however, were having some difficulty. Ramsay had had to bark at Astoria and Hannah to speed up a little, as they were putting out fewer dishes than the other two. Astoria had been flexible enough to adapt, but poor Hannah, being much more of a “slow and steady” type, was getting flustered. Two of her dishes were sent back, and at one point she even sent out the completely wrong dish and she had to immediately put down everything else to make the correct one. Fortunately her partner Pilo, who was also the head chef among the Hogwarts house elves, was very helpful in taking her finished dishes to the chef’s window for her and he even took a minute to give Hannah some advice.

 

“Dinnertime is always stressful for the kitchen staff,” Pilo told her kindly, his warm golden eyes crinkled upward as he smiled. “Pilo doesn’t think it feels quite as good after all his work, if it isn’t hard while it’s happening – Miss Abbott thinks so as well, right?”

 

Hannah gave a weak laugh, choking back some tears.

 

In response to Hannah’s trouble as well as to help herself, Astoria had asked her house elf Poppy to expedite for the four of them, reciting out which orders needed to be done one at a time. Unfortunately once Poppy started doing that, that was when Bridget started going downhill.

 

“Cottage pie for the Ravenclaw table!” squeaked Poppy.

 

“I’ve got it!” said Bridget.

 

“Bridget,” Astoria said, looking up from her Yorkshire Pudding with a disapproving frown, “you’ve got four plates in front of you right now – let someone else do it – ”

 

“I said I’ve got it,” Bridget cut her off, her voice unusually cool.

 

She put down her pan of boiled potatoes for a moment, shifting over to the oven so she could take out her three shepherd’s pies and put them down to cool while she started gathering the ingredients for the cottage pie.

 

Ramsay, who was observing the whole thing from the other side of the chef’s window, frowned deeply.

 

“Bridget, remember, you’re a team – ”

 

“But I’ve got it,” Bridget said stubbornly, dropping off two of the shepherd’s pies in the window. “Gryffindor’s and Slytherin’s shepherd’s pies, order up!”

 

Ramsay shook his head as he examined both pies and then handed them off to the house elves to take upstairs. Astoria and Hannah exchanged a look; then Hannah, still looking quite pale, put down her unfinished butterscotch ice cream and came to stand just behind Bridget, looking over her shoulder at her dishes.

 

“Bridget,” she attempted gently, “are you sure you don’t want some help?”

 

“I’m sure,” Bridget answered smoothly. Once again, though, her voice didn’t quite sound right – it wasn’t quite as amiable as it should be, instead being almost curt.

 

“But – ” Hannah clutched the front of her apron anxiously, and she offered a weak smile. “Bridget, you’ve got to be getting tired…I’d be happy to help out! I-I can do the cottage pie, while you finish up your other dishes – ”

 

“Thanks for the concern,” Bridget shot back, her voice becoming a little cooler now as she dashed some dirty dishes over to the sink, ignoring Hardy’s failed attempt to take the dishes for her, “but I’m fine.”

 

“I’m sure you are, but…I’d like to help!” Hannah said earnestly. “I mean, you can’t do it all by yourself, so – ”

 

Ron, who had only just returned from putting some dishes in the chef’s window, came back just in time to see Bridget’s black eyes flare and he knew at once that Hannah had said the exact wrong thing.

 

“Oh, I can’t, can I?” she retorted. “Can I not do it because you can’t do it…or because it’s me that’s trying to do it?”

 

Hannah flinched, visibly taken aback. “What…?”

 

“Don’t equate my talents with yours,” Bridget snapped, all traces of her familiar white smile gone. “Which of us have had their dishes come back, hmm? I don’t think it was me.”

 

“Bridget – ”

 

Hannah sounded hurt, but Bridget cut her off again.

 

“I’ve been in my mum’s kitchen since I could walk, so if anyone knows what the hell she’s doing, it’s me – and until you step up your game and start cooking dishes that don’t get sent back at a halfway decent pace, I don’t want to hear you say a damn word about what I can and cannot do! Now get the hell out of my face!”

 

Hannah’s brown eyes flooded with tears, and before she could stop herself, she’d covered her face and darted away into a corner. Ramsay, although he looked quite upset with Bridget, immediately ran to go comfort Hannah.

 

Ron watched Ramsay go, bewildered. Astoria whirled on Bridget, looking furious.

 

“Bridget, that was completely uncalled for!”

 

“I told her I didn’t want help and she kept bothering me,” Bridget said coldly, turning back to her dishes. “At least I finally got her to listen.”

 

“Contrary to popular belief, you can get people to listen to you in ways that do not involve insulting them!” Astoria shot back. “You know full well how sensitive Hannah’s feelings are right now – you knew what you said would upset her!”

 

“If you’re trying to get me to feel sorry, well, I’m not, Astoria,” snarled Bridget, still refusing to turn around. “Maybe you’re still in that charmed mode of thinking that we’re all still buddies and it doesn’t matter who wins, but this means far too much to me for me to slack off – and I don’t need you telling me how to feel any more than I need Hannah trying to pressure me into accepting help!”

 

Astoria put both of her hands on her hips, ready to argue further – Ron, however, had heard enough.

 

“Time-out!”

 

The youngest Weasley boy strode forward, seizing hold of Bridget’s arm and forcing her to put the pan down on the backburner. She irritably tried to pull out of his grip, but Ron was strong enough that he could yank her to the side where no one else could hear.

 

“Bridget – what’s going on?” he muttered to her.

 

“Nothing,” grumbled Bridget impatiently. “I’m just trying to win, that’s all…”

 

“Don’t give me that,” said Ron, keeping a rein on his temper as best as he could. “You’ve been acting off all day. Is this because of what Pansy said – because of that stupid article?”

 

Bridget’s black eyes flashed with some more of that cruelty Ron had seen earlier.

 

“…I don’t…give a damn about what Pansy and her crew thinks,” she mumbled icily.

 

“If that’s true, then why are you refusing our help?” demanded Ron. “We’ve worked together before – Astoria, you, and I were a great team! Dragons, remember?”

 

“In that scenario, Astoria was assigned team leader – here we’re equals,” Bridget answered, her voice starting lightly cool but then shifting to a harder, harsher tone as it went on, “and I frankly don’t like to be told that I can’t do something!”

 

“This isn’t about you not being able to do something,” Ron said insistently. “No one could feed an entire bloody castle on their own!”

 

“You can make your own dishes,” Bridget said sharply. “They’ll go out on your plates, and they’ll be your own work – but I’m not going to share credit in this round with anyone – not Hardy, not Astoria, not Hannah – not even you.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Because if I do, then all the credit will go to the person who helped me! Because if I don’t do it all on my own, then any success I achieve will be one I won by standing on the shoulders of others, not by my own merit!”

 

“I thought you said what Pansy and her friends think doesn’t matter,” Ron challenged her.

 

“It doesn’t!”

 

“Then who are you trying to prove yourself to?!”

 

Everyone else!” Bridget screamed at last, her voice almost aching with how much fury and vengeance was seeping through it. “I know I’ll never change Pansy’s mind, or Blaise’s, or Vincent’s, and I don’t care! They’re all blood purist pigs! Their opinions don’t matter! But before that article came out, I only had to accidentally overhear them whispering that stuff in the corner of the Slytherin common room – not yelling it at the top of their lungs for everyone in the whole school to hear! And they didn’t stop there! I still heard what they said from other people – wondering if maybe Muggle-borns are weak, or Purebloods are superior – saying that of course I did so well in the last round, when I had two Sacred Twenty-Eight kids helping me out – and that’s making all the little blood purists at this school reach out and share their stupid tabloids and shoot their mouths off even more! Those disgusting, yelping rats suddenly feel brave enough to broadcast what they think to the whole world…when I had actually started to think that even Slytherin house would support a Muggle-born champion, as long it was theirs! When I had only just gotten comfortable and thought that I’d finally found a place where I belonged, where I wasn’t a freak, or different – ”

 

Her black eyes were swimming with pain, and it made her lash out with venomous bile.

 

“I HATE THEM! And I’m going to prove them wrong! I’m going to prove them wrong before the whole world and turn them back into the pathetic, laughable wretches they were before the War started – the people who even other Slytherins gave a berth to, because their beliefs were such utter bull that no one ever thought to listen! I want to step on every single one of those Pureblood-supremacist dungbombs on my way to the top and kick them back down into the mud from whence they came!”

 

A tear had started to form in the corner of Bridget’s eye, but she ignored it.

 

“And the only way I’m going to do that is to win this contest on my own!”

 

There was a silence. Bridget breathed in and out, struggling to steady her breath.

 

Ron had never felt so simultaneously sympathetic and frustrated at the same time. He could thoroughly understand Bridget’s position – it had to have felt so awful for her, to have to listen to all that stupid stuff and know that even her own house wasn’t fully in her corner anymore…not to mention the thought that she’d felt like she’d finally found a place where she could fit in, only to have her hopes dashed. That sentiment of Hogwarts being like a home was familiar, though not because of Ron’s own experience.

 

“You and Harry were my first friends, ever, and you – you just don’t understand that, do you?”

 

Hermione’s words rang out in Ron’s head, accompanied by the memory of Harry’s excitement when Ron first joined him at the Gryffindor table.

 

Both of his best friends knew that feeling Bridget described. The Dursleys had called Harry a freak because he could do magic. Malfoy had called Hermione a “Mudblood” in the past, and even Ron had made fun of her at the beginning of first year for how much of an obnoxious teacher’s pet she could be. Yet despite all this…Ron knew that Bridget couldn’t possibly win by shutting out everyone else…but even if he said that, he knew it wouldn’t change her mind. If Bridget accepted help, then people would question her victory…and she was too determined to get back at the people who had hurt her that she was now too proud to accept help in getting there.

 

‘Self-destructive tendencies,’ Ron recalled glumly. It seemed Bridget hadn’t been kidding about that…

 

He exhaled heavily through his nose, his blue eyes trailing over Bridget’s face.

 

“…All right,” he said at last, very quietly. “If you don’t want help…then I won’t force you. I won’t give you anything unless you ask for it…and I’ll make sure the others back off. Even if I think you’re wrong…I really hope that you’re right.”

 

Something in Bridget’s face twitched – although it remained hard, her eyes lost some of their coldness as Ron turned away and headed back to his station. Ramsay had already returned with Hannah, who was wiping away some of her tears.

 

“Professor – ” Ron started, but Ramsay raised a hand to stop him.

 

“I heard enough,” he said calmly, and he gave Ron a small smile, “and honestly…I think you handled it well enough already.”

 

He then turned to Astoria, Hannah, and the returning Bridget with a more solemn expression.

 

“Back to work now, all of you – and let’s keep the tiffs to a minimum, please.”

 

After that, a rhythm was established. While Poppy recited orders, Bridget continued doing five plates each, all of them perfect, by herself; Astoria worked on three dishes at a time with Hardy and Pilo’s help, almost as perfect as Bridget’s; and Hannah and Ron tag-teamed, each of them taking turns watching each other’s dishes and taking them to the window. The pace was frenetic enough that Hannah still seemed a bit overwhelmed, but Ron was quick to jump in and help whenever she had to stop to catch her breath.

 

“Dobby, can you take Hannah’s ice cream up?” he asked.

 

As Dobby brightly popped over and carried the diamond serving bowl full of strawberry ice cream to the window, Ron looped an arm around Hannah’s shoulders, giving her a light squeeze.

 

“I know – it’s bloody mad,” he said lightheartedly. “Think of it this way, though – we’ll eat ourselves silly when this is all done, right?”

 

Hannah gave a soft giggle and nodded. Astoria smiled slightly at the two of them.

 

“Well, there should be a birthday cake in my future,” she said lightly, “so there’s always that – how about a triple layer carrot cake?”

 

“Sounds delicious,” said Hannah, her brown eyes twinkling warmly.

 

Ron glanced at Bridget over his shoulder. “…Maybe the two of us can add some vanilla ice cream to that too, eh, Bridget? Make an a-la-mode?”

 

Bridget didn’t turn around, but judging by her back, she seemed almost surprised Ron had suggested such a thing – as if she was surprised that he could still talk so nicely to her after how badly she’d acted.

 

“…Let’s focus on finishing this round first,” she said very quietly, though this time there was none of the coldness she’d shown before.

 

Ron took her lack of an answer in stride. He’d seen such behavior in Daphne before and knew that it was an issue of discomfort and pride that made Bridget not play along, not lack of caring.

 

“Right – we’ll knock the socks off this feast, and then we’ll make the carrot cake a-la-mode. Maybe we’ll use the ice cream as the icing – we’ll alternate between butterscotch and vanilla, all the way up – and we’ll make it fifteen layers high and cover the whole thing with edible pearls – and only the four of us will be allowed to eat it!”

 

Bridget didn’t answer, but her posture relaxed slightly.

 

When the tiring, grueling feast was over, the house elves took all of the dirty dishes to the sink, allowing the students to finally catch their breath.

 

“Well done, you four,” said Ramsay. “That was definitely hard, but you all did amazingly well with the challenge put before you. We only had three dishes come back all night – there’s no way I could’ve done so well, the first time I started working in a kitchen. Before we head upstairs, I’ll need to consult the house elves and they’ll give me their conclusions about which chefs they think should advance. Pilo will then covertly pop up to the other judges and fetch me their opinions, and we’ll head upstairs and surprise everyone with the results.”

 

The student chefs took a thirty-minute break, in which they devoured a whole roast chicken and gulped down the three canisters of pumpkin juice that the elves had made especially for their dinner. Then, following Ramsay, they started back upstairs.

 

“We had a few Daily Prophet reporters visit the Great Hall for dinner,” Ramsay explained as they trudged up to the main level together, “supposedly doing a study on the house elves and their food that they could then use in an article they’re writing. Of course what your classmates don’t know is that that article is about you and what everyone thought of your food.”

 

On Ramsay’s direction, the student chefs waited outside the Great Hall until he gave them the signal. Within a minute of Ramsay entering, they could hear him address everyone in the Hall from the other side of the door.

 

“Good evening, everyone! Enjoying the feast?”

 

Bridget glanced at Hannah out the corner of her eye. She looked like she wanted to say something, but she didn’t quite have the heart to – she looked much too guilty, so she tried to obscure her feelings by turning away. Hannah, noticing the difficulty Bridget was having, showed her some pity and spoke first.

 

“Bridget,” she said gently, “I just want to say…that I’m sorry I pushed you…and I hope you know that I think you’re brilliant. We all do,” she indicated Ron and Astoria as well. Ron nodded.

 

“Whatever happens, it won’t be because of blood,” Astoria said firmly. “The house elves certainly don’t care about that…and I truly believe that the judges don’t either.”

 

Hannah nodded. “Me either – I mean, if they did, then Daphne and Millicent would’ve been in the top four, not you and me.”

 

“Right,” said Ron. “And honestly…if I had to pick anyone to go half-mad trying to cook a feast fit for an entire castle with…I’d pick you guys all over again, no question.”

 

Bridget didn’t smile, but her black eyes glittered, and for the first time that night, she actually looked like she had just a shred of her old self back.

 

The student body gave a sudden, loud gasp of surprise from inside the Hall. They then all started muttering amongst themselves in confusion.

 

“…Before we reveal the results,” Ramsay proclaimed from inside the Hall, “let’s meet the chefs who made all of the wonderful dishes you enjoyed tonight!”

 

Noting their cue, Hannah, Astoria, Bridget, and Ron came into the hall one by one, silently forming a line in front of Ramsay. Everyone in the Hall gasped – then little by little, they all started to applaud, scream, and cheer, until the entire student body was heralding their student chefs. Despite the praise, Ron noticed out the corner of his eye that one tiny section of the Slytherin table was not cheering – Pansy and her crew had gone very white and stock-still, like they had all suddenly been put under a full Body Bind.

 

‘Just realized that most of what they ate tonight was cooked by a Muggle-born,’ Ron thought in satisfaction. He turned to Bridget, who was smirking coldly in their direction.

 

Weasley is a gem within!

He’s true and loyal to his kin!

Weasley will make sure we win!

Weasley is our king!

 

Ron turned to the Gryffindor table, beaming as his eyes trailed over the singing faces and the banners his classmates had no doubt intended to use in the stadium and were now waving in the air. One of the largest banners was held up by Lavender, who looked too breathlessly thrilled to sing but no less enthusiastic. But Ron’s gaze slid right past Lavender and landed on Harry and Hermione, who had been sitting with Ginny and Neville and were clapping. Harry was cheering louder than anyone; Hermione looked close to tears, her face shining with pride around her big, bushy hair.

 

Dumbledore rose from his chair in the back of the Hall, looking at his students over his half-moon spectacles.

 

“The judges have already deliberated,” he said with a smile, as the applause died down. “We shall base our decision largely on the judgment of the Hogwarts house elves, who observed our student chefs while they cooked us this marvelous feast. Their general consensus was that all of our competitors were very talented cooks…but not everyone had what was needed to be a successful chef. For one needs more than just talent, to be successful in the field – one also needs endurance, patience, and composure – and one chef, more than any other, showed these traits this evening. That chef is…Ron Weasley.”

 

Ron felt his heart stop. In an instant he felt like he suddenly couldn’t hear anything – then the extreme noise from the Gryffindor table consumed his eardrums, beating them within an inch of their life with roars and screams and song.

 

Weasley can save anything!

He never leaves a single ring!

That’s why Gryffindors all sing

Weasley is our king!

 

Ron looked around at the Gryffindor table, the judges, and finally his fellow chefs. All three of them were applauding – Hannah and Astoria were beaming from ear to ear, and even Bridget was smiling slightly, though close-mouthed and without the usual gleam of her white teeth. Slowly Ron put two-and-two together and realized why –

 

If he’d been the only chef to do everything needed in the round…then he was going on. He was in the top two! He would compete in the finale!

 

Suddenly flushing bright red from his head to his toes, Ron felt his knees buckle and he collapsed to the ground. He clutched his hair for a minute, overwhelmed by the result and trying to fathom it – then he threw both fists in the air and tossed his head back, letting out a holler of victory.

 

YES! YES!”

 

The Gryffindors all roared louder, singing the whole of Weasley is Our King one more time before Dumbledore calmly and silently signaled for quiet.

 

“Well done, Ron,” the Headmaster said kindly. “You will go on to compete in the finale. Regrettably…there can be only one other who will go there with you.”

 

Everyone turned to face Hannah, Astoria, and Bridget. All three girls had straightened up, readying themselves for the inevitably upsetting result. Hannah had started shaking and she bit her lip anxiously. Astoria and Bridget stayed stone-faced, though Astoria was noticeably pale and Bridget had clenched both of her fists at her sides.

 

“As stated, all of you are immensely talented young chefs,” said Ramsay, his arms crossed over his chest. “But both the house elves and I could only see one logical choice to go on. That chef is…”

 

The Hall held its collective breath. Ron watched the other three nervously – Hannah, Astoria, and Bridget stayed perfectly still, as if subconsciously hoping that if they stayed very quiet, they’d hear their name being called.

 

“…Astoria Greengrass.”

 

Astoria exhaled heavily, covering her face with both hands in an attempt to keep her composure as the Ravenclaw table burst into cheers and whoops. Hannah also covered her face with both hands, breaking down in tears. Bridget was the only one of the three who did not hide – instead she merely closed her eyes and stiffened her back as if she was a child trying not to cry out in pain at getting a shot, no matter how much it hurt.

 

Ron got to his feet, ready to hug all three of them, but before he could, Ramsay spoke up again.

 

“Congratulations, Astoria. You and Ron will have an extra week of preparation before the finale, which will be hosted in our usual location, the Quidditch Pitch, on February 28.”

 

He then turned to Bridget and Hannah. He brought a comforting hand on the second’s shoulder, squeezing it gently.

 

“Bridget, Hannah,” he said gently, “you both are astonishingly good chefs – easily two of the most talented, brightest witches I have met in my entire career. I know your time in the contest ends today…but because of the unbelievable talent you have shown in this competition, I would like to offer both of you full scholarships to Leiths School of Food and Wine, one of the best Muggle culinary schools in Britain!”

 

Everyone gave shocked outbursts, none more so than the student chefs. Hannah’s brown eyes went very, very wide.

 

Really?!” she asked over and over, her voice wheezy with disbelief. “Really?!”

 

Ramsay nodded, and Hannah burst into fresh sobs, her entire body quaking as she tried desperately to hold in her screams of excitement. Bridget was overwhelmed too, even though she made no sound – her black eyes were filling up with tears, but she forcibly kept her face as stony as she could as she turned away from the crowd.

 

Ron and Astoria exchanged smiles as everyone in the Great Hall applauded. Even though they’d won that round and they’d go on to the finale…at least in this short moment, it felt like they’d all won.

Chapter Text

That night the Gryffindors threw a big party in the commonroom to celebrate Ron’s success. Ron had arrived a little late, as he’d promised Astoria a birthday cake, but fortunately Dobby had brought lots of food and butterbeer up from the kitchens and there was plenty left by the time he arrived. Everyone sang and danced and talked throughout the night, until Professor McGonagall finally came into the commonroom, dressed in a robe and slippers, to order them all to go to bed.

 

The day after the round, Harry, Ron, and Hermione came down to breakfast to find a lot of the students chattering and laughing amongst themselves. At the sight of them, Ginny immediately popped up from the Ravenclaw table (where she’d been talking to Luna) and skipped over to meet them.

 

“What’s going on?” Harry asked her.

 

“The Prophet published their article about the last round,” said Ginny, grinning broadly. “Look!”

 

She handed him her copy of the Daily Prophet, indicating an article on the inside. Ron and Hermione peeked over Harry’s shoulder so they could read it too.

 

MAGICCHEFS IMPRESS ALL IN THE HOGWARTS KITCHENS

 

At Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, four students took the place of the Hogwarts house elves for an evening and surprised their classmates with a delicious feast as part of the MagicChef Junior competition.

 

For all those who have not been religiously following the contest like your humble reporter has, Gordon Ramsay – well-respected if not somewhat crass head chef of Hell’s Kitchen, who has recently taken on the position of Potions professor – has been hosting a contest this year that’s tested the next generation of magical cooks, with the goal of finding the best up-and-coming young chef in the Wizarding World. The contest winner shall receive 200 points for their house, 5000 Galleons prize money, an exclusive reservation for their family at Hell’s Kitchen, and the title of the very first MagicChef Junior. Joining Ramsay on the contest’s panel of judges are Horace Slughorn, well-esteemed Potioneer who previously taught at Hogwarts (a miracle he survived that ordeal); Millicent Bagnold, Minister of Magic during the First Wizarding War (who, quite frankly, your humble reporter would love to interview – send an owl back sometime, won’t you, Millie?); and Albus Dumbledore, Hogwarts headmaster, Supreme Mugwump of the International Confederation of Wizards, Chief Warlock of the Wizangamot, and the single best candy connoisseur one could hope to find.

 

In previous rounds, the student chefs have been challenged to make perfect pancakes, hand-raised meat pies, specific types of pizza, and beautiful croqembouche towers in only a few hours. This week, however, they worked as chefs in the Hogwarts kitchens and cooked an entire feast by themselves, with their work being put on different colored plates (gold, diamond, bronze, and silver) to signify who had made each dish…not that their classmates knew that! By the judges’ design, the students in the Great Hall thought that the Hogwarts house elves had made the feast, as always – and your humble reporter got the scoop on what the student body thought of their classmates’ work.

 

Representing Gryffindor house was Ronald “Ron” Weasley, youngest son of Ministry of Magic employee Arthur Weasley and Keeper on the Gryffindor Quidditch team. But don’t let his “jock” persona fool you – most of his classmates had nothing but nice things to say about Ron.

 

“He’s brilliant,” said Lavender Brown, who, like Ron, is in sixth year. “He always gets the better of whatever challenge the judges throw at him [in the MagicChef contest]! And he’s really funny too – he always makes everyone laugh!”

 

Ron’s gold-plated entrees and desserts made up about one-fourth of the feast’s dishes. Overall the students enjoyed Ron’s work, though a few noticed a shift in quality.

 

“The cottage pie over there [on the silver plate] is a little firmer,” commented Ravenclaw seventh year Cho Chang, who had previously competed in MagicChef Junior.

 

This reporter took the opportunity to ask Ron’s friends, Harry Potter and Hermione Granger, about the food they were eating, and they both said that they enjoyed it. Your humble reporter also noticed, to his immense satisfaction, that they kept naively sampling from the gold plates, which unbeknownst to them were the ones their best friend had made.

 

Ron looked up at Harry and Hermione, and to their surprise, he was actually blinking back tears. Harry brought an arm around Ron and squeezed his shoulder tightly before returning to the article.

 

Representing Hufflepuff house was Hannah Abbott, daughter of well-respected Apparition instructor Ophelia Abbott and sixth year Hufflepuff prefect. Hannah is best known at school for her warm personality, which has earned her many friends and admirers.

 

“She’s a perfectly marvelous chef,” said fellow Hufflepuff prefect Ernie Macmillan. “Best lemon meringue I’ve ever tasted!”

 

According to Hannah’s best friend, Susan Bones, Hannah is chasing more than just glory in this competition.

 

“Hannah has always dreamed of opening her own restaurant,” said Bones. “She hopes to go to culinary school after she graduates Hogwarts, and getting Ramsay’s seal of approval on her cooking would definitely help.”

 

Although Hannah’s dishes were received very well, your humble reporter noted that she put out significantly less than her competitors; percentage-wise, Hannah’s diamond-plated entrees only made up about 10% of the plates at the four house tables. Still, one can make the case for quality over quantity, and this reporter certainly can – after sampling Hannah’s steak-and-kidney pie and being reminded of the sort his dear old mum used to make, he can testify that this young woman has talent!

 

Representing Ravenclaw house was Astoria Greengrass, fourth year Ravenclaw and younger daughter of the esteemed Greengrass family. The student body’s opinion of Astoria was favorable, but perhaps impersonal. Unlike her fellow competitors, Astoria is generally seen as quiet and unassuming, not being the sort to chase the spotlight. This doesn’t mean, however, that her classmates didn’t have nice things to say.

 

“She’s got real talent,” said Eddie Carmichael, Ravenclaw seventh year. “Not that the others don’t too, but she really puts in the work. At the beginning a lot of students didn’t think she’d get this far, but she really proved those people wrong…that’s pretty cool.”

 

Astoria’s bronze plates were universally praised, even though she made only about 20% of the dishes displayed at the tables. Amusingly Astoria’s best friend Arjuna Belaji, who also competed in MagicChef Junior, was the only student who suspected that these dishes were not made by the Hogwarts house elves.

 

“The way this is baked,” Belaji explained quietly so that her classmates couldn’t overhear, “tells me that the person who made it did it the Muggle way, using a casserole pan and putting it in the oven rather than just cooking it with a Fire-Making Spell. There are only two people I know who cook meat pies that way, and they’re not house elves.”

 

Finally, representing Slytherin house was Bridget Jaheem, fourth year Slytherin and only child of Charlotte Jaheem, a Muggle who owns a charming London café called Lottie’s. (As a side, your modest reporter encourages you to try their Friday breakfast special – create your own omelet for only three pounds! Bloody good deal, right there.) The students’ opinions of Bridget were overall pretty positive.

 

“She’s quite nice, for a Slytherin,” said Hector Summerby, Hufflepuff seventh year and Hogwarts Head Boy. “And it’s amazing she’s gotten as far as she has, being a Muggle-born and all.”

 

When pressed, Summerby acknowledged that his opinion had been shaped somewhat by the editorial submitted to the Daily Prophet by tabloid writer Uric Cuffe, who suggested that Muggle-borns were genetically less magical than so-called Purebloods.

 

‘So-called Purebloods,’” Hermione repeated with a satisfied smirk. “Because of course many blood purists erase or ignore anyone on their family trees that don’t support their bogus theories.”

 

Even though it was difficult to find anyone who explicitly called Bridget their friend, most of the students agreed she had a lot of talent.

 

“She’s very good,” said one Slytherin student who asked to remain anonymous. “Lately there’s been talk about her ancestry thanks to that rubbish Uric Cuffe wrote, but it’s all ridiculous – she’s easily the most talented cook in the contest right now.”

 

From what your humble reporter saw, this conclusion is more than fair. Bridget easily outstripped her competitors, with her silver plates making up almost half of the feast’s dishes, and all of the reviews from her Slytherin classmates were glowing. When asked about the steak-and-kidney pie Bridget had made, sixth year Pansy Parkinson claimed that it was even better than last year’s pie, and she partook in four slices of it.

 

When Harry read this, he burst out laughing. Hermione quickly covered her mouth with both hands to stifle her laughter too; Ron gained a look of vicious pride on his face.

 

“Damn straight it was better than last year’s, you overgrown pug!” he said smugly.

 

In the end, Ron and Astoria were chosen to advance to the competition’s finale, largely due to their performance in the kitchen, which alas the spectators were not privy to see. Fortunately for this reporter (who was frankly heartbroken by the decision), Hannah and Bridget did not leave empty-handed; thanks to Ramsay’s generosity, they both received full scholarships to one of the best culinary schools in Great Britain.

 

The grand finale of MagicChef Junior will be hosted at Hogwarts on February 28 and will be covered by senior Daily Prophet correspondent Azora Blane – trust your humble reporter when he says, dear readers, that he cannot be more jealous. Take lots of pictures, Azora dear! We shall all be waiting on tenterhooks for your report.

 

The article, however short, left Harry feeling oddly chipper. The Daily Prophet had almost always been either the bearer of bad news or a thorn in Harry’s side, but for the first time in his memory, Harry actually liked what he’d read.

 

“Who wrote that?” Ron asked curiously.

 

Hermione pointed out the biography squeezed into the corner. “‘Terence Goodfellow, 23 years, Hogwarts alumnus of house Slytherin, is the winner of six Witch Weekly writing awards and the Daily Prophet’s newest junior correspondent.’”

 

“You remember Terence Higgs, right, Ron?” asked Harry. “He was the Seeker before Malfoy.”

 

A murky image of a tall boy with squinty eyes and dressed in a Slytherin Quidditch uniform swam over Ron’s mind. “Oh yeah…he was the one you beat by catching the Snitch in your mouth!”

 

“I didn’t even recognize him at first,” admitted Harry. “He’s dyed his hair blond, and he had this snake tattoo that kept slithering up and down his arm…”

 

“He and Bill would get along swimmingly, judging by his fashion sense,” said Ginny with a grin. “And if he married a Goodfellow, then he’s probably a cool bloke.”

 

“The Goodfellows own the business that creates Dungbombs,” Ron explained as a side to Harry and Hermione, who looked confused. “Fred and George work with them a lot.”

 

Hermione smiled. “Well, he seemed pretty nice…when he came over to the Gryffindor table, he stopped to congratulate Harry for becoming Quidditch captain.”

 

“Really?” said Ron incredulously.

 

“Yeah – said that he wasn’t too surprised that it happened,” added Harry with an amused grin, “since I’d ‘discovered a brand new way to catch the Snitch in my very first year.’

 

Ginny and Ron both laughed.

 

“Well, I hope the Prophet keeps him,” Ron said brightly.

 

“Me too,” agreed Harry. “They could use someone with a brain – and a sense of a humor, too…”

 

Goodfellow’s article was circulated amongst the students of Hogwarts over the next few days just as Cuffe’s editorial had been, but unlike the editorial, it felt to Harry like the discussion brightened up the whole castle. Everyone was generally more cheerful and friendly. Even Ernie Macmillan, who Hannah had been pointedly ignoring for about a week, formally apologized to Bridget for putting her down in his support of Hannah, and Bridget graciously accepted his apology. Pansy and her crew had also been noticeably sour all week – Pansy claimed that Goodfellow had completely mischaracterized what she’d said in order to make a good story, but Harry couldn’t help but feel after how she’d lied so blatantly to Rita Skeeter about Hermione two years ago, this was more than just desserts.

 

On Monday the Gryffindor Quidditch team met for their first spring practice, so that they could prepare before their match against Hufflepuff in March. Both Harry and Ron were really looked forward to it.

 

“It feels weird to actually be flying in the pitch again, and not cooking,” Ron admitted when Harry flew over toward the goal posts where Ron had positioned himself.

 

Harry nodded sympathetically. “Feels good, doesn’t it?”

 

“Yeah,” Ron agreed, as he swung his broom around to whack the Quaffle Demelza Robins had thrown in his direction out of the way.

 

Ginny caught the Quaffle. Just as she was about to throw it again, however, something caught her eye down in the stands, and she stopped.

 

“Harry!” she called over, indicating the stands with a nod of her head.

 

Harry looked down. A familiar figure with intricately braided hair and a green and silver scarf wrapped around her neck had appeared in the stands, walking down the row just below where Hermione was sitting.

 

Ron waved broadly at her. “Hey! Bridget!”

Bridget looked up; although she didn’t show her usual bright white teeth, she smiled up at Ron and waved in return.

 

“Is it okay if I watch, Potter?” she called up at Harry, quirking an eyebrow.

 

The other members of the Gryffindor team – Dean, Demelza, Jimmy Peakes, and Ritchie Coote – looked concerned; Ginny glanced at Harry, who merely shrugged offhandedly.

 

“As long as you’re not reporting back to the Slytherins!” he called back coolly.

 

Bridget gave a single, sardonic laugh as she sat down, crossing her legs. “Ha! Talk to that blood purist scum Urquhart? As if!”

 

With a wry smile, Harry turned back to his team. “Back to it, then!”

 

Practice continued as usual. Hermione tried to focus on Ron blocking Ginny and Dean’s attempted goals, but her attention kept getting drawn to Bridget sitting in front of her.

 

Her mouth contorted in a slight frown. What was she doing there? She said she wasn’t helping the Slytherin team, and Hermione thought that was probably true…so…

 

After about the third time Hermione had glanced down at Bridget, the Slytherin spoke.

 

“Something you’d like to say to me, Granger?” she asked without turning around.

 

Hermione flushed. Then, gaining a faintly huffy expression, she crossed her arms.

 

“What are you doing here?”

 

Bridget shrugged. “I thought I’d come show Ron some support, that’s all.”

 

Hermione’s eyes narrowed slightly. “‘Support?’

 

Bridget slowly turned around to look at Hermione, her black eyes glittering mischievously.

 

“…You think Ron and I have something going on behind your back, don’t you?”

 

Hermione flushed more darkly. Bridget burst out laughing.

 

“What – what’s so funny!?” Hermione snapped at her crossly.

 

Bridget slowed her laughter, but she looked no less amused.

 

“…Granger, I like girls. Always have. Didn’t think I’d have to spell that out for you to figure out I’m not chasing Ron, but I guess I do! Bloody hell…”

 

Hermione was stunned into silence; then she looked down, unable to fight her darkening blush.

 

“…Oh.”

 

Bridget smirked. “You and Ron are two of a kind, you know that? You’re both perfect morons when it comes to how you act around each other.”

 

Hermione looked away uncomfortably. “You don’t understand.”

 

“I think I do,” said Bridget. “At least a little – I’ve had crushes on friends before. Though of course they never knew it…and we had to go our separate ways, for different reasons. But I do know how hard it is…feeling the need to both shout your feelings from the rooftop and to bury them so deep that no one will ever find them.”

 

Hermione looked up at Bridget; her smile was a little gentler now. It made Hermione exhale quietly through her nose, letting her shoulders fall lax at her sides.

 

“Look,” she said at last. “I’m sorry that I was suspicious…but regardless of any…more romantic feelings I might feel for Ron…our friendship will always come first. He and Harry were my first friends – Hogwarts or otherwise – and they mean the world to me. I would never want to hurt Ron, and I’d never want anyone else to hurt him either…because as far as I’m concerned, he deserves nothing less than what he gave me – happiness…laughter…loyalty – and I’ll always protect him, no matter what…because I know he’ll always do the same for me.”

 

Bridget considered Hermione for a moment. Then her mouth spread into her distinctive, charming white smile.

 

“…I can see why Ron is smitten with you, Granger. You’re truly a brilliant woman.”

 

She put out a hand to her. “Truce?”

 

After a moment, Hermione beamed and extended her own hand to shake Bridget’s.

 

“Truce.”

Chapter Text

The week before the MagicChef finale was a little surreal to Harry. On the one hand, students were still rather frequently stopping Ron in the hallways to wish him luck in the contest; on the other, Ron hadn’t had to study up at every opportunity. He, Harry, and Hermione had even been able to hang out together by the lake or in the commonroom, chatting and catching up on homework like they used to. It felt really good to escape the thunderstorms outside by cozying up in front of the fire in the Gryffindor commonroom.

 

On Monday morning Harry, Ron, and Hermione headed down to the Great Hall and were startled to see an argument brewing at the Slytherin table. Ginny and Luna had left their respective tables and were standing just behind a seated Bridget, facing Pansy, who was standing on the other side of the table with Zabini, Tracey, Daphne, Crabbe, and Goyle. Ginny had her wand out and was pointing it angrily at Pansy – Daphne looked like she was trying to deescalate the situation, her brown eyes darting up at the teacher’s table and back.

 

“Oh no,” murmured Hermione.

 

The three strode over just in time to hear the tail end of the argument.

 

“Come on, Bridget,” Ginny said coolly, “come sit with us – listen to those sorts too long and your brain will start melting out through your ears…”

 

Bridget gave a slight smirk. Then, flashing a cold look at Pansy, she got up, and followed Ginny and Luna back to the Ravenclaw table, where they had presumably been sitting. It was as they sat down that Harry, Ron, and Hermione joined them.

 

“Bridget, are you okay?” Ron asked, his blue eyes flashing over at the Slytherin table.

 

“I’m fine,” Bridget said quietly.

 

“Pansy was talking about the Stormer’s newest article,” Luna answered coolly. “It claimed that a Muggle-born witch attacked a Pureblood Ministry employee in a fit of rage.”

 

Ron sputtered furiously. “That’s – that’s ridiculous! The Prophet would’ve said something if – ”

 

“That’s the problem,” Luna said a little more quietly, her dreamy light blue eyes oddly solemn. “The Stormer claims the Daily Prophet is deliberately keeping it quiet – and the Prophet has deliberately ignored or buried other stories before, hasn’t it?”

 

Hermione and Ron exchanged a wary look, and Harry’s stomach squirmed. Luna had a point – the Daily Prophet had a bad track record when it came to being honest. Usually the paper put out good information, but there were times where it had not fact-checked its articles enough or had simply written whatever the Ministry of Magic wanted.

 

Ginny’s brown eyes narrowed slightly as she leaned in almost protectively toward Bridget.

 

“Pansy said that it was little surprise that Muggle-borns were more violent, given that they’re descended from Muggles, who are one step up from animals,” she growled, her cheeks rose red with righteous fury. “I was ready to throw a Bat Bogey Hex at the lot of them – show them how violent I could be, in response to their crap – ”

 

“As funny as that would’ve been,” Bridget said, biting back a smile with difficulty, “it’s a good thing Daphne stopped you.”

 

“She didn’t stop me,” argued Ginny.

 

“She warned you that the teachers might see.”

 

“So? Clearly didn’t want to get hexed, now did she?”

 

And she didn’t want you to get in trouble,” Bridget said matter-of-factly. “She just couldn’t say so, being around Pansy and her lot, so she had to help in a roundabout way.”

 

“It would’ve been more useful if she’d just told Pansy to shut her face,” Ginny said stubbornly.

 

Harry laughed. Despite herself, Bridget couldn’t stop herself from grinning broadly from ear to ear, her white teeth and black eyes gleaming.

 

“Sorry, Ginny…but we Slytherins just aren’t that straight-forward.”

 

Dean Thomas came over at that moment, sliding right past Harry to get to Ginny.

 

“’Cuse me, Harry,” he said politely. He took a seat on the other side of Ginny. “There you are…I was looking for you.”

 

“What for?” asked Ginny. Her tone was unusually flat and she seemed to not want to look Dean in the eye.

 

Dean frowned deeply. “You left the commonroom early.”

 

“I had some stuff to take care of.”

 

“You could’ve waited for me – I would’ve gone with you – ”

 

“I didn’t need you to accompany me to McGonagall’s office.”

 

Suddenly feeling immensely uncomfortable, Harry glanced at Ron and Hermione. They both nodded in silent agreement.

 

“See you later, Ginny,” Ron said quickly, and the three swept away toward the Gryffindor table, leaving Bridget, Luna, Ginny, and Dean alone.

 

On Wednesday Harry and Hermione went to Apparition lessons. Unfortunately the class cost twelve Galleons each and Mr. Weasley wouldn't be paid until Thursday, so Ron had to sit out until the next one. Harry had tried to pay for Ron, but Ron had brushed him off, putting on his best smile to hide how upset he was, and left Harry and Hermione in the hallway before the class started.

 

'There's another class next week,' Ron reminded himself. 'It's okay if you miss one -- you can catch up -- '

 

The thought of the MagicChef prize money rippled through his mind. His stomach squirmed in a sick, uncomfortable sort of way.

 

'Wouldn't have to skive off on stuff, would you -- having 5000 extra Galleons just lying around...?'

 

To keep his mind off these negative thoughts, Ron decided to head down to the kitchens so he could practice. On his way down, however, he overheard voices in the hall that made him pause on the stairs.

 

“Dumbledore’s left again? Where the hell is he disappearing to, when he should be at school doing his bloody job?”

 

“Some of us have more on our plates than just classwork, Ramsay.”

 

It was Ramsay and Snape – and, to be expected, they sounded like they were on the edge of a row. Ron peeked around the corner just enough so he could see – Ramsay and Snape, for now, had a good foot between them, with Snape turned away but still speaking over his shoulder.

 

“Don’t you start with me, Snape,” growled Ramsay. “Until you actually act like a bloody teacher and teach your kids rather than pick on them, you don’t have a leg to stand on, telling me that shite!”

 

Snape sneered at Ramsay. “Ah yes, teach them – and what have you taught them as of late, Ramsay? How to sauté and fillet? Or perhaps to bury their heads in the sand – that’s a skill you’ve certainly gotten a lot of use out of – ”

 

Ramsay took out his wand, but Snape was just as fast. In an instant, he had whirled around and pointed his wand at Ramsay’s chest, just as Ramsay had pointed his wand at Snape’s.

 

“You know things are getting worse,” Snape said very softly, his black eyes incredibly cold upon Ramsay’s. “You can’t be so mindless to think the students don’t know that as well.”

 

“This is not their War,” Ramsay growled back.

 

“The Stormer has made some people wary of the Prophet, being the only one to report what happened to Wilhelm Burke,” Snape hissed. “You know as well as I how much that was the first step, last time.”

 

“Burke provoked Ida, we all know it.”

 

“Perhaps – but the only story that was put out was the Stormer’s…and even if the Daily Prophet puts out their own version later, it will only be seen as them quickly trying to cover their tracks.”

 

Ramsay’s blue eyes narrowed; his wand lowered just slightly.

 

“…That has nothing to do with the children,” he said lowly. “They need to focus on their schoolwork – anything going on in the world outside is for the Ministry to deal with.”

 

“Ah yes, the Ministry’s been so efficient in such dealings previously,” sneered Snape.

 

“Never said they were,” Ramsay shot back, “but it’s still their responsibility – they are the ones who need to step up.”

 

“As they did last time?” Snape asked coolly.

 

Ramsay’s sharp blue eyes flickered.

 

“It won’t be like it was last time,” he murmured.

 

Snape’s lip curled. “Wishful thinking.”

 

His cold black eyes flickered vaguely over Ramsay’s shoulder in the direction of the staircase. Ron quickly ducked behind the wall to avoid Snape’s gaze.

 

Snape then lowered his wand and took a step back away from Ramsay.

 

“Be wary, Ramsay,” he said coldly. “Your belief in a just world blinds you to the way things are. I’ve known other men who likewise believed in a just world, and they were just as foolishly wrong as you are.”

 

With a sweep of his billowing black robes, Snape turned and strode away down the hall.

 

Ramsay glared after him, slowly returning his wand back to the inside of his robes. Then he turned, his blue eyes running over the wall.

 

“…Come out now, whoever you are.”

 

Ron flinched. Then, very slowly, he stepped out, guilt stamped on his face.

 

Ramsay blinked. “Ron?”

 

“I’m sorry, Professor – I wasn’t trying to listen in, really,” Ron said quickly. “I was just heading down to the kitchens, since I couldn’t go to Apparition lessons, and I heard you talking and…well, I figured you wouldn’t like being interrupted.”

 

Ramsay’s expression softened.

 

“…Of course,” he said quietly. “I don’t suppose I would’ve wanted to interrupt teachers while they were talking either.”

 

He paused. Then he offered Ron a smile.

 

“…I know – why don’t you stop by my office for a cup of tea? I have some time before my next class.”

 

Despite his lingering discomfort, Ron smiled.

 

“Okay.”

 

He came down the remainder of the stairs and the two strode down the hall side by side.

 

When they reached the Potions classroom, Ramsay led Ron past the rows of desks. On his own, large cherrywood desk were several tall jars filled with some sort of silvery white grass, as well as two bottles of orangey skin-like material that Ron recognized at once.

 

“That’s boomslang skin, isn’t it?” Ron asked. He and Harry had had to help Hermione steal some of it from Snape’s storeroom in their second year.

 

“Ingredients for the seventh years’ Polyjuice class,” Ramsay explained with a nod. “I had to swing by Diagon Alley to buy the boomslang skin, but thanks to the full moon last weekend, I was able to pick the fluxweed myself…potions work so much better if you can get all the materials fresh…”

 

The two walked past Ramsay’s desk to the door at the back, which Ramsay opened to reveal his office. The room itself looked almost like a tiny studio apartment, with an enchanted window showing off the Hogwarts grounds behind his desk and a tiny yet fully equipped kitchen taking up the right-hand side. There was a cauldron set up next to the stove and a set of shelves along the opposite wall full of potion ingredients and cookbooks.

 

Ramsay shifted a picture on his desk to the side to make some more room and, once Ron was seated, he put down a plate of his Mint Chocolate Truffles on the desk between them. Ron popped one in his mouth excitedly, reveling in the flavors.

 

“How is it?” asked Ramsay.

 

“As good as Harry said they were,” Ron answered with a grin.

 

Ramsay smiled proudly. With a flick of his wand, he summoned the teakettle and poured them each a cup. Ron took a sip; when he picked up the cup, however, his eyes were drawn to the picture Ramsay had moved.

 

The photograph was of Ramsay and two women, one a short, older woman with hair and eyes the exact same color as Ramsay’s and the other slender, chestnut-haired, and very pretty. They were all talking and laughing as they sat around a table covered in large plates of food positioned next to a Christmas tree covered in blinking lights, as if they were celebrating the holidays. Ramsay’s photogenic self also kept mutely moving his mouth, and judging by the women’s reactions, the jokes he was telling were pretty awful.

 

“…Is that your family, Professor?” asked Ron.

 

Ramsay noticed Ron’s gaze and smiled, holding his cup of tea in both hands.

 

“Yes. That’s my fiancée, Tana…and my dear old mum.”

 

“They look pretty nice,” said Ron.

 

Ramsay laughed. “Trust me – they’re even nicer than they look.”

 

His blue eyes ran fondly over the picture for a moment.

 

“…Whenever my life’s gone wrong,” he said lowly, “those two have always reminded me how good things could be.”

 

Ramsay’s words brought several faces, unbidden, to Ron’s mind – Hermione’s – Harry’s – Ginny’s – his mum and dad’s – Fred and George and Charlie and Bill –

 

…Percy…

 

The image made Ron’s heart clench angrily, and he mentally shoved it away. His anger must have shown on his face, as Ramsay looked at him with some concern.

 

“Everything okay?”

 

“Yeah,” Ron said quickly.

 

It had been really hard to think about Percy. Yeah, Ron and he never really gotten on that well before the War, but that still hadn’t hurt any less when Percy cut himself out of the family. Ron remembered how much Mrs. Weasley had cried after Percy left, and he still caught her crying about it to Mr. Weasley when they thought he and Ginny couldn’t hear. She was worried about what might happen to Percy, since he was so entwined with the Ministry and was refusing to contact any of his family…and Ron couldn’t blame her, really – after all, she’d lost both of her brothers during the First War…

 

“It won’t be like it was last time.”

 

Ramsay’s words echoed back to Ron, slowly sliding his and Snape’s argument back to the front of his mind.

 

“Professor,” he said slowly, “about what you said in the hall…”

 

Ramsay’s blue eyes grew a little more solemn. Ron pressed on, despite a flicker of hesitation.

 

“…Is it true, then – that a Muggle-born attacked a Pureblood?”

 

Ramsay frowned deeply. After a short pause, he put his cup down with a soft clink.

 

“…Apparently so. We don’t know many details, since the only printed report came from the Stormer and Scrimgeour and the Ministry have been refusing to comment…but apparently there was some sort of an argument and it ended in Ida Cromwell lunging at the man and beating him up badly enough that his face was covered in black bruises.”

 

Ron’s blue eyes narrowed slightly. “So…she was probably provoked.”

 

“Yes – or she could have been under the Imperius Curse,” added Ramsay with a short nod. “Even if she hadn’t been, it could very well have been a personal dispute. But without anyone delving deeper…it’s impossible to know.”

 

“But you think she’s innocent,” Ron pointed out.

 

Ramsay leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms.

 

“I knew Ida at school,” he said lowly. “She always was very up-and-down when it came to her moods – when she was sad, she was like a dementor hovering about, and when she was happy, she was over the moon. I would not put it past her to do something reckless…but this was beyond reckless, this was dangerous. I wouldn’t have thought Ida could feel the kind of rage needed to beat someone that badly.”

 

Ramsay gave a small sigh.

 

“…But…even I must acknowledge that I haven’t spoken to Ida since we were at school…and even then, I only knew her in passing. I can’t claim any sort of deep knowledge about her character.”

 

Ron bit the inside of his lip. Ramsay leaned forward, placing his arms down on the desk.

 

“Ron, as much as I understand the temptation to worry about this, I want you to forget about it. You have the finale to think about, after all. Don’t worry about the War – there are many responsible adults around you that will ensure your safety.”

 

Ron wanted to believe Ramsay so badly…but no matter how hard he tried, he just couldn’t. Still he put on his best smile and finished his cup of tea before heading back upstairs.

Chapter Text

 

The following morning Ron told Harry and Hermione about what Ramsay had said on their way down to breakfast.

 

“As always, Ramsay’s determined to act like we should just do nothing,” Harry said scornfully.

 

“I know…I just don’t understand it,” grumbled Ron. “I mean…Ramsay’s smart – and he hates when people don’t put in the proper work…so how can he be so…okay with just sitting back and letting the Ministry handle things? And hell, he could at least give the Order its fair dues – ”

 

“If he did, then he’d have to admit Dumbledore was right to bring the Order back together,” Harry said dully. “Ramsay hates Dumbledore, remember?”

 

“True,” granted Hermione. “It’s like Dumbledore said – people find it far easier to forgive someone for being wrong than for being right. Professor Ramsay probably doesn’t want anything to do with Dumbledore, at least when it comes to the War…but Ramsay so clearly hates the Death Eaters. It’s a shame that he can’t get over whatever trouble he had with Dumbledore in the past and work together with him…”

 

Ron nodded. “I know – I mean, they clearly can work together, they’ve been judges together for a while. But when it comes to the War, Ramsay just – ”

 

He was cut off abruptly, however, when Dean abruptly shoved past him, Harry, and Hermione to catch up with Ginny, who had already started up the staircase on the far end.

 

“Ginny! Ginny, wait!”

 

Ginny, however, looked to be in no mood to talk. Her face was very red and her eyes were full of tears.

 

Ron and Harry, their faces both flashing with concern, tried to chase after them. Unfortunately Ginny was small enough that she was able to evade all three of them, and she disappeared into the crowd, leaving Dean stranded at the bottom of the stairs.

 

When Ron, Harry, and Hermione caught up with Dean, Ron whirled on him immediately, looking furious.

 

“What did you do to my sister?” he demanded.

 

“Nothing,” Dean insisted.

 

Harry noticed he looked just as upset as Ginny had been – his brown eyes were weak and almost shaky.

 

“Don’t you dare give me that,” Ron snarled, yanking his wand out of his robes and pointing it right at Dean’s face. “What did you do!?”

 

“Ron!”

 

A black hand reached up and snatched hold of Ron’s wrist. Ron looked back, to see Bridget standing beside him.

 

“Put your wand down,” she said lowly.

 

“But – ”

 

“Put it down,” Bridget repeated more firmly.

 

Ron looked at Dean – the dark-skinned boy’s eyes were filling with tears that he tried desperately to hide. Slowly and reluctantly, the youngest Weasley boy lowered his wand.

 

Dean, who was still avoiding everyone’s eyes, abruptly shoved past them and left up the stairs without a word. Bridget watched him go, her eyes unreadable.

 

“They broke up,” she explained quietly.

 

What?” said Harry, startled. “Why?”

 

Bridget’s black eyes ran over Harry’s face. For a moment Harry was almost reminded of Snape’s gaze, in how it felt like Bridget was looking right through him.

 

“…I don’t reckon that’s your business, Potter,” she said coolly.

 

What?” said Harry again, though this time more offended.

 

Bridget!” said Ron in irritation.

 

“Well, it’s not,” said Bridget, her tone bluntly straightforward. “I don’t think it’s anyone’s business except for Ginny and Dean’s.”

 

She turned and started heading up the stairs, her patched green schoolbag flopping against her shoulder as she went.

 

“It most certainly is my business!” Ron called half-heartedly after her. “I’m her brother!”

 

“Bridget’s right,” said Hermione firmly. Harry and Ron both tried to argue, but she cut them off. “Ginny wouldn’t want you two to butt in and you know it.”

 

The two boys deflated visibly. As much as they hated to admit it, Ginny probably would be just as angry if not angrier with them if they “tried to defend her honor.”

 

Hermione gave them both sympathetic looks. “Come on…let’s get some breakfast.”

 


 

 

No one saw Ginny or Dean for the rest of Thursday. Most agreed they were likely avoiding everyone else just as much as they were each other. A few times Ron grumbled to himself that when he saw Dean again, he’d hex him into next week, but Hermione stepped in each time to remind him to stay out of it. Harry couldn’t help but feel similarly to Ron – he kept mentally conjuring up terrible scenarios of what Ginny and Dean’s argument must’ve been like, some with Dean hitting Ginny and others with the two of them yelling so loudly that their heads swelled up to ridiculous sizes in Harry’s mind’s eye.

 

Clearly the argument had not been so theatrical, however, judging by how just about everyone was gossiping about Ginny and Dean’s break-up and yet no one seemed to know how it had happened or why they had done so. All anyone seemed to know was that Ginny and Bridget had been talking in the Great Hall, Dean had come up to talk to Ginny, and the argument had both been very quiet and finished within the span of a few minutes. At one point a few Gryffindor students had tried cornering Bridget so they could interrogate her about it, but Hannah and Ernie Macmillan had both swooped down on the group within minutes and docked Gryffindor five points.

 

“I don’t care what your reasoning was, harassment is harassment,” Ernie scolded them pompously. “And if we see you do it again, we’ll make it twenty.”

 

Hannah nodded, her brown eyes very reproachful. “Now run along – I’m sure you have classes to get to.”

 

Despite his irritation about the event, Ron had to force his concern about Ginny away for a short while. The finale was on Friday and he needed to be ready, so he spent the rest of the day reading cookbooks and practicing in the kitchens. Fortunately Astoria had come to the same conclusion, and she ended up being pretty good company in the library and the kitchens. She had borrowed a lot of helpful cookbooks from Arjuna and quickly decided that the best way to practice for the finale was to pretend to cook a Christmas dinner, so as to work on all of the usual dishes they might be asked to make – appetizers, entrees, sides, desserts, and even drinks.

 

“I was talking with Kevin the other day,” she told Ron as she checked on both her and Ron’s pies in the oven, “and he mentioned that he’d like to start a formal cooking club. That way we can still meet up and cook together, even after the contest’s over…”

 

“That’d be awesome,” said Ron brightly as he mixed the dough for his raisin bread. “I mean, I’ll have to do it around Quidditch, of course…”

 

“Cho will have to as well, I suppose,” Astoria said thoughtfully as she returned to the fresh pumpkin juice she was making. “And I know Owen’s in the Gobstones Club…but we can negotiate the schedule, so it doesn’t conflict.”

Ron smiled. “It’s kind of weird, you know? To think, it’s almost all over…”

 

“Yeah…” Astoria smiled absently. “Yet it feels like forever ago since we started…I mean…at the beginning of the competition, I didn’t know anything about any of you, except maybe that you were Gryffindor Keeper and Cho was Ravenclaw Seeker…”

 

“And now we’re friends,” Ron said with a grin.

 

Astoria smiled a little more fully, her light blue eyes sparkling a little as she nodded.

 

That evening, Ron rejoined Harry and Hermione in the Great Hall and they enjoyed the feast together, trying not to think about how Ginny was nowhere to be seen. Several more students came up to wish Ron luck, including Cho and Hannah, who each gave Ron a big hug.

 

“I’ll be waving a Ravenclaw banner tomorrow, of course,” Cho said with a smile, “but I know you’ll do well, Ron – you always do.”

 

Ron smiled. “Thanks.”

 

Cho at one point glanced at Harry, but both of them seemed to silently agree that there was nothing they wanted to say to each other, so Cho merely waved to Ron and returned to the Ravenclaw table.

 

When the feast was over, Ron went up to bed nice and early so that he’d be well rested. Harry, on the other hand, was not sleeping well. As Ron snored, he lay awake in bed, watching Ginny’s dot on the Marauder’s Map.

 

She’d been hanging out at the Astronomy Tower almost all day and was only just now heading downstairs…probably so that she could head up the right set of stairs toward Gryffindor Tower. Harry fancied the idea of waiting down in the commonroom for her…maybe to ask her himself if she was okay, and what had happened…

 

Then a dot with a familiar name crossed quickly past Ginny’s in the drawn hallway.

 

Draco Malfoy.

 

Harry straightened up in bed.

 

Malfoy’s dot was moving very fast – like he was running. Why was he running…and where to?

 

Malfoy’s dot swept across the Map and down the stairs toward the dungeons.

 

Harry relaxed visibly – the Slytherin commonroom was down in the dungeons. He probably was just making sure he wasn’t caught out of bed after hours –

 

Wait.

 

Malfoy wasn’t running to the Slytherin commonroom. To get to the Slytherin commonroom, you had to turn right down the stairs – Harry remembered Ron and he had to turn right when they followed Malfoy down the hall in disguise as Crabbe and Goyle in second year. But Malfoy had gone to the left

 

‘He’s heading for the kitchens,’ Harry realized.

 

He was right. Malfoy was heading straight for the room marked “Hogwarts Kitchens,” where one other lone dot was moving.

 

Bridget Jaheem.

 

Feeling a flash of concern, Harry reached instinctively for his Invisibility Cloak. As soon as he did, though, he hesitated.

 

He’d focused so much on Malfoy earlier that year – he’d almost lost both Ron and Hermione’s friendships over it…

 

His hand clenched over his Cloak.

 

This was serious, though. Malfoy hated Muggle-borns, and Bridget had had her fair share of bullying in the last month already for her ancestry. Ron would’ve wanted to make sure Bridget was okay, if he was in Harry’s position – but there was no point in waking him up, when he had to worry about the contest tomorrow…

 

He wouldn’t tell Ron, Harry decided. He’d just make sure Bridget was okay.

 

So Harry swept his Cloak on, snatched his wand off his side table, and left the dorm, barreling down toward the kitchens as fast as he could with the Map in hand.

 

‘Stay there – stay there,’ Harry thought desperately as he watched Malfoy’s dot enter the kitchen slowly. ‘Don’t do anything until I get there – ’

 

He dodged several ghosts as well as Filch the caretaker and dashed down the stairs to the main level as quickly as he could without letting anyone hear him. When he reached the base of the stairs, Harry checked the Map – Malfoy’s dot had just collided with Bridget’s.

 

Panic-stricken, Harry picked up his pace, dashing freely down the thankfully empty hallway. It felt so long that even though Harry knew he was moving quickly, every minute felt like an eternity. He swung himself around corners, hurrying toward the stairs that led to the dungeons.

 

Bridget and Malfoy’s dots were on top of each other on the Map – were they arguing? Was Malfoy threatening her?

 

When he finally reached the stairs, Harry nearly jumped down them. He landed at the base of the stairs and ran down the hall. Finally Harry caught sight of the portrait of the pear that led to the kitchens. He skidded to a halt, scaring some student’s white cat that had been prowling behind a suit of armor.

 

The portrait was already open, with Bridget standing just outside. To Harry’s surprise and relief, however, she looked perfectly unharmed – in fact, she looked almost pleasant as she brushed some white cat fur off of her black skirt and headed back into the kitchens, the portrait swinging shut behind her.

 

Panting heavily, Harry returned his gaze to the Map. Malfoy had just arrived at the part of the hallway just outside the Slytherin commonroom.

 

‘Did she…not see him?’ Harry wondered to himself. ‘Or…did he just not do anything?’

 

Both options seemed highly unlikely…but, despite his misgivings, Harry slowly turned and headed back upstairs.

 

‘Don’t worry about it,’ he scolded himself. ‘Ron needs your attention, your focus – don’t worry about Malfoy and whatever stupid stuff he’s up to…it’s probably nothing…nothing…’

 

But Harry couldn’t help it. No matter how much he bottled them up and how much he knew he’d never tell Ron or Hermione about them…he still couldn’t fully force the thoughts about Malfoy’s shady behavior from his mind.

Chapter Text

At long last, the day of the MagicChef Junior finale arrived. It was a perfectly sunny Friday, and Harry could feel the school’s enthusiasm rippling through the air. When he, Ron, and Hermione left the Gryffindor commonroom that morning, countless people stopped them on their way down to the Great Hall, shaking Ron’s hand and wishing him luck before the final round.

 

 

When they reached the Hall, they noticed that Luna had come to sit at the Gryffindor table, wearing her old lion hat with a new eagle topper that occasionally flapped its wings.

 

‘She must not have been able to decide whether to support Ravenclaw or Ron,’ Harry surmised with a grin, ‘so she chose both.’

 

Sitting next to Luna at the Gryffindor table was Neville, who couldn’t stop glancing up at Luna’s hat amusedly, and Ginny.

 

The trio immediately bustled over.

 

“Hey, Ginny,” said Harry.

 

Ginny offered him a smile, though she looked a touch pale. “Hi, Harry.”

 

“Are you okay?” Ron said at once. “Did Dean do anything to you, ‘cause if he did, I – ow!”

 

Hermione elbowed Ron pointedly in the side, shooting him a reproachful look. Ginny frowned.

 

“I’m just fine, thanks,” she said coolly. “And Dean didn’t do anything, except maybe be a pushy git – so all anyone has to do is not be one of those, and there won’t be a problem.”

 

Ron winced as Ginny turned away. Despite the lack of anger or sorrow on her face, her bad mood still clung to her like a gray storm cloud. Harry recognized the body language immediately – he’d gotten like that sometimes the previous year, when he was feeling sorry for himself…and he really didn’t like the look on Ginny.

 

“Ginny…” Harry started uncomfortably.

 

Before he could finish, however, a brown tawny owl abruptly landed on Ginny’s plate. It stuck out its leg to show off a package wrapped in red wrapping paper and tied with a shiny purple bow.

 

Ginny blinked. Then, after a second, she recovered enough to take the package off the owl’s leg and read the note on top.

 

“Who’s it from?” asked Harry.

 

“Dunno – there’s no name,” Ginny said with a frown, glancing at Harry out the corner of her eye confusedly before reading the note aloud. “‘Whenever you smile, roses burst into bloom. Keep that brave smile on; I know you’ll find the right one someday.’

 

She then opened the package – inside were a cluster of cake pops molded into the shape of red roses and tied together with a purple ribbon.

 

“Oh, how lovely!” said Hermione.

 

“Must be a secret admirer,” Luna commented dreamily, “unless there are any thumb-kissing selpucks hiding in the rafters – ”

 

“Even if there were, I doubt they’d use owls,” said Neville with a grin. 

 

Harry’s stomach twitched uncomfortably as Ginny’s brown eyes ran over the fake bouquet. Ron picked out one of the “roses” and sniffed it suspiciously.

 

“Red velvet,” he said lowly, and his mouth upturned in something of a mischievous smile. “Could be poison, though. As prefect, I’m afraid I’ll have to confiscate the lot – you know, for security purposes – ”

 

“In your dreams!” scoffed Ginny, giving Ron a good smack on the back of the head as Neville and Hermione laughed.

 

Despite Ginny’s words, her familiar, gorgeous smile was already winding itself back onto her face as she took the cake pop back from Ron and returned it to the box with the others.

 

“…Well, whoever sent them, they’re quite pretty,” she said offhandedly, her smile brightening up her face significantly. “Though it makes no sense to eat one for breakfast – I think I’ll drop them off in the dorm and have one after lunch.”

 

Ginny was noticeably more chipper during the rest of breakfast. Harry was glad to see she was feeling better, though a tiny part of himself wished that it had been because of something he’d said or done, rather than the work of some secret admirer. That mean-spirited wish felt like an unpleasant thorn in Harry’s side, and he forced it out of his mind as much as he could, hating himself for even thinking it.

 

‘If Ginny’s happy, that’s the important thing,’ he told himself forcefully.

 

Fortunately seeing Ginny’s cheerful, flushed face and being reminded of a gorgeous sunrise made it easier for Harry to push his more negative thoughts away.

 


 

 

After breakfast, Harry, Ron, and Hermione headed down to Potions with Professor Ramsay. The class centered on antidotes, which were complicated even by Potions’ standards.

 

“To create an antidote properly,” explained Ramsay, “one needs to reverse-brew the recipe for the original potion – providing for the irregularities in temperature and the placement of the planets – and must counteract any and all after-effects with additional ingredients.”

 

Just about nobody could get the hang of it except Hermione, who won Gryffindor twenty points for knowing what ingredients could best counteract the Draught of the Living Death. Ramsay then placed a series of antidotes on the table at the end of class and had everyone come up and pick one to do an essay about, which would be due the following week. Harry was one of the last students to reach Ramsay’s desk, and all that was left was a short bottle labeled “Hair-Renewing Potion” and a cluster of reddish stones, which everyone seemed to have bypassed. It took Harry a second, but once he realized what the stones were, he picked one out, tucking it into his pocket.

 

“Well, great,” sighed Ron, “now that the contest’s almost over, I’ll actually have to do Ramsay’s essay – and of course it’s a bloody mad one…”

 

“You and Harry will just have to study up,” Hermione said smugly, “since the Half-Blood Prince didn’t seem to be of much help this time…”

 

Harry shot Hermione a sour look.

 

At noon, Ron bid Harry and Hermione goodbye and headed down to the dungeons to meet with Astoria and the judges, fending off more wishes of good luck as he went. After lunch, however, Professor McGonagall came by the Gryffindor table to speak to them.

 

“Potter, Miss Granger, Miss Weasley…I’ll need you to come with me, please.”

 

Harry and Ginny exchanged a surprised look; then they and Hermione obediently rose to their feet and followed McGonagall out of the Great Hall.

 

“Professor,” said Harry, “is something wrong? Is Vol – ”

 

“Nothing’s wrong, Potter,” McGonagall said calmly, as she brusquely escorted them up the stairs. “You three are simply needed in the Headmaster’s office.”

 

“Why?” asked Ginny.

 

They stopped in front of Dumbledore’s office; McGonagall glanced back at them, a ghost of a smile touching her face, before she turned back to the gargoyle guarding the doorway.

 

“Turkish delight.”

 

The gargoyle hopped aside, and she led the three into the office. Almost as soon as they entered the room, there was a loud, joyful squeal, and suddenly a round, ginger-haired woman had leapt forward out of her seat and lunged at Harry and Hermione, wrapping her arms around both of them in a squeezing hug.

 

“M-Mrs. Weasley!?” choked Harry.

 

Harry! Hermione!” squealed Mrs. Weasley gleefully. “Oh, Minerva, thank you for bringing them too – Ron will be so excited – ”

 

“It was my pleasure,” McGonagall said with a dewy smile.

 

Ginny looked from McGonagall to her mother in surprise. “Wait, so – it’s not about the War, it’s about Ron?”

 

Mr. Weasley nodded, smiling broadly.

 

“Professor Dumbledore asked Gryffindor and Ravenclaw’s head of houses to arrange for their finalists’ families to sit in a front box during the finale…so that we can support Astoria and Ron when they compete.”

 

Mrs. Weasley released Harry and Hermione and the two shakily steadied themselves. Once they had regained their center of balance, they looked up to see Fred, George, Bill, Fleur, and Charlie were also there. Fred and George had planted themselves on top of Dumbledore’s desk, their legs dangling off the edge like they were kids, while Charlie was leaning his back up against the wall and Bill was sitting in a comfy chair with Fleur in his lap. Sitting beside Dumbledore’s desk in a set of delicate white chairs were Professor Flitwick, Daphne Greengrass, and a witch and a wizard who had to be Daphne and Astoria’s parents.

 

Daphne clearly followed more in her parents’ footsteps than Astoria did, judging by their crisply tailored dress robes and their prim postures. Both of them had brown hair like their daughters, though Mr. Greengrass had unreadable brown eyes and olive skin, while Mrs. Greengrass was paler and had sharp eyes that were the same shade of blue as Astoria’s. Mr. Greengrass had a neatly trimmed beard and a curled-up mustache and Mrs. Greengrass had styled her hair in an intricate up-do with about thirty pearl-encrusted hairpins. It gave them a pretentious air that reminded Harry immediately and unpleasantly of the Malfoys.

 

“But – ” Hermione said hesitantly, glancing from Mr. Weasley to Mrs. Weasley, “but Harry and I aren’t family – that space should be for you – ”

 

Nonsense, dear,” Mrs. Weasley said kindly. “Why, after all the times you and Harry have visited us, all these years…you both are more than family, to us.”

 

Harry couldn’t keep himself from smiling. Mrs. Weasley brought a hand through his dark hair and patted his cheek fondly.

 

“And besides,” she said brightly, “I know Ron will be beyond thrilled to have you both there, cheering him on! Just imagine – my little Ronnie, about to win a contest hosted by Gordon Ramsay!”

 

Harry did not miss the unmistakable flash in both Mr. and Mrs. Greengrass’s eyes in response to Mrs. Weasley’s words. They did not, however, verbally respond, instead choosing to merely stew in cold silence, but Harry still felt as though the temperature in the room had suddenly dropped a few degrees.

 


 

 

About an hour later, the Greengrasses and the Weasleys plus Harry and Hermione headed out to the Quidditch Pitch. As they strolled up the field to their two front boxes, Harry flinched in response to the white flashes that rippled over them. Glancing to his right, he noticed a familiar blue-haired reporter with cat’s eye glasses scribbling on a piece of parchment while her partner, a shorter man with curly ginger hair and an overbite, snapped away with his camera.

 

Noticing Harry’s disdainful gaze toward the reporters, Ginny took hold of his arm and pulled him along after her.

 

“Don’t worry about them,” she reassured him. “People like that are like mountain trolls, I reckon – ignore them, and their tiny brains will get diverted elsewhere.”

 

Harry laughed.

 

They settled down in the left of the two front boxes; Harry sat between Mr. Weasley and Charlie, just behind the shorter Hermione, Ginny, and Mrs. Weasley. The stands nearby were also slowly filling up with student spectators, many of whom were carrying banners. Ravenclaw’s stands were a sea of blue “Astoria is our Ace” banners, while red “Weasley is our King” banners had taken over Gryffindor’s. Slytherin and Hufflepuff were a little more evenly split, but by and large it looked like Hufflepuff was mostly red and Slytherin was mostly blue.

 

‘How many of those Slytherins are only supporting Astoria because she doesn’t come from a family of “blood traitors?”’ Harry couldn’t help but think scornfully.

 

Finally the four judges – Ramsay, Dumbledore, Slughorn, and Bagnold – strolled out onto the field. Dumbledore, Slughorn, and Bagnold had all dressed in their school colors, but Ramsay, predictable to form, was still dressed in chef-worthy white.

 

“Welcome,” proclaimed Dumbledore. “Welcome, one and all…to the grand finale of MagicChef Junior!”

 

The stands roared with applause and the reporter’s camera flashed wildly. Dumbledore eased the crowd into silence by merely holding up a hand and slowly lowering it.

 

“May I introduce our two finalists – first we have an innovative young wizard who has time and again come up from behind to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat…from Gryffindor house…Ron Weasley!”

 

Everyone cheered as Ron dashed out from under the stands onto the field. He stopped in front of Dumbledore and looked up at the stands, his face spread into a huge grin.

 

“GO, RON!” screamed Charlie, his hands cupped around his mouth like a megaphone.

 

Ron turned, recognizing the voice, and his eyes landed on his family in the left front box. Harry immediately started singing “Weasley is Our King,” and Ginny, Hermione, Fred, and George quickly jumped in, singing even louder and more off-key than Harry, much to Fleur’s disapproval.

 

Ron flushed scarlet, his blue eyes shining excitedly.

 

“Hi, Mum!” he called even though he couldn’t be heard over all the cheering, waving broadly at them. “Hi, Dad – you guys!”

 

Mrs. Weasley was as red as Ron, and her eyes flooded with tears as she waved back, squeezing her husband’s hand in a deadly vice grip with the other.

 

“Second,” said Dumbledore, once again quieting the crowd with little effort, “we have a brilliant young witch who in every round has shown the heart needed to learn, lead, and win…from Ravenclaw house…Astoria Greengrass!”

 

Astoria dashed out onto the field after Ron, stopping next to him. As she turned toward the crowd, she looked less excited than Ron, but it was clear that it was more due to her dislike of the spotlight than anything else. Her blue eyes sparkled as she looked over the Ravenclaw stands, as if she was hoping to see one particular face more than any other. When she noticed her family sitting mutely in the right front box, she seemed less encouraged than Ron had been – her smile faded momentarily at the sight of her parents, and she pointedly looked away back up at the stands.

 

Ron took a covert side step closer to Astoria.

 

“You okay?” he whispered.

 

Astoria kept her eyes on the stands as she nodded.

 

“Yeah – I never wanted or needed their approval anyhow,” she said quietly. “If I win, then I’m getting out of their house – and nothing they say will stop me.”

 

Ron glanced over at the Greengrasses, his eyes narrowing slightly.

 

“…Just looking at your parents, I don’t blame you. I reckon Daphne’s probably itching to fly the coop too, eh?”

 

Astoria snorted dismissively as Bagnold faced the crowd.

 

“Today, for our final challenge, our two finalists will have to make us a formal five-course meal, complete with their best dishes! The only rules are that each course – soup, appetizer, salad, main course, and dessert – must be filled, but other than that, any kind of food goes!”

 

“You will only have 90 minutes to complete your five-course meal,” said Ramsay. “Your time starts…now!”

 

It was amazing how frenzied 90 minutes could be. Astoria and Ron raced to their stations, met up with their house elf partners Poppy and Dobby, and got to work, hurriedly putting together their menus for the judges. For everything that needed to be done, an hour and a half was not nearly enough time – Ron had to prepare the crusts for his miniature honey-baked ham meat pies while also mixing together a shallots vinaigrette for his roasted pepper salad, checking on his oysters bouillabaisse, and regularly stirring his Potato soup on the opposite stove.

 

Then, right in the middle of everything, Slughorn stepped forward in front of the workstations and addressed the crowd.

 

“Halt the clock!”

 

The giant clock that had been projected onto the stands abruptly froze with 60 minutes remaining. Both Ron and Astoria looked up at Slughorn, who was beaming.

 

“Every chef, when in the industry, has to deal with sudden changes,” he said jovially, “so we judges have a little present for you.”

 

With a wave of his wand, he summoned two tall, green glass bottles from the judges’ table, plopping them down on the countertops at Ron and Astoria’s stations.

 

“We have bought you two bottles of the finest elf-made rum, shipped specially from Budapest,” said Slughorn, “which you will have to incorporate in one of your five courses. And don’t think simply putting it in a glass on the side will do,” he added with a waggle of his finger when the crowd gave a shocked gasp, “we want to taste that flavor in the dish you present to us!”

 

He tucked his wand back into his robes and strolled back to the judges’ table with a flourish of his hand.

 

“As you were, clock!”

 

The clock started counting down again.

 

Ron quickly examined the bottle, reading the label carefully.

 

‘Elf-made – pot still – what flavors go with rum?’

 

His blue eyes fell on the unfinished treacle tart he’d been making for his dessert, and they lit up.

 

Treacle could work – he could just modify his mother’s old recipe, like he had for her cream pie –

 

Ron immediately dumped out the treacle filling he’d been working on and started again, adding the lemon juice and zest, treacle syrup, cream, and breadcrumbs and then slowly mixing in the rum. When he thought it looked about right, he grabbed a spoon and gave the filling a taste – it was great!

 

With a big grin, he put the treacle tart down on the stove for a moment and returned to his miniature meat pies.

 

‘I’ll have to put them in together, for them to finish around the same time,’ he thought, ‘so better catch up with these first…’

 

He hurried to finish the honey-baked ham pies while still keeping an eye on both his soup and his bouillabaisse, lining the tiny pastries up in a row on a cookie sheet.

 

“45 minutes left!” called Ramsay’s voice in the distance.

 

‘Better get the tart and the pies in right now,’ Ron thought anxiously. ‘The pies will need 35 minutes to bake – ’

 

He wiped his brow, which was doused with sweat. The heat in the kitchen was incredible. It was dizzying and sickening, to the extent that it could make one feel ill…but, Ron supposed, with two burners and the oven going simultaneously, it was little wonder that his station felt like Hell itself.

 

Ron picked up the cookie sheet with the meat pies and headed for the oven. He blinked the sweat out of his eyes as he opened the oven door and slid the cookie sheet in.

 

“Master Weasley?” said Dobby suddenly – Ron had almost forgotten he was there. “Are you all right?”

 

“Yeah,” said Ron distractedly.

 

What did he need now? Oh right, the tart! Ron picked it up, but as soon as he bent down, he suddenly felt a bizarre burst of pain surge through his stomach.

 

Ulk!”

 

Ron hunched in on himself, trying to keep himself from dropping the tart.

 

“Master Weasley!”

 

Dobby darted over, clutching Ron’s arm with his knobbly hands.

 

“Master Weasley, are you all right?”

 

“I – feel sick – ”

 

A barrage of painful, multicolored lights were attacking his eyes, blinding him. Ron fell to the ground, and he heard a clang next to him that had to belong to the treacle tart’s pan.

 

Master Weasley!”

 

The kitchen was spinning – the world was spinning – Ron couldn’t see anything, no matter how hard he tried to blink the lights away. His mouth felt dry and numb – he felt his own saliva dribbling down his shirt, as if it had completely bypassed his lips.

 

“Ron?!”

 

A familiar voice echoed over him – a female one – Astoria’s? Ron tried to say something, but it felt like he couldn’t move his mouth – even though he knew he was opening and closing it, he didn’t feel any of the muscles move –

 

“Ron!”

 

Ron!”

 

More voices started screaming his name, though Ron couldn’t pick out whose they were. So hot – so cold – the tips of his fingers felt like they were on fire – his throat was burning – yet he kept shivering, unable to shake the horrible chills scraping down his spine –

 

Someone was screaming and crying hysterically. A pair of strong, rough hands grabbed onto Ron, clutching his shoulders and trying to hold him up.

 

“Get me my bag! NOW!”

 

Ron couldn’t feel his legs – he tried shaking them, shaking his arms, everything – they shot out in unpleasant, frenzied lashes – and with every shudder, they started to numb – like they were disappearing –

 

Ron!” a voice echoed, somewhere far, far away. “Take this, Ron – eat it!”

 

Another hand clutched the back of Ron’s head, supporting it as the other forced something down his throat. He choked, trying to dislodge it, but the hands clamped his mouth shut –

 

“Come on, Ron, swallow!”

 

He couldn’t breathe – the foreign object was blocking his breath – he had to swallow the thing, just to get it out of his windpipe –

 

All at once, the hot, cold, numbing, frenzied horror halted. Still blinded and unable to hear a thing, Ron collapsed, his mind going black.

 

Chapter Text

Ron was taken to St. Mungo’s immediately for poisoning. Madame Pomfrey said that because he had not been treated within the first minute of ingesting the poison, it had filtered into Ron’s veins, making it impossible for her to treat it on her own. The only reassurance she could give Mr. and Mrs. Weasley was that Ron could not have ingested that much – if he’d had any more than a milligram of the stuff, his body would’ve shown symptoms much sooner.

 

As Ron was taken away on a stretcher with the Weasleys following behind, Dumbledore brought an arm around Harry and escorted him, Hermione, and Astoria off the field. Harry was so numb and terrified that he didn’t even realize that the flashes of light flickering over his eyes belonged to the Daily Prophet reporter’s camera.

 

The three were brought up to Dumbledore’s office to wait while the judges sorted everything out downstairs. Dobby brought them some hot chocolate, but none of them could bring themselves to drink it. Astoria was very pale as her blue eyes drifted aimlessly around the room, unable to focus on anything. Hermione was hunched up in the armchair by the fire, clutching at her sleeves and crying quietly. Harry sat on the floor, hugging his knees tightly.

 

If he hadn’t remembered the Prince’s scribbled note about bezoars in the antidotes chapter of his book and taken one from Ramsay’s desk that day, Ron would’ve died out there on the field. What was happening to him now, at St. Mungo’s? Had Harry given him the bezoar in time? Would it…not be enough…?

 

Images of Ron saving goals during their last Quidditch practice, flushing from head to toe at the sight of them…offering him corned beef sandwiches on the Hogwarts Express…all flickered through his mind.

 

‘He’ll live,’ Harry reproached himself, closing his eyes fiercely to block out the flood of tears. ‘He’ll live, damn it – he’ll live.’

 

Harry had no idea what he’d do if he didn’t…

 

A set of footsteps quietly entered the room. Harry abruptly opened his eyes and looked up – Dumbledore had returned.

 

Harry, Hermione, and Astoria all shot to their feet.

 

“What happened?” Harry asked at once. “Is Ron – ?”

 

“He's resting at St. Mungo’s,” Dumbledore said calmly. “He’s still unconscious, and the poison has caused some damage to his spinal cord…but the Healers say that he’ll be all right.”

 

Both Astoria and Harry exhaled. Hermione burst into tears of relief, covering her face with both hands.

 

“What was it, Professor?” asked Astoria urgently. “What was poisoned? Why didn’t…?”

 

“The rum we assigned you was, unbeknownst to us, laced with a deadly mix of hemlock and aconite,” Dumbledore explained. “Judging by the broken seal around the bottles...it seems that after we purchased them and put them in storage, someone opened the bottles, added the poison, and then resealed them without anyone noticing. We found the same poison in the rum filling you were mixing at your station, Astoria.”

 

Harry glanced at Astoria out the corner of his eye – she had gone very pale.

 

“Chocolate liqueur lava cakes are one of Daphne’s favorite desserts,” she mumbled, looking ashamed. “We’ve substituted rum before when there wasn’t any liqueur in the house, so I didn’t have to taste-test it the way Ron would’ve had to for his…”

 

“Do you know who could’ve done it, Professor?” asked Harry.

 

Dumbledore peered at him solemnly over his half-moon spectacles.

 

“The house elves stored the rum in the kitchens for safe keeping,” he said quietly. “We questioned them about the kitchen’s visitors…and they informed us that there was only one person down in the kitchens that night – Bridget Jaheem.”

 

All three students looked horrified. Harry felt his stomach crumple up in his chest.

 

No – that hadn’t been the only person there that night. The Marauder’s Map had said so, hadn’t it? He’d shoved it off, thinking that it must’ve been a mistake – he hadn’t wanted to worry about it, because he knew no one would believe him, but –

 

“No,” Harry said forcefully.

 

Everyone turned to look at him.

 

“Bridget didn’t do it,” he repeated firmly. “She would never have hurt Ron.”

 

Astoria nodded in passionate agreement. “She wouldn’t have done it, Professor – it’s not in her character – ”

 

Dumbledore held up a hand to stop them.

 

“I agree…but despite her clear distress, I must confess that Bridget was not forthcoming in her explanation. She told us that she was merely making a present for someone, but when pressed would not name the recipient of the gift.”

 

Astoria and Harry exchanged a look of confusion; Hermione’s eyes widened in realization.

 

“With her lack of cooperation…there are many who will not believe her story,” Dumbledore said gravely, “even though Professor Ramsay, Horace, Millicent, and I all agreed that she is not responsible.”

 

Harry was at a loss. Hermione, however, was not. She puffed out her cheeks angrily, which made her rather resemble an overconfident puffer-fish.

 

“Well, damn those people, then!” she said forcefully. “Bridget wouldn’t have done it, and logically speaking, she couldn’t have! How would she have even known about the rum in the first place? You decided to add it to the challenge in a closed-door meeting, right – like you did with the other rounds? And no one else knew about the surprise before it happened! Bridget couldn’t have known!”

 

The level of passion in Hermione’s voice surprised Harry.

 

Dumbledore smiled. “One can only hope that everyone is as astute as you, Miss Granger.”

 

Astoria looked from Hermione to up at the Headmaster.

 

“But…why, Professor?” she whispered. “Why was the rum poisoned in the first place? It couldn’t have been meant for Ron…”

 

Dumbledore exhaled quietly. “That, I’m afraid…we cannot know.”

 

“Professor,” Harry said sharply, “the necklace Katie was carrying was supposed to be brought up to the school – to y – ”

 

But Dumbledore silenced him with a look.

 

“I will ask that all of you refrain from theories until after the culprit is caught,” he said solemnly. “No doubt your classmates will develop plenty of them in the meantime…but they are not worth your time or attention, at present.”

 

Hermione and Harry exchanged a concerned look. Astoria’s blue eyes widened in dismayed confusion, drifting from Harry to Dumbledore and back.

 

“Now then,” Dumbledore said quietly, “Astoria…your family is waiting outside; they wished to see you. Harry…Hermione…Molly requested you at St. Mungo’s – you may use my fireplace.”

 

Astoria glanced briefly at Harry and Hermione, her mouth opening as if to say something, but the words seemed to stall on her lips. Her light blue eyes rippling sadly, she inclined her head respectfully to them, before turning and leaving Dumbledore’s office.

 

‘What could I even say, anyway?’ she thought to herself. ‘They’re Ron’s best friends – they’ll take care of him, so there’s no point in me asking them to do so. Plus they’re probably worried enough as it is…’

 

As the gargoyle leapt aside, Astoria’s stomach clenched anxiously. Just as she anticipated, Mr. and Mrs. Greengrass and Daphne were waiting outside for her, their posture prim and proper as ever. When they saw her, Mr. and Mrs. Greengrass immediately stiffened like startled cats. Daphne stepped out from behind them and stopped a good foot in front of her sister. 

 

“Are you all right?” she asked.

 

Her tone was much too hard to be considered caring and her face, however pale, was unreadable…but Astoria noted how Daphne’s eyes ran over her face for any sign of injury.

 

“…Yes,” Astoria said lowly. “Ron’s been sent to St. Mungo’s, but the Healers say he’ll recover.”

 

“Did the Headmaster perhaps mention whether or not they’ve discovered the culprit?” Mr. Greengrass asked. There was an unmistakable sneer in his voice at the mention of Dumbledore.

 

Astoria’s eyes narrowed. “He said they hadn’t yet, but they’re investigating it.”

 

Mrs. Greengrass gave a low scoff.

 

“As to be expected, Dumbledore shows his incompetence in protecting the children assigned to him…it’s a shame Lucius was discovered with the Death Eaters, he showed more concern for the children of Hogwarts as a school governor than Dumbledore has in his entire tenure – ”

 

“Hard to show concern for students when he tried to kill a handful of them at the Ministry of Magic,” Astoria shot back coldly.

 

Mrs. Greengrass whirled on her daughter, her blue eyes widening dangerously, but Mr. Greengrass stepped between them.

 

“Mind your words, Theia,” he murmured to his wife soothingly. “Remember where we are…and that Astoria’s emotions are understandably temperamental, given what she just witnessed…”

 

Mr. Greengrass’s brown eyes narrowed upon Astoria.

 

“…She knows full well that her mother simply feared for her safety.”

 

Astoria’s blue eyes flashed. “If she did, she has a funny way of showing it.”

 

Daphne shot Astoria a reproachful glare around her father’s arm, which Astoria ignored.

 

“We have told you many times, Astoria, of the value of keeping your emotions contained,” Mr. Greengrass said solemnly. “And in our present world, that advice has more value than ever.”

 

Astoria crossed her arms and looked away.

 

“Astoria, you will look at me when I’m speaking to you,” Mr. Greengrass said sharply, making her look up at him.

 

His eyes were cold, but there was something flickering in the back – was it anxiety?

 

“This compassion you feel for lesser witches and wizards,” he murmured, “you must bury it deep – do you understand?”

 

Astoria opened her mouth angrily, but her father cut her off by taking hold of her arm and pulling her closer.

 

“The Dark Lord is rising,” he whispered, his tone even quieter than before and betraying some concern. “There are rumors that he is trying to infiltrate the Ministry – they won’t publish anything about it in the Prophet, so I doubt they’ve reached you here – but everyone who works in the Ministry is well aware of them. If the rumors are true, then anyone who sympathizes with Dumbledore and his pro-Muggle leanings could be considered an enemy – ”

 

“Good,” spat Astoria. “I would never want to be seen as an ally of theirs anyway.”

 

Mr. Greengrass’s eyes flashed with a bizarre mix of rage and terror; his grip tightened sharply on his daughter’s arm and he shook her once.

 

Antony!”

 

Mrs. Greengrass grabbed onto her husband’s shoulder. The grip immediately made Mr. Greengrass’s hold on Astoria slacken – Astoria stepped back very quickly, her blue eyes flaring furiously at her parents. Mr. Greengrass, clearly regretting his error at once, tried desperately to compose himself; his face grew very stony.

 

“You will keep your political opinions to yourself, young lady – that is not a request.”

 

“I don’t care if it is or isn’t,” Astoria shot back. “It’s bad enough I have to keep my mouth shut and my head down whenever you have the Bulstrodes or the Carrows over, but you can't tell me what to do or say while I’m at school – ”

 

“We can and we will, or you’ll be continuing your education at home,” said Mr. Greengrass coldly.

 

Astoria’s eyes widened furiously.

 

“…Fine,” she said icily. “Then I’m leaving!"

 

Mr. and Mrs. Greengrass reacted in something akin to horror.

 

“Don’t be ridiculous, Astoria,” Mr. Greengrass said, and his tone was unusually shaky, “you cannot hope to sustain yourself in the Wizarding World at just 14 – ”

 

“I’ll find a way,” Astoria snapped.

 

“Your emotions are running away with you,” Mr. Greengrass said forcefully, as if he was desperately trying to tamp her down. “You cannot seriously think – ”

 

“I’ve been thinking about it for years!” retorted Astoria. “I figured I’d just up and do it after winning the prize money, but oh well, I’m sure I can find a place before term’s up – ”

 

“Astoria Charna Greengrass, you will do no such thing!” Mrs. Greengrass said, her temper clearly rising. “I forbid it!”

 

“Hey, I know – why don’t I move into a Muggle apartment complex?” sneered Astoria, her tone almost mocking despite her bile. “I wouldn’t have to worry about you lot and your disgusting pureblood mania there, now would I?”

 

“Shut your trap, Astoria!”

 

Everyone froze where they were. They then very slowly turned to look at Daphne.

 

She was paler and angrier than Astoria had ever seen her. Her brown eyes were flaring like flames and the clenched fists at her side were shaking.

 

“Don’t you get it?!” she yelled. “They’re worried about you, you idiot! The War’s getting worse and the Dark Lord’s getting stronger, so they want you to keep your head down even while you’re here so that you don’t get yourself killed! Ron had to have been poisoned by a Death Eater – probably the same one who thought it was a great idea to give Katie Bell that cursed necklace! That means there’s a Death Eater already near or maybe even inside the school! And if there is, that means he could know that your best friend’s mother is practically a Squib, or that you’re taking Muggle Studies, or that you’re cooking in the kitchens with Muggle-borns on a daily basis! Whatever the bloody hell you think about the Death Eaters, Mother and Father care about you!”

 

Astoria tried unsuccessfully to shake off the shock at Daphne’s outburst.

 

“You…you sure don't act like it – ”

 

Daphne strode forward and seized both of Astoria’s arms roughly.

 

“This is bigger than some stupid family feud about house placement!” she shouted. “You could've died, Astoria! Was I mad that you were Sorted into Ravenclaw? Of course I was! I thought for sure we’d be in Slytherin house together, and that I’d have at least one person to confide in, even though I had to hide my true face with everyone else! Of course I was bitter about the fact that you shed everything with ease, making friends and letting loose, while I had to stay stoic and perfect and gorgeous! Of course I resented that you put more value in education and academics than you did on your own family!”

 

Tears pricked at the corner of Daphne’s eyes. The sight scared Astoria more than anything else had in her life – she’d never once seen her sister cry.

 

“But even with all that, I’d never want you dead, and obviously, our parents wouldn’t either! You – you – IDIOT!”

 

Daphne shoved Astoria backward, turning away and crumpling in on herself to hide her upset face. Both Mr. and Mrs. Greengrass looked just as stunned as Astoria was. Mrs. Greengrass stepped over toward Daphne as if wanting to comfort her, but seemed to have no idea how to.

 

Astoria stared at her older sister, speechless. Daphne had shut herself off as soon as Astoria had been Sorted into Ravenclaw – all these years, she’d assumed she’d only done so because of their parents, blindly following their silent condemnation of Astoria’s choices. Never had she considered that she’d maybe felt jealous of Astoria, or resented that Astoria didn’t have to play the part that she still had to play all the time…

 

“Fifi…”

 

Daphne flinched at the familiar nickname. Astoria stepped forward, reaching a hand out to her sister.

 

“Fifi, I…”

 

Tears were streaming down her face, but unlike Daphne, Astoria didn’t have the strength to hold them back. In a single move, she swept forward, bringing both of her arms around Daphne and hugging her tightly from behind.

 

“…I’m sorry,” she croaked. She closed her eyes as more tears slid free. “I’m so sorry. I wasn’t trying to choose academics over you. I just thought…that you hated me – that you all hated me…just like you hate all the other ‘blood traitors’ you know…so I tried to forget you…run away, and find my own way, by myself…”

 

Mr. and Mrs. Greengrass exchanged dismayed glances – both of them had their mouths open and looked like they wanted to say something, but looked to be at a loss for words. Finally Mr. Greengrass stepped forward, bringing a hand onto Astoria’s forearm gently.

 

“…We don’t hate you, Astoria,” he said at last. His tone was as cold and level as always, but his eyes were oddly beseeching – as if he wished beyond reason that she would believe him.

 

“Your…sympathies for lesser beings may disappoint us,” added Mrs. Greengrass, her sympathetic tone marred by discomfort, “but we could never hate you.”

 

Daphne forcibly restrained the tears in her brown eyes as she looked from her parents to down at her little sister.

 

“Haven’t you ever wondered why Father never joined the Death Eaters?” she murmured. “It’s because of us – I figured that out, after Draco’s father was sent to Azkaban. If he joined and was either caught or killed…well, where would we be?”

 

Astoria looked upon her parents, her tear-filled blue eyes confused and surprised. Mr. Greengrass smiled weakly.

 

“Admittedly they’re a touch brutish for my taste, as well,” he said, though there was something like cynical humor in his tone. “Far too many Killing Curses in their arsenal and not enough brain cells.”

 

He brought his hand down Astoria’s arm, resting it just over her elbow.

 

“Regardless of our difference in politics, Astoria…I will always choose you over anything else,” he said firmly, his tone no less stoic but much less cold. “However the world sees me, or whatever happens in the rest of the world, doesn't matter, as long as my family remains safe. And as much as I wish you would follow our example and solely look after yourself…with the War brewing, I must look after your well-being first…you must understand that.”

 

Astoria actually flinched trying to suppress the shaking of her shoulders.

 

“I'm not like you,” she choked. "I can't just do nothing while the world burns." 

 

Mr. Greengrass’s eyes ran over his daughter’s face, but he seemed not to know how to respond. Instead he merely looked down at the ground, his hand still resting on Astoria’s arm. Daphne brought her arms around Astoria, resting her head on her shoulder.

 

“Then don’t,” she murmured. “Just…be safe about it.”

 

Astoria broke down in silent sobs as Daphne squeezed her tight and Mr. Greengrass held her arm. Mrs. Greengrass never moved forward to comfort her daughter, but she brought her arms around herself, almost holding herself as she struggled to restrain her own tears.

 

For the first time in the Greengrass family’s history, they all stood alone in the hallway outside Dumbledore’s office and cried together.

Chapter Text

“…But – but Healer Jengu, surely…surely with the proper treatment – ”

 

 

“He will recover, yes. The damage to his spinal cord is nothing we can’t repair, fortunately, but the poison still very nearly killed him. It will take both time and diligent care for his body to recover from such a trauma.”

 

“How – how long will it take?”

 

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Weasley…but I do not know. I’m afraid the only one who’ll be able to determine that is Ron himself…”

 

Those three voices were talking about him, Ron realized...but his brain was moving slowly. What were they talking about? Something about poison…?

 

He felt restrained – was he tucked into bed? He tried to shift around, so as to make himself more comfortable…but no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t summon the strength needed to move. His grunting got the attention of the voices’ owners.

 

“Ron?”

 

“Ronald, can you hear us?”

 

Ron slowly blinked open his eyes.

 

The room felt very bright. Ron flinched involuntarily and squinted as he tried to acclimate to it, but slowly everything came into focus, from the sterile white walls to the lime green curtains beside his bed to the two familiar people sitting beside him.

 

“Mum?” he mumbled. “Dad?”

 

Mrs. Weasley shrieked in a kind of grief-stricken relief, and in an instant, she’d plastered herself over Ron and burst into hysterical sobs.

 

“Oh Ron – my Ronnie – thank Merlin – ”

 

Ron was so stunned he could barely feel his mother’s arms around him. His blue eyes darted around to the sterile walls, his father’s more restrained tears, and the uncomfortable bed and sheets he was trapped in confusedly.

 

He was in St. Mungo’s?

 

A man stepped forward, standing just behind Mrs. Weasley. He had to be a Healer, judging by his lime green robes; his skin was as dark and his head was as smoothly shaved as Kingsley’s, but he was younger, smaller, and more slender. His sharp-lidded eyes immediately reminded Ron of Professor McGonagall, but they were much less intimidating on such a soft, oval-shaped face, particularly when he offered a very small, gentle smile.

 

“How are you feeling, Ron?” the Healer asked. He spoke slowly in an articulate, yet calming tone that was the vocal equivalent of a leisurely walk in the park.

 

Ron tried adjusting again, but he still couldn’t seem to summon the proper strength. Was his mother really inhibiting him that much? Yet she didn’t feel heavy…

 

“A bit uncomfortable, honestly,” he mumbled. “What happened?”

 

The Healer’s face became a little more solemn.

 

“You unknowingly ingested a poisonous potion containing aconite and hemlock,” he explained. “Fortunately your friend Harry happened to have a bezoar on hand – thanks to his quick thinking, you survived.”

 

“Harry…” mumbled Ron.

 

That was the voice that had been begging him to swallow something – something that must have been the bezoar, he realized – and the voice of the person who had been holding him up was –

 

“Ramsay!” he burst out in realization. “The contest – ”

 

He tried to bolt out of bed, but once again he couldn’t move. He tried harder – trying to kick his legs –

 

And that was when he realized: he wasn’t moving due to lack of strength.

 

Ron blanched, his eyes going very wide.

 

“My legs – I can’t move my legs – ”

 

“Ron – ” Mr. Weasley started.

 

Ron barely heard him. He tried desperately to sit up – he had to see –

 

“I can’t – I can’t move! I can’t – ”

 

Ron frantically tried to kick his legs, shake his arms, sit up…but it felt like nothing was there. It was like he was shouting down an empty hallway and getting no response. Panic was setting in – his eyes were filling up with tears of frustration and horror as he tried desperately to move, but nothing he did made any difference –

 

Ron,” the Healer said in a commanding, yet still tranquil voice.

 

Ron froze. He felt like he should’ve been shaking in terror, looking up into the Healer’s kind, gentle face…but he couldn’t.

 

“Ron, the poison damaged your spinal cord,” the Healer said quietly, his expression very solemn. “It’s put your nervous system into shock and made it shut down, paralyzing you from the neck down.”

 

“No,” mumbled Ron. “No, no…”

 

“We’ve already lined up all of the potions required to heal that damage,” the Healer pressed on, trying to keep Ron calm but also remaining frank, “but I’m afraid that your treatment will be very intensive. You will have to take daily potion dosages at allotted intervals over the course of a week, and after that, you’ll have to take concentrated physical therapy classes for several weeks so as to reestablish the nerve connections that link your brain to various parts of your nervous system.”

 

Ron felt ill. It felt like everything the Healer was telling him was being told down a dark hallway, echoing into his ears and rattling around painfully in his skull.

 

Mr. Weasley sat down on the other side of his son and took his hand. Ron’s stomach shriveled up at the sight of his father’s fingers closing around his own – he could not feel Mr. Weasley’s touch at all. 

 

“It might take some time, Ron,” he said gently, “but Healer Jengu is confident that you’ll recover.”

 

As much as Ron knew that his parents were comforted by this and wanted him to be as well, he really wasn’t. He looked from Mr. Weasley to the Healer called Jengu.

 

“…How did I get poisoned?” he asked. “What…what was it? Who did it?”

 

Mr. and Mrs. Weasley exchanged worried looks. Jengu looked solemnly at Mr. Weasley, before returning his gaze to Ron.

 

“…The investigation is still on-going,” he admitted grimly. “There is a student suspected, but the Headmaster has expressed doubts…”

 

“Who’s the suspect?” demanded Ron.

 

“That Slytherin girl,” Mrs. Weasley said agitatedly. “Suppose she got the bright idea to take revenge on my son, after he beat her to the finale – ”

 

WHAT?!”

 

Ron tried to shove himself out of bed so violently that, because he couldn’t move and he didn’t have a wand in his hand, a flare of pent-up, emotional magic exploded out of him, making a large crack bolt up through one of the white walls.

 

Ron!” gasped Mrs. Weasley.

 

“BRIDGET WOULD NEVER DO THAT!” Ron roared. “HOW COULD THEY THINK IN A MILLION BLOODY YEARS THAT SHE’D – ”

 

“Ron, calm down,” Jengu tried to soothe him.

 

“Ron…she was the only one in the kitchens the night before the finale,” Mrs. Weasley attempted to explain, suddenly looking ashamed at her son’s distress.

 

“THEN SHE – WAS – FRAMED!” shouted Ron. “DUMBLEDORE CAN’T THINK THAT SHE – ”

 

“He doesn’t, Ron,” Mr. Weasley cut him off softly. “None of the judges believe that Bridget had anything to do with it…they won’t punish her.”

 

Ron breathed hard, trying to regain his composure. His face was still flushed scarlet.

 

With a wave of his wand and a nonverbal spell, Jengu repaired the broken wall. Then he came to sit down beside Mrs. Weasley next to Ron’s bed.

 

“I’ll be honest with you, Ron,” he said patiently, “the road to recovery is not going to be easy…but if you want to get better, I need you to give me all the energy, focus, and optimism you can. It will take a lot of work and a lot of resilience, and I can’t act like there may not be any residual damage…but I know that when everything’s said and done, you’ll be able to walk out of St. Mungo’s on your own two feet.”

 

Ron looked up into the Healer’s sharp-lidded eyes – they seemed confident.

 

“…I’ll be able to play Quidditch again too?” he asked weakly.

 

Jengu smiled broadly, and Ron was immediately reminded of Bridget’s much more blindingly white grin.

 

“In time, yes.”

 

Ron offered a weak smile. Jengu lightly patted his hand (which, once again, Ron couldn’t feel), before getting up and turning to the door.

 

“Now then…perhaps I should go fetch the rest of the family from the waiting room, since Ron’s now conscious.”

 

“Thank you,” said Mrs. Weasley tearfully.

 

Jengu left the room. Mr. and Mrs. Weasley turned to Ron.

 

“Ron, I’m so sorry,” whispered Mrs. Weasley, her eyes filling with tears. “I d-didn’t know Bridget was your friend…I immediately assumed – ”

 

“S’okay,” Ron replied halfheartedly.

 

If they hadn’t become friends, would he have automatically assumed that Bridget would be the sort of person to poison someone who beat her in a contest, just because she was a Slytherin? Ron wasn’t sure…but the thought felt like a chill down his spine.

 

He looked up at Mr. Weasley restlessly. “…What about the contest? How am I going to finish it, if I’m stuck here?”

 

Mr. Weasley shook his head. “…I’m afraid…judging by the gravity of what happened, that Professor Ramsay may decide not to reinstate the contest.”

 

What? But – ”

 

“Ron, you were nearly killed,” Mr. Weasley cut him off sharply. “Considering someone purposefully placed the poison in that bottle, one can only presume it was a murder attempt, though we don’t know who it was meant for. Hogwarts has had its share of misfortune throughout the years, but this is serious. I would not be surprised if tomorrow morning the Daily Prophet has a full spread about it…”

 

“But…the prize money,” Ron said weakly, “the reservation…”

 

He looked at his mother desperately. Mrs. Weasley brought her hand gently through Ron’s hair; Ron gave a slight flinch, as he’d half expected not to feel that either.

 

“Ronnie, your life is more important to us than any prize,” she mumbled, her eyes filling up with tears again.

 

Before Ron could say anything, dissenting or otherwise, the door opened.

 

Jengu held it ajar as a large group of people flooded into the room – Ginny, Fred, George, Charlie, Bill, Fleur…and just behind all the manes of red hair were two figures, one with messy black hair and glasses and the other with big, unruly brown curls.

 

Ginny arrived at her brother’s bed first. Like Mrs. Weasley, she threw both of her arms around Ron’s neck and clung on with all her strength.

 

Ack!” choked Ron. “E-easy, Ginny – I can’t breathe!”

 

She loosened up only slightly as she looked at him in her best attempt at reproach. “Well, don’t bloody scare us like that, you dim-bulb!”

 

Despite her blustering, she clearly had been worried; her brown eyes were perfectly dry, but her face was very white, which made her freckles pop out sharply on her face.

 

“How are you feeling?” asked Bill.

 

“Okay, I guess,” said Ron.

 

He looked up at Harry – both he and Hermione looked very pale, but they were both smiling in relief. Ron smiled back.

 

“…Guess I’ve got you to thank, Harry,” he said, his blue eyes flickering with fondness. “You’re a right hero, you know that?”

 

“Come off it,” Harry said dismissively, his cheeks flushing around his smile. “I’m just glad you’re okay.”

 

Hermione came over to sit next to Ginny and Mrs. Weasley, taking Ron’s hand and squeezing it tightly. Ron wished more than ever than he could feel her grip, or that he could squeeze her hand back.

 

“So when are you coming back to school?” Hermione asked hesitantly.

 

Ron looked down. Mrs. Weasley brought a hand onto Hermione’s shoulder.

 

“I’m afraid, dear…that it might take a while.”

 

She and Mr. Weasley explained Healer Jengu’s diagnosis. The rest of the family looked dismayed, but none more so than Ginny.

 

“But – ” she choked, “ – but the match against Hufflepuff is in two weeks!”

 

She looked back at Harry anxiously. Harry looked concerned too, though less overtly, and he kept his composure as he turned to Ron.

 

“We’ll figure something out,” he said firmly, his green eyes boring into Ron’s even though he was also talking to Ginny.

 

Ron knew Harry well enough to know he was putting on a brave face, but Ron took comfort in it all the same. He felt terrible enough without having to think about how he’d let the entire Gryffindor team down by being out of commission…

 

The Weasleys, Harry, and Hermione stayed with Ron for a half-hour before Jengu requested that they leave so that Ron could get some rest before he had to take his first three doses of healing potions. Mr. and Mrs. Weasley said that they, Bill, and Fleur would be back in a few hours. Fred and George told Ron they’d come back in the morning bright and early before work. Charlie had to return to work in Romania, but he said he’d be back to visit that weekend. Ginny, Harry, and Hermione had to return to school, but they promised to write to Ron every day.

 

“Hey…Harry?” said Ron.

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Look after Bridget, would you?” he mumbled. “Make sure she’s okay, and…and if anyone even tries to blame her for what happened to me – ”

 

“Then we’ll hex ‘em black and blue,” Ginny said firmly.

 

Hermione and Harry both nodded.

 

“Thanks,” whispered Ron through a weak smile.

 

When they and Jengu had all left the room, Ron felt as though he had suddenly been set adrift in a complete vacuum, turning over sickeningly in mid-air.

 

He’d never been completely alone before in his life. When he was younger, he’d fantasized about it sometimes – thinking about how great it’d be, to not have to share anything with anybody or having to sacrifice sleep because someone was blowing things up in the room downstairs at odd hours…but now that he was completely on his own, he found that he didn’t like it one bit.

Chapter Text

It didn’t take long for Ron to decide he hated being stuck on the Third Floor of St. Mungo’s. The rest of Ron’s first day was devoted to sleeping and taking various unpleasant potions. Some of them burned his throat, while others made him feel nauseous, but all of them were painful to recover from; in the hours after Ron took any of them, the potions’ effects would made him feel like he was getting punched all over or his spine was being crumpled up like a piece of paper. The intense pain made it very hard for Ron to sleep, so Jengu had had to also give Ron sleeping potions so he’d get the proper amount of rest, but even with that potion helping him sleep, Ron’s dreams were fitful enough due to the pain that it wasn’t pleasant.

 

The morning after Ron’s admittance to the ward, Fred and George returned as promised, but they looked noticeably irritated. They’d brought a whole assortment of merchandise from Weasley’s Wizarding Wheezes to cheer their brother up, including Wildfire Whizz-Bangs and noisemakers – but the Healers had forbidden almost all of it, as they were concerned that it would disrupt the other people in the ward. Still, they were able to pin up a whole bunch of enchanted banners around Ron’s bed, and he found at least a little entertainment in watching crowns, broomsticks, and the words “Weasley is our King” fly across the orange and red streamers over his head.

 

Mr. and Mrs. Weasley arrived an hour after Fred and George had left for work. They had brought a birthday cake, but it had undergone an hour's worth of tests before it could be let through. After feeding him a slice of cake, Mrs. Weasley tended to Ron diligently, fluffing his pillows and adjusting his blankets, but Ron noticed early on how pale and quiet Mr. Weasley looked. He didn’t speak at all while Mrs. Weasley distracted Ron with talk of Ramsay visiting the family the previous night, and his focus kept drifting over to the fake window on the other side of Ron’s bed, which was enchanted to show a cheerful blue sky with puffy white clouds.

 

“Dad?” Ron said at last. “Are you okay?”

 

Mr. Weasley was startled out of his thoughts. He looked at Ron and then at Mrs. Weasley, whose expression had turned almost reproachful.

 

Mr. Weasley put forward his best smile. “Oh yes, Ron, I’m…fine.”

 

Ron didn’t believe him. With a frown, he glanced from one parent to the other.

 

“…Did the Prophet say anything about the contest?”

 

“There…was an article this morning, yes,” Mr. Weasley admitted. His eyes were still on his wife’s face. “Though it mostly just said what we already know…”

 

Mrs. Weasley brought a hand through Ron’s bangs gently.

 

“Some reporter tried to get in here for an interview,” she said brusquely. “It’s just fortunate Healer Jengu was able to put her in her place before we got here, or else I would’ve given that woman a piece of my mind!”

 

From what Ron gathered, Jengu had been very preoccupied with protecting Ron from the press. At one point Ron overheard two of the Assistant Healers gossiping in the hallway outside about how Jengu had shut the door on one reporter’s hand when he tried to shove himself inside the ward while Ron was sleeping.

 

Unfortunately it wasn’t just the press that was being kept out. Although Harry, Hermione, and Ginny had promised to write everyday, Ron didn’t get any letters from them the first three days...they hadn't even sent a birthday card! When he’d expressed his concerns to Jengu, the Healer’s expression turned incredibly guilty.

 

“…I suppose that’d be because of the new security measures,” he said lowly. “Out of concern for our patients’ safety, St. Mungo’s president Augusta Feverfew decided three days ago to appoint a new security team to examine all packages and letters coming in and out of St. Mungo’s for potential threats.”

 

Ron’s stomach dropped. “Three days – you mean when I arrived? She appointed more security because of me?”

 

“Not because of you,” Jengu said bracingly. “Remember last year, there was the potted Devil’s Snare that was smuggled into St. Mungo’s…and admittedly, these security measures were already enacted in other wizarding facilities like the Ministry and the Leaky Cauldron earlier this year…”

 

Ron’s critical gaze made the Healer trail off uncomfortably.

 

“…And…your poisoning…may have been a factor in Feverfew reconsidering the issue, yes,” he finally acknowledged as a mutter.

 

Ron felt his whole face flushing in shame and upset. Jengu offered a faintly strained, pleasant smile.

 

“Tell you what – I’ll send a special request to the security team to inform me whenever a letter or package for you has arrived, and when we can expect it to reach you. That way at the very least, you’ll have something to look forward to.”

 

Jengu seemed to know his suggestion wasn’t much; still, figuring it was the best he could do given the cruddy circumstances, Ron forced a small smile in return.

 

“…Okay.”

 

The following day Ron finally received Harry’s first letter. The envelope had been ripped open unceremoniously and there was a distinct smell of stale socks emanating off of it.

 

“It seems your friend wrote something that the security team wanted to record,” Jengu murmured grimly as he slid the folded letter out of the torn envelope.

 

Ron looked up in confusion. “Record – you mean, like they copied it?”

 

Jengu nodded as he took a seat at Ron’s bedside. “They soaked it in a Replicating Potion – that smell reeks long after its use.”

 

Although he kept his face placid, his posture was a bit stiffer and his voice was a touch cooler than usual in his response. With a glance over his shoulder at the other two patients in the ward (who were both distracted by their visiting relatives), Jengu then turned to Ron with a more serious expression.

 

“Ron,” he said very quietly, “you must signal to your friends to mind what they say. The Ministry has become very frightened of what people are saying to each other – enough that they are monitoring every word.”

 

Ron was reminded of Umbridge watching the Owl Post and Floo Network the previous year, in the hopes of digging up dirt on Dumbledore or finding out Sirius’s location.

 

“B-but – ” Ron stammered, “why? We’re not with the Death Eaters – Harry would never be with the Death Eaters – ”

 

“Of course not,” Jengu murmured. “But unfortunately Scrimgeour has more rivals than just the Death Eaters…and right now, he’s having some difficulty discerning who is a threat and who isn’t.”

 

Stan Shurnpike’s arrest rippled through Ron’s mind, and he clenched his teeth, his blue eyes drifting down to his sheets.

 

Jengu unfolded the letter and began to read it out loud for Ron.

 

March 1st, 1997

 

Dear Ron,

 

Happy birthday! I wish you were here with us for it, so we could celebrate properly, but your birthday presents are on the way and will hopefully be there by tomorrow. I know it’s only been one day since we saw you, but Hermione and I both really miss you. Hogwarts is just not as much fun without you here.

 

The Daily Prophet published their article about the finale this morning. It’s rubbish, as to be expected. Not only did it take up the entire front page and two inside pages, but it also tried to spin the thing as “an act of terrorism against the next generation of upcoming witches and wizards” and blamed everyone from Ramsay to Dumbledore to Scrimgeour for not putting more security measures in place to protect us. It even tried to say that Fudge should never have removed the High Inquisitor position, as if there’d been one, he or she could have done something to prevent what happened! Clearly they’ve forgotten that the last High Inquisitor was Dolores Umbridge, and she never lifted a finger to protect anyone! The reporter also claimed that she tried to interview you, but the Healers prevented her from entering the ward. I’m glad for that, at least.

 

Terence Goodfellow published a new article in the Prophet today too, even if the editor squeezed it into a tiny corner to make room for the MagicChef story. I think it was written before the finale, since it didn’t talk about the contest, but Goodfellow asked your dad for his opinion regarding a new bill proposal in the Wizengamot that would relax the Statute of Secrecy. This guy called Enrouge thinks that Muggle-born witches and wizards should be allowed to tell their Muggle friends and family members who aren’t included in the Statute’s exceptions (like godparents and spouses who haven’t given birth to magical children) so that they can better protect them from Voldemort and the Death Eaters. Most of the Wizengamot seem to really not like the idea, but your dad put in a nice word for Enrouge. He didn’t seem to agree with Enrouge’s idea, but he said his heart was in the right place. Hermione thinks that the Wizengamot’s probably scared about the idea of revealing the Wizarding World to Muggles, but I don’t know, I think Enrouge might have a point. If Sirius hadn’t been a wizard, I’d really want him to know about Voldemort and me so he could’ve stayed safe.

 

Bridget’s all right. The rumors have already started milling around school about her having been in the kitchens that night, but it seems like they’re not bothering her too much. Bridget told us that as long as you know she would never hurt you (which we reassured her was true), she didn’t care if the whole world thought she did. I don’t really get why she isn’t more concerned about it, though – Pansy and her crew said something about the Stormer having more details in their report than the Prophet did, though we haven’t yet found out what she meant. Whatever those details are, though, I can’t help but feel like they’ll be trouble, whether they’re true or not.

 

Cormac McLaggen came up to me as soon as Charms was over and asked me about the Keeper position. Since he was second best at try-outs, I had to bring him on board as your substitute, but I still don’t like him. Hermione doesn’t either – she says that he’s an absolute boor with no respect or sense of personal boundaries.

 

Dumbledore and I have another meeting scheduled this month, just before the match against Hufflepuff. He says there are some details he wants to share with me that might help us with that project we’re working on. Won’t be able to write about it, of course, but hopefully we’ll be able to convince Dumbledore to let us visit you on the weekends sometimes and we can tell you about it then.

 

A lot of people have come up to us saying they’re sending you flowers and cards. Bridget’s sent a package off already too, though she didn’t tell us what it was. As for us, Hermione says she’ll write our letter tomorrow, after we get done with Defense Against the Dark Arts.

 

Write back whenever you can!

Harry

 

Ron couldn’t hold back the small, warm smile that spread across his face as he listened to his friend’s words being read aloud. It was like he could imagine Harry in the room with him at that very moment.

 

Jengu likewise smiled down at Ron. “That’s some friend you’ve got there.”

 

“Yeah,” mumbled Ron, his face flushed with pride.

 

Jengu glanced down at the letter, the smile slowly fading from his face. Then, folding it up again, he slipped both it and the envelope under Ron’s mattress.

 

“Best not to let anyone else read that,” he said under his breath.

 

Ron felt a pang of admiration for Jengu. It seemed that despite his pleasant exterior, he also had some real grit underneath – and he clearly had a good moral compass.

 

“…What do you reckon the security team was interested in?” Ron asked lowly. He had a few ideas, but he wanted Jengu’s opinion.

 

Jengu glanced briefly over his shoulder at his other patients, verifying they were both still preoccupied with their families before responding.

 

“…The sympathy for Enrouge’s position, I suppose. I’m sure you know as well as I do how controversial such a proposal is.”

 

Ron nodded. Mr. Weasley had always been enamored with Muggles, but he’d well instructed his children about the Statute of Secrecy and how important it was to mind it. After all, as much as Mr. Weasley believed Muggles were by and large good, just as witches and wizards were, he also knew that uprooting their entire worldview could be very traumatizing and could lead to severe consequences…hence why the Ministry had to employ so many Obliviators to erase or modify Muggles’ memories when they witnessed the use of magic.

 

“It’s…well, it’s not entirely right, maybe,” Ron said slowly, “but I don’t think Scrimgeour should be afraid of something like that – I mean, he’s fighting the Death Eaters! That’s much more of a threat than some guy trying to open up the laws so people can protect their loved ones…”

 

“You’re right,” Jengu said softly. “It is much less important.”

 

He folded his arms over his chest.

 

“Enrouge – and the people who agree with him – believe that the draconian split enforced between the Wizarding and Muggle Worlds is why the Death Eaters have been able to sway so many witches and wizards to their side in both Wars. It is ignorance – bred from lack of knowledge about Muggles, their culture, and the amazing technology they’ve produced in place of magic – that breeds the prejudice, fear, and hatred that the Death Eaters use to turn sane people into monsters. Therefore the thought is…that if we tear down the wall between our two worlds…then we can come together and create a new one of peace, harmony, and mutual respect.”

 

Ron wanted to like what Jengu was describing, but something in him made him give pause.

 

“But…that wall between the worlds does more than just separate us,” he said slowly. “It protects us too. I mean, when Muggles did know about witches and wizards, they tried to hunt us down and burn us at the stake…”

 

“Muggles are more reasonable than they were in the past,” Jengu pointed out.

 

“Some are,” Ron argued. Harry’s relatives, the Dursleys, flickered over his brain. “But some aren’t. And even if they are the reasonable sort, it still would be an awful lot for them to swallow, learning that there’s a whole secret world that they never knew about and that could’ve rewritten their memories or lives without their knowledge or consent.”

 

“Wouldn’t it be better for us all to tell the truth, rather than hide away?” asked Jengu.

 

“Sure,” Ron said uncomfortably, “but I still don’t know if we should tell everyone. Telling family, that makes sense – but not everyone can be trusted. And even if we tell the Muggles we exist…I don’t think that would make the Death Eaters go away – I think they’d still be there. Who knows, those…blood purist types…they might even feel bolder, knowing that they don’t have to hide anymore! They might decide to openly flaunt their superiority over Muggles, because it’s suddenly perfectly okay to show off who you are!”

 

Jengu took in Ron’s argument patiently; rather than argue the point, he merely smiled.

 

“…I suppose one’s opinion of future events can only be proven when that future comes true,” he said levelly.

 

Ron frowned slightly as Jengu got up. Noticing his expression, Jengu’s expression softened.

 

“Don’t worry, Ron – I’m not upset that you don’t agree. Difference of opinion is something to be celebrated. After all, if two people aim to do good in the world, a difference in opinion can open their eyes to possibilities they never saw before.”

 

He then leaned in slightly, his tone growing a little quieter again. “I just hope you will keep what I’ve said in confidence…just as I will keep the contents of your letters completely to myself.”

 

His words could’ve sounded like a threat, but Jengu kept his tone deliberately calm and nonthreatening. He wasn’t holding it over Ron’s head: simply reminding Ron that he was already doing him a favor.

 

“…Okay,” said Ron.

 

Jengu patted him on the shoulder, before turning and heading for the door.

 

“I’ll be back with your potions in an hour – try to rest until then.”

Chapter Text

Hogwarts was dreary. Ron’s poisoning had left a metaphorical cloud over the student body, so much so that when the physical rain clouds arrived two days later, it felt like the weather was sympathizing with their emotional state.

 

Harry’s gloom started instantly every time he woke up in the morning. Even three days after Ron’s arrival at St. Mungo's, he still found himself moving over to Ron’s bunk as if to go wake him up too, only to remember that he wasn’t there and force himself to get showered and dressed. Then he’d meet up with Hermione and Ginny in the commonroom and head downstairs for breakfast.

 

“Still no word from Ron?” asked Ginny.

 

“No,” said Harry.

 

Hermione looked concerned. “Do you think he’s gotten everything we sent? I know he can’t write letters himself, but I would’ve thought he'd have sent something back by now…”

 

“Maybe he’s just being kept busy with getting better,” offered Ginny, though she didn’t look too sure. “I mean, there’d be no reason for St. Mungo’s to censor his mail, right?”

 

She glanced at Harry, but he looked just as unsure as she did. After all, Umbridge had certainly convinced the Ministry to let her read all of Harry’s incoming and outgoing mail, even though it wasn’t the least bit legal or justifiable…

 

That particular morning the Great Hall was buzzing like an upset hive of bees. Many of them were muttering amongst themselves, looking angry or conspiratorial – Harry also noticed people holding onto a weird paper with red writing that he didn’t recognize.

 

“That’s the Stormer,” said Ginny, her eyes narrowing sharply.

 

She and Harry immediately started looking around, having both thought to look for Bridget, but she didn’t seem to have arrived yet.

 

“Ginny, intercept Bridget before she gets here,” Harry muttered to her. “Hermione and I will figure out what’s going on.”

 

Ginny nodded in agreement, her brown eyes flashing at the tables before quickly turning and dashing out of the Hall. Harry and Hermione exchanged a concerned glance before starting their methodical trek to the Gryffindor table.

 

They found Neville sitting with Lavender, Parvati, Dean and Seamus – all five of them looked anxious and angry.

 

“Neville,” started Harry, but Neville didn’t even need for him to ask what was going on.

 

“Someone smuggled in copies of the Stormer’s MagicChef report,” he explained, his eyebrows knitting together angrily. “It repeats that rumor everyone’s been spreading – you know, about Bridget in the kitchen? – and also puts forward this bogus theory that she targeted Ron and Astoria for poisoning because of their ancestry.”

 

Both Harry and Hermione’s mouths dropped open in disgust and shock.

 

What?!”

 

Parvati nodded, looking furious too.

 

“Cuffe’s trying to claim that Bridget was jealous of their talent and heritage, and so decided to take her feelings of inferiority out on Ron! I mean – I don’t know Bridget all that well, but even I know she’s got plenty of talent! And she got a scholarship from Ramsay! She’s got no reason to be jealous of Ron!”

 

“Well, it’s obvious why he wrote it that way, isn’t it?” Seamus spat in disgust, his clenched fists on the table shaking with rage. “That gombeen Cuffe wants to turn this whole thing into a story of the poor, maligned Purebloods being under attack by the mean old Muggle-borns, now doesn’t he? Bloody poxbottle – ”

 

Dean rested a hand on Seamus’s shoulder, squeezing it lightly in an attempt to calm him, even though he looked just as angry himself.

 

“Some people have been suggesting that Bridget should be suspended until everything’s sorted out,” he said lowly. “Others already seem to think that there’s enough evidence already, and she should be expelled and maybe even arrested.”

 

Hermione’s cheeks flushed angrily. “That’s rubbish! All anyone knows is that Bridget was down in the kitchens that night, not that she had any contact with the poison! For all anyone knows, the bottles were already poisoned by the time she got there…or maybe they were poisoned after she left!”

 

To Harry’s surprise, Lavender jumped in to agree. “Right – and besides, Ron’s friends with Bridget. It’d be like guessing Hermione or Harry poisoned Ron – it’s just not something they would do.”

 

Dean turned to Harry and Hermione. “Did you hear anything about why Bridget was down there that night? If she told everyone what she was doing, maybe she’d have some sort of an alibi…”

 

“She said she was cooking for a friend,” said Harry. “Though she didn’t say who…”

 

Dean and Seamus exchanged a wary look.

 

“Clearly she didn’t want that person to get any scrutiny,” Hermione interjected, her voice almost overly firm. “Maybe it was a Slytherin student whose family wouldn’t have wanted her spending time with a Muggle-born! Imagine how much that would get blown up at this school, let alone at the Stormer – ”

 

“True,” said Neville. “And let’s be honest – the Stormer would’ve suspected Bridget even if she had an alibi. Cuffe and his lot don’t trust anything Muggle, and that includes people from Muggle families. They’ll spew any story that fits into their gross propaganda.”

 

Harry looked down at the table, his green eyes narrowing in thought.

 

‘Neville’s right – nothing Bridget says will help, as far as those people are concerned. The only way to prove her innocence is to catch the person responsible – the real culprit – ’

 

The memory of Malfoy’s dot on the Marauder’s Map rippled through his mind again.

 

‘You don’t have any proof,’ he reminded himself. ‘Hermione won’t believe you, Ron’s stuck in St. Mungo’s, and even Dumbledore told you not to try to theorize what had happened…’

 

Harry glanced around at the others, nodding his head as the other discussed the Stormer and Bridget, but barely hearing them.

 

‘If Malfoy’s responsible for Ron’s poisoning…then I’ll just have to prove it myself. Then Bridget can’t be suspected anymore…’

 

Meanwhile Ginny reached the stairs that led to the hallway that she knew held the Slytherin commonroom. Not knowing exactly where the commonroom was, she decided to wait at the base of the staircase. The hallway was quiet and mostly abandoned, though she exchanged nasty looks with one group of fifth-year Slytherin boys as they passed.

 

After a few minutes, a familiar figure with a green and silver tie, black robes, and intricate braids came around the corner.

 

“Bridget!”

 

Ginny dashed up to her, and in a sweeping gesture, she’d looped an arm around Bridget’s and yanked her up the stairs.

 

“Ginny?” said Bridget, startled. “What’s going on?”

 

Ginny led her in a quieter, roundabout way to the Great Hall so they could talk privately. She told her about what she’d seen in the Hall and presumably what everyone had to be chattering about.

 

“I reckon we should wait until the Hall’s cleared out before heading up there,” said Ginny, “then you can eat in peace…”

 

Bridget raised an eyebrow, a soft smirk on her lips. “A little odd to see you so cautious.”

 

“This isn’t about caution,” Ginny muttered sourly. “It’s about making sure that people don’t jump you as soon as you arrive in the Great Hall…”

 

Bridget’s smirk faded from her face. She stopped dead in her tracks, making Ginny abruptly come to a halt next to her.

 

“Ginny,” she murmured solemnly. “You don’t have to worry about me – I can take care of myself.”

 

Ginny turned to her, her eyes narrowing reproachfully. “Bridget, you’ve already been picked on more than once thanks to the crap Uric Cuffe’s published! If this report says what I think it might, you might have to deal with more than just taunts or threats – ”

 

“Maybe,” said Bridget. “But I can still handle it.”

 

Ginny opened her mouth to argue, but Bridget plowed on.

 

“Ginny, I know you and your brother and your friends have it in your heads to protect me from all this, but you can’t always be there…and to be honest, you shouldn’t be. I need to take on this burden myself, if I have any hope of overcoming it.”

 

“Whatever you might have in your head, we’re not going to just leave you to the wolves,” Ginny said stubbornly, “and you can’t change our minds on that.”

 

Bridget’s expression softened slightly.

 

“…I know,” she said. “And believe me, that…means a lot. But I don’t want you to think you have to selflessly throw yourselves in front of me in some noble effort to protect me from what people might think…”

 

“You mean the way you did?” challenged Ginny.

 

Bridget raised her eyebrows innocently. Ginny’s confident expression didn’t shift.

 

“I know you made those cake pops – the ones that looked like roses? That’s what you were making the night before the finale…you just didn’t want to tell anyone, because then everyone in school would be gossiping about me…even though it meant everyone would think you were some sort of villain…” Ginny crossed her arms disapprovingly, “…you somehow thought it was more important to protect my reputation.”

 

Bridget grinned. “Oh no…no, not your reputation…just you.”

 

Ginny frowned in confusion.

 

“Everyone had already been gossiping like crazy about you and Dean breaking up,” said Bridget, “and when Ron got poisoned…well, I knew you’d be worrying about him, even more than I was. If I’d told the judges that you were the person I was cooking for, then they would’ve had to question you while you were waiting at St. Mungo’s, and sooner or later the rumors would swirl around here at school…and I just figured you had more than enough to worry about already.”

 

Ginny’s disapproval cleared, leaving her face a little more pensive.

 

“…Well, I don’t care if everyone knows,” she said offhandedly.

 

“You’d want people questioning whether or not you’d date a girl?” Bridget asked, raising an eyebrow.

 

Ginny shrugged. “Doesn’t matter to me.”

 

Bridget smiled wryly, her white teeth gleaming. She started to walk slowly up the hall again, and once Ginny had started to follow, the two both sped up a little, striding together side by side.

 

“I admit, I didn’t think you’d take it so well,” said Bridget lightly.

 

“Why?”

 

“Most girls don’t.”

 

“Well, I’m not like most girls,” Ginny said coolly.

 

Her face then grew a little more serious.

 

“Bridget…even if I don’t care what people think about me, or if anyone knows you baked those cake pops for me…I have to be honest that I – ”

 

“Don’t really want to date me,” Bridget finished, though her voice was remarkably casual. “I figured as much.”

 

“No,” Ginny said at once, her face becoming oddly ashamed. “I just don’t really feel like dating anyone right now, honestly. Because I realized something, when I broke up with Dean…no matter who I’ve dated, or how nice that person’s been…I always catch myself dreaming of being somewhere else…with someone else…thinking of how he’d treat me – like a friend, like a comrade, like an equal – rather than just someone to shield or hold on his arm. No matter how good they are to me, and no matter how wrong I know I am to act that way…I still feel like it’s not enough.”

 

“Because they’re not Potter.”

 

Ginny looked up, startled. Bridget laughed.

 

“Oh come on, you think I wouldn’t be able to tell?” she said good-naturedly. “The way you two look at each other – it feels like you’ve got a million inside jokes just between the two of you.”

 

Ginny immediately looked guilty, but Bridget rested a hand on her shoulder, her black eyes gentle.

 

“Ginny, it’s okay. I made you those cake pops because you’re cute and I knew you were going through a hard time – that’s all. And frankly, judging by how Potter reacted to your break-up with Dean…I reckon if he does ever ask you out, you probably won’t be disappointed.”

 

Ginny gave a quiet laugh. “Thanks – but I don’t think he will. It’d probably be weird for him to ask out his best friend’s sister, even if he wanted to.”

 

“Well, if he doesn’t, it’s his loss,” said Bridget with a grin. “And if you change your mind on dating anyone else, consider sending me a time and place – okay?”

 

Ginny smiled broadly. “Okay.”

 

They finally arrived in the Great Hall. Ginny pointedly moved a little closer to Bridget as they walked through the crowd of people leaving through the double doors. Many of them started muttering amongst themselves at the sight of them.

 

“That’s her – ”

 

“ – sister – ”

 

“ – poison her too?”

 

Ginny’s brown eyes flashed menacingly at them, but Bridget squeezed her forearm lightly without looking at her, silently telling her not to confront them. Keeping her head high and her posture strong, she walked into the Great Hall without a word.

 

At the sight of Bridget, the students still sitting at the house tables all hushed, turning to gawk at her.

 

Bridget looked around at the four house tables, her expression rather measured; then with a glance at Ginny, she strode over to her usual place at the Slytherin table. When she tried to sit down, however, Crabbe and Goyle stepped between her and the bench, their arms crossed over their boulder-like chests.

 

“We don’t want you here, Magicsnatcher,” sneered Crabbe.

 

Despite her confusion at the unfamiliar word, Bridget feigned politeness. “Beg pardon?”

 

“You heard him.”

 

Pansy Parkinson strode over, Blaise Zabini, Tracey Davis, and Daphne Greengrass just behind her. Her pug-like face was even more ugly than usual, with her crinkled-up brown eyes flaring with nothing short of hatred.

 

“Go sit somewhere else,” Pansy ordered her coldly. “We don’t want you here.”

 

Seeing the trouble, Ginny quickly caught up with her friend.

 

“Bridget’s a Slytherin,” the youngest Weasley snapped. “She’s entitled to sit at the table just as much as you lot are – probably more, given that she’s got more decency than the lot of you put together.”

 

“This is an internal affair, Weasley, and it’s none of your business,” retorted Pansy. “Five points from Gryffindor, and I’ll make it twenty if you don’t clear out.”

 

“I don’t think so.”

 

Hannah Abbott, who’d been sitting close by, had arrived, coming to stand on Bridget’s other side. Just behind her were Neville, Harry, and Hermione.

 

“Five points to Gryffindor for contesting unjust authority,” Hannah said calmly, “and five points from Slytherin for misusing Prefect powers. Now I do believe that seat belongs to Bridget – so you two,” she shot Crabbe and Goyle a reproachful look, “should step aside.”

 

To the surprise of everyone, a handful of Slytherins sitting around Pansy immediately started yelling in disapproval.

 

“As if – ”

 

“ – tried to kill – ”

 

“ – Magicsnatcher – ”

 

“ – we don’t want her here!”

 

The Slytherins who were yelling only made up about a fourth of the table, but everyone else remained so stone-faced and quiet that it might as well have been the entire house. Millicent Bulstrode, who was sitting about a foot away, kept her gaze on her plate and stayed silent, even though her fists were clenched so tightly around her knife and fork that it was a wonder she hadn’t bent them in half.

 

Hannah looked horrified by the reaction. Pansy sneered at her.

 

“Just because you’re a Prefect, Abbott, doesn’t mean you can tell my house what to do,” she said smugly. “We don’t want that Magicsnatching trollop sitting with us – and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

 

Daphne, who’d been standing behind Pansy, glanced from Hannah to Bridget, her face unreadable but very white. His eyes rippling with righteous anger, Neville came up to stand next to Hannah.

 

“Yes, there is,” he shot back fiercely. He turned to Bridget. “Come on, Bridget…you can come sit with us – ”

 

“No.”

 

Bridget stepped forward away from the others and faced Pansy with icy cold black eyes. The effect was intimidating enough that even Blaise Zabini gave a faint tremble, though he covered it up quickly.

 

“I’m sitting with my house,” Bridget said resolutely.

 

She moved to walk around Crabbe and Goyle, but they blocked her. She moved the other way, only to be stopped again; she feigned one way, but was blocked yet again when she tried to go the opposite way.

 

“Bridget – ” started Hannah.

 

No,” said Bridget firmly.

 

Completely undeterred by Crabbe and Goyle’s obstruction, she stepped to the left, feigned right, and then continued to the left, grabbing hold of Crabbe’s shoulder. In an instant she’d hoisted herself up, bounding off the bench beside Crabbe onto the table and, stepping expertly around the plates on her toes, finally landed on the far end of the opposite bench by the wall with a FLUMP.

 

 

The observing Gryffindors and Hufflepuff all burst into applause. Pansy flushed with anger, and the other Slytherins sitting around Pansy started yelling again. Zabini even took out his wand threateningly, as if prepared to force Bridget to move, but who would stop him but Daphne, who shot out her arm and seized his wrist.

 

“Mind your temper, Blaise,” she said in a cool, level tone that could’ve put her father to shame. “Remember where we are – and the many teachers who might see.” Daphne indicated the table at the back of the hall with a quick, pointed glance. “We wouldn’t want to cause a scene…now would we?”

 

Her hand clenched around his wrist, her sharp nails digging sharply into his skin, and with a high-pitched yelp, Zabini withdrew his arm, clutching it in pain. Daphne then turned to Hannah and the others, her cold brown eyes narrowed.

 

“Although we might accept Jaheem in the meantime, we will never accept you lot sitting here,” she said icily. “So clear out before things get really nasty.”

 

Hannah and Daphne locked eyes, staring each other down for a minute; then Hannah nodded curtly, turning away and striding back up toward the Hufflepuff table. Daphne then shifted her gaze to Harry.

 

“Jaheem’s awfully lucky that her victim’s friends are so quick to defend her,” she said coolly. “Tell me…what color envelope should I use for Weasley’s get-well card? Red? Or perhaps blue?”

 

Crabbe and Goyle chortled stupidly. Ginny plunged her hand into her robes, ready to hex Daphne into next Tuesday, but Harry caught sight of Bridget suddenly mouthing “No!” at them and abruptly grabbed Ginny’s arm. Ignoring Ginny’s affronted gaze, Harry looked from Bridget to up at Daphne, whose face was still unusually pale.

 

“She warned you that the teachers might see.”

 

“So? Clearly didn’t want to get hexed, now did she?”

 

And she didn’t want you to get in trouble. She just couldn’t say so, being around Pansy and her lot, so she had to help in a roundabout way.”

 

“Help in a roundabout way”…was that what Daphne was doing?

 

Harry put on his best smirk.

 

“…Orange I reckon is more Ron’s color – I’m sure he’ll be flattered to know that you would deign to send a ‘blood traitor’ like him your best wishes. Who knows, he might even send a thank you card to your parents.”

 

Bridget grinned at Harry over Pansy’s shoulder, sending him a covert thumbs-up. Daphne flashed Harry a nasty glare, before turning her back with a scoff and returning to her place at the Slytherin table. With a significant look at the others, Harry headed back toward the Gryffindor table, and they followed along behind him.

 

“Harry,” Hermione said with a thoughtful frown, “just now – you with Daphne – ”

 

“I think I got her message, yeah,” said Harry. “She wanted to know what Ron’s favorite color was – I guess for a gift she plans to send him…”

 

Neville looked confused. “Wait – so that insult just now – ”

 

“Was her helping, in a roundabout way,” Harry finished, smiling at Ginny.

 

Ginny’s brown eyes widened.

 

‘Slytherins just aren’t that straight-forward,’” she recalled, as her mouth spread into a broad smile.

Chapter Text

Kevin had done his best to tune out the arrival of the Stormer’s MagicChef report. When people had started discussing it at the Hufflepuff table at breakfast, he quickly put on his best smile and coaxed his friends, Brendan and Katsuji, to head to Professor Flitwick’s classroom early so they could practice before their test on the Summoning Charm. He didn’t want to let on how much the article bothered him, and given that Katsuji was Muggle-born, Kevin didn’t want to put him in a position where he’d be forced to listen to the Stormer’s bogus theories.

 

After Charms Kevin and Brendan headed outside for Care of Magical Creatures, while Katsuji went to Arithmancy. When they met up again in the Great Hall for lunch, Kevin and Brendan were surprised to see Katsuji reading a copy of the scarlet-lettered Stormer report.

 

Brendan immediately strode up and snatched the paper right out of Katsuji’s hand.

 

“What the bloody hell are you doing, reading that bunk?” he demanded, sounding almost accusing through his concern.

 

Katsuji tried to snatch it back, but Brendan held it out of his reach.

 

“Ugh – if we want to know what we’re arguing against, we have to read what the other side is saying!” Katsuji shot back sharply, as he tried and failed once again to grab it.

 

“What they’re saying is trash, pure and simple,” Brendan scoffed. “No point in arguing with it – ”

 

“There is if reasonable people are falling for it, which they are,” Katsuji said plainly. “Sure, you can’t change the blood purists’ minds, but not all the people who read and believe the Stormer are blood purists – ”

 

“Of course they are!” said Brendan incredulously. “If they’re with the Stormer and its crew, then they believe Muggles are inherently inferior to wizards, which means they’re just as bad as the Death Eaters themselves – ”

 

“Brendan – ”

 

“The lot of them can all just be packed up and shipped right off to Azkaban, if you ask me,” Brendan finished harshly. “It’d save the world a hell of a lot of trouble…”

 

“Brendan, your father’s in it!” Katsuji burst out at last.

 

Both Kevin and Brendan froze. Brendan’s face went very white.

 

“…What…?”

 

He immediately unfolded the paper and started scanning, his green eyes darting madly across the page.

 

Katsuji’s face crumpled up in guilt.

 

“…There’s this article about the Guild of Griffins – it’s this faction in the Wizengamot that believes that the boundary between the Muggle and Wizarding Worlds should be completely torn down – and about how their leader, Enrouge, has been pushing to create a private, all-Muggle army for the express purpose of defending the Ministry from perceived threats.”

 

What?” said Kevin, his voice going very wispy and quiet in his shock.

 

Katsuji shook his head, clearly upset as well. “I know – it’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard – but people believe it. They even have statements from people at the Wizengamot confirming that Enrouge suggested on the floor of Wizengamot that the Ministry should draft Muggle soldiers in our fight against the Death Eaters! And it wasn’t just junior members either – there was a bit from Tamsin Applebee’s grandmother, and she’s been on the bench for twenty plus years…and…well…”

 

Katsuji faltered as his gaze returned to Brendan. Kevin glanced at Brendan out the corner of his eye; his friend had clearly found the article in question, as his short, round face had become as sickeningly gray as old porridge.

 

“Why would he talk to them?” he whispered, as his fists clutching the paper shook with rage. “Why would he even give that craphat Cuffe the time of day, when he knows what kind of delusions he dreams up?!”

 

Kevin reached out a hand and squeezed Brendan’s shoulder. “There must’ve been a misunderstanding – maybe he didn’t know who he was talking to – ”

 

“He knew damn well who!” Brendan cut him off, his tone rippling with both fury and anguish. “‘“Enrouge has always been a dangerous extremist, and this outburst proves it,” said senior Wizengamot member Ulysses Halkirk. “The Aurors may be employees of the Ministry of Magic, but they’re part of an independent department. What Enrouge is suggesting involves forcibly drafting Muggles into service, regardless of how much damage it would do to the Statute of Secrecy and how much it would endanger our World! It’s despotic, pure and simple!” Halkirk also went on to thank the Stormer for reporting on Enrouge’s radical views, which the Daily Prophet has been too timid to directly condemn.’

 

Brendan ripped the paper in half, his fierce green eyes filling up with tears and his jaw clenching tightly. He looked like he wanted to punch something, so Kevin took a firm, but gentle hold of his wrist.

 

“Brendan, I’m sorry,” Katsuji said quietly. “But it’s like I said…what the Stormer’s printing is suckering in ordinary people as well as monsters. You didn’t read the other stuff they’re reporting…like you know that word the Slytherins have been using lately?”

 

“Magicsnatcher?” recalled Kevin.

 

“Yeah. Apparently it’s all because of this old blood theory. Because no one can figure out where Muggle-borns get their magic from, if it isn’t from their parents, some pureblood supremacists have gotten it into their heads that Muggle-borns actually steal their magic from young witches and wizards before they can be properly trained.”

 

Kevin’s mouth fell open. “But – that’s – ”

 

Asinine, I know,” Katsuji muttered sourly. “But it’s what they think. They even claim it’s the reason why good Pureblood families can give birth to Squibs or just less magically talented children – because they played with Muggles as children and those Muggles stole their magic away from them.”

 

Brendan tried to slam his fist on the table, but Kevin was able to steady his grip on his wrist enough to stop him.

 

“No sane person would believe that,” Brendan snarled.

 

“You’d think so,” said Katsuji patiently. “But the problem is how often that lie is written. In just this one paper, the ‘Magicsnatcher’ theory was referenced as though it were fact over ten times. After reading it over and over like it’s fact, with no one questioning or discussing it anywhere else…I daresay anyone would start to believe it, after a while. And when it’s the only paper that publishes certain stories, like the one about Ida Cromwell beating up Burke at the Ministry…well, people could start to rely on it as their best source of information, even if it’s flawed. And sooner or later…well, how much of what the Stormer’s writing is the truth?”

 

None of it!” Brendan shot back furiously. His tear-filled, furious eyes seemed almost mad. “None of it is true! I don’t believe a word of it!”

 

“Brendan – ” Katsuji started weakly, but Brendan didn’t want to hear it. Without another word, he stormed away from the Hufflepuff table and out of the Hall.

 

Katsuji turned to Kevin helplessly.

 

“…I don’t want them to be right, you know,” he said quietly. “You know I don’t.”

 

Kevin nodded mutely.

 

“I mean – the thought of tearing down the wall between worlds?” Katsuji pressed on. “It sounds nice – but I’m sorry, I just think it’d run into a lot of problems. For one, who’d be in charge – the Minister of Magic or the Prime Minister? You’d have to choose one or the other, and there’d be no way to make it fair. Not to mention how much the Muggles would freak out if they learned the truth…”

 

Kevin gazed at Katsuji thoughtfully as his friend looked down at the floor, his face turning very despondent.

 

Katsuji knew perhaps better than anyone how badly a Muggle could react to the truth. Katsuji’s magical outbursts as a child had been treated as deliberate and belligerent misbehavior by his parents, and so Katsuji was frequently punished for those “accidents.” When he’d been accepted to Hogwarts, Mr. and Mrs. Yamazaki rejected the invitation, as Katsuji wouldn’t be able to go to the Muggle schools they wanted him to and take on the family business as they’d hoped. Fortunately Professor McGonagall gave them a stern talking to, but even now Katsuji stayed at Hogwarts during every holiday break he could so as to avoid being at home.

 

Biting the inside of his lip, Kevin considered his response carefully. Then at last, he reached out, placed a hand on top of Katsuji’s on the table, and gave him his best encouraging smile.

 

“…There might be no simple answer…but fortunately we don’t have to figure it all out. All we can really do right now is just support each other the best we can, right?”

 

Kevin patted Katsuji’s hand once and then added more brightly, “Now come on – let’s get something in our bellies before our next class, okay?”

 

Katsuji smiled slightly in return. “Okay.”

 

Kevin and Katsuji headed to Transfiguration, hoping to find Brendan there when they arrived. Unfortunately he seemed to have disappeared; Kevin tried not to look too concerned by his absence.

 

On the way out of the classroom, Kevin and Katsuji were stopped by a voice behind them.

 

“Kevin!”

 

Kevin turned to see Astoria and Arjuna striding up to them.

 

“Hi,” he greeted brightly. As soon as the word had left his lips, though, he noticed how much less cheerful Astoria and Arjuna looked.

 

“Kevin, Daphne said something about your friend’s father being mentioned in the Stormer,” Astoria said urgently.

 

“We know,” Kevin cut her off quietly. His face had become much more somber. “We found out at lunch.”

 

Astoria’s shoulders slackened slightly; she’d clearly been worried about their reactions.

 

“I guess that explains why Halkirk wasn’t in class,” Arjuna murmured grimly.

 

Katsuji nodded, looking away uncomfortably. As the four set off down the hall together, Arjuna glanced from Katsuji to Kevin, her black eyes narrowing slightly.

 

“Cho’s been rather quiet too,” she said lowly, “though from what I gather, it’s for the opposite reason.”

 

“What do you mean?” Kevin asked, his eyebrows furrowing slightly.

 

“Cho's father is friends with some of the people who formed the Guild of Griffins,” Arjuna explained, “you know, the group Adrian Enrouge is with? Cho thinks there must have been a misunderstanding, as the Guilders have said they want to bring the worlds together in peace and harmony, but…well, there’s just no way to know, is there, if the Prophet won’t report it…”

 

“We asked Professor Burbage about it in class, though, and she had to admit that Enrouge is a little unstable,” said Astoria. “She said that Enrouge has always been very interested in Muggle weapons…she thinks he might want to use the Muggle military against the Death Eaters – maybe use some of their more powerful weapons to fight them…”

 

Katsuji looked horrified. “You mean like the atomic bomb?”

 

“Yeah, but don’t worry, no one in their right mind would support that,” Arjuna said quickly. “I mean, it’s like Papa says – people worry about their own sphere of the world – and a weapon like that would more than infringe on everyone’s spheres just a touch, right?”

 

Kevin’s stomach sank. “…So it’s possible the Stormer was telling the truth after all?”

 

“It looks like it,” Astoria confirmed sadly.

 

Noticing the others’ hopeless faces, Arjuna turned to them with new ferocity in her eyes.

 

“What the Stormer said doesn’t matter,” she said firmly. “None of it does. No matter what tiny shreds of truth might crop up in its articles from time to time, its goal is still the same – to divide us…and even if the Guilders are suggesting this terrible thing, that doesn’t make the Stormer and its blood purity nonsense any less awful and untrue!”

 

Arjuna’s confidence brought the color back to Kevin’s cheeks.

 

“Right,” he agreed optimistically. “And honestly, who says we have to support the Guilders, just because they hate Cuffe, or support Cuffe just because he hates the Guilders? I think they’re both wrong – I’m sure everyone else knows that as well – ”

 

Kevin had been about to say something else, but just as he strode past a particular hallway he saw a pair of slightly older wizards confronting each other in the far corner.

 

Thinking it might be a fight but unsure if they should step in, Kevin abruptly flung his arm out in front of the others, forcing them to back up and hide along the wall so they couldn’t be seen.

 

“Kevin – ?” started Astoria, but Kevin quickly turned to her, his pointer finger over his lips in a silencing gesture.

 

“I know Bridget wasn’t the only one down there that night,” a familiar voice spat, “and I know she’s not the sort to buy poisons in Knockturn Alley.”

 

“Whatever you’re insinuating, Potter, just spit it out,” said a drawling voice. “I’m in no mood for games.”

 

“I know you poisoned Ron, Malfoy!”

 

Astoria, Arjuna, Katsuji, and Kevin all stared at each other, visibly stricken.

 

Malfoy didn’t reply at first. When he did, his voice was so quiet they could barely hear it.

 

“…You know that, do you?”

 

There was another long pause. Then Malfoy said, quieter still,

 

“Then why don’t you just…prove it?”

 

The silence that followed was almost agonizing. It dragged on so long that Astoria couldn’t prevent herself from peeking around the corner.

 

Malfoy and Harry were right up in each other’s faces. Harry was facing away from Astoria, so Malfoy’s pale, pointed face was the more visible of the two, and honestly, the boy who had once been Slytherin’s Seeker looked positively ill. There were horrible dark bags under his eyes and his cheeks looked noticeably sallow. His pale complexion was tinted with gray, with no hint of healthy color, and all of the cruel charisma that was so familiar to his features was gone. Astoria thought to herself that she would never have recognized this hollow shell of a boy as the horrid brat who had pushed her into a punch bowl at a Ministry Christmas party when she was eight, had Harry not addressed him by his name.

 

Malfoy’s gray eyes blazed as they bore into Harry’s green ones, but when his mouth twisted upward in something like a smirk, it only served to make his expression look more painful…like a cat that had been hit by a car and was left dying at the side of a road…

 

“…You can’t, can you?” Malfoy whispered.

 

His smirk fading, he faced Harry with a gaze so full of hate it made him look half mad.

 

“If you had proof, then you would’ve turned me into Dumbledore – but you don’t, because the proof isn’t there. I didn’t lay a finger on those bottles. Whatever you think you know about me, Potter…you don’t know a damn thing.”

 

His expression grew colder, number, as he shoved his way past Harry, knocking his shoulder against his as he went. Astoria shrank back and hid herself again, expecting Malfoy to round the corner any second –

 

“An innocent man doesn’t stiffen like a stray cat when he gets confronted,” Harry said abruptly.

 

The sound of Malfoy’s footsteps came to an abrupt halt. An echoing, anxiety-inducing silence once again rippled down the hall. Then, after a long, tense moment, Malfoy strode out of the hall, barreling right past the group of fourth-years without even having seen them.

 

As he left, however, Astoria couldn’t help but notice how pale and scared his face looked, and for the first time in her life, she found herself wondering if Draco Malfoy, who for as long as she could remember had been nothing but a petty, merciless bully, had more demons than he let on.

Chapter Text

Upon learning what the Stormer’s report contained, the Creevey brothers had made it their personal mission to track down as many copies of it as they could and destroy them. Colin had been angry and upset enough when Uric Cuffe’s anti-Muggle-born writings made it into the Daily Prophet, so reading his unfiltered, disgusting opinion and knowing it was becoming more acceptable to people by the day was enough to infuriate him. Dennis’s anger had been colder and more intense – from where he stood, Cuffe had gone too far when he deliberately targeted Bridget and had now become an active threat to be dealt with.

 

At lunchtime Colin and Dennis met at the Gryffindor table to discuss their progress.

 

“I tracked down about eighteen copies,” said Colin in irritation. “I was able to burn most of them, though Flitwick came by before I could force Romilda Vane to give me her copy.”

 

He neglected to mention how Flitwick’s arrival might have also saved him from getting a Stinging Jinx to the face.

 

“Only got eight so far, but I overheard one of the Slytherins muttering about where her friend could get a copy,” said Dennis with a slight smirk. “I reckon I can just pay a little visit there after Herbology and burn the lot.”

 

It was sort of funny how, even after all these years, the two boys had hardly changed. Yes, perhaps they’d both gotten a little taller (though Colin was still barely a head taller than Dennis despite the two year age gap), and perhaps Colin’s hair had only gotten blonder while Dennis’s hair had stayed mousy brown, but they still hunched in toward each other and talked quickly and enthusiastically amongst themselves like they were still back in grade school – like it was still just the two of them against the world.

 

Colin opened up his copy of the Daily Prophet and continued reading.

 

“Ugh, they put an apostrophe in ‘it’s’ when it’s supposed to be possessive,” he scoffed. “Dennis, gimme your quill, will you?”

 

Having noticed the sourness in Colin’s face before he’d even spoken, Dennis had taken out the quill in anticipation of the request, and so Colin could immediately get to work scribbling his corrections. Most people would likely have told Colin that good grammar was less important than the sentiment behind the articles, but Dennis knew his brother well enough to never suggest that.

 

“Anything decent today?” Dennis asked lightly.

 

Colin looked up.

 

“…Well, Goodfellow’s stuff’s good, as always. He put in a short piece about Scrimgeour’s newest security measures for the Ministry and even though he had to flatter him, he was still able to get across how extreme they are – said that Scrimgeour’s measures could give the Gringotts goblins a run for their money – ”

 

Dennis snorted in amusement. “Well, I s’pose that old prat Scrimgeour looks a touch like a goblin already…”

 

The owls had started flapping overhead. A good flock of them headed over toward the Slytherin table, and Colin watched them drop a stack of letters off in front of Bridget. His dark eyes narrowed.

 

“Bridget’s gotten more post,” he muttered.

 

Dennis glanced over his shoulder at the Slytherin table, his face turning more solemn. “…More hate mail in response to the Stormer’s bunk, you think?”

 

“Yeah,” Colin said crossly. His cheeks started to flush angrily. “It’s just disgusting, the sort of stuff they’ve been saying – claiming she was trying to take revenge for Ron having beaten her – that she stole magic from some really talented Pureblood as a kid in order to get here! Apparently the Slytherins have even been trying to force her not to sit at their table, because they don’t want anything to do with her – ”

 

“It’s right rotten,” agreed Dennis vehemently, his righteous anger making his tone quieter in contrast to his brother, whose volume tended to increase when he was mad. “Do you reckon we could convince Dumbledore to let her room with us Gryffindors for a while? Could protect her from all of this mess – ”

 

“I doubt it,” Colin said begrudgingly. “Even if Dumbledore said yes, I doubt Bridget would – too proud to run away, I’d say – ”

 

“S’pose we can’t blame her for that, eh?”

 

It was as the two brothers talked amongst themselves that an owl flopped down between them and dropped a letter onto Dennis’s plate. The younger Creevey picked it up – it was in a distinctive mint green envelope addressed in emerald green ink, though the address was cut off in the corner with an intrusive purple “OPS” stamp, confirming that it had been examined and approved by the Ministry of Magic’s new Owl Post Security board.

 

Colin and Dennis Creevey

Gryffindor House

Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry

 

Dennis immediately ripped it open. It was a card with the words “Thank you!” enchanted to dance across the front in big, overly excitable blue and red letters. When he opened it, a strange lemony smell that reminded him of cleaning supplies touched his nose, and he found a little note on the inside.

 

Thanks for helping out with my article! I couldn’t write the amazing things I do without you.

Terence Higgs Goodfellow

 

“It’s from Goodfellow,” said Dennis, “thanking us for our input for his MagicChef report.”

 

Colin raised his eyebrows. “…Well, that’s nice of him, I suppose.”

 

He glanced around. A few other mint green envelopes had been deposited around the tables to other students – Arjuna, Cho, Eddie Carmichael, Susan Bones, Harry, and Hermione.

 

“Guess he’s sent a couple of ‘em – though I notice Pansy Parkinson and Hector Summerby didn’t get one,” Colin said smugly. “Didn’t like their sentiments, I s’pose…”

 

Dennis’s dark eyes ran over the card thoughtfully.

 

“Colin,” he said slowly, “can you give me some water? Conjure it up with your wand?”

 

Faintly surprised, Colin did as his brother requested, tapping Dennis’s goblet with his wand and filling it with water with the charm “Aquamenti.” Dennis then dipped his fingers in it and started brushing them against the card.

 

Colin’s eyes lit up.

 

“Do you think there’s a secret message?” he asked in a hushed, excited voice.

 

“Well, remember, I brought up how we used to use invisible ink,” Dennis whispered back eagerly, “how he should write the articles he wants inside the Daily Prophet with it, so we can read what’s really going on – maybe he ran with the idea – ”

 

As Dennis trailed his wet fingers along the card, however, nothing appeared. Undeterred, Colin plunged his hand into his schoolbag and fetched out his bright red Revealer eraser.

 

“Here, maybe he used an enchantment instead! He is wizard-born, after all…”

 

He started frantically rubbing the edge of the Revealer up against both sides of the card. Alas, like before, nothing happened.

 

Both Creevey brothers looked disappointed.

 

“Guess it was too much to hope for,” Colin said gloomily.

 

Dennis, however, could not quite let go of his original theory. Something didn’t add up about the cards – sure, perhaps Goodfellow had only sent them to the people he’d actually liked talking to as opposed to everyone he’d interviewed, but why would he put in so much work just to send them such impersonal, crisp little notes?

 

So Dennis held onto the card, resolving to do more tests later as he headed off for Herbology. The other third year Gryffindors and Hufflepuffs were already there by the time he arrived – he stopped outside the door of Greenhouse Three, just behind Owen and his friend Eleanor Bradstone.

 

“Hi, Dennis,” Owen greeted pleasantly.

 

“Hey, Owen,” answered Dennis.

 

The two had never been friends per se, but Owen was amiable enough of a person that Dennis didn’t mind the familiarity. Unlike Dennis, Owen was the sort of person who could make friends easily. Perhaps it was the laidback, good-natured air he let off, or perhaps it was just his comfort dealing with both Muggle and Wizard technology thanks to his mixed ancestry, but he’d always been able to get along with a wide array of people, whether Purebloods like Hector Summerby or Muggle-borns like Eleanor. It made Dennis feel a bit jealous, considering that the Creevey brothers had never had as easy of a time of making friends, but Dennis just couldn’t make himself dislike Owen. The Hufflepuff’s amiability just rubbed off too much on him for Dennis to really resent him.

 

Eleanor smiled at Dennis, and he avoided her eyes with a faint blush. She had always been quite pretty; she’d started wearing her black hair in a cute pixie cut that year, but it only served to better frame her pale face and small black eyes. Plus she was about the only thing that kept Dennis awake in History of Magic – she was the only student who ever raised her hand to ask questions in that class.

 

Owen noted the mint green envelope still clutched in Dennis’s hand and smiled slightly.

 

“Goodfellow wrote to you too, huh?” he asked.

 

Dennis blinked. “You got one?”

 

“Yeah – he asked some questions about Hannah, for the article. It was nice of him to send cards, wasn’t it? Don’t reckon that bat Rita Skeeter ever did that for any of her sources…”

 

“Yeah…” Dennis replied, though he couldn’t help but let his tone drift off into nothingness as he once again considered Goodfellow’s sparse note.

 

Professor Sprout arrived at that moment, looking chipper as she shuffled past her students to unlock the door and let them in. Dennis settled down in the back row as always – Owen and Eleanor took a station just to the left of him. Sprout started her lecture about Puffapods, but Dennis couldn’t help but let his attention drift away. He covertly snuck the card back out of its envelope and peeked at it again under the table.

 

The Hogwarts post was being monitored – Dennis knew that full well. Just the other day he’d overheard Professors McGonagall and Snape talking about how half of Bridget’s mail had been destroyed since they had come full of nasty hexes, poisons, and non-Ministry-approved insults. The OPS had even started destroying packages that came with any personalized enchantments (unless they were performed and verified by a sanctioned vendor like Zonko’s) in an attempt to deter the flood of jinxed notes and poisoned gifts. Why go through all of that potential scrutiny just to be polite? And besides, Goodfellow had been in Slytherin – he’d been very amiable, but he was still a Slytherin. And didn’t Slytherins idolize cleverness? So it wouldn’t be out of character for him to try to sneakily subvert the Owl Post Security board’s strict rules, right…?

 

“It’s weird, isn’t it?”

 

Dennis jumped, looking up quickly. Owen was facing the board, pretending to pay attention to Sprout’s lecture, but he continued to talk under his breath just loud enough for Dennis to hear him.

 

“The note was so short. Goodfellow doesn’t seem like the kind of guy to…be that brief, you know?”

 

Dennis felt an exhilarating wave of validation wash over him.

 

“I know,” he muttered back, “I mean, he and Colin and I, we were talking for almost twenty minutes, about lots of stuff…”

 

Owen nodded.

 

“I thought maybe he was using some sort of code…you know, to try to duck the OPS,” he whispered, his voice quite a bit slower than Dennis’s frenetic cadence. “I got a badge for breaking codes in Hippogriff Scouts…and I thought Goodfellow would probably be sharp enough to try it. But I couldn’t find anything. I mean, even in codes, you need a bit more to work with – ”

 

“I was thinking that it could be invisible ink,” Dennis cut him off. “Colin and I were telling him about it, when he visited – we used to use it a lot as kids, you see – send notes to each other that no one else could read and splash a bit of water on them to make the ink appear – only, we tried both water and a Revealer, and they didn’t work…”

 

Eleanor’s small black eyes lit up.

 

“Owen,” she whispered excitedly, “the lemon smell on the card – I bet Goodfellow used lemon juice!”

 

Both Owen and Dennis looked confused.

 

“Lemon juice – like the German lemon juice spies, you know?” Eleanor prompted.

 

“Afraid not, Elle,” Owen said amusedly. “We’re not history buffs like you, remember?”

 

Eleanor looked faintly impatient, but she kept the emotion in her voice and eyes very muted – she was not the sort to get overly animated. It made her look almost deadpan.

 

“During World War I the British army – the Muggle one, I mean – had been censoring a lot of mail,” she explained lowly. “I have a couple of books about the War at home. There were these German spies who'd been hiding out here and used this old formula for invisible ink that used lemon juice for their messages – it was so basic that the British Secret Service caught them right fast and sent them to the Tower for it, but I’d bet most wizards wouldn’t know about it. All you have to do is put a letter marked with lemon juice over a flame, and you’ll reveal the message.”

 

Dennis’s entire face lit up. “Brilliant!”

 

Owen was smiling broadly too. “Dennis, let’s meet after class…then we can test it.”

 

Once Herbology was over, the three broke away from their respective housemates and headed off together toward the Lake. Once they’d settled themselves under a large tree, they peeked around for any possible observers and, once they determined the coast was clear, Dennis took out the card and his wand.

 

Incendio!”

 

Unfortunately his Fire-Summoning Spell was too powerful – in an instant, the card had caught fire. Dennis dropped it with a yelp, but fortunately it had been completely burnt to cinders by the time it reached the ground.

 

“Good thing we have a back-up,” said Owen calmly, smiling slightly. “Let me try this time – I think I can manage it.”

 

Dennis nodded sheepishly. Owen had always been better at Charms than he had.

 

Owen took out his own lemon-scented card, holding his wand significantly farther away from the back of the card than Dennis had.

 

Incendio.”

 

His wand burst into a much more controlled flame. Very carefully, he ran the flame-touched wand back and forth over the back of the card.

 

“Something’s appearing,” he said excitedly.

 

Dennis and Eleanor peeked over his shoulder.

 

“Guy – Guild,” Dennis read each word slowly as it appeared, “accusationstrue. Ministry…shadow – shadowingGuilders. OPS…tight – tightensonMinistryHogwarts…Di – DiagonandMungo’s.”

 

Owen gave a visible start. “St. Mungo’s? I didn’t know they were regulating St. Mungo’s mail too…”

 

Eleanor immediately looked concerned. “Owen, the package you sent…”

 

Owen glanced at Dennis, his face more overtly worried than Eleanor’s. “I sent Ron my own box of handmade Fizzing Whizbees a few days ago…I thought they might cheer him up…”

 

“The OPS has been destroying all packages with hand-done enchantments,” Dennis recalled, visibly upset. “So Ron wouldn’t have gotten your present!”

 

“And if any of Ron’s other friends sent anything with personalized magic on it, he probably wouldn’t have gotten those either,” said Eleanor sadly.

 

Owen’s eyes narrowed slightly, becoming much more serious as he handed his copy of Goodfellow’s card to Dennis.

 

“Tell your brother to meet the rest of the Cooking Club down in the kitchens tonight,” he said. “I’ll talk to the others. We need to come up with something, if we want Ron to get everything we send him.”

 

Dennis nodded firmly. “I’ll tell Harry, Hermione, and Ginny too – they aught to know.”

 

That evening after dinner, Colin came down to the kitchens, Goodfellow’s card in hand. As he approached the portrait, he came across Cho.

 

“Hey, Cho,” he said, trying to smile despite the anxiety he felt.

 

Cho attempted a weak smile in return. “Hi, Colin.”

 

She seemed a little paler than usual. Colin had heard something about Cho’s father and the Guild and had a feeling he knew why.

 

“Is your father okay?” he asked. “I mean, I know the mail’s watched and he probably can’t say much, but…”

 

He didn’t really know how to finish, so his sentence stagnated. Cho seemed to appreciate the sympathy, though.

 

“Yes, he’s all right,” she said softly. “I got a letter from him this morning. He didn’t say anything about the Guild – probably couldn’t – but he seemed chipper enough.”

 

Despite this, her black eyes still drifted off toward the ground. Colin impulsively reached a hand out and patted her arm reassuringly.

 

“I’m sure he’ll be okay!” he told her kindly, his tone once again just as fast as his brain was moving. “I mean, you’re awful smart, so I’m sure he is too – and let’s be honest, the Ministry seems to have a shortage of brains – I mean, last year a bunch of fifth year students bust into Department of Mysteries all on their own, right?”

 

“My father and mother work for the Ministry,” Cho said amusedly.

 

Colin opened his mouth to awkwardly apologize, but Cho stopped him.

 

“Thank you,” she said, her lips touched with a soft, sincere smile.

 

They approached the portrait of the fruit bowl. Cho extended a hand, tickled the pear, and the portrait swung open, allowing them entrance. When they entered the kitchens, they found most of the others waiting for them – Hannah, Millicent, Astoria, Arjuna, Kevin, Bridget, Owen, and Rose had all settled themselves around the kitchen, though unlike usual none of them had taken out any cooking supplies.

 

“Cho! Colin!” said Hannah. She walked right up to them, putting a hand on each of their shoulders and squeezing. “Glad you could make it.”

 

Colin glanced around to the others, his anxiety on his face. “So you all heard about Goodfellow’s message?”

 

“I told them,” said Owen, nodding.

 

“I guess it makes sense that if they tightened security here, they’d also do it at St. Mungo’s,” said Arjuna sensibly, though she didn’t seem particularly pleased. “I mean, it’s tightened here because of Ron getting poisoned, and now Ron’s over there.”

 

Bridget scowled. “Even if the idea made any sense, the security itself is nonsense. My gift didn’t have magic in it, but that post belongs to its recipient, no one else. Ron deserves his privacy – all of us do.”

 

Cho nodded. “I understand the desire to protect people – I’ve heard that a lot of dangerous packages have gotten filtered out by the OPS before they could reach the school, so there have been some benefits…but they’re clearly throwing out the good along with the bad.”

 

The last member of the group – Daphne – finally arrived. She had two large leather-bound books under her arm, one orange and one white.

 

“Evening, everyone,” she greeted the others coolly.

 

Surprisingly her face was not the least bit concerned; instead her lips were curled up in the faintest of satisfied, refined smirks.

 

“As luck would have it,” Daphne said breezily, “I have a solution.”

Chapter Text

Ron received several more packages, cards, and letters over the course of the week. A few of them, like Colin’s and Cho’s, bore the distinctive old-sock-like smell that indicated they’d been copied, but some of them, like Rose’s and Seamus’s, were innocent enough that they got through unscathed. Ginny, Harry, and Hermione’s birthday presents had also arrived; sadly Ron wouldn’t be able to use his new Quidditch gloves until he got back to Hogwarts, but his mother helped him put on his new bright orange Chudley Cannons scarf and Jengu had been kind enough to help him look over some of the new recipes in the huge cookbook Hermione had sent. Some food dishes also made it through safely; Hannah had sent Ron a delicious blackberry pie, while Arjuna had sent a package of deep-fried, crispy snacks stuffed with minced meat that she called lukhmis. Mrs. Weasley even tried one, and was thoroughly charmed by it.

 

The present that made Ron happiest, though, was a bouquet of white flowers with a letter tucked inside.

 

Dear Ron,

I know a lot of the others are baking things for you, but under the circumstances I knew I had to send you these instead. Once a girl from my ballet class got in a car accident, and she and her dad both ended up in the hospital with broken limbs. My mum took me to the flower shop and we picked out the biggest, prettiest bouquets of chrysanthemums we could find to put next to their beds, to cheer up their hospital rooms. Mum always sends chrysanthemums whenever any of her friends are going through something difficult; she says they mean optimism.

When you first got poisoned, it felt like I was in an awful nightmare. I couldn’t have been more relieved when I learned you were going to be all right. I know you’re still going to be in the hospital for a while, but the fact that you're alive is enough for me, at least for now. Still, I’m sure it sucks being in there, so I hope this helps.

Thank you for believing me. So many people don’t, but the fact that you’re not one of them comforts me more than anything else. Thank you for your friendship, and I hope you can send a letter back soon, even if you can’t write it yourself.

Love,

Bridget

 

The bouquet now sat on his bedside table next to the get-well cards from Neville, Lavender, Millicent, Dennis, Dean, Seamus, Luna, Kevin, Astoria, and Cho. Thanks to the healing potions he’d taken over the last week, he could now shift himself in bed enough to look at them, even though he didn’t have the dexterity needed to pick any of them up yet, and that had helped.

 

As the week came to a close, there was a change in Jengu. He suddenly seemed distracted and worried, and he kept looking over his shoulder and forgetting the schedule for Ron’s healing potions. When Ron had tried asking him about it, Jengu had been evasive.

 

“It’s nothing for you to worry about, Ron,” he said with a slightly strained smile. “All you need to worry about right now is getting better – not my personal problems.”

 

The Ministry had been placing tighter security around the wards as of late. According to Mr. and Mrs. Weasley, there was now an Auror who monitored the halls, beadily observing all of the guests and staff members as they migrated around St. Mungo’s. Apparently the Auror department had even originally wanted to allow their agents to patrol the medical wards at night, but the Chief Healer, Augusta Feverfew, had put her foot down and ordered them to leave the patients be.

 

‘Maybe that Auror is what’s got Jengu spooked,’ Ron thought. ‘I’m sure anybody would be a little unsettled by that kind of scrutiny.’

 

That weekend Harry, Hermione, and Ginny used the Floo Network to come for a visit. When they entered, Hermione was carrying a weird orange book under her arm.

 

“Whatcha reading, Hermione?” Ron asked casually.

 

“Oh…just one of my old favorites,” Hermione answered pleasantly.

 

She glanced over her shoulder cautiously. The rest of the ward had emptied out over the last week, but there were a handful of Healers just outside the open door to the ward. Ginny, successfully feigning casualness, sidled over to the door and closed it.

 

Muffliato,” Harry whispered, pointing his wand at the door.

 

Ron raised an eyebrow at the three curiously. Harry grinned.

 

“We just don’t want anyone to overhear,” he said lowly. “We promised to make sure no one could potentially eavesdrop on us by noon. At least the ward’s empty, which makes it easier – we thought we might have to set off a Decoy Detonator.”

 

“Why?” asked Ron with a frown. “Promised who?”

 

“We’ll explain later,” said Hermione, her face turning more concerned as she asked, “How are you feeling?”

 

Ron gave a weak shrug. “Better, I s’pose…still can hardly move, but at least I can sit up and such. Wish I could scratch my nose when I want to, though. How’s the team looking?”

 

“Cormac’s…passable,” Harry said halfheartedly.

 

“He’s a complete twat,” scoffed Ginny.

 

“He’s a decent enough player,” Harry explained, “but his attitude is pretty shoddy.”

 

“He kept puffing himself up and flirting with Demelza and me the entire practice,” said Ginny scornfully. “I wanted to cast a Bat Bogey Hex on him, but fortunately he got hit in the face with a Bludger, so I didn’t have to.”

 

Harry couldn’t quite keep the smile off his face at the memory either. “Believe me, we’ll all be really glad to have you back.”

 

Ron smiled. “I’ll be glad to be back too.”

 

Out the corner of his eye, he noticed Jengu walk past the window, glancing over his shoulder nervously. Ron frowned.

 

“…Hey, did you guys see that Auror on the way in?” asked Ron.

 

“That big ugly one with the humorless face?” Ginny said darkly. “Yeah – looked like a human vulture. Kept sweeping around, glaring at everyone suspiciously…”

 

“He was like Filch except worse,” agreed Harry. “As we went through security, it felt like he was trying to smell misbehavior on our shoulders, he was so close.”

 

“I reckon he’s there because of the Guild of Griffins,” whispered Hermione.

 

“The what?” said Ron.

 

Hermione and Ginny quickly explained what they knew, including the secret message Goodfellow had sneaked in.

 

“…So now apparently the Ministry’s tailing any and all members,” said Hermione. “I’ll bet they’re trying to find other members too, ones they don’t know about.”

 

Ron’s stomach squirmed. Jengu had expressed sympathies for Enrouge’s position that one time…but he’d never said anything about wanting to form a private Muggle army to fight the Death Eaters! Jengu didn’t seem like the type to go along with something so stupid. Was it a misunderstanding? Was Jengu not really a member of the group, but had just liked some of their ideas?

 

Harry’s green eyes narrowed slightly. “It’s ridiculous. Sure, maybe Enrouge suggested something stupid, but the Death Eaters are killing people. That’s what the Ministry should be worrying about, not trying to hunt down these Guilders…”

 

“Harry,” Ginny stopped him abruptly.

 

She nodded to the clock. It was almost noon.

 

“Check the door,” Harry told her.

 

Ginny darted over to the other side of the doorway, covertly watching for anyone outside who might try to enter.

 

“It’s clear.”

 

Ron looked from Harry to Ginny, confused. “…What…?”

 

Hermione took his hand. Ron couldn’t feel any sort of warmth from the action, but at least he could vaguely sense she was holding it this time.

 

“We’ll explain in a minute,” she murmured gently.

 

The clock counted down to noon – five seconds – four – three – two –

 

CRACK.

 

A familiar house elf abruptly appeared in the center of the ward floor, dressed in his most obnoxious maroon-colored socks and a new red hat and carrying an orange book identical in appearance to the one Hermione was carrying.

 

Dobby?” Ron choked in surprise.

 

Master Weasley!” Dobby said brightly. “So good to see you!”

 

The little elf thrust both of his tiny arms around Ron’s legs under the sheets, squeezing them tight in his best attempt at a hug. Ron grinned.

 

“Good to see you too, Dobby…but what…?”

 

In a minute,” Hermione reiterated softly.

 

She passed Dobby the orange book she’d been holding, and Dobby gave her his identical copy in return. Then, with a little bounce, the house elf leapt back down to the floor.

 

“Get well soon, Master Weasley!” said Dobby, waving a long-fingered hand in a cheerful goodbye.

 

With that, he disappeared with another CRACK.

 

Ginny left her place by the door, grinning from ear to ear, as she returned to Ron’s bedside.

 

“Go ahead and open the book, Ron,” she said eagerly.

 

Hermione placed the orange leather book in his lap. Ron, biting his lip, put his hand awkwardly on the cover, flapping it around until he could slide his digits under the orange leather and slap the book open.

 

The name “Ronald Bilius Weasley” was written into the interior cover, and on the first page was a letter written in flawlessly beautiful penmanship.

 

Dear Ron,

This is a handcrafted Kransimir scrapbook. Like a two-way mirror, it allows two people to talk back and forth with each other, only through the written word instead of face-to-face. Anything written, drawn, pasted, or taped into either scrapbook will instantly appear in the other. It also includes the additional privacy measure that only the owner(s) whose full name is written into the cover can open and read its contents. Once it's closed, if anyone else opens it, all they will see are some generic pictures Colin has taped in for you. As of yet, this kind of scrapbook is not on the market, as its creator is still saving up for his own workshop back in Bulgaria, so no one else will have one or know how it works. He’s working on prototypes for more advanced models that would allow multiple people to contact each other through them, but for now, I suppose this will do. Our copy will stay in the kitchens, so that any member of the Cooking Club can access it. Still, for security, we'll have to keep the book's existence purely on a need-to-know basis, so I'm afraid I'm just keeping your sister, Potter, and Granger in the fold.

Even though I'm sure you won't be able to write back yet, I expect receiving letters and pictures will still be of some comfort. Be strong: you will get through this, and until you do, imagine the great triumph you'll feel upon your return to Hogwarts!

Love from

Daphne

 

Ron looked up at the others, stunned. “…Wait, so…anything you write in this – ”

 

“ – Will appear immediately and be completely private,” finished Ginny in satisfaction. “We brought a fake copy filled with Colin’s pictures with us so that everyone would ‘see the book arrive,’ so the Healers won’t ask where you got it and get suspicious. As far as anyone else will know, it’ll just be a cute little scrapbook without any magic in it whatsoever!”

 

Hermione squeezed Ron’s hand, her eyes sparkling with excitement. “Go on, turn the page!”

 

Ron once again slipped his clumsily stiff hand under the page with some difficulty and flipped it over.

 

The page was filled with shorter postscripts.

 

We miss you so much, Ron! It'll be so much fun to have you in the kitchens again.

Love,

Hannah

 

You can do it, Ron! We believe in you!

Kevin

 

Stay strong, Ron! If anyone can get through this, it's you.

Astoria

 

PENGUINS! Sorry, I wanted to make you laugh – hope it worked!!

xoxoxo

Rose

 

See you soon, Weasley.

Millicent B

 

I know being stuck in bed is no fun at all, but this should hopefully brighten up your days some. Get well soon!

Owen

 

Get well soon, Ron! I promise I'll tape in a new picture every single day until you get back!!

Cheers!

Colin

 

Ron,

I can't imagine the discomfort and pain you're going through. I've only ever been to St. Mungo's once after accidentally setting my room on fire when I was little, and the experience at St. Mungo's was easily the worst part, as it was the first and only time I've ever seen my father cry. It's such a barren, unhappy place, which couldn't be a worse prison for such a generous and cheerful person as you. But if there's one thing I learned while watching you in the MagicChef competition, it is that no chains can hold you, however strong and heavy they might be.

Fight on, Ron, and don't give up! One can only really fail when one stops trying.

Arjuna

 

Everyone's said it all already, so here's a quick drawing for you! Hope you like it, and hang in there.

Love,

Cho

 

Ron –

Hope the flowers reached you, but in case they didn't, let me just say thank you for believing in me. I hope you know how much that means to me, and I hope you know how much your friendship means, too. There's this old saying about how you're braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think...if you were a quote, Ron, you'd definitely be that one.

Thank you,

Bridget 

 

Cho’s note was embellished with a small sketch depicting a grinning Ron with a cute little crown on his head and a pair of tiny dragon wings sprouting out of his back.

 

By the time Ron had finished reading all the notes, he felt his eyes filling up with tears, though he quickly forced them back. Hermione, Harry, and Ginny all smiled as they watched him reread the notes several times; Harry came over to Ron’s other side, sat down on the bed, and wrapped an arm around his shoulders.

 

Then, to everyone’s surprise, as they sat there together, they noticed words starting to appear, little by little, on the open opposite page.

 

Hi, Ron!

Just got the fake book back! I can’t believe that Daphne’s idea really worked!! Not that she isn’t brilliant, but you know...

I’m enclosing an editorial that appeared in the Prophet this morning…as soon as I read it I knew you and the others just had to see it!

We’ll write back more later!

Colin

 

A few moments later, several Daily Prophet clippings pasted together so that the letter could be read seamlessly appeared underneath the note.

 

To the readers of the Daily Prophet,

 

I have both written and spoken publicly many times in the past as a politician, as a resource, and as an enthusiastic author. But today, I write to all of you solely as a citizen of the Wizarding World and as a grandmother of two sweet little boys.

 

For the last thirty years, I have watched the Wizarding World evolve in ways I could never have imagined possible. When I was a little girl, my parents were captivated by news of Grindelwald’s reign of terror raging throughout Eastern Europe. I remember how they would spout off the numbers of Muggle casualties, and how much the numbers would blur. In the span of one day it’d be 50, then 35, and then 65, and even then it was all still just guesswork. Even now, most numbers in the assembled lists of Grindelwald’s Muggle casualties are estimations more than anything else – mostly because, back then, it was seen as more important to help wizards identify their deceased family members, as Muggles couldn’t be told the real rationale behind their relatives’ demise. I remember as a child being forbidden to play at the local playground because so many Muggle children liked to go there…though my brother and I still used to sneak out from time to time, under our parents’ noses. It was always a lot of fun, even when some of the Muggle children would taunt us for our “funny clothes.” I learned how to play Jacks on that playground, and Maximus got to play with a cap gun, which was a toy version of a real Muggle weapon that shoots pieces of metal into people’s bodies. But even the Muggles knew things were dangerous back then – we’d have to all run inside whenever the sirens went off, though our Muggle friends would have to go underground into these secret “bunkers,” while Maximus and I simply got to run back home. Since our house was Unplottable and protected with magical shields, the bombs didn’t have as much effect on us as it did on our neighbors. My father served as one of the Minister’s aids at the time and often had to travel abroad to Bulgaria and Romania for work, and I remember Mother waiting up every night to make sure he arrived home on time after every single trip. Even long after Grindelwald fell Mother would still never be able to sleep until Father arrived home.

 

By the time I attended Hogwarts, Grindelwald had been defeated, and with it, small changes started to creep in. Minister Spencer-Moon hired a few new employees from Muggle families in different departments. The term “Muggle-born” was used more actively, as the previous, more disgusting term reminded people too much of Grindelwald’s horrors. Muggle Studies became an optional class in my second year, and I was one of the first students to take it the following year. It was fascinating, delving into the trinkets and bobbles of the Muggle world and amusedly observing their interesting non-magical takes on our own magical innovations. Things like baseball bats and typewriters were charming novelties that made for great essay subjects. I was quite proud to receive an O on both my OWL and NEWT for Muggle Studies, as I knew knowledge of Muggles and their culture would more than serve me well at the Ministry of Magic.

 

Given the subject of this letter and the lengths to which my career has already been discussed by scholars and critics alike, I will not discuss my time at the Ministry in great detail. What I will discuss, however, are the feelings that lengthy career brought out in me – the horror, the anger, and more than any other, the grief. The day before I was to start my new job as Junior Undersecretary to the Minister in 1975, my best friend from Hogwarts, Georgette Fawcett, had been admitted to St. Mungo’s after having been mauled by werewolf Death Eater Fenrir Greyback. The next morning I got the news that she had passed away from her injuries. In 1976 I personally witnessed two of my coworkers die when a Death’s Head Shell exploded near our superior Minister Minchum’s podium. In 1979 my brother Maximus was possessed via the Imperius Curse and, under the direction of the Death Eaters, killed three members of the Order of the Phoenix before being killed by Sirius Black in self-defense. My father was killed in an attack near King’s Cross Station in 1980, and in the years following his death, Mother would still wander the house, delirious and unable to sleep, because she was waiting for Father and Maximus to come home.

 

The War had a steep cost for my family, and it’s taken a long time to rebuild from that. There were times, while I was in office, that my grief and anger likely affected my decisions, and because of that, there are people who I know I have wronged, and because many of them are no longer alive, I now have no chance to make up for the errors I made. Despite those mistakes, however, I deluded myself into thinking that I could simply move forward, away from them – and over the course of the next ten years, it felt like the Wizarding World had as well. Wizards started taking cues from Muggle clothing trends, wearing leather jackets and jeans. Muggle foods like pizza started popping up in wizard-owned restaurants. The registries of Ministry employees had more Muggle names than ever before, and for the first time in my memory, a band with a prominent Muggle-born member – the Weird Sisters – become the most popular wizard musicians in Great Britain.

 

Over time we’ve become comfortable with these little nuggets of Muggle influence cropping up in pop culture and even occasionally in our day-to-day lives. But as of late, the world has become a much scarier place, and in this atmosphere of fear, a bizarre hatred and distrust of Muggles and Muggle-born witches and wizards has seemingly sprouted up from nowhere, growing like parasitic weeds in our hearts and minds. This War between the Death Eaters and the rest of the Wizarding World has devolved, with the rest of our world being destroyed from within by a vicious civil war of blood politics. Where we once saw two different cultural backgrounds, we now see inferior and superior races. Suddenly we look at a 14-year-old Muggle-born witch who befriended all of the classmates working beside her and earned my respect for her brilliance and talent and see a fanged beast wishing to feed off of the magic of our precious Pureblood children! And all of this started not from the Death Eaters – but, I now realize, from us.

 

I am a mother of three and a grandmother of two. I grew up in a wizarding family with roots as far back as the 17th century, and although I have friends who came from Muggle families and got top grades in Muggle Studies while at school, I myself have little to no personal experience in the Muggle world. Over the course of many years, I subconsciously started to see Muggles as separate from us – not just physically, but also emotionally. It was never a malicious thing, but there was still a boundary there, as if I were still looking down at them from my window like when I was a child. Even when I studied them, my teachers would put quotes around Muggle phrases and compare their inventions frequently (and often unfavorably) to our magical counterparts. The Muggles’ funny traditions and quirks charmed me the way a puppy rolling over on its back can. And it was through my classes and society’s subconscious lessons that I had been coaxed into a thought process that deemed Muggles as fragile, pitiable, almost lesser creatures. But through reflection and through the counsel of good friends like Albus Dumbledore and Gordon Ramsay, I’ve learned that despite their lack of magical talent, they are in no need of help from the Wizarding World. They are resourceful enough and strong enough and smart enough to create their own world, without the use of magic – one that allows them to live, work, play, and create on their own terms. They are feeling, free human beings, with hearts and minds as brilliant as our own. They have their own wars to fight and their own demons to slay – and so they should neither be persecuted as inferior nor forcibly coaxed into fighting for our causes. They deserve to live their lives and deal with their own problems, while we deal with ours.

 

This surge in anti-Muggle sentiment does not come solely from hatred, but also from our society at large. We still, by and large, will judge someone favorably simply because of their family name. We still will hire someone from an established wizard family over someone from a Muggle one. We still feel a touch of surprise whenever we encounter a Muggle-born who shows impressive talent at magic, while expecting nothing less from a so-called “Pureblood.” And this all comes back to the way our magical society operates today. Because more people from magical families climb the ladder of power, we associate them with it, and because Muggle-borns often have to shed everything of who they were due to the Statute of Secrecy, we judge them for not having a wide circle of associates that we can refer to for recommendations. Because so many magical families have been able to build up solid reputations over the course of many years, we look down on those who have no such legacy, even though so many of the great oak trees that are those great magical families likewise started as a tiny, promising acorn of a witch or wizard. Because we see our own pain and struggles, we refuse to acknowledge those of others and refuse to consider how some of the gifts we’ve been given were at the expense of those others. Because we put in so much work to get ahead in today’s world, we disregard the fact that we may not have earned our rewards solely through that work, but also because of the esteem in our family name. Because we do not take the time to acknowledge how many more roadblocks are put in the way of Muggle-borns – the lack of magical support from their families, the difference in cultural background, the discrimination – we treat any shortcomings they express as evidence of lesser magic, rather than the result of many extraneous favors. Things that are old and established can feel familiar and comforting, but they can also give way to complacency and stagnation, and as valuable as tradition is, it should never be at the cost of progress.

 

I do believe our world is just and that these ideas of blood superiority will fade away, as they did when Grindelwald was defeated and He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named fell the first time…but it shall be up to us how many more people die before that happens. I lost so many loved ones in the First Wizarding War, and I hope beyond hope that this new generation of promising young witches and wizards, as well as my grandchildren’s generation, will not undergo the pain and grief that I had to. And so I challenge Uric Cuffe, Adrian Enrouge, and everyone else in between to look inward at yourselves. Acknowledge the cruelties and weaknesses in your heart that force you to solely see yourselves and your needs, at the expense of the rest of the world. Realize how much doom that line of thinking will bring both to you and others and, most of all, make a change.

 

Once long ago I fought for the Wizarding World’s right to party. Starting today, I shall take on a new fight – to destroy the evil not just in others, but also in myself – and I pray that the rest of the Wizarding World shall do the same.

 

Millicent Bagnold

Minister of Magic (1980-1990)

Chapter Text

March 7, 1997

Dear Ron,

 

Hope that the enchanted windows in St. Mungo's are as sunny as it is here...I'm not a Quidditch player, and even I thought it looked like a beautiful day for flying.

We welcomed two new members to the Cooking Club this week: a first year Slytherin named Richard Thorne and Owen's best friend from Hufflepuff, Eleanor Bradstone. We haven't told them about our scrapbook, but I think it's great having younger members join up. It really feels like our new club might stick around, you know?

 

Hope you're doing well!

Kevin

 


 

March 10, 1997

Dear Ron,

 

I found this editorial in the Daily Prophet today and thought you'd like it. Hope you're feeling all right!

 

Love,

Hannah

 


 

March 13, 1997

Hey Ron! Here are some pictures of Gryffindor's last practice before the game – the team looks great! I'm sure we'll kick Hufflepuff's butt on Friday!

 

I'll take pictures of the match and tape them in tomorrow! Hopefully that way, you can feel like you were really there with us!

Colin

 


 

March 15, 1997

Dear Ron,

 

We lost.

It was all Cormac McLaggen's fault – in the middle of the game, he tried lecturing the other players about their flying and such. When he stole Jimmy Peakes’s Beater bat and tried to show him how to use it "properly," Harry flew over to confront him, only for McLaggen to accidentally whack a Bludger right into his face and knock him out cold. Fortunately Ginny was close enough that she was able to catch Harry before he fell, and she and Demelza helped him to the ground. The final score was 320-60.

Harry's okay, fortunately, but he’s stuck in the Hospital Wing for a few days, and he’s understandably furious. I am too. After the game, the rest of the Gryffindor team gave McLaggen what-for, tearing into him about how he lost them the match and he should quit before Harry has to forcibly kick him off. McLaggen tried to argue, but you would've been so proud of Ginny, she didn't take any of it! She said that the least he could've done is try to fill your shoes, given that he was only ever your replacement, but from the start he failed to live up to you in every conceivable fashion, let alone be a decent Quidditch player. I probably wouldn't have called him an "entitled, obnoxious wanker with dicks for brains" like she did, but otherwise I quite agreed with her. You also probably would’ve loved Luna’s commentary, though she did frequently go way far a-field – at one point she spent ten whole minutes rambling about how one of the players had something called “Loser’s Lurgy.”

Fortunately, as Ginny reminded me, not all hope is lost. The totals still give Gryffindor a slim chance at the Quidditch Cup, as long as we win with a 300 point lead…and Ginny, Demelza, Dean, and Harry are all good enough to manage that, right? It'll be hard, but I'm sure we'll be able to do it.

I'm sorry that this letter hasn't come with better news. As always, we miss you so much.

 

Love from

Hermione

 


 

Dear Ron,

 

I'm sorry about the match. McLaggen is a perfect joke of a player and as far as I'm concerned, he should go flying off into the sun after what he pulled.

Here's a little drawing to cheer you up. I think I got McLaggen's swollen, oversized head down, though the Bludgers hitting him from all sides are a bit too big. What can I say, my sense of proportions was hampered somewhat by how much pain I wanted those balls to inflict.

 

Love,

Cho

 


 

Here are the pictures from the match, as promised. All of Gryffindor house is furious with McLaggen. Even Cho told him off when he tried talking to her in the hall afterwards...I couldn't have agreed with her more!

I'll send a nicer picture tomorrow – promise!

 

Later,

Colin

 


 

Dear Ron,

 

I'm really sorry about Gryffindor's loss. The whole thing was super unfair, and I know if things had been different, you would've been the Keeper Gryffindor needed. Can't say you would've won, of course – you were going up against our team, after all – but I know the match would've been much better if you'd been there. 

 

I've sent you a red velvet cake by owl post. We all know that the OPS won't let you have it for a couple of days, but I thought you'd need something sweet to cheer you up. In the meantime, don't worry...there's always next time! 

 

Keep your chin up!

Kevin

 


 

Dear Ron,

 

I've sent you an apple pie too. Hopefully the container Arjuna lent me will keep it warm even if the OPS has to examine it.

 

I know that you can't write back yet, but just know that we're here for you. 

 

Love,

Hannah

 


 

Dear Ron,

 

Whenever I'm dealt a horrible blow, I like to revisit this line that Professor Ramsay used in one of his cookbooks:

"I've had a lot of success; I've had failures, so I learn from the failure."

Failure always feels terrible at first, but it's never an ending unless you let it be. Your team can turn this around…and when you're back, then you Gryffindors can try to take down my team a peg or two. Key word being "try!" 

 

Don't give up!

Arjuna

 


 

March 16, 1997

I took the liberty of snatching McLaggen's Potions textbook earlier and modifying it before leaving it on the floor by the Gryffindor table so he could find it. I have no visuals to share, but just imagine the suffocated girlish scream when he opened the book and got a faceful of Jawbind Potion for his trouble.

You're welcome. 

 

MB

 


 

There’s that nicer picture I promised! I was able to snap this of McLaggen after he got the potion to the face! Nice one, Millicent!

 

Cheers!

Colin

 


 

March 17, 1997

 Hey Ron,

 

To get your mind off the match, here are some pictures from some of my favorite travel magazines. Did you know that Nigeria might have been home to one of the oldest wizard cities in the world? Here are some pictures of the lost city: Nigerian Cursebreakers and wizard historians are still excavating it. I just think it'd be so amazing to go there! 

 

Get well soon,

Owen

 


 

March 18, 1997

Dear Ron,

Owen's pictures reminded me of a trip Mother, Father, Astoria, and I once took to Istanbul when we were little. I'll tape pictures in below: I found them in one of my old scrapbooks. If you're wondering why Astoria's hair is so short, it's because she decided to try cutting it herself after seeing Uncle Hyperion shaving and coming to the conclusion that there was no need to have Mother and Father pay money at a salon when she could cut it herself. 

 

Hope you're well,

Daphne

 

P.S. from Astoria...

I still remember the wonderful smells of jasmine and spices in that bazaar. And fortunately I've gotten a lot better at cutting my own hair since then.

 


 

When I was seven, Mum, Dad, and I celebrated their tenth wedding anniversary by going to Prague! My favorite part was taking a horse-drawn carriage back to the guesthouse we were renting and seeing a double rainbow as soon as the rain cleared up. Here's a picture for you, Ron! Hopefully the rainbows will brighten up your day.

 

Love,

Hannah

 


 

I've never been out of the country before, but since we're sharing pictures, here's one of when Dad and I went to the Tower of London! The Tower in the picture is where the two "little princes" were locked up and probably murdered – I love how eerie it is! Also, the crows who live at the Tower are all adorable...there was this one that kept posing for me, so I took a good ten pictures of him. I named him "Photo!" 

 

xoxoxo

Rose

 


 

March 19, 1997

I've never been out of the country either, but Mum and I sometimes take day trips to local sites. Here we are at Westminster Abbey, paying our respects to William Wilberforce (we had just finished reading a book about him at the time). Sorry I'm not smiling – I'd just lost my two front teeth, so I was feeling a bit self-conscious. 

 

Hope you’re doing well, Ron!

Bridget

 


 

March 20, 1997

 My dream (at least travel-wise) is to go to New York City! I've been in love with it since I was little. I would love to see a Broadway show, shop for Christmas gifts in Times Square, try an authentic New York style pizza, and go to the very top of the Empire State Building! Plus it's the home of the Scamander Magizoological Museum, the largest magical creature museum in the world! Here are some pictures and drawings I’ve done – it took me a little while to compile all of it together, but I hope you like it!

 

Love,

Cho

 


 

March 21, 1997

 Dear Ron,

 

I found this in my trunk the other day! Figured it’d fit in with everyone else’s letters about traveling, and bring back some nice memories too...I’ll still never forget how excited I was when you first sent me this clipping with my birthday card.

 

See you on Saturday!

Harry

 


 

You went to Egypt!?!? You're so lucky, Ron! You have to tell me all about the pyramids and the curses and the sphinxes when you get back!

 

Owen

 


 

I remember seeing that article on the front page of the Daily Prophet! It's so strange how young you look there, Ron. You would've only been twelve or thirteen, right? It looks like it was a really fun trip.

 

Love from

Astoria 

 


 

March 24, 1997

 Hi Ron,

 

Here's a great editorial from the Prophet this morning that made me smile! R.J. Moon has a way with words.

The Cooking Club has four more new members: sixth year Hufflepuffs Sophie Roper, Lisa Turpin, and Oliver Rivers and Eloise Midgen, who you probably already know, as she's a Gryffindor in your year. Eloise has a particular talent for making crepes. 

 

Hope you're doing well! 

Kevin

 


 

March 26, 1997

 

Dear Ron,

 

I know you're not much of a reader, but I thought this quote was relevant enough to your situation that it might be helpful. It's from a very good Muggle book called The Secret Garden.

With one strong, steady push, the chair was inside the Secret Garden. Colin fell back against his pillow as the wheelchair stopped. He dropped his hands from his eyes and slowly looked around. Vines of green leaves covered the walls like a carpet. Splashes of purple, white, and pink blossoms covered the trees and bushes. Wings fluttered above the boy's head, and the sun gently warmed his thin, young body. A pink glow suddenly spread across his face, and Colin Craven, the boy who was convinced he would die, cried out, “I shall get well! I shall get well! And I shall live forever and ever and ever...”

Stay strong!

Arjuna

 


 

March 27, 1997

I remember The Secret Garden! I had to read it for school, though my favorite was Treasure Island. It's a Muggle book too, so you probably wouldn’t know it, Ron, but it’s really good! It’s about a boy named Jim Hawkins who finds a treasure map and sails to an island filled with pirate treasure and goes on an adventure. It's awesome!

 

Cheers!

Colin

 


 

That sounds cool, Colin. It kind of reminds me a little of the Darren, Cursebreaker books – I used to read them a lot as a kid. Did you read any of those, Ron? I've always loved the one where Darren sneaks into the Japanese Ministry of Magic to expose a wicked kelpie disguised as their Minister before it can kill again!

 

Owen

 


 

I've only read one of those books, but it was pretty cool. I've always been more into comic books, though, like The Adventures of Martin Miggs the Mad Muggle or X-Men! I really love Northstar; I was so disappointed when they cancelled the Alpha Fight series.

 

Kevin

 


 

March 28, 1997

 My favorite book's The Last Unicorn! Here's my favorite part from it:

 

“It's a rare man who is taken for what he truly is,” he said. “There is much misjudgment in the world. Now I knew you for a unicorn when I first saw you, and I know that I am your friend. Yet you take me for a clown, or a clod, or a betrayer, and so must I be if you see me so. The magic on you is only magic and will vanish as soon as you are free, but the enchantment of error that you put on me I must wear forever in your eyes. We are not always what we seem, and hardly ever what we dream. Still I have read, or heard it sung, that unicorns when time was young, could tell the difference 'twixt the two – the false shining and the true, the lips' laugh and the heart's rue.”

 

xoxoxo

Rose

 


 

Mum and I read The Hobbit a lot when I was little. It's a story about a Hobbit (which are these made-up creatures sort of like a friendly cross between a dwarf and a human -- basically, think Professor Flitwick, except with hairy feet) who goes on an adventure with twelve dwarfs and a wizard in order to slay an evil dragon that stole the dwarfs' treasure a long time ago. I always liked the idea of this little guy getting thrown into an adventure but then really proving himself when he's put in danger. 

 

Talk to you later, Ron!

Bridget

 


 

March 29, 1997

Mother and Father didn't give us a lot of books growing up unless they were textbooks, but Uncle Hyperion brought Daphne and me a copy of the original tales of Beedle the Bard once and the three of us spent the whole day reading The Fountain of Fair Fortune under the willow tree on the grounds. That one's always been my favorite, even if Mother and Father always disapproved of it.

 

Love from

Astoria

 


 

I always preferred The Warlock's Hairy Heart myself. It’s dark, yes, but the message is important: shut your heart away from love long enough, and it becomes monstrous. 

 

Hope you’re well, Ron –

Daphne

 


 

March 30, 1997

I love The Fountain of Fair Fortune! Mum, Dad, and I saw a production of it in Hogsmeade once when I was little – it was so pretty! I loved all the magical puppets they used. Ron, you would've loved the knight: Dad talked with the production designer after the show and she said she’d based his armor on a Quidditch Keeper's uniform!

 

Love,

Hannah

 


 

April 1, 1997

I read the Tale of the Three Brothers over and over as a kid. I think the moral is so important, not to be afraid of Death just because it's mysterious. It’s something I think Shakespeare tackles beautifully in Hamlet, when Hamlet accepts death with grace, while still pleading his friend to tell his story. Though Babbity Rabbity is a fun read too.

 

Arjuna

 


 

I like the morals of the others, but I agree with Astoria and Hannah, I like Fair Fortune best. It has the most interesting and compelling characters, I think, and I always loved the ending. I loved drawing Amata and the knight when I was little – can't find any of my old drawings right now, so I guess I'll just sketch one quickly now!

 

Love,

Cho

 


 

April 2, 1997

My favorite book has always been Matilda. It's a Muggle story about a very smart little girl who lives with her abusive family and finds true friends when she goes to school, and even ends up discovering that she has a kind of magic, too! I've always related to it a lot, though Matilda's family reminds me a lot of Harry's aunt and uncle. I don't know if it'd be something you'd like, Ron, but the ending where Matilda gets to move into a new house with her kind teacher at the end always made me happy.

Hope you're feeling all right – we all really miss you! 

 

Love from

Hermione

 


 

April 6, 1997

Dear Ron,

 

In Defense Against the Dark Arts today, Neville showed Snape up by nonverbally disarming Crabbe! Snape didn't give him any points, of course, but he looked so surly about the fact that Neville of all people had managed to cast a nonverbal spell before the students from his house! Though he did take the opportunity to rub it in my face, saying that I should have done it months ago, if Neville could do it. Neville looked guilty about it, but I frankly don't care – I'm so proud of him!

Hope to come visit again this weekend – we'll make sure to come in the morning, before your physical therapy session with Jengu. Ginny has told me to tell you not to strain yourself, because you’d look like a idiot injuring yourself even further when you’re trying to get better. I wouldn’t say that exactly, but please be careful all the same.

 

See you soon,

Harry

 


 

April 8, 1997

Enclosing another great editorial from R.J. Moon –- whoever this person is, they really know how to write! I particularly love this quote:

“Wisdom is often a trait associated with age, but at present, no adult at the Ministry of Magic has stepped forward to address the growing threat in a meaningful way. There has been plenty of action, of course, but the vast majority of it has been thoughtless and frenetic to the point that the gesture is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Cheers!

Colin

 


 

April 10, 1997

 

Hi Ron,

 

It's a bit gray outside today, but fortunately things are reasonably cheerful here. The Cooking Club has three new members: first year Hufflepuff James Tuckett, third year Slytherin Byron Miller, and Gryffindor second year Euan Abercrombie. All of them have great potential, but Euan in particular reminds me of you – he's a real risk taker with flavors!

Cho's been working on some concepts for a logo for our club. She said she'll sketch them in later so you can see them...I'm sure they'll be great!

 

Kevin

 


 

Here you go, Ron,

 

These are the logo concepts I've been working on. I particularly like how the last one with the crossed wand and mixing spoon turned out. I also finished this sketch of our 21 club members – it was hard to fit everybody in, so it took a while, but I think it turned out pretty well! Hope it’s okay I put you over on the left with the Slytherins rather than next to Colin – you’re just so much taller than him, and I knew I just had to put you and Bridget next to each other. I hope to have a copy inked and colored by the time you get back!

 

Love,

Cho

 


 

April 12, 1997

Dear Ron,

 

A lot of people are sending in editorials to the Prophet now – the paper’s started expanding their section, probably to keep up with all the submissions. I'd bet it's largely thanks to Bagnold speaking out...everyone suddenly feels inspired to speak out too! It's so exciting.

I don't want to take up too much room, so here are the best ones. A lot of them are signed with obvious pennames, but judging by his writing style, I think “S. Seeker” has to be Goodfellow. Hope you like them!

 

Love from

Astoria

 


 

April 13, 1997

Pansy got in her head to confront Lily Moon for the Daily Prophet's recent editorials. Even if Moon claimed that she doesn't have anything to do with "R.J. Moon," Pansy tried to hex her for being a liar, but your sister protected Moon by setting a Bat Bogey Hex on her. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't smiling just a little. 

 

MB

 


 

I was smiling more than a little. And I'm sure you are too, right, Ron?

 

Love,

Bridget

 


 

Was able to catch this candid shot of Pansy getting hit with Ginny's Bat Bogey Hex…priceless!

 

Cheers!

Colin

 


 

April 15, 1997

Mr. Whiskers says hi! I had to take this picture on my bed, since Mr. Whiskers is too scared to leave the dorm most of the time. He didn’t like the magical camera, though – the smoke startles him.

 

xoxoxo

Rose

 


 

April 16, 1997

Hi Ron,

 

Since we’re sharing pet pictures, here’s one of my warty friend! Meet Wallace, A.K.A. Wally, A.K.A. Wally-Boy, A.K.A. the smartest toad you’ll ever meet in your life. He loves to imitate voices he hears by croaking at different octaves – you should hear his attempt at Professor Snape!

 

Hope everything’s going okay!

Kevin

 


 

April 17, 1997

Daphne and I both have Eagle owls, named Beaumont and Wagtail: here’s a picture of them! Mine’s the one on the right that looks like he’s smiling.

 

Love from

Astoria

 


 

April 18, 1997

I have an owl too! Her name is Gwenog (Gwen for short), after Gwenog Jones of the Holyhead Harpies. Here’s a picture of when I first got her as a baby! Isn’t she cute?

 

Love,

Cho

 


 

I'd love to get an owl, but Mum and I just can't afford it right now. I hope to buy one after I graduate, though. I've already picked out the perfect name -- "Carabosse," or "Carey" for short. (That way the nickname could be for a boy or a girl.)

 

Hope you're doing well, Ron!

Bridget

 


 

April 19, 1997

Hey Ron,

 

Here’s a picture of my dog! He’s a yellow Labrador and his name is Pogo, because he likes to jump up and down like he’s on a pogo stick. Sometimes he even chases squirrels by trying to jump up into the trees in our yard! It’s so funny to watch. I’m not allowed to bring him to school with me, so Mum and Grandma Trudy take care of him when I’m not there. Whenever I come home, he loves to jump up on his back legs and put his front paws on my shoulders like he’s giving me a big hug.

 

Hope everything’s okay with you!

Owen

 


 

April 20, 1997

I lost my cat Bree last year, but I think I’ll be getting a new one next year when I have the chance to shop around. The Magical Menagerie has a good selection, but I adopted Bree at a smaller pet shelter in Salazar’s Grove that was going through hard times, and I’d prefer to do that again if I can. May as well try to save an animal that wouldn’t have a home otherwise than just pick up a normal one that anyone would adopt.

Here’s an old picture of Bree: it took me a while to track down, since I didn’t take many pictures of her. As you can see, she only had one eye – she was that way when I first got her. I got that glass eye for her to protect her eye socket from infection, as well as to stop people from looking at her funny.

 

MB

 


 

She was so cute, Millicent! And I love how she keeps looking over at her tail like she’s thinking about pouncing on it…Mr. Whiskers is too much of a scaredy-cat to even think about chasing his tail! I'm sorry you lost her.

 

xoxoxo

Rose

 


 

 April 22, 1997

Dear Ron,

 

Katie's back at school! She's completely recovered, though she doesn't remember who gave her the cursed necklace. Still, it's really good to have her back. Once you’re back too, then everything will be the way it should be.

I planned a team practice for the end of the week so Katie can reorient herself. In the meantime, Dean’s agreed to play as Keeper during our practices – he’s not as good of a Keeper as he is a Chaser, but he’s at least a good placeholder. I've had to tell Ginny to not hit him quite so hard with the Quaffle a few times though.

Hermione plans to bring another set of notes on nonverbal spells for our next visit. Fortunately I was able to persuade her to compress them slightly from the huge stack she’d originally written.

 

Hope you’re well,

Harry


 

AprIL 25, 1997

 

HEY GuYs!

 

J eNgu saYs I'll BE oUt by NeXT weeK!! I CAN’t WaiT!!|

 

WrItE baCk SoOn,

ROn

Chapter Text

Ron was scheduled to arrive back in Hogsmeade via Portkey on the second of May, just over a week before Gryffindor’s final match against Ravenclaw. (The Healers had decided that a Portkey would be safer than the Floo Network, as Ron was still a little shaky on his feet.) An Auror escort would then accompany him back to Hogwarts on foot.

 

Ron finished tucking in his shirt with some difficulty, before getting to work on his Gryffindor necktie.

 

The feeling had mostly returned to his hands by now, but he still had trouble separating his fingers so that he could use just one at a time, like if he needed to point at something. His hands and feet would still fall asleep a lot, and occasionally there’d be flares of white-hot pain that would surge through his nerve endings, as if molten metal was flooding to the tips of his fingers.

 

Ron fumbled with his tie, trying to fight it into submission. Unfortunately his thumb was stuck at its side and his pointer and ring fingers were both moving in unison rather than separating properly, so he was having trouble knotting the tie without also knotting his arms in the process.

 

Seeing Ron’s problem, Jengu walked over and extended his hands.

 

“Here – would you like some help?”

 

Deflating in visible frustration, Ron dropped his hands. Jengu fastened the red and gold tie around Ron’s neck, likely more neatly than Ron ever had in his life.

 

“Thanks,” mumbled Ron halfheartedly.

 

Jengu offered him a small smile.

 

“I know it’s frustrating,” he said, “but just remember how much progress you’ve made. Just two months ago, you couldn’t even sit up in bed. In two more months – who knows?”

 

An abrupt shout echoed from the hallway outside. Ron looked up, startled; amazingly, Jengu didn’t even turn around, though his face quickly turned grave.

 

“Ron,” he said very quietly, “whatever you and your friends are up to…I want you to be safe…do you understand?”

 

Ron looked at Jengu in surprise. Jengu’s dark, sharp-lidded eyes were very serious, but not at all cold as they bore into Ron’s blue.

 

“That letter you received from Harry mentioned something about a project Dumbledore and you were working on. I can only presume it has to do with the Order of the Phoenix – Ron, I’m not stupid, and neither is the Ministry,” he added sharply to cut Ron off when he tried to object. “The Minister’s wary of any group working outside his authority, whether they’re on his side or not…and I daresay the thought of soldiers with loyalties to anything besides the Ministry, especially child soldiers, would terrify him.”

 

“We’re not children,” said Ron before he could stop himself.

 

“Yet you’re Dumbledore’s soldiers?” Jengu shot back.

 

There was a short, tense silence. Jengu glanced over his shoulder as the voices out in the hall started to rise; then he turned back to Ron, taking a hold of his shoulder.

 

“Ron, I understand your desire to fight,” he said lowly, “and believe me, I admire it. I’m fighting for what I believe in, too. All I hope is that you’ll be careful – the people you’ve allied yourself with have put a target on your back as well.”

 

“You mean like the people you’ve allied yourself with?” Ron challenged him.

 

Jengu smiled wryly despite himself. “Right.”

 

Ron, however, wasn’t smiling. “So you agree with Enrouge – that we should force Muggles to join an army that we could use against the Death Eaters?”

 

“What Adrian said was taken out of context,” said Jengu dismissively. “He may be prone to hyperbole, but he’s not a monster. We simply want the Muggles to help us in our fight – and given that Death Eaters hate both us and them, it seems only appropriate that they ally themselves with us.”

 

“But what if they don’t want to fight?” demanded Ron.

 

Jengu’s expression contorted slightly. “Of course they’d want to – the Death Eaters would kill them if they didn’t, now wouldn’t they? Once they know the scope of the danger they’re in, they’ll want protection – we could give them that protection, if they agreed to fight against our common enemy – ”

 

“So you’ll force them to fight or die, then?” said Ron, his voice rising. “Hold their and their families’ lives over their heads so that they’ll fight the Death Eaters for you!?”

 

“ONLY I SHALL DECIDE WHO SHALL BE HIRED OR FIRED IN THIS ESTABLISHMENT!” roared a female voice in the hall.

 

Both Ron and Jengu hushed abruptly, their focus turning to the closed door that led to the hallway. Jengu’s face went visibly paler and his grip on Ron’s shoulder tightened.

 

Ron looked up at the Healer, his blue eyes flickering between judgment and concern.

 

“…That’s Madame Healer Feverfew, isn’t it?”

 

Jengu glanced back at Ron, his dark eyes glinting sadly. “Yes. The Auror Department has been putting pressure on her lately – they believe that she’s harboring political dissidents in her ranks…shielding them from Ministry inquiries.”

 

“Like you,” said Ron.

 

Jengu’s black eyes glinted with something more earnest as he turned to face him properly.

 

“Ron, whatever you think about me, I beg you – please be careful. I’m a Healer – if I knew I was sending you out into the world, only for you to die on the field of battle – ”

 

For a second, Ron saw another set of eyes in Jengu’s place: brown, framed with freckles and a pair of horn-rimmed glasses, and rippling an insane variation of morality that could sicken even the most grounded and assured of men. The kind of misguided morality that could tear a family apart…

 

Ron choked.

 

The door opened abruptly, and two people entered the room. One was a lightly tanned witch dressed in lime green robes and a matching headscarf, and the other was a tall man dressed in dark scarlet robes with a face and frame that made him resemble a vulture.

 

“Jacques,” the witch addressed Jengu in a shaky voice, “Mr. Savage would like to speak with you, in my office.”

 

Jengu straightened up sharply. His sharp-lidded eyes drifted from the witch over to Savage slowly, before he put on his best attempt at a pleasant smile.

 

“…Of course, Madame Healer.”

 

He released Ron’s shoulder and headed to the door, trying to ignore the nasty glare Savage gave him as he followed him out.

 

Feverfew turned to Ron, her lightly tanned face visibly upset but trying to smile anyway.

 

“I have your Portkey ready, Mr. Weasley,” she said kindly. “It’ll be ready to take you back to Hogwarts in a minute.”

 

Indicating the clock that read 11:59 overhead, she put down an empty flowerpot on Ron’s side table. Ron tried to smile, but he couldn’t help but glance at the door through which Jengu had departed.

 

Feverfew regarded Ron with a sympathetic eye.

 

“You and Jacques got along rather well while you were here,” she presumed, her words almost sounding like a question, but not quite.

 

Ron nodded. Feverfew considered this for a short, silent moment; then she returned her focus to Ron.

 

“…Did Jacques…ever mention his politics to you? Did he ever say anything…radical?”

 

Ron looked up at Feverfew. Her face looked visibly pale and frightened – like even just asking these questions was doing something incredibly wrong.

 

“No,” Ron said at last. “Never.”

 

He picked up the Portkey and, before Feverfew could ask him anything else, Ron put on his best smile and said, “Well – see you.”

 

And with the strike of 12, he disappeared.

 

In a flash, Ron arrived just outside the Three Broomsticks. The familiar smells of butterbeer and ham immediately swirled around his nostrils, making Ron beam widely – oh, how he’d missed Hogsmeade!

 

“Ron!”

 

Ron looked up.

 

Striding up the street toward him was a witch with short, mousy brown hair. It took him a minute to identify her, but her usual pale, heart-shaped face was always distinctive.

 

“Tonks!” he greeted happily. “You’re my escort?”

 

“Yes,” she said. Tonks looked noticeably less chipper than usual, so when she replied, her voice was brusque and lacking of the usual pleasantry. “We’ll want to head out quickly – Hogsmeade’s still considered unsafe to Hogwarts students, so the Headmaster will want you back at the castle as soon as possible.”

 

Fortunately despite how off-kilter he was on his feet, Ron was able to keep up with Tonks’s quick pace thanks to the large strides his long legs afforded him. Unfortunately Tonks seemed uninterested in conversation – Ron tried a few times to engage her, but she seemed characteristically distracted and gloomy.

 

“There’ve been some good editorials in the Prophet lately,” Ron said at one point.

 

“Mm,” said Tonks.

 

“They were fun to read, when I was stuck in the ward. A lot of the writers had pennames, but I reckon I know who a lot of them were – Terence Goodfellow, Professor Lupin – ”

 

Tonks looked up, visibly startled. “Remus?”

 

“Yeah, I was surprised too!” laughed Ron. “Always knew he was brilliant, but I didn’t know he could write that well…but I mean ‘R.J. Moon?’ A little on the nose, but still pretty brilliant – ”

 

Tonks looked down at the ground, her eyes narrowing in thought. Ron’s smile faltered.

 

“…Tonks?”

 

The older witch ignored Ron’s concern; forcing composure back to her face, she pressed on, speeding up her steps.

 

“We’re almost there now, come on.”

 

Soon enough, the towers of Hogwarts castle started coming into view one by one. As more and more of the castle appeared over the horizon, Ron felt his heart soar. He wondered if this was just a fraction of the feeling that Harry had felt when he’d first laid eyes on Hogwarts, after having lived eleven whole years with his awful family on that boring old block called Privet Drive.

 

When Tonks and Ron passed through the wall of magical enchantments and the line of hardened Aurors positioned outside the castle, they were met by an entire mob assembled in the courtyard, carrying red and gold banners and streamers. They were all clapping, cheering, shouting, and singing “Weasley is our King” at the top of their lungs, and as Ron stared, Hermione, Harry, Ginny and the rest of the Gryffindor Quidditch team broke apart from the crowd, all running to greet him.

 

His heart swelling up like a balloon and his eyes filling with tears, Ron ran to them. Even though his foot kept clenching up and making him stumble and he constantly felt like he was about to fall over, he somehow made it over to Hermione, throwing both of his arms around her and hugging her tightly. Harry brought his arms around both of them, as did Ginny, and then Demelza and Katie, then Peakes and Coote, and soon the group of Gryffindors were all sobbing happy tears in a squeezing, affectionate clump on the ground. In the singing mob, Ron caught sight of so many beaming faces – Dumbledore – Professor McGonagall – Kevin – Owen – Hannah – Arjuna and Astoria – Bridget – Professor Ramsay – as well as the white flash that had to belong to Colin’s camera.

 

If Ron ever felt the need to make a Patronus in the future, he knew he could just think back on that wonderful feeling of his best friends and Quidditch teammates all huddled around him as the rest of Hogwarts sang his name.

 


 

 

The next few days went better than Harry could have imagined. Ron had some trouble getting caught up in class since his fingers were still so inflexible and he had to use a Quick-Quotes Quill to write his essays, but otherwise Harry thought he was getting back in the swing of things pretty well. Fortunately McGonagall had excused Ron from making up all of his past assignments and Ramsay had been kind enough to give Ron some extra Potions and Charms tutoring to help him catch up in time for his final exams. Even Quidditch practice wasn’t as bad as one could’ve expected – sure, Ron still had trouble catching the Quaffle, but he could still knock it out of the way and block the hoops with ease. It left Harry feeling confident that the game on Saturday would be an unparalleled success.

 

Harry knew that there was only one thing that could prevent things from going as they should, and that was Malfoy. Although he’d been very good about keeping a happy face on around Hermione and Ron, Harry was still convinced that Malfoy had cursed Katie and poisoned Ron and was still plotting to help Voldemort. He’d been able to coax Dobby and (a bit unwillingly) Kreacher to help spy on Malfoy while he was busy supporting Ron, and although he’d gotten some new information, the problem remained that, for all of Harry’s suspicions, he still had no concrete proof of Malfoy’s illicit activities.

 

For one, Harry suspected Malfoy was an unregistered Animagus. It would explain why Mandrake leaves were stolen from the greenhouses and why the Death’s Head Hawk Moths had gone missing from the Forest, as they were two of the ingredients needed to make the potion. It would also explain why no one saw Malfoy the night the rum was poisoned and how he got back to the Slytherin commonroom without Harry noticing. Even if Malfoy had been in his Animagus form, the Marauder’s Map still would’ve showed him prowling around. Harry had even seen a white cat prowling around the kitchen that night – that could’ve been Malfoy!

 

But despite Harry suspecting this, he had no chance of proving it without catching Malfoy as an animal and then forcing him to reveal himself, and perhaps because Malfoy knew Harry was on to him, he’d not given Harry much chance to do so. And even if Harry could prove Malfoy was an illegal Animagus, he still couldn’t prove that Malfoy had been down in the kitchens that night without the Map, and he both couldn’t make the Map recall what it had seen that night or even use the Map as evidence with anyone except Dumbledore, and Dumbledore had explicitly told him not to get involved. And of course there was nothing to provide any rationale for why Malfoy might have done it in the first place.

 

Then there was what Malfoy had been up to in the Room of Requirement. Dobby and Kreacher had told Harry he’d been going up to one hallway a lot lately and disappearing for long hours. After some thinking, Harry realized that Malfoy had to be using the Room of Requirement that he and the D.A. had used for their club meetings last year! But for the life of him, Harry could not make the Room of Requirement show him what Malfoy was doing in there. Harry at some points waited for hours outside the Room of Requirement under his cloak, trying to catch Malfoy in the act, but Malfoy must have been asking the Room for an alternative exit on his way out, because whenever Malfoy reappeared on the Map, he would be in a hallway far enough away from Harry that he couldn’t catch up! Whatever Harry tried, Malfoy kept evading him, and he got no closer to figuring out what he was up to.

 

Harry’s worry about Malfoy continued to weigh on him as the match approached. Malfoy had been disappearing more and more ever since Ron got back, and it left Harry feeling on edge for what he might be planning. Would Malfoy try to hurt people again – would he try to hurt Ron or Katie or Dumbledore again?

 

On his way downstairs to meet Ron and Hermione in the Great Hall for lunch, Harry absently wandered down the hallway just beside the Room of Requirement, glancing around critically for some sign that a suspicious white cat might have been prowling around. But as always, there was nothing.

 

With a sigh, he backtracked down the staircase closest to him, which led him down the hallway that had once been marred with the blood-etched words “ENEMIES OF THE HEIR, BEWARE.” Harry almost felt the same sense of dread shudder down his spine at the memory.

 

Things had been so frightening then, when an unknown monster had been hunting down Muggle-born students. It was scarier now – now everyone knew who that monster was…

 

It was as Harry passed the open door to the abandoned girl’s restroom that he stopped in his tracks.

 

Was someone…crying…?

 

“No one can help me – ” choked a male voice that Harry had never heard before, “no one – no one would help me – if they knew – ”

 

“There, there,” cooed another voice that Harry recognized as Moaning Myrtle’s. “That’s not true…if you told me, I’d help you…”

 

“You don’t understand!” moaned the voice. “I – I can’t! Nothing I do is working – and if I don’t do it soon…he says he’ll…he’ll…!”

 

Harry, feeling a rush of curiosity and concern that he couldn’t help, inched the door open to look inside. When he did, he felt a kind of horror and shock he could never have imagined.

 

The person crying was hunched over the sink, his shoulders quaking and his white-blond head bowed over as he sobbed. Moaning Myrtle floated in mid-air beside him, but nothing she whispered or did soothed the aura of despair that emanated off of the boy’s back.

 

The owner of that unfamiliar, choked voice wasn’t a stranger at all. It was Malfoy.

 

And when Malfoy looked up into the cracked mirror and saw Harry standing stock-still and wide-eyed behind him, no one and nothing could have prevented what happened next.

Chapter Text

It didn’t take long at all for the entire school to hear all about Malfoy and Harry’s confrontation in Moaning Myrtle’s bathroom and the gruesome results. Malfoy was sent to the Hospital Wing after having supposedly gotten his chest slashed open by an unknown spell, and Harry was condemned to nightly detentions for the rest of the school year. This of course endangered the Gryffindor Quidditch team’s chances of victory yet again, for now they were not only without their Captain, but also without their champion Seeker.

 

Given its now precarious Quidditch standings, it was unsurprising that most of Gryffindor house was very angry with Harry. What Ron had not expected was how much the rest of the school turned on Harry as well. The Slytherins, naturally, were furious that Harry had attacked their sixth year Prefect, but the Hufflepuffs were horrified by the extent of the damage and the Ravenclaws seemed to think that Harry was idiotic to use a spell like that in the first place. Ron hadn’t been able to get so much as a word out of Owen, Cho, Daphne, or Millicent that entire week. Kevin had talked to Ron as pleasantly as always, but he still pointedly looked around and over Harry while talking to him. Bridget had been kinder than most, but even she was spending a little less time with her Gryffindor friends than usual.

 

"I don't reckon Potter meant to hurt Draco that badly," she'd explained solemnly to Ginny, "but I'm sorry, he was still wrong. He needs to own that."

 

The Cooking Club member who reacted the worst to the news, however, was Astoria. The day after Harry and Malfoy’s wand fight she had confronted Harry in the hallway, her pale face flushed with a kind of anger Ron had never seen before.

 

“What the hell were you playing at?!” she’d yelled at Harry.

 

Ron had immediately stepped in to defend his best friend. “Astoria, Harry was just trying to defend himself – ”

 

“You can defend yourself without slashing somebody open!” Astoria retorted.

 

“I wasn’t – ” Harry said weakly, his green eyes rippling with shame. “I didn’t – I didn’t know it would do that – ”

 

Didn’t know?” roared Astoria.

 

Arjuna tried to grab Astoria’s shoulder, but Astoria yanked out of her grip, getting right up in Harry’s face. The more emotional she got, the more her voice shook.

 

“How dare you even think about using a spell on an innocent person without knowing what it could do! You vile – brainless – unthinking – ”

 

“Astoria, shut it!” Ron snapped in a mixture of disbelief and anger. “Malfoy was no victim here – he tried to use the Cruciatus Curse on Harry!”

 

Astoria whirled on Ron, her light blue eyes flaring. “Potter thinks he tried to use the Cruciatus Curse – Moaning Myrtle said that Malfoy never finished the spell he’d been casting! And even if Malfoy had been fighting back, and no matter what Potter thinks he did to you, that’s still no excuse!”

 

Ron’s eyes narrowed in confusion. “What?”

 

“I heard you and Malfoy in the hall,” Astoria snapped at Harry, “how you accused him of poisoning Ron – is that why Malfoy first shot spells at you, Potter? Because you were bullying him about your stupid theory?”

 

“No!” Harry said quickly.

 

“Then perhaps you attacked him because you thought he’d hurt Ron and you justified using that spell because he deserved it?”

 

“That’s not it!”

 

Despite her visible upset, Hermione whirled on Astoria with ferocity. “It was only an accident! If you’re so disdainful of Harry’s theories, perhaps you should stop making up baseless ones of your own and leave it alone!”

 

Astoria glared at Hermione and then at Harry, her eyes like fiery light blue coals.

 

“However much of a prat Malfoy is, I’d always expected better of you, Potter,” she whispered coldly, her voice still shaking despite the lessened volume. “Here I thought someone labeled as the ‘Chosen One’ would never hurt someone unnecessarily…but then again, maybe that label’s gone to your head.”

 

She turned on her heel and stormed off, her long chestnut hair sweeping behind her. Arjuna followed after her, her face much more concerned than angry but no less solemn.

 

For his part, Harry seemed to agree with everyone’s negative opinions and then some. He’d barely said a word after what had happened and had taken to spending long hours in front of the Gryffindor fireplace, staring into the flames but clearly not seeing them at all.

 

Ron watched Harry sit in front of the fire while he and Hermione worked on their Charms essay one night. Eventually it got to the point that they were unable to continue, as he and Hermione kept looking up to check on Harry instead of reading their textbooks, so Ron put down his essay and came over to sit on the rug next to Harry. Harry didn’t notice until Ron leaned his shoulder absently against his leg resting on the floor.

 

“You thought Malfoy was the one who poisoned me?” Ron asked quietly.

 

Harry swallowed the ball of guilt that had formed in his throat.

 

“…Yeah.”

 

Ron didn’t reply. Harry took his silence as disapproval and quickly tried to explain.

 

“That’s not why I used that spell! I just – it happened so fast – and he started to say ‘Crucio,’ it’s the only thing he could’ve been saying – and I just – it was the first spell that came to mind – if I’d known, I would’ve never – ”

 

Hermione brought a hand onto Harry’s shoulder, squeezing it gently.

 

“We know, Harry,” she said softly.

 

Ron took Harry’s hand and gave him a small smile.

 

“We know,” he said.

 


 

 

Regardless of what the rest of the school thought, Ron, Hermione, and Ginny stood by Harry without hesitation. Ron and Ginny even agreed with Harry’s choice to not throw away the Half-Blood Prince’s book, where Harry had learned that spell he’d used on Malfoy – after all, without that book, Harry wouldn’t have had a bezoar on him the day Ron got poisoned. Unfortunately Harry had had to hide the Half-Blood Prince’s book in the Room of Requirement to hide it from Snape, and he’d had no chance to go back and get it, since Snape was keeping such an extra close eye on him. That made the sixth year Gryffindors’ next Potions class with Ramsay incredibly uncomfortable.

 

“Oh come on, Harry,” said Ramsay, his eyebrows coming together in frustration as he looked over the tar-like mixture Harry had turned in at the end of class that was supposed to be a Hair-Growing Potion, “you know that you can’t add in the diced caterpillars while it’s still on the fire – get it together – ”

 

Harry flushed in shame as Pansy and some of the other Slytherins in the class sniggered behind their hands. He was more than used to Snape criticizing his work, but it felt a million times worse when Ramsay did it – rather than sounding simply cruel, Ramsay’s anger rippled with disappointment, as if Ramsay knew Harry could do so much better and so Harry’s lack of results was physically hurting him.

 

To top it all off, Harry’s nightly detentions with Snape were just torturous. Every single night he had to help catalogue Filch’s old punishment records, and Snape went out of his way to make Harry go through all of those belonging to Sirius, Lupin, Pettigrew, and his father James Potter (which was a significant stack).

 

After one particularly long detention, Harry headed slowly upstairs toward Gryffindor Tower, dragging his legs along as if they were made of lead. On the way, he was stopped by a familiar voice.

 

“Hi.”

 

Harry turned. Coming up on the other side of him was Arjuna, carrying a couple of books under her arms.

 

“…Hi,” Harry mumbled uncomfortably.

 

Arjuna slowed down slightly to match his steps so that they were walking side by side down the candlelit hall.

 

“Just finished up with Snape, I suppose?” she asked.

 

Harry’s eyes drifted down to the floor. “Mm.”

 

Arjuna considered him for a moment, her black eyes trailing over his face thoughtfully. Then she turned her gaze ahead at the hallway before them.

 

“I don’t think you meant to do it, Potter,” she said quietly.

 

This startled Harry enough to look up.

 

“I reckon the choice you made was just the only choice you saw, even if there were others," said Arjuna. "It’s easier for outsiders to say what you could’ve done or should’ve done in hindsight, but…well…you wouldn’t have done any of those things…because you didn’t see those other choices at the time. Right?”

 

“…I guess so.”

 

“Then your mistake was inevitable, in a way,” Arjuna said with a slight smile. “You had to make it – but that doesn’t mean it has to break you.”

 

Harry felt the tenseness in his shoulders ebb away a bit.

 

“…Are you speaking from experience?” he asked with a wry twinkle in his eye.

 

“Just a little,” Arjuna said, her smile broadening.

 

She tossed her loose black braid over her shoulder casually.

 

“Speaking from my own experience also,” she said, “if you’re dealing with unknown spells, you can always find a clue in its Latin roots. Like you can with words you don’t know,” she explained, in response to Harry’s confused face. “Like, take the word ‘geography’ – the Latin root ‘geo’ means it has something to do with the earth, and ‘graph’ means description – so ‘geography’ is a description of the earth’s surface. Spells are the same way. Take ‘Lumos’ – the Latin root is ‘lux’ meaning light – like the word ‘luminous’ – and the counter-spell, ‘nox’ comes from the root meaning darkness.”

 

Harry gave a bit of an awkward smile. “Heh…sorry, but that’s a little over my head.”

 

Arjuna laughed. “Don’t worry, you’re not the only one. Mum taught me that trick early on, when she taught me how to read. It’s become second nature to me, but I know it’s not for everyone.”

 

They had reached the staircase that led to Ravenclaw Tower, so Arjuna climbed the first stair, glancing back at Harry over her shoulder.

 

“Well…see you, Potter.”

 

“See you,” said Harry. Before Arjuna could turn and leave, he added, “By the way…thanks.”

 

Arjuna smiled broadly. “You’re welcome. And Potter…don’t hold what Astoria said against her. She’s just a softhearted sort – she can’t imagine injuring anybody, no matter how vile they are. Even if she got bitten by a dragon, I’m sure she’d still somehow find a way to coddle it.”

 

The image of Hagrid cooing over a baby Norbert sprouted to Harry’s mind and made him grin as Arjuna headed up the stairs and out of sight.

 


 

Malfoy was stuck in the Hospital Wing for the next four days. Daphne had been tasked by Snape to copy notes for him while he was incapacitated, which soured Pansy somewhat – she’d likely hoped of rekindling her and Draco’s past relationship by her tending to him in bed. Still, with her “best friend” being responsible for helping him, she at least could tag along with her to the Hospital Wing sometimes.

 

The night before the match against Gryffindor and Ravenclaw, Daphne went to meet up with the Cooking Club as usual, plopping her things over by Astoria so that she wouldn’t have to talk to Ron. It wasn’t that she was angry with Ron, really, but she was still very upset about what Harry had done and Ron was supporting his friend, so Daphne just didn’t feel like engaging with him. Fortunately Astoria seemed to be in the same boat.

 

“I can’t believe that Ron is defending what he did,” Astoria grumbled. “He knows what Potter did was wrong…”

 

“Potter’s his best friend,” Daphne said simply. “You defended Belaji after she cheated in the competition – ”

 

“That’s different and you know it!” Astoria cut her off sharply.

 

“Of course it is,” Daphne said coolly, “but people stand by their friends even when they do awful things. I agree with you,” she added quickly, when Astoria opened her mouth to argue further, “I’m just pointing out the facts.”

 

Astoria exhaled in a heavy sigh.

 

“This whole thing is so…ugh,” she muttered sourly. “I never thought in a million years I’d ever feel sorry for Draco Malfoy, of all people…”

 

Daphne smirked slightly. “You and me both. Remember when he ruined our new dresses at that Ministry Christmas party?”

 

Astoria couldn’t completely bite back a grin. “Yeah – though I was angrier about him having pushed me into the punchbowl than a ruined dress.”

 

“Speak for yourself!” Daphne huffed sardonically. “My dress was gorgeous!”

 

Astoria laughed quietly.

 

At that moment Millicent arrived, sweeping her bag onto the table next to the others’. In the process, she knocked over Daphne’s bag, making a bunch of papers fly out onto the floor.

 

Millicent did not verbally apologize, instead immediately bending down next to Daphne to help pick up her papers. When she handed one piece of parchment in particular back to Daphne, the elder Greengrass scowled.

 

“Oh – ” she hissed, before mumbling a curse so lowly under her breath that no one could hear it.

 

“What’s wrong?” asked Astoria.

 

“I forgot to bring Draco his notes today,” muttered Daphne bitterly. “And now it’s too late – guess I’ll have to take them to him in the morning…if I can shake Pansy off ahead of time first…”

 

Millicent snorted derisively. “And here I thought she’d given up on Draco.”

 

Daphne rolled her eyes up toward the ceiling. “I had too, but no! The minute he gets sent to the Hospital Wing, she seems to think we’re back in third year and she’ll be able to coo over his injury like it’s some tiny scratch from a hippogriff and everything will go back to the way it was! Merlin, I swear, every time she comes with me, she insists on me styling her hair beforehand, all for an encounter that’s only ever a minute long at the most with a boy who has already clearly moved on…!”

 

Feeling some sympathy for her sister, Astoria took the page out of Daphne’s hand.

 

“How about I take them, then?” she said with a shrug. “I could always drop them off in the morning before breakfast…it sounds like you could use a break from having to deal with Pansy and Malfoy’s dysfunctional romance.”

 

Daphne covered her mouth with her hand to hold in a soft laugh. “Well, all right – if you’re offering.”

 

Astoria took Daphne's notes and stuffed them in her bag just as Arjuna entered the kitchens, setting her own bag full of books down on the counter by Astoria's.

 

"Stori, I found a great new cookbook about old English desserts when I was combing through Shakespeare's works in the library," she said eagerly. "I knew I just had to try out the marchpane tart recipe..."

 


 

On Saturday morning Astoria got up a little earlier than usual, tied her hair up in a messy ponytail, and headed downstairs to drop Daphne’s notes off at the Hospital Wing. The white, sterile room was abandoned except for one figure lying down in a bed in the center of the room, which was illuminated by the sunlight streaking through the tall windows across the sheets.

 

Draco Malfoy's pale, pointed face looked just as sickly as it had when Astoria had seen him in that hallway. The sheets were drawn all the way up to his neck, but when she entered the room, Malfoy’s gray eyes swiveled over to her.

 

“Hello, Malfoy,” Astoria said stiffly as she approached his bed.

 

Malfoy’s eyes narrowed upon her face. “What are you doing here, little Greengrass?”

 

“Just doing a favor for my sister,” she answered lightly. She plopped Daphne’s notes down on Malfoy’s bedside table. “That’s Transfiguration and Defense Against the Dark Arts – Snape’s been surprising all of his classes with pop quizzes lately, so you’d better read up just in case.”

 

Malfoy gave a loud scoff and turned away. “You can tell your sister that I’ve already told her I don’t care about getting ready for pop quizzes – so she can quit wasting her time copying all this bunk.”

 

“That bunk is what you need to know to defend yourself against the Dark Arts,” said Astoria sharply, her eyes narrowing.

 

“Feh! You still believe that rubbish – that little Shield Charms and ‘Expelliarmus’ can put you on even-footing with the Death Eaters?” sneered Malfoy. “The Dark Arts are too powerful to be fought against with simple dueling spells – no amount of homework can protect you from the Dark Lord, when he comes knocking at your door…”

 

Despite Malfoy’s attempt at bravado, however, it rang hollowly in Astoria’s ears. There was no hint of superiority when Malfoy spoke, like when he was younger – instead his tone was almost…jaded. Cynical. Defeated.

 

Astoria fixed Malfoy with a reproachful eye. “Maybe not – but I’d still rather know all I can and have a chance at winning than just give up and scrape at You-Know-Who’s feet.”

 

Malfoy looked at her with faint scorn, but couldn’t seem to summon a proper response, so he simply turned over in bed and away from her. When he did, the sheets slid enough down his frame that Astoria could see his bare, pale back and the outline of a very thick, jagged scar starting at the top of his shoulder and presumably slashing down the front of his torso.

 

Astoria’s expression shifted from righteous anger to something a little softer as her light blue eyes lingered on Malfoy’s shoulder.

 

“…I’m sorry about what happened.”

 

“I don’t need your pity,” snapped Malfoy.

 

“It’s not pity,” Astoria shot back coldly.

 

She paused and took a breath, trying to reestablish a hold on her temper before she continued.

 

“…You must’ve been hit by a very Dark spell, if Madame Pomfrey couldn’t remove all trace of it. My uncle once told me…that all Dark magic is inherently evil because it’s irreversible. You can heal some of the damage…but it always leaves a scar. Most spells aren’t like that. Even with the spells that cause damage…you can always fix what’s broken. Time heals everything…or at least, it’s supposed to. To have to be condemned to anything forever…especially something painful, like Dark magic…I don’t think that’s a fate anybody deserves.”

 

Malfoy lay in completely motionless silence. Upon receiving no response, Astoria shrugged slightly and turned to leave.

 

“What do you know about what I deserve?” came a reply so soft it merely kissed the air.

 

Astoria stopped, slowly turning back around. Malfoy was still facing away from her; for a moment she wondered if she’d simply imagined his question, as he seemed not to have moved at all.

 

She hesitated for a moment, considering her response. Finally she decided just to be frank.

 

“…I know that despite what the Prophet says, you’re not your father, and his crimes aren’t yours. I know that however much you hate Potter, you never would’ve tried to kill him, or his friends. I know that however petty and vindictive and terrible you are…you’ve never caused any damage that couldn’t be fixed…because I know that all those people you hurt grew up and became strong enough that you don’t hold any power over them anymore. And because I know all this…I know you didn’t deserve getting cut open with Dark magic. Not even a Death Eater would deserve something that horrible.”

 

With this, Astoria turned on her heel and walked out of the room, leaving Malfoy once again alone.

Chapter Text

With Harry out of commission as Gryffindor Quidditch Captain, Ginny and Ron immediately jumped in to pick up the pieces. Ginny took on Harry’s position as Seeker and Captain and asked Dean to take over the remaining Chaser position.

 

“This whole situation sucks,” Ginny told the rest of the team at their last practice before the game, “but we’ll just have to make it work.”

 

“Fortunately,” Ron interjected with a weak smile, “we’re all good enough players that we can make it work…right?”

 

Ginny nodded firmly. “Right – so let’s go over our respective strategies. Dean, Demelza, Katie – you focus on the one-two-three pass method Harry assigned you. Jimmy, Ritchie, keep the Bludgers aimed at me for now, but remember, you’ll focus solely on Cho during the match – give the Chasers time to rack up at least 200 points with a 160 point lead over Ravenclaw before I catch the Snitch. Ron – protect those hoops, no matter what. All right, let’s go!”

 


 

 

The game was hosted on Saturday as usual. Everyone crowded into the Quidditch pitch to watch the final match of the season, and spirits were high.

 

Ginny stood in place of Harry at the front of the team as they prepared to walk out onto the field. The team tensely stood around her, holding their breath; it was like all of their hearts were racing in unison as the Ravenclaw team’s names were announced one by one.

 

“Here comes the Ravenclaw team, striding up the pitch!” chirped a familiar voice that Ron for some reason was having difficulty placing. “At the front, Captain and Seeker Cho Chang – HI, CHO! HI!”

 

A stern clearing of the throat, probably from Professor McGonagall, prompted the commentator to get back on topic.

 

“…Next, Chasers Noel Harwich, Orla Quirke, and Gerald Vickers – Beaters Ashok Khanna and Austin Guthrie – and Keeper Stewart Ackerley!”

 

Ginny glanced back at her nervous teammates, looking just as white as they were and yet much braver.

 

“Let’s make Harry proud,” she said quietly, her lips curled up in a slight smirk.

 

The others attempted weak smiles in return, before Ginny turned to face the field ahead and took the first step, leading the others out onto the pitch.

 

The stands were awash with blue Ravenclaw and red Gryffindor banners, and for a moment, Ron felt like he was right back at the MagicChef finale preparing to face off against Astoria, as he walked out onto the field after the Beaters.

 

“Here comes the Gryffindor team!” said the commentator brightly. “It’s led today by interim Captain and Seeker, Ginny Weasley – substituting for Harry Potter – ”

 

A cluster of unpleasant hissing ran over the crowd. Ron looked up at them furiously, but fortunately the commentator firmly yet cheerfully talked over them until everyone quieted down.

 

“CHASERS DEMELZA ROBBINS, DEAN THOMAS…and…Katie Bell, who returns to the field fully recovered from her injuries! Welcome back, Katie!”

 

The mention of Katie instantly quieted any remaining anger, and the Gryffindors in the stands all stood up, applauding and cheering in a standing ovation. Katie blushed pink with pride.

 

Ron looked up at the commentator’s stand for the source of the cheery commentary. He was surprised beyond all reason when he caught sight of tiny Rose Zeller, her brown hair in a pair of cute side buns, standing hunched over the microphone that was set up next to McGonagall. (It was likely Rose couldn’t talk into the microphone properly while sitting, given how short she was.)

 

“Beaters Jimmy Peakes and Ritchie Coote,” Rose continued brightly, looking up from the notes she must've scribbled down for herself, “and also recently returned to the field, Ron Weasley – HI, RON!”

 

She waved enthusiastically down at him, her face stretched wide with an open smile as she purposefully ignored McGonagall’s faintly reproachful but still rather amused eye.

 

Ron waved up at her in return, grinning from ear to ear as the stands once again burst into applause and song.

 

“Weasley can save anything!

He never leaves a single ring!

That’s why Gryffindors all sing

Weasley is our king!”

 

The Gryffindor and Ravenclaw teams faced each other at the center of the pitch. Madame Hooch stepped forward, as Cho and Ginny split apart from their respective teams and came together.

 

“Shake hands,” Hooch said briskly.

 

Cho and Ginny shook hands stiffly. As they split apart and moved back into position, Cho and Ron shot each other a quick nod.

 

‘She’s not going to go easy on us,’ Ron thought with a faint smirk as he climbed onto his broom. ‘Fortunately…we’re not going to go easy on them, either.’

 

“Madame Hooch releases the Bludgers and the Golden Snitch – ooh, it’s so pretty, isn’t it?” cooed Rose. “There it goes! Madame Hooch has taken out the Quaffle…and it’s released! GAME ON!”

 

The match started with a flurry of action that never stopped once. Within the first minute, Gryffindor had already scored its first ten points. The next minute, Noel Harwich managed to sideswipe Ron and score ten points for Ravenclaw. A minute later ten more points for Gryffindor, then Ravenclaw again, and then Gryffindor. It was a relentless tug-of-war where both sides were refusing to give each other a single inch.

 

“Vickers has the Quaffle – he’s tearing up the field – OOH! Hit by a Bludger by Peakes, that’s gotta hurt – Bell’s got the Quaffle – Robbins – Bell – Robbins – Thomas – Thomas has the Quaff – NO, intercepted by Quirke – she’s taking it back up the field – she dodges Robbins – dodges a Bludger – shoots – NO! BLOCKED BY WEASLEY, WAY TO USE YOUR HEAD, RON! Bell has the Quaffle now – Robbins – Thomas – intercepted by Harwich! Man, Noel knows how to fly! They’re taking it back toward the goal posts – they shoot – BLOCKED AGAIN BY WEASLEY! Harwich catches the Quaffle – OOH, hit by a Bludger by Coote! That could’ve been worse! Robbins has the Quaffle now – Thomas – Bell – Thomas – he dodges a Bludger – passes to Bell – Bell shoots – SCORE! 10 points to Gryffindor!”

 

Rose’s excitable commentary, however frenzied, was thrilling to listen to. Thanks to Harry’s strategy, the Gryffindor Chasers were able to steadily collect points. Unfortunately thanks to Cho’s training the Ravenclaw Chasers remained constantly within fifty points of them. If they were to have any chance of winning the Quidditch Cup, Gryffindor needed an at least 150 point lead before Ginny caught the Snitch…

 

Ron knew he wasn’t at his best, given that his fingers were still ridiculously inflexible. He’d been able to keep the Quaffle at bay pretty well by smacking the ball away with his hands, arms, feet, head, and broom, but the problem was he was unable to catch the Quaffle and throw it to his teammates – he’d only been able to hit it away, and sometimes one of the Ravenclaw Chasers would catch it instead of one of his teammates, meaning he’d have to immediately protect a hoop again after having just saved it.

 

His eyes darted around the field, watching the Quaffle as he tried to think. There had to be a better way to block the hoops – there had to be something he wasn’t thinking of –

 

Wait – Samson Wright, the Keeper of the Chudley Cannons, used the Starfish and Stick technique to protect all three hoops during their match against the Falmouth Falcons. Sure, a Bludger to the groin had eventually taken him out, but until then he’d protected the goalposts…and even if a Bludger made it through the hoops, it wouldn’t score any points…so maybe…

 

Noel Harwich was driving up the field, the Quaffle in their hands – they zipped around Katie and Demelza and threw the Quaffle at the left goal post –

 

Ron immediately whacked it out of the way with his arm, but Harwich caught the ball again and prepared to throw it a second time. Barely taking enough time to think, Ron dropped himself off his broom, catching the handle with his wrist and his ankle, and whacked the ball hard out of the way with his entire torso, catapulting it halfway up the field.

 

“WHOA, DID YOU SEE THAT!?” screamed Rose as the crowd went wild. “HE FELL OFF HIS BROOM, BUT THEN HE CAUGHT HIMSELF AND THEN HE – WHOA!”

 

Katie caught the Quaffle, grinning from ear to ear as she zoomed away toward the Ravenclaw goal posts, tossing it to Demelza, who then scored.

 

“Nice one, Ron!” cheered Peakes.

 

“Thanks!” said Ron, panting heavily as he hoisted himself up onto his broom again. “But if I have to do that again, have your Beater bat ready, okay?”

 

Ginny came up between them, her brown eyes alight with determined fire.

 

“Jimmy, you stay in this area and protect Ron,” she told him. “Ritchie and I can handle distracting Cho – let’s go!”

 

With the Gryffindor goal posts better protected with Ron’s new technique (and Peakes protecting Ron any time he used it), Gryffindor’s lead over Ravenclaw began to multiply. Soon they were a hundred points up – then a hundred and ten – a hundred and twenty – a hundred and thirty –

 

“SCORE!” yelled Rose. “10 points to Gryffindor!”

 

The stands were screaming themselves hoarse and the tension on the field was now palpable. If Gryffindor scored ten more points and then caught the Snitch, they would actually win the Quidditch Cup

 

Cho was taking no chances. Pulling the rest of her team together, she quickly dictated directions to them, before they all went spiraling out onto the field, changing formation. Noel Harwich tailed Katie, their bright hazel eyes flaring in determination as they chased her up and down the field. Katie tried to pass off the Quaffle, but whenever she tried, Harwich blocked her.

 

Coote prepared to hit a Bludger at Harwich, but Ginny stopped him.

 

No! If you aim for Harwich, you might hit Katie!”

 

Ginny turned to Dean, who was flying several feet away.

 

“Dean, try the Porskoff Ploy!”

 

With a nod, Dean sharply turned his broom around and dived right under Katie. When he did, however, he found Orla Quirke tailing him the exact same way that Harwich was stalking Katie. Katie, seeing Dean under her, dropped the Quaffle so he could catch it, but before Dean could reach it, Orla cut him off, snatching the ball and heading back up the field toward Ron. Peakes whacked a Bludger at her, only to have Ashok Khanna fly right in front of him and knock the Bludger right back at him and Ron. Fortunately both Gryffindors were able to evade the heavy black ball before it smashed into one of the pillars surrounding the pitch.

 

Ron dropped down again in his Starfish and Stick position to whack the Quaffle out of the way. Demelza caught it and blazed back toward the Ravenclaw hoops, but immediately had to contend with Gerald Vickers pursuing her.

 

‘Cho’s having every one of her players attach themselves to one of ours,’ Ron realized, ‘effectively canceling us out!’

 

“Ginny!” he shouted at his sister. “They’re mirroring us!”

 

Ginny’s brown eyes narrowed. “Cho’s making sure we can’t score any more points – well, to the hell with that!”

 

She turned to Katie.

 

“Come on – if the Ravenclaws want to tail us so closely, then we’ll make them regret it!”

 

Katie nodded, before zipping back onto the field, Noel Harwich again at her heels.

 

“Robbins has the Quaffle – oh, hold on, Bell’s zipping up the field – wow, it’s like she’s in a pinball machine! She’s zipping around all over – trying to shake off Harwich, I bet – they’re having trouble keeping up – now Thomas is doing it too, but on the other side of the field, trying to shake off Quirke – oh, I see now, it’s a distraction! Thomas has the Quaffle – Quirke’s losing steam – OUCH, Quirke’s down by a Bludger originally hit by Guthrie but redirected by Coote – and Gryffindor scores! 10 points to Gryffindor!”

 

Gryffindor’s stands were pulsing with excitement, jumping up and down and screaming. And it was as everyone was going mad that Ginny saw a tiny flare of gold streaking just above the Ravenclaw goal posts.

 

She and Cho, having seen the Golden Snitch at the same time, both took off like a flash. Stewart Ackerley, who was already protecting the Ravenclaw goal posts, tried to swerve out of the way so that his Captain could reach the Snitch, but in the process Dean scored another goal.

 

“10 points to Gryffindor!” cried Rose.

 

Cho didn’t hesitate in the least, however. Her focus still squarely on the Snitch, she stretched out her hand, leaning over her broom as she reached –

 

At the last possible minute, Ginny swerved up from below, balancing herself in a weak standing position on top of her broom for just enough seconds to reach up and snatch the Snitch right under Cho’s nose.

 

Unfortunately the Snitch could offer no kind of support against gravity. Wobbling sharply, Ginny balanced precariously for only a second before she fell off right her broom. She frantically contorted as she tumbled downward, just barely catching the broom handle with one knee. Swaying violently in mid-air, she held the Snitch over her head even as she hanged upside down off of her broom.

 

“GINNY WEASLEY HAS CAUGHT THE SNITCH!” Rose shouted, as the entire crowd exploded. “GRYFFINDOR WINS! RA -- wait -- wait, so -- OH MY GOD, I CAN’T BELIEVE IT, GRYFFINDOR WINS THE QUIDDITCH CUP! OH MY GOD!”

 

Dean, Demelza and Katie flew over to support Ginny and help her to the ground, even as they were all grabbing onto her and sobbing tears of joy. Peakes and Coote hit the four of them in mid-air with two hard THUMPS, shouting at the top of their lungs in excitement. By the time the rest of the team touched the ground, Ron had joined them too, reaching over to pull Ginny off of her broom and yank her into a huge hug. With some difficulty, he folded his numb fingers around his younger sister’s wrist and lifted her arm up over both their heads to show off the glittering Golden Snitch clutched fast between her fingers.

 

“YEAH!” Ron bellowed. “YEAAAAH!”

 

The Gryffindors in the stands all poured onto the field, running to the side of their team. At the front were Hermione and Bridget, who dashed past the others and threw their arms around Ron and Ginny, respectively.

 

“I’m so proud of you, Ron!” said Hermione breathlessly, tears streaming down her face. “You did so well!”

 

Ron squeezed her tightly, reveling in the warmth of her arms. When he looked up, he saw the Ravenclaw team had returned to the ground too. Despite the frustration and disappointment in their expressions, Cho still gave Ron a soft smile and a thumbs-up.

 

Ron returned the gesture, smiling broadly and tears welling up in his eyes, as the singing and cheering crowd descended upon them. A weeping Professor McGonagall passed Ginny and Ron the golden Quidditch Cup, and the Gryffindor team held it aloft over their heads, beaming with pride and utter relief.

 

‘Just wait until Harry finds out,’ Ron thought proudly, ‘just wait…!’

Chapter Text

Harry had indeed been thrilled when he found out about Gryffindor’s victory over Ravenclaw – so thrilled, in fact, that he kissed Ginny in the middle of the stuffed-to-the-brim, partying Gryffindor common room. And that was how, after months and months of Harry trying to tamp down and hide his feelings for Ginny, the two started dating.

 

Being open with his feelings for Ginny – and having Ron actually be okay with them – had taken a huge burden off of Harry’s shoulders and made him feel pounds lighter. It was funny how little his and Ginny’s dynamic actually changed; sure, they were snogging a lot more now, but otherwise it felt very much the same as when Harry would visit the Burrow, except it was just the two of them. Ginny and Harry still talked about Quidditch together. They talked about the War and what was going on with the Order. They practiced dueling spells like they did back in the D.A. They made each other laugh. And yet it also felt like there were suddenly fewer walls between them than before – Ginny could guess what was on Harry’s mind simply by reading his facial expressions, and Harry no longer felt any reluctance in silently taking Ginny’s hand whenever she looked the least bit down.

 

As much as his relationship with Ginny had brightened up Harry’s whole world, however, dark clouds were creeping in. After two more weeks of Potions without any assistance from the Half-Blood Prince, Harry got a rather unsettling note from Hedwig on Thursday.

 

Harry –

Please meet me in my office at 7:00 Friday evening, after dinner. Our meeting will be private and closed-door.

Gordon Ramsay

 

“For your grades, no doubt,” Hermione said dryly. “I told you that you shouldn’t have been so reliant on the Pri – ”

 

“Oh, for Trolls’ sake,” Ginny snapped, “lecturing Harry on what he should’ve done isn’t going to bloody well help him now, and you’ve already hammered in that one lecture more than enough times – so shut it.”

 

Hermione looked a bit miffed at Ginny’s harsh shutdown. Ron, although he looked just as disapproving of Hermione’s response as Ginny, turned to Harry instead.

 

“…It is probably about class, though, right?” he asked. “Don’t know what else it really could be…”

 

Harry nodded gloomily. “Yeah…last class Ramsay looked like he wanted to shake me, he was so frustrated – ”

 

“Disappointed, more like,” said Ron. “I reckon Ramsay thinks you’re having a rough time of things…you know, since your Potions scores have gone down so badly. He probably just wants to make sure you’re okay, that’s all.”

 


 

 

When Harry bid Ginny, Hermione, and Ron goodbye at the top of the stairs leading down to the dungeons, he felt like a cold, heavy stone was settling into the base of his stomach, dragging it down somewhere in the area of the floor.

 

Was Ron right? Was Ramsay just going to ask him if he was okay, and then let him go? Ramsay had always been pretty nice to Harry in the past – surely Harry didn’t have a reason to worry…

 

Yet he worried all the same. He worried all the way down the hall and as he hesitantly entered Ramsay’s empty classroom.

 

Ramsay was standing at the back of the classroom, just outside his office door. From his posture, Harry guessed Ramsay had arrived only a little while before he had.

 

“Hello, Harry,” said the Potions professor.

 

His tone was measured and yet neutral enough that Harry couldn’t tell if he was angry or not, but he certainly seemed less pleasant than usual.

 

“You…wanted to see me, professor?” Harry said uncomfortably.

 

“Yes, I did.”

 

Ramsay indicated his open office door. “After you.”

 

Unable to shake the discomfort off of his shoulders, Harry kept his posture as strong and confident as he could as he walked past Ramsay into the office. Ramsay closed the door behind both of them, before moving behind his desk and sitting down.

 

“Sit down, Harry.”

 

Reluctantly Harry lowered himself into the chair across the desk from Ramsay. The white-dressed Potions Master considered Harry silently for a short moment, his arms crossed over his chest; then he rested both arms on the desk and leaned forward in his chair.

 

“…Harry, I’m going to ask you a question, and I want you to be completely honest with me,” he said brusquely, his blue eyes locked squarely on Harry’s face. “Have you been cheating in my class?”

 

Harry froze.

 

“No,” he said instinctively before he could stop himself.

 

Ramsay’s eyes narrowed slightly upon Harry’s face. Harry felt as though his stomach was being tied in knots, but he had no idea how to back-pedal even if he wanted to. If he admitted that he’d been cheating, then he’d have to turn in the Prince’s book to Ramsay – Snape would figure out that that book was where he’d found the spell that had hurt Malfoy – Snape would probably retroactively punish him for not having given him the Potions book he’d originally asked for – and the thought of Ramsay knowing Harry was a liar – of Dumbledore and McGonagall and the whole school knowing Harry was a cheater – that was terrifying…but if Harry didn’t admit it, would Ramsay expel him? Could he expel him?

 

The minutes dragged on and Harry was struck dumb, unable to figure out how to tell the truth or even if he should. Finally Ramsay exhaled heavily through his nose, straightening up slightly.

 

“…After the trauma you went through in your duel with Draco, I’d assumed at first that the two of you were, understandably, shaken,” he said quietly. “I thought you both would get back in the swing of things after a little while…but these last three weeks, you have suddenly turned into the worst student in the class, with potions so pathetic it’s as if you haven’t studied the entire semester.”

 

“I just – ” Harry said feebly, “I’ve just…had a lot on my mind, lately – ”

 

“I hope that’s true, Harry,” Ramsay said solemnly, his sharp blue eyes boring into Harry’s face critically. “I sincerely hope so.”

 

There was a cold silence between the two of them, in which Ramsay slowly inched himself to his feet. He towered over Harry, who was still seated.

 

“…Regardless of what’s going on in your life, I think it’s time you’re reminded of how important your schooling is. At present your marks are poor enough that if they do not improve dramatically and soon…I will assign you a failing grade and deny you entry into seventh-year Potions.”

 

Harry’s heart convulsed in terror. “What?!”

 

“And as you know,” Ramsay continued harshly, “without passable Potions scores, you will not become an Auror. I will personally send an owl to the Auror office and make sure they know all about your lack of qualifications.”

 

Harry sat in horrified, numb silence as Ramsay plowed on.

 

“If you had admitted to cheating at the start, I would’ve forgiven your mistake and helped you study…but since you’ve made it clear that you were not cheating, you should have no difficulty getting your marks up to scratch before our final exam in two weeks – you know, the one I mentioned at the beginning of term, where I give out another bottle of Felix Felicis? If you impress me in the final exam, I will give you a grade that will allow you to continue Potions next year. If not…well, I’m sorry, but I’m afraid you’ll just have to find another career path.”

 

Ramsay’s expression was harder than Harry had ever seen it as he crossed his arms.

 

“Oh…and if you think admitting to any wrong-doing now will change my mind, I’m afraid it’s too late for that. You’ve made your choice – now you’ll need to deal with the consequences and put in the work by yourself.”

 

Harry felt as though all of his strength had abandoned him. Surely all of the color had drained out of his face – maybe even his entire face had gone as pale and translucent as a ghost, given by how cold he suddenly felt…

 

“…Yes, sir,” he said, his voice such a weak shadow of its usual self it was like he really had become a ghost.

 

Ramsay’s sharp blue eyes bore into Harry for another moment, before he migrated over to his office door and opened it again.

 

“You may go.”

 

Slowly turning around to look up at the open door, Harry shakily got to his feet and slumped through the open door. He could feel Ramsay’s eyes on his back as he shuffled out of the classroom, feeling as though he was slowly melting deeper and deeper into the floor with every step out of the dungeons and back up the stairs toward the Gryffindor common room. Harry wasn’t even sure if he’d make it up there, given by how deep underground he suddenly felt.

 


 

 

About a half hour later, another figure migrated slowly down the hallway toward the Potions classroom.

 

Draco Malfoy had also received a letter from Ramsay requesting a meeting. Draco frankly didn’t know what it was for, and he told himself he didn’t care – after all, he’d had little interest in Ramsay’s class earlier in the year, just as he’d had little interest in his other classes. None of his classes felt all that important anymore, now that his father was in Azkaban – Mr. Malfoy had always been the one to push Draco to do well in school, not just because he expected Draco to do well, but because Draco wanted to do well. His father was proud when he did well in school – he made his father look good, when he did well –

 

But nothing Draco could do could make Mr. Malfoy look good anymore – not since Potter and his stupid friends and the Order of the Phoenix and that Muggle lover Dumbledore got him caught at the Ministry. Now everyone had turned against Mr. Malfoy and his family, at the drop of a hat – everyone had turned against Mr. Malfoy…everyone had turned against Draco, too. The Slytherin Quidditch team had abandoned him after he quit, Crabbe and Goyle had lost all respect for him…even Pansy had finally gotten fed up with him not telling her anything and would probably only forgive him now if he went back to how he’d been before…and Draco knew there was no going back. It was impossible to go back. He was one of the Dark Lord’s servants now – that meant he was in the same boat as Mr. Malfoy – people would only accept his presence so long as they didn’t know the truth about who he was…what he was wrapped in…

 

“I know that despite what the Prophet says, you’re not your father, and his crimes aren’t yours.”

 

Draco shoved the words and the dark-haired face with piercing blue eyes that accompanied it out of his mind.

 

‘Idealistic twit,’ he thought dully. ‘She thinks all I’ve ever done is have a laugh about people – she doesn’t know what I’ve done…what I have to do…’

 

Hating that he’d even given Daphne’s brat sister a single thought, Draco walked through the Potions classroom, coming to a stop just outside the doorway of Ramsay’s office.

 

Ramsay was sitting at his desk grading papers, but as soon as Draco approached, he looked up.

 

“Draco – good of you to come. Close the door and sit down.”

 

Although he had no interest in doing anything of the sort, Draco bit his tongue and halfheartedly obeyed, pulling the office door closed behind him and then slowly settling down on the very edge of the chair that he was offered.

 

With a flick of his wand, Ramsay levitated a plate full of what looked like chocolate truffles from a side table and plopped them down gently on the wood between them.

 

“Help yourself,” Ramsay said politely.

 

Draco glanced down at them, forcing the disdain from his face as best he was able and projecting his best unreadable, stony expression.

 

“No thank you,” he said stiffly.

 

Ramsay didn’t seem the least bit unsettled by the rejection; it was almost as if he’d expected it. Instead he merely rested his hands down on his desk, interlacing the fingers.

 

“…Draco, as I’m sure you know, your marks have been consistently poor in my class.”

 

Draco really wanted to roll his eyes, but he didn’t.

 

“Professor Snape spoke very highly of your abilities before term started, but I’ll be honest, I’m anything but impressed,” continued Ramsay. “If your marks don’t improve, then I’m afraid you won’t be able to continue Potions next year.”

 

Draco raised his eyebrows dully; then, crossing his arms, he leaned back in his chair, looking at Ramsay with the most condescending of looks.

 

“…And?” he asked coolly. “With all due respect, professor, you’re telling me things I already know – so unless there’s anything else, I’ll be going now.”

 

“As it happens,” said Ramsay lowly, “there is.”

 

Draco had been preparing to leave, but at Ramsay’s words, he stilled, before slowly descending back down on the chair. Ramsay’s blue eyes narrowed seriously, and he leaned forward slightly in his chair, considering his next words carefully.

 

“…Draco, I know you’re going through some difficult things right now – ”

 

Draco couldn’t fight back a scoff.

 

Do you?” he sneered sarcastically. “Well, look here, old Dumbledore hired a right genius – where’d you hear about my little sob story, the Daily Prophet?”

 

To his credit, Ramsay didn’t take Draco’s bait.

 

“I know because I also had to grow up way too fast at sixteen,” the professor said sharply. “Sure, my father was not in Azkaban – but I know the feeling of having a parent who you love so much, and yet is so flawed as a human being – ”

 

“You don’t know anything about my father,” Draco snapped before he could stop himself.

 

“I know more than enough of him,” Ramsay said quietly. “Lucius left Hogwarts before I arrived, but I remember him back in those days, as well as his ‘friends’ amongst the Death Eaters – Kasper Crabbe – Jeremias Goyle – Bellatrix Black – Rodolphus and Rabastian Lestrange, Alecto and Amycus Carrow – I remember how all of them came up one by one to face the Wizengamot…how some of them escaped the first time, and others didn’t…”

 

Draco felt his fists clenching. He tried desperately to hold his temper in, but it felt like Ramsay was egging him on. He had to be egging him on – that soft voice he was using, feigning sympathy – it was just a knife he was having fun twisting into Draco’s back –

 

“And there’s something I realized, about the people who escaped Azkaban the first time,” said Ramsay. “All of them had one thing in common.”

 

“What?” spat Draco.

 

Ramsay’s mouth spread into a very tiny, odd smile.

 

Family. Every last one of them had a spouse and a child whom they loved unconditionally. The ones who didn’t – the Lestranges, the Carrows – who only ever obsessed over You-Know-Who and his demented beliefs and never learned what love really means – were too inhuman to ever be pitied. No one thought they could’ve been innocent – that they had good in them.”

 

Draco stared at Ramsay, perfectly baffled. Ramsay leaned forward enough to rest his chin on his folded hands over the desk.

 

“Obviously I don’t know everything you’re going through, Draco, I’m not so arrogant as to claim that,” he said. “But I know better than anyone how it feels to be a young man being pressured by the adults around you to join a war that you’re not ready to fight in. I have still not forgiven Dumbledore for trying to recruit me to the Order, back when I was too young to understand what I was signing my life away to – even if I had so wanted to join the war effort at first, I realized more and more how much I wanted nothing to do with it as things got worse…and given your family’s allegiance, I’m quite sure you’ve felt the pressure to follow in your father’s footsteps, once you graduate. That’s why you think nothing matters, isn’t it – because you don’t think you’ll have a future, outside the War you’ll have to fight?”

 

Draco’s heart was beating very fast now. He tried so, so hard not to say anything – no matter how much anger pulsed through his veins, or how much fear thumped in his chest, or how much part of him ached and screamed about how true the words were – !

 

Ramsay considered Draco with a sympathetic eye.

 

“…You don’t have to do everything alone, Draco,” he said. “If you need help, I will help you – all you have to do is ask.”

 

It was that kindness that made Draco finally snap. He got up, his face very pale and his gray eyes blazing with unrestrained hatred as he got right up in Ramsay’s face.

 

“Who says I’d ever want your help, you – you filthy Mudblood!?”

 

Somehow, however…even his fiercest, cruelest, most hate-filled words sounded almost pathetic ringing in his ears.

 

Ramsay’s posture had stiffened visibly at the insult. He stared Draco down, even as the pale sixth year panted heavily and glared viciously, and his sharp blue eyes remained oddly composed despite the fire therein. Then, finally, Ramsay broke eye contact, rising to his feet slowly.

 

“…Very well, Draco. You’ve made your point clear.”

 

He walked slowly over to his office door. Draco stood frozen in front of the desk, unable to shift his posture in the slightest however much he wanted to. The door to the office opened with a quiet creak.

 

“You may go,” said Ramsay.

 

Draco finally forced himself to turn around. He strode back over to the door, avoiding Ramsay’s eyes pointedly.

 

“Regardless of your position, my offer still stands,” Ramsay said lowly as Draco walked past him and out of the office. “Oh, and for the record…perhaps my blood may be dirty in your mind…but at least my name is pristine.”

 

Chapter Text

Harry had been very reluctant to tell Ron and especially Hermione about what Ramsay had told him that evening, but after a while of them ganging up on him, he broke down and told them everything.

 

Hermione, to her credit, did not take the opportunity to scold Harry again; instead she immediately moved into “fix-it” mode.

 

“If you’re going to pass Potions, we’ve got to get you ready for that final exam,” she said firmly. “I suppose one nice thing is you no longer have Quidditch to worry about, so we can put all our attention on preparing for it – I’ll go ahead and draw up some studying schedules with specific focus on Potions…then Ron and I can help you study…”

 

The very next day, the three Gryffindors started studying Potions together every afternoon in the library. Unfortunately neither Ron nor Hermione were very good at actually teaching the material. Hermione would recite entire passages from the textbook in an attempt to describe the chemical effects between hemlock and beetle’s eyes, but Harry found himself tuning out after a while instead of following any of it. Ron was a little better, as he’d gotten some tutoring sessions with Ramsay, but he was still rather behind on the material himself, so he was unable to answer certain questions.

 

“Well, the way Ramsay described it, billywig stings tend to make a potion thinner – I guess because when you get stung by a billywig, you tend to float,” Ron explained during their third day of studying. “So if you’ve got to make a potion thicker, you’ll need to counteract the stings with a bit of Mandrake root…”

 

“Why would you need to make a potion thicker?” asked Harry.

 

Ron smiled sheepishly, glancing over at Hermione for an answer. “Um…”

 

“A potion’s thickness is in direct proportion to the robustness of the potion’s effects,” Hermione answered promptly without looking up from the notes she was shuffling through.

 

Ron turned back to Harry uncomfortably.

 

“…There you go, then,” he muttered, unable to bite back his sarcasm.

 

Harry frowned.

 

“Basically a thicker potion will last longer and have stronger effects,” said a low voice from behind them.

 

The three Gryffindors all looked up, startled. Millicent Bulstrode had settled down at the table next to theirs, her back to them and her gaze locked on her own open textbook rather than on them.

 

“Oh,” said Harry awkwardly. “…Thanks.”

 

Millicent slightly inclined her head in a nod without looking up from her book.

 

“I’m surprised you forgot that, Potter,” she said dryly, “considering how happy Ramsay was when you remembered to compensate for the natural thinning of the Wiggenwald Potion by adding in that salamander blood.”

 

“Ah, well,” Harry said uncomfortably, trying to tamp down the embarrassed flush moving up his face, “I was just…experimenting, back then…I didn’t really know it did that…”

 

Whether Millicent believed this or not Harry couldn’t tell. Regardless, she continued to speak to him without turning around.

 

“If all you can do is make good guesses, that’s really going to show on the final exam,” she said. “Ramsay’s said he’s not going easy on us.”

 

Her brown eyes had drifted over her shoulder even though she was still facing away.

 

“No disrespect to you, Weasley…Granger…but from the sound of things, Potter needs some real tutoring, not just review. Simple studying’s not going to cut it this late in the game, if you don’t understand what you’re studying in the first place.”

 

Ron quirked an eyebrow at Millicent; then he smirked slightly.

 

“…Is this you volunteering to help, then?”

 

Millicent stiffened, hunching over defensively like she had been slapped on the back. “What?”

 

“Well, you’re really good at Potions,” Ron said smoothly. “Slughorn himself said he hadn’t seen a Pepper-Up Potion in years that was as good as the one you made for our soup…and from the sound of things, you understand the material well enough to explain it.”

 

“I don’t explain things to people,” Millicent answered dully.

 

“You just did literally thirty seconds ago.”

 

“Don’t try to be clever, Weasley, you’ll embarrass yourself.”

 

Ron snorted with laughter. Millicent, despite herself, found herself smiling a little too, but she hid it well by bowing her head over the book in front of her.

 

“If…if you’d be willing to help, Millicent, we’d really appreciate it,” said Hermione shyly. “Harry can’t become an Auror unless he passes Potions…and as much as I hate to admit it, I don’t think Ron and I are helping that much…”

 

Harry looked down at the books set up in front of him, nodding in begrudging agreement.

 

Millicent considered the matter for a moment. Finally, after a long moment, she spoke again, very levelly and lowly.

 

“…If you really need help, Potter, I’ll tutor you – on three conditions.”

 

“And what are those?” asked Harry hesitantly.

 

“One: you won’t tell anyone that I’m tutoring you – except perhaps your girlfriend, no sense in her thinking we’re seeing each other or something stupid. Two: I’ll expect a salary of one Galleon per session – I know that’s something you can afford, and I could use some extra pocket change to buy a new cat next year. Three: your Prefect friends will reward Slytherin house fifty points for my generosity,” she said with a broad smirk over her shoulder in Ron’s direction.

 

Ron raised an eyebrow at Hermione, his lips touched with a wry smile. Hermione, despite the disapproving frown on her face, gave a reluctant sigh and nodded.

 

“Deal,” said Harry.

 


 

 

The very next day Harry started his tutoring sessions with Millicent in the Hogwarts kitchens. The whole experience was a touch surreal – Harry was glad that he never had to try saying the sentence “I’m being tutored in Potions by Millicent Bulstrode” out loud to anyone, because he felt like he’d get shut up in a mental ward in three seconds.

 

To Harry’s surprise, though, Millicent was a pretty good tutor. Her manner of speaking was very short and brusque, but because of that, she kept her points very succinct and simple to follow. Rather than just explain the potions theoretically, she made Harry brew the potions as she explained each concept, including adding in ingredients that made potions explode or melt through the cauldrons in order to make her point.

 

“Not going to forget not to mix erumpent tail with snake fangs again, now are you?” Millicent said coolly as Harry nursed several minor burns on his fingers.

 

She took out a bottle of clear lavender-colored potion and, applying it to a small towel Winky had provided for them, handed it to Harry. Harry took the cloth, running it over each of his fingers in turn so that the burns slowly started to fade.

 

“So what have we learned?” Millicent asked him.

 

Harry frowned slightly. “…Aggressive ingredients don’t mix.”

 

“Unless?”

 

“Unless you also add in a mediating ingredient.”

 

Millicent nodded. “So what sort of ingredient could we have added before adding the snake fangs, as a cushion?”

 

Harry considered his options. Honeywater would water down the ingredients, and make them less volatile, but then the effects of the potion would also become more muted. Fluxweed was a good “palette cleanser” between ingredients, but it tended to magnify whatever ingredient was added after it…

 

“…Would peppermint work?” asked Harry.

 

Millicent blinked, a bit taken aback.

 

“…I guess it could,” she granted, raising an eyebrow. “But why would you want to use that?”

 

“Ramsay used it to counteract the rue in the Felix Felicis earlier in the year,” Harry said slowly. “Rue can be sort of bitter…so I reckon peppermint sort of balances that out, right?”

 

Millicent’s expression softened just slightly – she wasn’t smiling exactly, but she was clearly pleased by Harry’s response.

 

Exactly right. Peppermint is a soothing plant – it’s great for getting rid of nasty side effects, without canceling out any of the effects a potion’s supposed to have. It’s not usually mixed in the middle of potions…but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an option.”

 

Millicent cleared out the remnants of the messed-up potion in their cauldron so they could start again.

 

“Let’s try the Elixir to Induce Euphoria again – this time, we’ll try stirring the potion both clockwise and counter-clockwise, and go over which one works better and why.”

 

Harry’s first Elixir to Induce Euphoria ended up making him double over in fits of hysterical laughter that Millicent only reversed with a bottle of antidote after watching Harry squirm around on the floor for a good five minutes. Then she got to work explaining stirring directions.

 

“When trying to blend the ingredients, you stir clockwise. When trying to separate the ingredients, you stir counterclockwise – pretend that the two ingredients are misbehaving and you’re breaking them up before they get in a big fight.”

 

Harry considered the potion bubbling in the cauldron, stirring once counterclockwise and then reaching for the unicorn hair. “Then you can add in other ingredients to balance them out, while they’re separate?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

Harry smiled wryly. “…You know, Millicent, you’d be a great Potions teacher.”

 

Millicent gave a great snort. “Sorry, but I have other plans.”

 

Harry raised an eyebrow at her curiously.

 

“My parents expect me to take on their legal business after I graduate,” Millicent explained as she shifted the cauldron over a little and added in a pinch of honeywater. “They serve as defense attorneys, in trials held by the Wizengamot.”

 

Harry was reminded of his own experience with the Wizengamot, when he was tried for using underage magic the previous year. Dumbledore had served as his representative during the trial and had prepared a full-scale defense well ahead of time. Harry tried to imagine himself facing down the entire Wizengamot by himself and couldn’t help but be intimidated by the thought.

 

“Do you want to do that?” he asked, feeling a bit of pity.

 

“Yeah,” said Millicent matter-of-factly. “I’ll just have my own way of doing things, when I take it over.”

 

“Like what?”

 

“Taking different clients. Mother and Father have always attracted shady, rich clients – old friends who need a favor. I’d shift our focus to being public defenders – help out clients like small business owners or house elves who can’t afford good representation normally.”

 

Harry felt a rush of admiration despite himself. “That’s cool.”

 

“Well, given our past dealings, we’ve saved up enough that we can more than afford some charity,” Millicent said with a dismissive shrug, “at least until our improved reputation earns us a profit. And besides, the Ministry needs a good kick in the pants; we may as well give it to them. That’s why you’re going for the Auror Department, rather than teaching Defense like you did in that club last year, isn’t it?”

 

Harry nodded. It was so strange thinking about the D.A. now – just last year, Millicent was part of Umbridge’s Inquisitorial Squad, and now here she was, teaching him Potions…

 

Millicent took out a vial and sampled the potion she and Harry had just brewed.

 

“All right, let’s test it.”

 

“If I fall onto the ground contorting with laughter again, will you please give me the antidote a little more quickly this time?” Harry asked coolly.

 

Millicent smirked slightly. “Fine.”

 


 

 

Millicent and Harry continued their sessions every night until exams began in the second week of June. By the time they were finished, Harry actually felt hopeful about his chances. Sure, there was a lot he still needed to master (as Millicent frequently reminded him), but he still felt like he had a better handle on what he was doing than he had before.

 

When the day of the Potions exam came, Harry tried his very best to stay optimistic. It was a little easier when Ginny spent all of breakfast helping him review the notes Hermione had written for him, which were in retrospect quite a bit easier to read now that Harry could refer back to one of the potions he’d made explode in his sessions with Millicent. By the time breakfast was over and Harry, Ron, and Hermione had to head to the exam, Harry felt quite a bit lighter, particularly when Ginny gave him a long, warm kiss to wish him luck.

 

Ugh, please, for the love of Merlin, don’t do that again when I’m within viewing range,” Ron grumbled good-naturedly to Harry as they and Hermione headed downstairs to the dungeons.

 

When they arrived in the Potions classroom, they found the rest of the Gryffindors and Slytherins, including Millicent, already waiting. Millicent and Harry exchanged glances but did not verbally address each other as Ramsay entered the room and strode up to the front of the class.

 

“Welcome, sixth years,” pronounced Ramsay, clapping his hands together in front of him. “Today your test will be a singularly difficult challenge – to brew a potion without a recipe. This potion is one we’ve discussed, but never brewed before, and you won’t find it anywhere in our textbook.”

 

The students nervously sneaked glances at each other.

 

“Amortentia,” Ramsay finished with a satisfied smile. “As Hermione called it at the beginning of term, ‘the most powerful love potion in the world.’ I will bring you up, one by one, into my office, and you will brew your best attempt at the potion for me. And as a reminder, the person who shows the most improvement from the Draught of the Living Death they turned into me at the beginning of the year…will receive this.”

 

Ramsay reached into his white robes and held up another tiny vial of glittering, bronze-colored Felix Felicis. All of the students, even Malfoy, straightened up visibly.

 

“When you’re done with your exam, you will leave the classroom, so that your classmates have a chance to do it themselves,” said Ramsay. “We’ll be going alphabetically by last name…so Millicent love, you’re first.”

 

Straightening up slightly, Millicent set her jaw, and then slowly followed Ramsay into his office. Ramsay closed the door behind them with a quiet snap, leaving the rest of the students alone to wait.

 

It was grueling, watching each student go up one by one. When Millicent came out of Ramsay’s office, she looked a little pale, but predictably stoic. When Tracey Davis came out, she put on her best confident smirk, but it was clearly trembling. When Hermione came out, she looked frazzled; she wanted to tell Ron and Harry how it had gone, but Ramsay cleared his throat pointedly when she opened her mouth to speak to them, and Hermione obediently left the room, while Ramsay turned to Daphne with a smile, escorting her into his office and closing the door behind them.

 

Malfoy’s turn followed Daphne’s; he strode after Ramsay with his best attempt at his usual swagger, and although it wasn’t fully convincing, he did at least manage to keep his nerves from his face. The exam itself was very taciturn and tense, with Malfoy only speaking when Ramsay asked him a question about what he was brewing. When his potion was complete, it didn’t have the clear consistency it needed, but he could still make out the familiar smells of the ocean and boysenberry punch. As he left the office, he kept his expression purposefully stony, ignoring Pansy when she tried to catch his eye and fumed furiously upon him ignoring her.

 

After Eloise Midgen, Pansy, and Parvati, it was Harry’s turn. Ron gave him an encouraging thumbs-up as Harry followed Ramsay into his office and came to stand in front of Ramsay’s desk, where a cauldron and a whole bunch of ingredients were laid out.

 

‘Okay…’ Harry thought, his eyes running over the ingredients as Ramsay came to sit behind his desk and watch, ‘first we’ll need something strong that we can add onto…’

 

He reached for the salamander blood, pouring it into the cauldron. Then he pulled a few other ingredients closer to him – moondew, lacewing flies, Lady’s Mantle, dandelion root, and horklump juice – and started adding them in little by little. As he worked, Harry felt Ramsay’s sharp blue eyes boring into him.

 

“Why Lady’s Mantle?” Ramsay asked abruptly.

 

“Huh?”

 

Harry looked up, startled.

 

“Keep working,” said Ramsay briskly. “But tell me why you added Lady’s Mantle.”

 

Awkwardly Harry picked up the bottle of dandelion root and began adding it, stirring the potion twice clockwise.

 

“…Lady’s Mantle’s used in beautification potions,” he mumbled.

 

“And?” prompted Ramsay.

 

“And…” Harry continued uncomfortably as he poured in the horklump juice, “Amortentia is supposed to be an obsession potion, not a love potion – since love can’t really be made into a potion – so it’s supposed to make you see the person as really attractive, right? So – ”

 

Abruptly his potion gave a terrible hiss, fizzling multicolored, foul-smelling smoke. Panic rising in his chest, Harry quickly stirred the potion twice counterclockwise and, grabbing a sprig of peppermint, tossed it in. In a moment, the potion quieted, losing most of its color and turning a cool gray.

 

“Nice save,” Ramsay said dryly.

 

Harry looked up at him; to his relief, the Potions professor was smiling as he brought the cauldron with the gray potion inside closer to him so he could examine it.

 

“Peppermint was a very good choice,” he said, spooning out some of the potion to get a better look at it.

 

Harry’s own face spread into a smile. “…Well, I got it from you.”

 

Ramsay’s blue eyes twinkled as he put the spoon down. “Would you like to know where I got it from?”

 

Blinking in slight surprise, Harry nodded.

 

“Your mother,” said Ramsay. “We were both in Horace’s Slug Club back in the day, thanks to our skill in potions. Lily and Horace were the first people who really encouraged me to pursue potions…and my cooking…so I guess, in a way, it’s thanks to them that I’m who I am today.”

 

Ramsay brought his hands down onto the desk, leaning forward slightly.

 

“I’m glad that you’re finally getting it, Harry,” he said, his voice mutedly proud. “Don’t get me wrong, now, your potion is all off – I wouldn’t even let a garden gnome sample it…but you obviously put in a lot of work and used your head.”

 

Harry’s heart hopped into his throat. “So – so you won’t fail me?”’

 

“No, Harry – I won’t fail you. Again, your potion probably won’t get you a high grade…but you’ve earned a second chance.”

 

Harry grinned so widely it felt like his face was going to crack like china as he left the room. He couldn’t tell Ron anything of what had happened inside yet, so he strode to the outside hallway to meet with Hermione and excitedly tell her what had happened. Then they told Ron everything when he joined them.

 

When everyone was done, Blaise Zabini and Ramsay came out into the hall to summon the class back inside. The students all sat at their assigned desks while Ramsay returned to the head of the class.

 

“First of all, congratulations to all of you,” Ramsay began. “I still need to assign individual grades – but I’ll reassure you now that you all passed the exam.”

 

The entire class exhaled in immense relief.

 

“Some of your potions came close, and some were far off the mark – but that, in the end, is not what mattered. What mattered were the choices you made and why you made them. You used your own intuition about what ingredients you should use and how you should brew them based on what sort of potion you intended to make. That is a skill even the most talented of Potioneers take a long time to develop, let alone perfect, and you’re all well on your way to mastering it, if you put in the proper amount of work in the future.”

 

With a wry smile, Ramsay took the vial of Felix Felicis back out of his robes.

 

“But, of course…I’m sure all of you are dying to know who won. The student who earned this did not make the best potion today…but he impressed me all the same, more than any other student. That student is…Draco Malfoy.”

 

Everyone reacted with visible shock, including Malfoy.

 

“Congratulations, Draco,” said Ramsay, offering the tiny bottle to Draco with a soft smile. “You really tried today…and I couldn’t be happier to see such effort, believe me.”

 

Malfoy stared down at the vial for a moment, disbelieving. He took it quickly, holding it close to his chest and staring at it, almost as if he thought Ramsay was going to swipe it back. Then, very slowly, his face spread into a strange, fragile, almost manic smile. It twisted his pale face unnaturally – almost like Malfoy had forgotten how to smile and so he was having trouble figuring out what muscles did what. Then almost as quickly the smile faltered and died, leaving his face twitching.

 

“Thank you, sir,” he mumbled, his voice very hushed and his stormy gray eyes locked on the tiny bottle in his hand.

 

Ramsay noticed the bizarreness of Malfoy’s expression but did not appear concerned; instead he merely nodded kindly. “You’re welcome.”

 

He turned to the class.

 

“Well…so long for the year, everyone! It’s been fun – and make sure you study up for next year; seventh year is a huge handful to deal with, I assure you…”

 

As the class filed out, though, Ron turned to Harry and Hermione, his mouth twisted into a deep frown.

 

“Harry,” he said lowly, “I hate to say it, but…maybe you were onto something, when you said Malfoy’s acting a little weird…”

Chapter Text

Everyone seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief when exams ended, none more so than Colin, Ginny, and the other fifth years finally completing their OWLS. The last week of term soon arrived, and everyone started their usual packing-up in anticipation of the Hogwarts Express returning them home at the end of the week. Most people were taking the remaining time to relax and spend time with their friends; one of the few exceptions was Arjuna, who missed the last meeting of the cooking club Sunday afternoon because she was sick in bed.

 

“Her fever’s been so bad that she hasn’t been able to sleep at all for two days,” explained Astoria, looking concerned. “Whenever she tries, she ends up having these awful night terrors that make her wake up in a cold sweat. I told her to lie down and try to rest today…I reckon we can go see Madame Pomfrey in the morning, if she’s still not feeling better…”

 

By Sunday evening Ramsay had just finished grading the last of his students’ exams when he was interrupted by a knock on his office door.

 

“Come in,” he called without looking up from his papers.

 

The door opened with a quiet squeak. Once Ramsay was finished with the line he was working on, he looked up, to see Professor McGonagall striding into the room.

 

“An owl arrived in the Great Hall with a letter for you,” said the Deputy Headmistress demurely, holding out an envelope. “From your fiancée, I would assume – I thought to bring it downstairs, so that the owl wouldn’t go flapping down the hallways searching for you.”

 

Ramsay grinned as he took the letter from McGonagall, his eyes running over the front. “…Yep, that is Tana’s handwriting. Much obliged.”

 

McGonagall nodded politely. “There is one other matter…the Headmaster asked to see you in his office, after you’re done with your work this evening. I daresay he thinks to ask about your continued employment.”

 

The tone the sentence ended on, as well as McGonagall’s curiously raised eyebrow, signaled to Ramsay that she was wondering about that as well. Ramsay smiled wryly.

 

“Well, I suppose if Dumbledore hasn’t found someone suitable enough to take my place – someone who isn’t Severus Snape, mind you – I could be persuaded to return. Though I’d have to discuss the matter over with Tana first – she’s spent a good chunk of an entire year without me, I don’t know how she’d do with another.”

 

McGonagall’s lips spread into a dewy smile. “Yes, I’m afraid romance is not well-suited to professorship, by and large.”

 

She turned on her heel and headed for the door. Before leaving, however, she looked back over her shoulder.

 

“…Gordon…I know your reasons for not joining the Order, and I understand them – I didn’t join up during the First War either, given my undercover work with the Ministry. But I must be honest, we could really use your help. Hestia’s been trying hard to track a small group of Guilders who’ve tried kidnapping random Muggles and pressing them into their service…and Remus has been undercover for almost a year, yet he’s hardly sent any word out in the last two months…”

 

Ramsay’s eyes narrowed upon his desk. The thought of Remus Lupin – the Gryffindor prefect who’d shared chocolate bars with his classmates when they were down – being in trouble made the chef’s stomach crumple up in his chest as if it were made of paper.

 

“Minerva, the Order is still trying to indoctrinate children into their ranks,” he said sharply. “You can’t expect me to accept that. I’m frankly shocked that you do.”

 

“Those ‘children’ are legal adults,” McGonagall said reproachfully, turning more fully back around. “Nymphadora Tonks – Fleur Delacour – Bill, Charlie, Fred, and George Weasley – they may be young, but they are more than willing and capable enough to fight. And given how starved we’ve been in finding people who are willing to fight He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, we need all the help we can get.”

 

“And Harry?” Ramsay challenged her. “Has Dumbledore not been grooming him to run out onto his battlefield too?”

 

McGonagall straightened up to her full, impressive height.

 

“Potter is following Dumbledore out of his own choice, Gordon,” she said, her stern voice ringing with righteousness. “And regardless of how much you or I might worry for Potter’s safety, we have no right to make his choices for him. If nothing else…Potter has more than proven himself capable in fighting the Dark Arts over the course of the last five years.”

 

“That doesn’t mean he should,” said Ramsay, crossing his arms stubbornly.

 

McGonagall sighed.

 

“I’m afraid things rarely go as they should,” she replied soberly.

 

With this, she turned and strode out of the classroom, leaving Ramsay alone once again.

 


 

Not long later, Ramsay went upstairs to the Headmaster’s office, as Dumbledore had requested. With a mutter of “Acid Pops,” he walked past the gargoyle as it moved out of the way and he climbed the stairs to the open office door.

 

Dumbledore was already waiting in the tall chair behind his desk, wearing grayish blue robes with long sleeves that ran down his entire arms. There was a black traveling cloak folded up neatly on the left corner of the desk.

 

“Hello, Gordon,” Dumbledore greeted pleasantly. “Do close the door, would you?”

 

Ramsay pulled the door closed and strode over, stopping a good foot in front of Dumbledore’s desk.

 

“You wished to see me?” he asked, crossing his arms over his chest.

 

“Yes,” said Dumbledore quietly, his lips touched with a small smile. “There’s an important matter that we must discuss tonight, before term comes to a close…”

 

He picked up a glass bowl of toad-shaped chocolates with his uninjured hand and placed it between them on the wood.

 

“Might I offer you a Peppermint Toad?” he asked mistily. “I seem to recall that they’re your favorite.”

 

Ramsay raised an eyebrow at Dumbledore suspiciously.

 

“I know you didn’t call me in here just to offer me candy, you old dodger,” he reproached him. “Don’t beat around the bush.”

 

Dumbledore smiled almost fondly. “As always, Gordon, I so enjoy your elegant turns of phrase…”

 

There was something almost bizarrely sad in the Headmaster’s eyes that Ramsay had never seen before. It made him suddenly feel very ill at ease. His sharp blue eyes trailed across the desk, resting on the black traveling cloak in the corner.

 

“…Are you going somewhere?” Ramsay asked lowly.

 

“Yes, I’m afraid I am,” said Dumbledore with a sigh. “I wanted to speak with you before my departure. You see, Gordon, the mission I’m undertaking will be a touch perilous…and it’s possible, given my health, that I may not be as up to it as I would have been in the past. Don’t worry,” he said when Ramsay’s eyebrows furrowed, “I won’t be alone.”

 

Any trace of concern on Ramsay’s face was abruptly buried by scorn.

 

“Ah yes,” he muttered, “it would be unlike you not to drag someone else along on your dangerous little play-date.

 

Dumbledore didn’t react with any anger; instead he merely looked solemn.

 

“Gordon, I called you here because I need a favor of you,” he said quietly. “While I am away, Hogwarts will need all the protection possible.”

 

“All the more reason for you not to go off chasing Death Eaters and actually protect your school,” Ramsay shot back coldly.

 

“What I am doing is necessary to protect the school, Gordon, as well as the rest of the Wizarding World.”

 

“Forgive me if I don’t see how abandoning your responsibility is a form of protection.”

 

Dumbledore rose to his feet, his face becoming graver as he crossed the room to his Pensieve, absently gazing into the swirling basin.

 

“…The mission I am undertaking will help sabotage Voldemort’s chances of revival, once he is finally slain,” he said simply.

 

Ramsay flinched in response to the Dark Lord’s name, but otherwise remained stoic.

 

Revival?” he recurred lowly. “You mean the way he came back the last time?”

 

Dumbledore nodded. “So long as Voldemort – ” Ramsay flinched again, “ – can keep coming back…no student is safe. Harry will never be safe…”

 

Ramsay’s eyes narrowed.

 

“So this is about you protecting Harry?” he demanded, his tone betraying some surprise and sympathy despite himself. “Keeping him from facing You-Know-Who?”

 

Dumbledore looked at Ramsay sadly.

 

“Alas, Gordon…I’m afraid nothing will prevent that,” he murmured.

 

Ramsay’s mouth fell open in furious disbelief.

 

“Wh – of course it could be prevented, are you daft?!” he retorted angrily. “Harry might be a capable student, but he’s no match for You-Know-Who! He’s just a boy! You can’t be stupid enough to think that Harry could take down the most powerful Dark Wizard in the world, just because of some rumors about a blasted prophecy!”

 

“You’re right,” said Dumbledore lightly. “I don’t think that just because of the prophecy.”

 

Ramsay stared at Dumbledore for a moment; his sharp eyes slowly widened.

 

“…Then there is a prophecy.”

 

“Yes, Gordon, there is,” Dumbledore replied calmly as he withdrew his wand from the inside of his robes.

 

He poked the liquidy remnants in the Pensieve with his wand. Out of the basin came a bizarre echo of words, clearly recollected in its depths as a murky face swam around it.

 

“Neither can live while the other survives…”

 

Ramsay looked down at the Pensieve, trying to catch a better look at the face, but it was already fading away and the sound had stopped. Then his eyes shot back up to Dumbledore and narrowed accusingly.

 

“Does Harry know about this?”

 

“Yes,” said Dumbledore. “I told him after the Death Eaters tried to steal it from the Department of Mysteries last year. It was time that he knew.”

 

“So now you’ve coaxed Harry into thinking he has to fight You-Know-Who, just because of some shite prophecy?” snarled Ramsay. “That’s low even for you, Dumbledore, you fucking – ”

 

“I’ve not coaxed him any such way,” Dumbledore said gravely, his misty tone hinting at just enough sharpness to interrupt Ramsay and no more.

 

The Headmaster’s wrinkled, long-fingered hand slid along the edge of the Pensieve.

 

“As with all prophecies, Harry’s only holds as much value as one gives it,” he said quietly, “and Harry is wise enough to have realized that he alone, and no prophecy, can dictate his fate. He is also wise enough to realize that he is the Chosen One not because he was chosen by Fate or destiny…but because Voldemort – ” Ramsay fought back another flinch, “ – chose to target the Potters…and therefore designated Harry as his greatest foe. And because Harry is such a noble boy – such a brave man – he will not hide or cower when faced with such a threat…not when it endangers the people he loves most in the world. If Harry doesn’t have a choice…it’s merely because there is no other choice that he himself could in good conscience make.”

 

Ramsay opened his mouth to speak, but Dumbledore gently cut him off with a raised hand – subconsciously he’d raised his blackened, injured hand, which halted the words in Ramsay’s throat almost immediately when he laid eyes on it.

 

Dumbledore, feeling some compassion in response to Ramsay’s horror, shook his sleeve over his injured hand and lowered it again gracefully.

 

“…I know I’ve wronged you in the past, Gordon,” he said softly. “When you were a boy, I tried to persuade you, both myself and through your friends, to aid in our cause. You were such a brilliant young student…one that I knew could be so beneficial to our cause…that I looked past your feelings and wishes in an attempt to recruit you. I exploited your trust in me as an authority figure and used it to coax you to join the Order, without giving you the chance to come to your own conclusions…and for that, I’m sorry.”

 

Dumbledore’s words sounded so sincere that they were almost painful to hear. How much that apology would have meant, just three years ago – but right now, Ramsay felt his hands clenching at his sides with anger.

 

“Yet you’re still coaxing more children to fight once they’ve graduated?” he challenged him sharply. “Ron – Hermione – Ginny, Harry – you can’t tell me you don’t expect them to jump into the fight, just like James and Lily and Alice did! And look at what fucking happened to them! You haven’t learned a bloody thing, have you!?”

 

Dumbledore’s eyes widened just slightly; then they softened with something like pity.

 

“…You truly love those children.”

 

“No shit, you brainless donkey!” scoffed Ramsay loudly. “Katie nearly died thanks to that cursed necklace – Ron got poisoned so badly that he was almost permanently paralyzed – Draco has clearly been pressured to join the Death Eaters after school, and I’m sure Vincent, Gregory, Millicent, and Daphne will soon be approached too – they’re being pulled into this goddamn War from both sides, and instead of protecting them, you’ve just sat back and fucking let it happen! All the students at this school – all of them – deserve better than this! But I suppose I shouldn’t have expected someone as fucking brain-dead as you to understand that! After all, who cares what casualties we suffer or how many families get ripped apart, as long as we win the bloody war - it's all for the greater fucking good, isn't it, you mewling, heartless harpie?!”

 

Dumbledore smiled slightly, but even that smile was tinged with the same bizarre sorrow that so troubled Ramsay.

 

“…Gordon…your compassion is truly limitless. To care so deeply for these children, many of whom are just as flawed as the adults who’ve raised them and who they’ll likely eventually emulate – to see yourself in every single one of them, however different they might be…that is a singularly impressive feat. I could only dream of possessing such a strong heart – one who can bring out friendships where there were once rivalries and who can show such astounding mercy for someone who has yet to earn it. But alas, my heart is too old, battered, and bruised to ever grow to such a size. There was a point, I must confess…where I hesitated in contacting you for the position of Potions professor. Now I see how very right the decision truly was, after all.”

 

With this he walked back to his desk, leaving Ramsay stunned into silence. After a moment, Dumbledore turned back to look at the Potions professor.

 

“After all these years, I know that you would never fight for me…but…for Harry, surely – for all of Hogwarts – would you fight Voldemort?”

 

Ramsay flinched at the name, though less this time. He didn’t reply for a long minute; when he finally opened his mouth to speak again, he was interrupted by a knock at the door.

 

“Enter,” said Dumbledore.

 

The door opened, to reveal Harry on the other side of it. He looked up at Ramsay, startled by his presence.

 

“Hello, Harry,” Dumbledore said pleasantly. “Gordon and I were just finishing up…Gordon, if you would excuse us, please.”

 

Ramsay looked from Dumbledore to over at Harry, his sharp blue eyes wary. His gaze lingered on Harry’s face, as if silently searching for an explanation that never appeared. Finally, with another quick glance toward Dumbledore’s desk, Ramsay left the room, closing the door quietly behind him.

 


 

About ten minutes later, Harry ran up to the Gryffindor commonroom to fetch his Invisibility Cloak. While there, he took the remaining half of his Felix Felicis out of his suitcase and gave it to Ron, instructing him and Hermione to split it amongst themselves and Ginny and contact the rest of the D.A. if anything went wrong that night.

 

About thirty minutes after Harry and Dumbledore had left, Draco Malfoy disobeyed curfew and sneaked out of the Slytherin commonroom without anyone noticing.

 

About an hour and a half after Harry and Dumbledore had left, the students and teachers were all settled in bed when the first rounds of small explosions woke them up from their slumber.

Chapter Text

The only person who moved a muscle during that first minute was the castle caretaker, Argus Filch. He’d heard the disturbance coming from the fifth floor corridor, which was just upstairs from where he’d be making his usual evening rounds. Grumbling about Peeves and his theatrical pranks, Filch lurched up the staircase, Mrs. Norris at his heels, to investigate the noise.

 

As soon as he arrived at the landing, however, he was abruptly thrown backward, colliding sharply with the wall headfirst. Wood splinters, pieces of stone, and an unpleasant yellow-green acid fell around him, and dust was thrust up into the air.

 

A shriek of insane laughter echoed down the hall. Filch shook his throbbing head, trying desperately to stabilize his vision, and when he looked through the dusty air, he was horrified to discover the source of the wicked glee.

 

Three menacing, black-cloaked figures had come out into the hallway, wands drawn. A tall, statuesque woman with long, curly dark hair and a mad gleam in her eye stood proudly at the front of the group.

 

“Find him!” she told the others. “Blast open this school until he comes running!”

 

She laughed again as she raised her wand, waving it violently at one of the walls and ripping it down. The stone went flying, shattering apart as if it were made of glass.

 

Despite the pain he was in, Filch immediately thought of his beloved pet. Lunging forward, he grabbed the pitifully mewing Mrs. Norris off the floor, and then scrambled back down the stairs. He needed to find cover – to get help –

 


 

Within the second minute, there was movement in the teachers’ chambers. All of them quickly leapt out of bed and harried to discover the source of the commotion. Professor Burbage found out by running into Argus Filch in the fourth floor corridor. Professor Sprout found out when the Fat Friar floated down through the ceiling of her office and told her of the attack. Two of the teachers, Professors Sinistra and Flitwick, found out by colliding with Bellatrix head-on.

 

In seconds the whole thing devolved into a full-on wizard’s duel in the fifth floor corridor. Flitwick fought valiantly, but the former-Dueling Champion found himself struggling against Bellatrix even with Sinistra’s help, and soon they were forced back down the hallway, struggling and failing to hold their ground. Not long later Professor McGonagall arrived, just as another Death Eater – Thorfinn Rowle – joined Bellatrix’s side.

 

Professors Vector and Ramsay ran into each other on their way down the fifth floor corridor. Both of them had their wands drawn and their faces were very pale.

 

“Gordon,” whispered Vector as they dashed down the hallway together, “you…you don’t think – ”

 

Ramsay knew what Vector was thinking, but he just couldn’t fathom it. Death Eaters at Hogwarts – at Hogwarts, the safest place on earth, that resilient fortress with constant Auror protection and impenetrable shields conjured by Dumbledore himself – ?

 

BANG!

 

All of a sudden the two professors were thrown backward off their feet when the wall to their left exploded in a blast of yellow-green acid.

 


 

Within the third minute there was some small traces of movement in the student dorms.

 

Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, following the instructions Harry had left them, each took a gulp of the Felix Felicis before leaving the rest on Ginny’s bedside table and rushing downstairs, wands drawn.

 

Hector Summerby instructed the Hufflepuff prefects who’d woken up to keep everyone inside their commonroom while he found Professor Sprout. In the hallway he collided