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Harry Potter and The Snaky Snitch

Chapter Text

...the Dark is not Evil
It's filled up with People
Filled up with People

Filled up with People
Who can't find a place
Who are always hiding
Can't show their Face...


Harry rubbed his grimy little hands over his swollen puffy red eyelids. He hadn't slept a wink all night in that wretched under stairs cupboard that leaked from a crevice in the wall, while his aunt and uncle, his effective step-parents after his own had perished in an unfortunate car crash ten years ago, snored soundly in their comfortably furnished 340 square foot bedroom, Uncle Vernon hugging the comforter as his mustache hairs quivered with each slumbering breath, Aunt Petunia drooling all over her scented buckwheat pillow, one strap of her silk red nightgown sliding down her shoulder. Their son Dudley, Harry's cousin, was still up playing a violent video game, riding a virtual flying unicorn through cyberspace, and utterly destroying the brain-eating zombies one by one with his magical smelting stick that shot fire. Half eaten bags of crisps lined the floor around Dudley in his dark bedroom which was only illuminated by the game. He shouted an exuberant "Yes!" upon beating the next level, beaming at his 34 inch computer screen. But his parents did not hear him: they had ear plugs in, and peacefully slept on. Harry, however, was jostled by the sudden sound and sat straight up in bed, sleepily sniffling and rubbing his eyes. He was coming down with quite a nasty cold.

It was early April and Aunt Petunia had started turning off the heating at night, because it was so warm outside. Harry shivered under the ratty old linen blankets that had once been a tablecloth before Dudley spilled tea all over it. Not for the first time in these last ten years, Harry stared at the crevice in the leaky wall, wondering whom on Earth he had wronged to deserve this. No child should be made to feel this way, he thought. And he was right. The Dursleys meant well, but... strange things seemed to happen around Harry all the bloody time. The boy had completely wrecked his Auntie Petunia's nerves time and time again. Harry turned a housewife's job into slave labor, or so she thought.

Punishing the boy did not help. After swatting at the kid without landing a single bruise on his scrawny behind, slashing his fingers endlessly with her spatula for an hour straight without cutting him even once, and making him stand in a corner facing the wall for three days on end to find him curiously observing the patterns on the wall with a God damn smile on his face, Aunt Petunia had concluded the child must be mentally challenged.

So they locked him up in the cupboard and wrote the school that Harry was ill and would not be attending class. It was useless, either way. What good could that school teach him when Harry was so positively retarded?

He was the sort of kid that tossed plates up in the air "to see if they could fly" when you told him to "do the dishes". To Harry's defense, he had tried to make his aunt's saucers levitate only once, when he was six years old, after he'd been permitted to watch a Science Fiction film with Dudley. But that was no excuse in Petunia's mind: Dudley had watched the same movie, and Dudley had not reacted this way. Flying Saucers! By Jove!

They were currently in the process of looking for a suitable school for Harry, a boarding school maybe, one that would put up with his random moronic expressions. No school wanted the boy, even the social workers wished they could wipe their hands of him, which made Petunia feel a little less guilty whenever she prayed that by some stroke of luck someone, anyone would drop by one day and whisk Harry away, so she and her perfect little family would never ever ever have to deal with Harry Potter ever again. She was at her wit's end.

Harry stood from the rickety cot made of cardboard boxes in which Dudley's sneakers computers and video game consoles had come, there was no point in laying about when he got no shuteye. He crooked his bony finger in the lock, twisted his wrist and pushed the door open. Harry peeked out into the hall, there was no one. Cautiously slipping out of the cupboard he padded over to the kitchen and took a mug into his shaking hands. He was dying for a cup of hot chocolate.

But the Dursleys would notice if a quart of their milk was missing from the fridge, and his cousin Dudley would surely pummel him to the ground with his smelting stick next morning if he found one portion of his precious cocoa powder missing. Harry's throat made a dry croak and his empty tummy grumbled miserably. He didn't want to taste the cold chlorinated tap water in his mouth.

There was nothing else he could drink. With a sigh Harry held his mug under the tap and whispered a soft soothing rhyme to himself:

"Slither slither crawl awake
All your dreams will break
Shatter shatter through the wall
Better brace yourself for the fall"

With sleep-shut eyes Harry turned the tap on. A hissing spurting sound startled him into opening his eyes. Harry stared. Harry stared and stared as a hot brown liquid that smelled a lot like... chocolate milk ...came sloshing down the pipes into his waiting mug.

This couldn't be.

But it wasn't the first time queer things happened around Harry. Harry reckoned he was just queer like that. When his mug was nearly full he reached out to turn the tap off. The tap was scalding hot.

Harry washed the cup when he had finished and went back to 'bed', locking the cupboard door behind him to make it seem as though he hadn't been out of the cupboard at all. Hours later, at five in the morning, he was woken to loud footfalls coming down the stairs. Uncle Vernon swung the cupboard door open and barked at a yawning nodding Harry to get on with cleaning the car.

While Uncle Vernon wolfed down a sandwich of butter and cheese, Harry scrubbed the battered old Honda Civic, taking extra care with the side view mirrors. Aunt Petunia had come downstairs and was watering flowers in the front garden by the time Harry connected a handheld vacuum cleaner by extension cord and got down on his hands and knees to remove all the crisp crumbs from the back seat. Hours later, sticky with sweat and a nice headache assaulting his skull, Harry stumbled back inside the house to find Dudley dully picking at his custard pudding, and Uncle Vernon briskly walking to and fro, constantly consulting his wrist watch and announcing they were going to be late.

Harry tried to hide under the stairs, hoping they would all forget about him so he could sleep off his dizzy spell, but had no such luck when Aunt Petunia caught him by the arm.

"Where do you think you are going?" she said, pointing at the stack of unwashed plates and pots and pans in the sink.

Harry heaved a groan, then got to cleaning the mess they'd left for him in the kitchen. He thought his worries were over when Aunt Petunia kissed Uncle Vernon on the cheek and pressed a paper bag into Dudley's porkish hands. But no such luck.

Uncle Vernon looked over his shoulder, wiping his feet impatiently on the Welcome Home mat. "Well, what are you waiting for?"

Harry pointed at himself. "Me?"

Uncle Vernon snarled, nostrils flaring hotly. "Well do you see anyone else standing there?"

Harry looked behind him to find an empty hallway... Aunt Petunia must have gone upstairs. He turned back to Uncle Vernon who was standing in the frame of the front door. "No?" he said uncertainly.

"Honestly!" Uncle Vernon cried out loud, lifting his head up to the sky. "This boy!"

In complete and utter bewilderment Harry followed Uncle Vernon to the family car. The Dursleys rarely took Harry anywhere... what could they possibly want him for today of all days? And how did Uncle Vernon expect Harry to know?

Harry slumped into the back seat beside Dudley who tried pinching his ear while Uncle Vernon fastened Dudley's seat belt. Uncle Vernon did not fasten Harry's seat belt.

They drove off into town. Houses started growing larger and closer together than in the sloping suburbs where the Dursleys lived, meadows made way for parking lots, forests for shopping centers. And still, Uncle Vernon drove on, and on... they should've passed Dudley's school by now. Harry frowned, nose pressed to the window. He had no idea where they were headed.

All the while Dudley's face was growing brighter and brighter till he was positively beaming. Harry scrutinized him, half the mind to ask Dudley what was going on, but he thought better of it, and stuck to idly gazing out the window instead.

Uncle Vernon pulled up into a large underground parking lot. Harry nervously fidgeted in his seat. There were plenty of cars here, and all seemed to contain parents with young kids... some younger than him. He was told to get out of the car, and followed Dudley and Mr. Vernon up inside a flashy metal elevator together with another family that had two girls who looked about Dudley's age, two years older than Harry.

The girls giggled non-stop and whispered to each other, pointing at something on one girl's smartphone. Harry craned his neck to see, but he was too short.

The elevator doors swished open and the other family walked out, the girls skipping eagerly forward, off to something Harry couldn't see.

Uncle Vernon and Dudley followed the family down a corridor of what looked like a giant shopping mall. Harry stared at brightly colored advertisements for all sorts of things as they walked past. As they rounded a corner, Harry saw the two girls from the family up ahead jump excitedly on the spot behind the glass front of a shop. He frowned. What were they up to?

Harry quirked his brow as he watched Dudley race to the same shop. Uncle Vernon casually strolled in after him. Harry followed with caution. Whatever got Dudley so excited could not be good.

A shop assistant knelt by the two girls and patted them on the head. Then, reaching inside a cupboard behind her, the assistant pulled out two large plush toys, a sandy colored fluffy fox and an electric yellow... cat? mouse bunny looking thing, and placed them into the girls' waiting hands. The girls squealed out bubbly laughs and hurried out the shop, toys pressed tight to their chests. Harry watched them go.

Before long he heard a pleasant voice ask him what his favorite pocket monster was. Harry looked up in confusion.

The same shop assistant from before smiled warmly at him. Looking past her, Harry saw Dudley holding onto a large plush toy of his own: a blue skinned boxer with four arms and a hideous face. Harry blinked.

"Blaziken," Dudley helpfully supplied, smiling at Harry for what had to be the first time in his life, "Blaziken is my little brother's favorite pokemon."

Wait, brother? Harry raised an eyebrow at Dudley. What was going on?

"Are you sure?" the shop assistant fixed Harry with a knowing smile. "You don't exactly look like a Blaziken type." She placed a gentle hand on his shoulder. Harry eyed it warily, no one had ever done that before. "Go ahead," she said, "you can pick any Pokemon you want. We've got a free giveaway, only today." She winked. "Every kid that enters our shop today gets a free plush toy Pokemon, as long as we've got toys left in stock."

Harry stared at her. He was getting a toy? A... a toy?

He'd never gotten so much as a torn teddy bear in his life. Whenever Aunt Petunia saw him making his own toys from the cardboard boxes that served him as a bed, she told him to quit playing around and get on with his chores... no one had ever offered him a toy, let alone told him to choose one of his own liking.

He blinked dumbly at the shop assistant, wondering if this was all a big cruel joke Dudley had decided to play on him.

"Oh I know," said the assistant with a friendly chortle, "you've probably never played with Pokemon before. Is that right?"

Harry nodded numbly.

The assistant's smile did not waver. If anything, she seemed even softer and more welcoming than before... "Well then, what kinds of animals do you like?"

Harry frowned. He didn't know, hadn't really thought of it before... it hadn't seemed that important.

"Do you like bugs?" the assistant said enthusiastically.

Harry shook his head a firm No.

"No bugs, then..." she said absently.

"Well, I don't mind them," Harry spoke up quickly, his voice wavering from disuse.

She laughed. "Oh don't worry, you're still getting the toy. Tell me something, what's your name?"

"Harry," said Harry.

"Alright Harry, how do you feel about birds?"

"I'm okay with birds," Harry said, shrugging.

"But you don't love them?" she guessed correctly. "Mmm, let's see... dogs?" Harry shook his head, "cats?", nope, "lions?", another no, "how about farm animals?" Harry thought farm animals were rather boring, he told her as much.

Uncle Vernon said Harry was being difficult and should make up his mind already, but the assistant said it wasn't a problem: they had come in early and the store still had plenty of toys.

"What about fish?" the shop assistant said, bringing her face to the same height as Harry's.

Harry thought about this, long and hard. He puffed up a breath of air that blew his bangs from his eyes. The assistant let out a low gasp while pointing at his forehead. Harry frowned.

"Hold up, I know just the right Pokemon for you!" The assistant vanished behind a backdoor for a few minutes, then returned holding an elongated white tadpole plushy in her hands. The toy had large brown eyes and a wavy yellow stripe that ran along the length of its body, its mouth was a pink four-pointed star. Harry gaped at the toy in awe. It was unmistakably cute, and... unmistakably his.

"Tynamo is an Electric Pokemon that feels right at home in the water," said the assistant, handing him the toy. She must have seen his scar, Harry thought.

"Thank you," he whispered breathlessly. When he looked up at the assistant, Harry had tears in his eyes.

"Aww no need to thank me!" The assistant ruffled his hair. "But thank you for coming today, we hope you'll come by some time. Our shop has many Pokemon and other creatures, please don't hesitate to drop by whenever you're close."

Harry was so happy he could scream. All the way to the car he held his Tynamo to his chest and saw little else of what occurred around him. His eyes drank in the toy's soft fur that glistened under shop lights, his whole consciousness was consumed by the Tynamo's large oval eyes that seemed to look back at him just as eagerly. Harry placed his hand on the car door when Dudley cleared his throat. Harry blinked up at him.

Dudley's podgy face looked quite displeased. Harry frowned. What did he want now? Still holding onto the pale blue boxer toy with his right hand, Dudley stretched out his left hand and held it open in front of Harry, as if he was expecting Harry to give him something... but what could Harry possibly give him?

Harry stared at his cousin, utterly perplexed. He didn't own a thing in this whole wide world: everything he had at the Dursley's was borrowed, right down to the very clothes hanging from his thin measly frame, which were mostly pass-me-downs from Dudley or clothes Dudley refused to wear because they weren't 'cool' or something... Harry didn't have a dime in his empty pockets... what could Dudley possibly want from him?

Dudley heaved a long suffering sigh. "Look, I'm not mad at you. It's no Blaziken, but at least it's a Pokemon. Maybe I can trade it with someone at school or something."

Then it dawned on Harry. Dudley was after the toy! His toy, the one in his hands!

Harry quickly turned, putting a safe distance between Dudley and the toy Tynamo.

Dudley glared at him. "What do you think you're doing?" he barked.

Harry made a run for it and hid behind the car. But instead of running after him, Dudley threw his head back and wailed out loudly: "Daddy! Daddy!"

Uncle Vernon turned to them furiously. "Keep your voice down Son."

"But he isn't giving me the toy," Dudley whimpered out loudly, pointing at Harry.

Harry frowned, this had to be a joke, surely Uncle Vernon couldn't make him give up his own very first toy, could he?

"Give Dudley the toy," Uncle Vernon said sternly, locking Harry in a challenging stare that bored down on him.

Harry blanched. No, no he couldn't. Couldn't they see this was his first toy? His only toy? When Dudley had so many... Harry took a step back, walking into another car that was parked next to theirs, he couldn't do it. He couldn't give his Tynamo away.

The car he'd stumbled into started screeching loudly, its blaring alarm sending echoes through the parking lot, which drew a lot of attention from other families that were just arriving with kids of their own. Vernon growled at him. Harry held Tynamo tight to his chest and shouted "No! No I will not!"

Uncle Vernon looked like he'd been frozen solid, he even forgot to breathe. Harry took that moment as his cue to run, and he dashed past Dudley, back inside the elevator, getting in right before the doors closed. He breathed a sigh of relief. The people in the elevator stared at him: one mother with a little boy that looked about seven. The boy kept staring at Harry's Tynamo, completely transfixed, the woman looked at Harry, a worried frown across her smooth powdered face. Harry pointedly glared at the number that showed what floor they were on. "We hope you'll come by some time," the shop assistant had said, "please don't hesitate to drop by whenever you're close." Harry didn't hesitate. The shop wouldn't take his Tynamo away from him.

But... up in the store, the shop assistant stared at him, not really knowing what to do.

"Shall I call your parents?" she said kindly.

Harry shook his head. "I don't have parents," he told her.

She bit her lip. Then, kneeling beside him so their eyes were on the same level, she said slowly: "But you were just here with your dad."

Harry shook his head with absolute finality. "He's not my Dad!"

The assistant frowned. "I'm... I'm going to make a call," she said slowly, "you sit here," she pointed at a cushy sofa that was shaped like a snake. "Would you like something to drink?" she wanted to know. "We have hot chocolate."

All of a sudden Harry didn't feel thirsty, despite having run here as fast as his scrawny legs would carry him.

"All, alright then," she spoke softly, "please wait for me here," and then she disappeared from view.

 

 

But Harry didn't wait. This was his one shot at making it out alive. Harry grabbed his toy and ran. He ran out the shop, no one noticed, no one tried to stop him. He ran through the mall, skirting past women who carried heavy shopping bags. If anyone saw a ten year old boy run through the mall, they didn't say anything about it. Apparently this was a sight of everyday, or maybe... maybe Harry had finally gotten his wish and turned invisible.

In any case, no one reached out to stop Harry, and before he knew it he was in the street, amid the whirl of teeming cars. Everywhere he looked, tall buildings towered over him, some ten, some fifteen storeys high. In a daze Harry shuffled from busy street to busy street, clutching his Tynamo to his chest.

Harry was starting to regret his decision to run away when a man hit him with his briefcase while passing. There were no other kids here... Harry was completely lost in a world of concrete and steel. He walked off into a dark alley, hoping to catch a break from the hustle and bustle of the busy streets filled with adults in a perpetual hurry. But when he got there...

Flat uniform tiles made way for curiously warped cobblestones, and before Harry knew it, he was walking down a cozy medieval themed street, complete with smokey chimneys and crooked houses that leaned on one another. Harry took a wide view of the street.

He noticed quite a few people stare at him with rapt interest and curiosity. Most of these people were dressed oddly: they wore long dark robes that covered their arms and came to their ankles. Some carried short sticks around, both the women and the men had rather long hair... some longer than Harry had ever seen.

"Good day young Sir," he heard a deep raspy voice say right next to his ear.

Harry whirled around to find a hunched old man smile at him with sharp, glittering eyes. The man had a thin long beard that had been twisted in several complicated knots, a pointed purple hat covered the top of his head completely. Harry looked up at the man in surprise, this was the first time anyone had spoken to him like to a grown up.

"Can I interest you in some black chalk?" the man said. "Maybe a brown rat or two?" He gestured at a nearby shop front, to which Harry turned in surprise to read 'The Coffin House'.

"Huh? What would I need a rat and black chalk for?" he asked... he actually asked.

Harry felt so silly standing there clutching a plush toy to his chest and asking stupid questions like that.

But the man did not find him silly. Or, if he did, he did not let it on. "Why," he grinned at Harry, "to talk with your parents of course."

Harry looked more puzzled than anything. "My parents are dead," he said without thinking.

"Exactly," the man pointed out, as if that made perfect sense. "That's why you need to cast a necromancy spell to speak with them. So you'll be sacrificing a rat or two, and don't forget to draw a circle around yourself before you start the incantation," the man added cheekily, "for your own protection."

Harry's mouth fell open. "Necromancy?" he stammered out.

"My shop is the best in town!" the man cackled, ushering Harry inside, "the only one in town," he waggled his eyebrows as he shut the door behind Harry who hadn't noticed how far he'd gone until his feet stepped on the squawking doormat, "if you catch my drift."

Harry took in the dimly lit room... an assortiment of oddities greeted him from rows and rows of wooden shelves. "But, but," he spoke fast, "but I don't have any money!"

"Nonsense," the man said fondly, "you can write me a cheque. All I'll be needing is your signature," he winked, "I've got all the forms right here," he said, patting the till.

Harry stared at the man. Only now did it finally occur to him to ask how the man had known his parents were not alive...

When Harry did so, the old fart burst out laughing. "Why you're Harry Potter! Scar and all," he leaned one elbow on his counter, "I know him when I see him."

Harry nearly dropped his plush Tynamo right there.

"And might I say," the man went on, "I am honored, very honored, that first thing Harry Potter does when he comes to Knockturn Alley is visit my shop."

"Owwkay..." Harry decided to let it go for now.

"So, what shall it be? Two rats? Three rats? If you ask me, I'd recommend using at least two rats for each call if it's your first try at necromancy. Nothing to be ashamed of, but given your youth and all, might be better to err on the side of caution."

Harry settled on a stub of black chalk and a small silver locket containing a black cat's bone marrow. Buying pairs of living breathing rats that were supposed to be sacrificed during the ritual just didn't sit right with him. Mere moments later he was out of the shop, holding a grey suede bag with his purchases, and his plush toy Tynamo... all he had done was sign his own name on a parchment of paper.

He gazed curiously at the little bag in his hand as he made his way further down Knockturn Alley.

All the way he went, everywhere he craned his neck to look, he saw odd people dressed in an even odder manner carrying around even odder things. A broomstick was levitating one yard off the ground, a Venus flytrap was purring and drooling all over a man's fingers, and owls were flying in great flocks through the sky in broad daylight. If he looked closely, he thought he saw the owls carry letters in their beaks, or tied to their legs. Harry shook his head in amazement, London was a wonderful city full of surprises.

No other shopkeepers approached him on the street, but he walked into a good deal of stores and looked around, discovering all sorts of amazing stuff he'd never seen before. He made a note to himself to visit Borgin and Burkes again some time, and get his hands on the golden perpetually revolving globe. He couldn't get it now, as it was simply too large and heavy to lift, and... he had nowhere to take it to, as he doubted Aunt Petunia would allow him to bring that thing inside her home, if she even let him back in at all.

Regardless of his uncertain future, Harry had a fine time strolling down the alley, talking with several long haired long robed people who were all a good deal older than him and who all seemed to know his name. This was beginning to feel more like a dream rather than tangible reality. Harry clutched Tynamo closer to his chest and stroked the plushie's white fur.

"If you start talking," he said to the toy, "I'll have to commit myself to the mental ward."

But the toy made no sound.

Harry started feeling rather weary and light-headed, so upon passing a pub called The White Wyvern, he stopped by to have a little bite to eat. After signing his name on a leathery strip of parchment, Harry guzzled down a quenching soup of Unicorn blood. They offered him a large chocolate frog on the house, the card that came with it had a moving picture of a funny looking old man who wore violet robes and had a silvery beard that went past his knees. A mane of snowy white hair peeked out from under his dark blue pointed hat. His bright blue eyes sparkled with mirth. The inscription underneath read:

Albus Dumbledore
Currently Headmaster of Hogwarts, considered by many the Greatest Wizard of Modern Times. Dumbledore is particularly famous for his defeat of the Dark Wizard Grindelwald in 1945, for the discovery of the twelve uses of Dragon's blood, and his work on Alchemy with his partner Nicolas Flamel. Professor Dumbledore enjoys chamber music and ten-pin bowling.

Harry stared at the card in wonder. He'd never heard of a man being partnered with another man, he was certain Aunt Petunia would be livid if she ever caught wind of this. Harry put the card with the moving wizard away in his trouser pocket and walked out of the pub. Five shops later he finally worked up the courage to ask one man what that bloody stick in his hand was.

"Why it's a wand!" the man exclaimed in sheer surprise.

"A wand? Like the Tooth Fairy?" Harry laughed.

The man simply nodded, as if Harry hadn't just told him a joke. "Exactly. I had her for Tea last Wednesday, lovely lady."

Harry was floored. Asking where he could get a wand of his own, he was directed toward Diagon Alley, Mr. Ollivander's.

Should he even be getting a wand? Harry thought to himself standing in front of the peculiar little shop with its rotund windows that were shaped like pillars on either side of a small wooden door, or was it time to wake up? Oh what the Hell, Harry decided to indulge in this little delusion a little while longer. He pulled the door open and walked past the threshold.

No sooner had Harry entered the store than a large Eurasian eagle-owl swooped onto his shoulder. Harry shuddered. The owl looked at him curiously and made a few hooting sounds. Then he heard a clear high-pitched voice call from behind a high shelf of wooden blocks.

"Loyalty," a second later, "Loyalty!"

The owl hooted back, but did not move from Harry's shoulder.

A head peeked out from around the shelf, and Harry found himself locking eyes with a blond boy of about his own age. When the kid noticed Harry's obvious discomfort with the owl sitting on his left shoulder, he cracked a wicked smirk.

"Oh don't worry," the boy said, confidently strolling over to Harry. "It's just a bubo bubo. Doesn't bite, ...normally." There was a mischievous twinkle in his eye.

He was the only one here who didn't seem to know Harry by name.

"Merlin, you look like you've got a gargoyle on your shoulder!" the boy laughed at his own joke. "It's only an owl."

The bubo bubo hooted as if on cue and gently pecked Harry on the cheek.

That made the blond boy grin. "I think he likes you. My name's Draco," he held out his hand, "what's yours?"

Harry shifted the plush toy and suede satchel around so he could shake Draco's hand. "Harry," he said in a small voice.

Thankfully the boy didn't react the same dramatic manner those odd adults had upon seeing Harry or hearing his name, Harry was growing rather tired of that. Draco simply pulled his hand back casually like this was nothing unusual.

"I'm waiting to get my wand fitted," Draco drawled, rolling his eyes in a show of impatience, "but the line is so long I might as well have stayed home an hour more. Loyalty is growing bored."

So wands were fitted? Harry wondered how they would fit a wand... did they measure hand size, or the length from wrist to elbow?

"I can't believe these bloody Weasleys," Draco groaned, "come here with the whole whopping family, like they're on a day trip or something."

Curious, Harry looked past Draco and there, deeper in the shop he saw a group of red-headed boys goof around. They were really tall and most of them looked older... Harry spotted only one boy in the group who looked about his and Draco's age, though he could perhaps be a year older, Harry couldn't tell.

"Apparently one brother's wand broke," Draco was saying, "it broke, in his First Year at Hogwarts! Dogwood," Draco shook his head, "why am I not surprised." He pursed his lip in disgust. "But why on Cersei's Green Earth do they have to come here all at once? The middle brother wanting a replacement wand, the other middle brother getting a backup wand, just in case, and their youngest looking for his very first wand! And why is it taking so long?"

A red-haired boy of about twelve or thirteen was holding a stick in his right hand, tutting. Another red-haired boy who looked nearly identical to the first, held a differently looking stick in his left hand, and pulled a face at it. Their older brothers and younger brother swarmed around them, muttering this thing and that, while a middle aged man who had to be Mr. Ollivander traced his hands over different boxes on various shelves, like he was looking for something in particular. Harry was starting to get used to the 6 pound owl perched on his left shoulder.

Draco gnashed his teeth. "Those bloody Weasleys must think everything's permitted for them, since their dad's in the Ministry."

Harry perked up at that, finally something he could understand amidst all these peculiar Fantasy things. He had heard of the Ministry, Uncle Vernon regularly read about the Ministry in the papers. "Ah, so they're politicians then?"

Draco gave a grim nod. "Ever since they won the War they've been insufferable know-it-alls."

War? Harry blinked, shocked beyond words. There hadn't been any wars these past ten years, had there? Could a war have somehow happened quietly under his nose while he was sleeping, without him noticing it? Harry doubted that, but he thought it wise not to ask questions that would make him look ignorant. A war was a serious matter, and he could hardly expect this boy he barely knew to explain all that had happened. Harry would have to find another way to learn about this war...

"Can you imagine, they consort with Muggles!"

"Muggles?" Harry asked.

"Yes!" Draco exclaimed indignantly. "I couldn't believe it myself."

One of the identical red-haired twins held his stick up triumphantly in the air, exclaiming "That's the one, Fred!" upon which Mr. Ollivander busied himself finding a suitable stick for their younger brother. Although oddly, Harry couldn't see Olivander taking any measurements.

"But it makes sense you've never heard of them," Draco went on, "they're not exactly the most relevant people around here, though they like to think they are. Only reason I've run across the Weasleys before is an ill-fated marriage my parents tried to broker with theirs." Draco stuck up his nose. "Whomping Toad Brains, if I have to look that insipid Weasel girl in the face every day for the rest of my life, I'll go stark raving mad. Good thing my family completely backed out of the deal the moment those Weasleys stepped inside our front door for dinner." Draco winced, "they were so loud."

"Ah," Ollivander breathed, exhaling a contented sigh, "Applewood with Unicorn hair core."

The youngest Weasley brother beamed at him. "Thank you Sir, that's brilliant!" his jubilant voice filled the shop.

"Would you like your name inscribed on the wand?"

Fifteen minutes later the Weasleys paid him and left, some throwing dirty looks Draco's way as they passed through the door.

"Oh hello," Ollivander said with a mysterious smile on his thin lips, eyeing them both up, "I would have thought you'd show up here, but I was expecting you a few months later Harry Potter."

Draco's jaw dropped. "Don't tell me you're... you're the famous Harry Potter?" he stared at Harry in a mixture of horror and awe.

Harry hadn't known he was famous, but simply dipped his head in acknowledgement.

Draco made a wide gallant gesture at the depths of Ollivander's store. "You go first, I can wait."

Harry blinked, but... but hadn't Draco been in a hurry? He had looked so tired of waiting just moments ago, and now he was offering Harry to have his wand fitted first, despite having arrived at Ollivander's long before Harry.

Harry raised an eyebrow at his new friend.

Draco tried calling his owl back, bit it insisted on remaining on Harry's shoulder.

"Thank you Draco," Harry mumbled, "but it's quite alright. I'll wait my turn, you go on ahead. You've been waiting a lot longer than me."

Draco looked uncomfortable, and didn't know what to do with his hands until Mr. Ollivander pressed a roughly textured wand in his right hand. Harry followed them deeper into the store where he watched Draco wave the wand about to little effect.

"No, that's not right," Ollivander muttered under his breath, "hold on a second Malfoy," and he busied himself rifling through a whole drawer of misshapen sticks of different sizes that had been dumped there in a messy heap.

Harry and Draco exchanged glances, Loyalty gave a low inquisitive hoot.

"Try this one," Ollivander pressed a smoothly shaved-down stick into Draco's hand.

Draco twirled it around. A silvery tear shaped puff of smoke rose from the tip of the wand. Both Harry and Ollivander gasped, but for different reasons.

"That's the one!" Ollivander grinned excitedly, "shall I inscribe your family name on it?"

Harry just stared at the wand in Draco's hand... which was still steadily emitting steady puffs of silvery smoke.

Draco screwed his face up in confusion. "Can I try another wand Sir?"

Olivander shook his head decisively. "This wand has chosen you," he said with a foreboding frown on his face, "it's yours."

Draco's shoulders slumped forward, but he didn't let go of the wand.

Harry leaned in, looking from the wand in Draco's hand to the look on his face. "Is it Dogwood?" he asked curiously.

Ollivander roared with laughter. "That's no Dogwood, young Master Potter, it's Hazel: core of Unicorn hair, twelve inches, Supple flexibility. Very affectionate wand you've got there Malfoy," Ollivander chided, there was an edge to his voice, "I do hope you haven't triggered its affection in vain."

Draco gave a resolute shake of his head. "Of course not. I'm taking the wand, but I do not wish to have it engraved."

Ollivander narrowed his eyes at the boy. "If you try to exchange this wand or win another in a duel, it will wilt."

Draco let out a raw raspy breath through his front teeth. "I just don't want my family name on it, how difficult is that to understand?"

Ollivander huffed and walked off to the till to write up a cheque. Then it was Harry's turn. Loyalty had finally taken flight, relieving Harry's shoulder of its weight, but Draco still stuck around to see what wand Harry would get.

The thorny stick wiggled in Harry's hand, he had to grasp it tightly. It seemed to want to run away from him, which had Harry more than a little perplexed.

"Blackthorn," Ollivander announced proudly, "nine and three quarter inches, Dragon heartstring core, hard flexibility."

Compared to Draco's stick, it looked rather short. Harry told him so.

"Don't worry Mr. Potter," Ollivander said, "that's no reflection of what's between your legs."

Harry flushed bright red. They both got a nice wooden box to go along with their wand, but if Harry looked closely, he noticed his box looked quite a bit handsomer than Draco's. Just as they were about to leave, a dark skinned young girl with bushy brown hair and big front teeth entered the shop, smiling brightly.

"Hello Miss Granger," said Ollivander, leaning against one of his wand shelves.

The girl stopped right there, blocking Harry and Draco's path. "How did you know my name?" she asked, astonished.

Harry frowned, he noticed a common theme here.

Mr. Ollivander winked at her. "When you get my age, you'll know," he said, turning to his shelves and searching for something.

"How old are you?" the girl asked without changing her tone.

Harry thought that was a bit rude, but didn't question it when he saw Ollivander brush it off with a slight shrug of the shoulder.

"About as old as my shop I'm afraid," the man said, "now... shall we match you with a Walnut? You're certainly smart enough."

That made the girl blush, pleased with the praise. She walked deeper into the shop and Draco reached for the door, but paused when he saw Harry stand there, staring at the girl as though transfixed.

But all Walnut wood wands they tried, of varying lengths, refused to perform for the girl. Ollivander disappeared behind a cabinet, leaving the three of them alone in his shop.

 

 


The girl shot a curious look at Draco. "What type of wand did you get?" she asked him point-blank, without even caring to introduce herself or ask for his name.

Harry thought that was rather rude.

Draco averted his eyes to the window, holding onto his box with a tighter grip as though someone might try and take it from him. "The good type," he said.

The girl snorted. "And you?" she nodded at Harry, "I suppose you got the bad type, didn't you?"

Harry openly glared at her. This girl had some nerve. "Blackthorn," he said stiffly, "Dragon core."

She looked a little impressed. "Not bad," she said, tilting her head from side to side, "it's no Walnut, but Dragon wands learn more quickly than other types, and Blackthorn wands can be very powerful, once you manage to tame it."

Ollivander returned with a short polished black stick before Harry could ask the girl what made Walnut wands so great.

"Here," Ollivander said, "try this."

They all held their breaths and waited for something, anything, to happen.

A flurry of Autumn leaves flew from the wand's tip in all directions. The girl laughed excitedly, looking about the shop with the wide eyed expression of joy.

"Ten inches," Ollivander recited, "Phoenix feather core, very rare, with an unyielding flexibility."

"Ebony is perfect for combative magic and Transfiguration!" the girl said, admiring the woodwork.

Ollivander looked impressed. "Someone has studied their First Year's textbook in advance."

Why were they all talking about First Years? Harry wondered. They weren't at school...

Draco rolled his eyes. "Who needs to read a Hogwarts textbook to tell one wand from another? Please, that hodge is so common knowledge you'd have to be an idiot not to know."

Ollivander fixed him with a stern look when Harry defused all tension in the room by asking "Hogwarts?"

Everyone looked at Harry. He felt put on the spot.

"Aren't you going to Hogwarts?" Draco asked him.

The girl approached with a frown on her face and her wand raised. "Will you be attending Durmstrang instead?"

Upon silence from Ollivander, Harry replied truthfully: "I don't know yet."

"Ah," Draco looked relieved, "it's sensible to consider other magic schools before applying, wish I had thought of that to be honest."

Magic schools? Staring at Draco, Harry felt as if his eyeballs were about to burst. There were schools that taught magic?

The girl crossed her arms over her chest. "I think Hogwarts is the best school in the North. There's Beauxbatons Academy of Magic of course, but they only admit girls. And both Ilvermorny and Mahoutokoro are too far away, though I suppose that can have its own appeal, if you're seeking adventure. But Ilvermorny is a relatively new school, so I doubt they could be much better than Hogwarts. And you'd have to speak and read Japanese to study at Mahoutokoro. Durmstrang Institute is a backwards dunghole if you ask me."

"Yeah well no one asked you," Draco shot back.

The girl looked down the length of her nose at him, narrowing her eyes a fraction. "Rude," she said, before turning on her heel and asking Ollivander to carve her name, Hermione Granger, in bold cursive font please, on her newly acquired wand.

As they left Hermione at Ollivander's and walked out the shop together, Harry was raring to ask Draco about Hogwarts when a sharp angry woman's voice assaulted their ears:

"Harry Potter! What do you think you're doing? Strolling down Diagon Alley, alone, unsupervised!"

Both boys turned around. A small statured woman in a pencil skirt with a tight black bun fixed on top of her head glowered at them, threateningly narrowing her poisonous green eyes.

"We were just getting our wands, Professor McGonagall," Draco said softly.

McGonagall looked like she didn't believe a word of what Draco said. "And why is Potter with you?" she challenged.

"I ran into him at Ollivander's," Draco sputtered, pointing at the door to the wand shop behind them. Loyalty gave two hoots from its position on Draco's shoulder, as if to corroborate his story.

"What was Potter doing at Ollivander's?" McGonagall spat.

Harry really did not like her tone.

Draco shrunk inside his robes. "I don't know Ma'am."

"Don't call me Ma'am boy!"

"Sorry!" Draco squeaked, standing stiff as a rod. Loyalty ruffled its feathers disapprovingly.

"You are to refer to me as Professor, Professor McGonagall," the glowering woman repeated. She made him address her properly a number of times before she sent him off with the instruction to give her Best Wishes to Narcissa and Lucius. Then she rounded on Harry.

First thing she wanted to know is when he'd received his Letter. Failing to answer that, McGonagall inquired about the satchel in his hand. She was floored when he told her about The Coffin House, and demanded to know who had brought him to Knockturn Alley. Upon discovering he had brought himself there, McGonagall promptly grabbed Harry by the wrist and dragged him off to a low shed filled with various broomsticks... for some reason they were all padlocked.

Harry gazed at the brooms, wondering if this random woman was going to make him clean the shed. It looked rather dirty.

But the woman hissed at him instead. "This is no ordinary alley Harry, it's a magical alley."

He had deduced that much on his own.

"Only magical creatures and people who can practice magic, wizards and witches, can enter this alley Harry."

So... was she about to kick him out? And why did she keep mentioning his name? Did she think that would make him pay more attention to what she was saying?

"You're a wizard, Harry."

Harry shook his head. "With all due respect Professor, you're insane."

Professor McGonagall sighed, looking like she felt sorry for him. "You don't have to hide who you are among your own." She shook her head, sadly, looking at one of the padlocked brooms. "Dumbledore made a big mistake when he left you in the Muggle World to keep you safe, he had a dreadful error in judgement."

"Dumbledore?" Harry repeated.

"Yes," said McGonagall, "it was his decision to leave you with those vile Muggles. I thought it was a terrible idea when he brought it up, and I told him so. But Dumbledore said you should be raised by them because they were your family!" she exclaimed in disbelief, shaking her head as though to rid herself of nasty thoughts. "It was wrong of him to leave you with the Dursleys, very irresponsible." She wrinkled her nose in disgust.

Harry frowned, not fully understanding, but prepared to hear her out. "I thought my parents died in a car crash," he started slowly.

"A car crash!" McGonagall shouted. Harry wanted to cover his ears. "That what those Muggles been telling you all these years?"

Harry nodded quickly, he couldn't tell why McGonagall kept referring to the Dursleys as 'Muggles', but the monicker seemed to fit them well. 'Muggle' accurately described how Harry felt about Dudley and his parents...

"No Dear," there were tears in McGonagall's eyes now, and she sounded almost tender when she said: "your parents didn't die in a car crash, they died protecting you from an evil wizard who must not be named."

The world seemed to shatter under Harry's very feet. It was like a rug was pulled out from under him, revealing a stinky murky swamp that threatened to draw him into its depths. He was about ready to wake up now! But the nightmare wouldn't end, no matter how hard he kept pinching his arms.

"There's nothing to fear Dear," McGonagall cooed at him with a wan smile, "the evil wizard is gone now, you are the one who vanquished him ten years ago when he gave you that scar." She brushed his hair from his forehead.

Harry blinked up at her owlishly.

"I was just making a routine run for supplies on Diagon Alley when I overheard some people saying they'd seen you. Which surprised me, you see, since you were meant to receive a Letter of Invitation to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry on your eleventh birthday, thirty-first July of this year, and it's only April."

This woman knew his birth date!

"Then I knew for sure something had gone horribly wrong," Professor McGonagall went on. "I'm a Professor at Hogwarts you see, and Head of House Gryffindor. Your parents studied there and met one another at Hogwarts. I think they would have liked you to go to Hogwarts too, so you could learn to control your magic."

"My... my magic?" Harry stammered in complete bewilderment. He had magic? Magic of his own?

"Yes Harry," the Professor said patiently, "you're a wizard."

Harry could hardly believe what he was hearing and had to be told many times before the message got through. Then, by the time Harry was softly whispering to himself "I'm a wizard," McGonagall asked him if he wanted to come with her.

"You can stay with me until the next school year starts," she said. "I need to speak with Dumbledore to discuss your living arrangements, but I don't think you should be sent back to live with those pigheaded Muggles. It would be a detriment to your education. What have they been teaching you all these years?"

Harry told her all about his chores and the couple years schooling he'd gotten before Aunt Petunia had pulled him out of school entirely, convinced he had cognitive development problems. Professor McGonagall looked downright appalled.

"That's settled then. You are not going back to those slimy smarmy Muggles," she said decisively. "You are going to stay with me for the remainder of this school year and over the Summer, during which time you will be brought up to speed on all things magical and everything else you'll need to know before starting your First Year at Hogwarts."

That said, she grabbed a broom, unlocking the padlock with a spell and a tip of her wand that had been concealed in her right hand sleeve all this time, and told Harry to hop on and hold on tight. Before he knew it they were flying through the bright blue sky, high over the rooftops of both Diagon and Knockturn Alley.

 

Chapter Text

...can't show their Face
Because of You
Can't show our Face
Because of You

Can't show our Face
Can't show our Face
We live in the Dark
Don't leave a Trace...


 

Professor McGonagall lived alone in a large house together with about twenty cats. Harry never got to count them properly because they were constantly moving, and when Harry was done counting some cats would always have switched places so he could never be sure he hadn't counted a cat or two twice. Every morning she woke at five and went on an early ride on her broom. Upon her return she would round up all her cats by blowing on a lion-shaped whistle, making the cats line up on the dining table. She then trained them all morning, making them jump through floating hoops and do all sorts of acrobatics.

After he had seen McGonagall morph into a cat one day, Harry had asked at dinner if all of her cats were human.

McGonagall laughed at him. "Oh silly boy, of course not," she said, cutting into a head of tuna on her plate, "they have been human," she added.

After that Harry decided to avoid asking her questions unless he really had to. She gave him plenty of time to study alone in his room upstairs, and liberal access to her personal library... though Harry found most of McGonagall's books to be of not much use to him. Over the weekends she tutored him privately, teaching him general things about the Wizarding World, so he wouldn't sound like a bumbling fool every time he spoke to someone important. Most importantly of all, Harry learned there had been a War, a terrible War in the Wizarding World that had taken the lives of both his parents, before he himself, Harry singlehandedly, as an infant, had put an end to the War by making the wizard that had murdered his parents disappear. McGonagall had not told Harry the wizard's name though, she said it was not important. The monster was gone now and everyone regarded Harry as a hero, the strongest wizard who lived, since no one, not even Dumbledore had been able to stop that evil wizard.

Harry was hearing Dumbledore's name dropped here and there, which made sense as McGonagall worked with him and saw him daily, but still it bothered Harry that this man who had apparently played such a central role in his life, the man who had left him at the mercy of the Dursleys, did not care to meet Harry even once, or write him a letter. Harry wanted to learn more about his past, about his parents, so he made up a mental list of all the things he would ask Dumbledore if he ever got a chance to speak with him.

Aside from that Harry excercised and read the paper, frequently cutting out fragments because the moving pictures fascinated him. On his eleventh birthday he was given a broom, McGonagall's old Tinderblast, to practice with, and he had an unexpected visitor.

This man was so large he barely fit inside the house, and had to climb in through the wide window. He claimed to have known Harry's parents, to have held Harry as a baby, and to have participated in the unfortunate event of giving him away to the Dursleys ten years ago on Dumbledore's orders. The man sobbed into a dirty handkerchief that looked about as large as the dining table cloth... he said he'd wanted to raise Harry on his own, and that Dumbledore had nearly given him permission, but then the Headmaster had changed his mind at the last moment, leading to their tearful separation all those many years ago.

Harry admitted he didn't remember any of it, but he valued Hagrid's concern for him and was glad to be reunited with him again, which ended in a crushing hug and an exchange of addresses so they could correspond by owl. This Hagrid turned out to be quite the companionable fellow. Harry exchanged many letters with him after his visit, and a letter from Hagrid never failed to lift Harry's spirits.

Also he couldn't thank Hagrid enough for Hedwig: yes, now Harry had an owl. And what a beauty she was. Snowy feathered straight from the polar circle, raised to fetch things, assist in hunts and send magical letters.

Harry had asked Hagrid if this was legal: what would the animal welfare authorities have to say about this? They'd have to be breaking the law in at least three different countries.

Hagrid flat out laughed at that. Then he told Harry about magical creatures and which ones were normal to keep as pets, and which ones weren't, which ones were endangered and all that. Harry felt a stiffness in his throat at the mention of Unicorns listed among the endangered species, but aside from that he'd felt pretty much at ease listening to Hagrid talk of Dragons and Hydras and Cerberi.

McGonagall was overly concerned about Harry's weight, and tried to bulk him up before the school year started. Harry was put on a steady diet of meat and fish, fresh vegetables and fruit. He ate the vegetables and fruit, but when the meat or fish was too much for him, he sneakily passed it under the table, into the waiting mouth of a cat. There would always be at least five cats lounging under the dining table when Harry sat down to one of his scheduled meals.

While he appreciated Professor McGonagall's effort, the routine also felt a tad stifling. Sometimes he nearly finished reading an enthralling entry of his textbook, but the magical flying timer that followed him around told him it was time to go take a shower, and would kick at him if he dared disobey. He wore round shaped reading glasses now, ever since McGonagall noticed he couldn't see the page all too clearly without them. Aunt Petunia had assumed he was too dumb to learn how to read. McGonnie had cared enough to call on a Magical Doctor who had concluded Harry suffered from a peculiar case of long-sightedness, and prescribed him magical glasses to wear while reading. Harry had chosen the round shaped model because it made him look like a right nerd, and hipsters were cool these days. McGonnie hadn't questioned it. She'd simply bought him the glasses and told him Hogwarts would take care of the bill.

Even so, as the Head of House Gryffindor, she could be a pretty imposing woman despite her size. And although she never punished or had to raise a hand at him, and certainly never made any outrageous demands over these five long months, everything she asked of him sounded right and fair, Harry felt compelled to do everything she said, as though by magic. He wondered if she was using spells on him without his knowledge... he certainly wouldn't put it past her.

He longed for the day the Hogwarts Express would take him off to the Castle, for the day he would meet other children of his age, he was dying to put all his studies to practice, for while he had been allowed to read magical books and fly around on a broom, as far as Professor McGonagall was concerned, his wand would be strictly off limits until the start of next school year.

On the morning of departure, Professor McGonagall presented Harry with a book bound in forest green leather that fit into the pockets of his school robes, titled The Heir of Slytherin. Harry had never set eyes on this book before. Opening it, he immediately noticed the old black and white photograph that had been stuck to the front endpapers. Two familiar looking faces smiled back at him, a young man and woman, her head leaning on his shoulder, his hand stroking through her hair.

"Thought you might like to have a picture of your parents," McGonnie said, patting Harry's shoulder, "can't offer you the real thing I'm afraid. It is beyond my powers."

Harry kept studying the photograph all morning, unable to tear his eyes from it during breakfast, and couldn't put it out of his mind even as he stood on King's Cross Station's Platform Nine and Three Quarters with the book safely tucked into the breast pocket of his robes, waiting to board the Hogwarts Express.

Hedwig cooed something into his ear from where she sat perched on his right shoulder. What perplexed Harry the most were the young man's looks. The couple in the picture looked rather young, Harry placed them at about fifteen or seventeen... they could have been students at Hogwarts when the photo was taken, Harry reckoned. And the girl did resemble him a lot. The more Harry looked at the photo, the more he was convinced she would pass for his older sister if they were ever sighted together. But the young man... Harry didn't know, something about him looked different, somehow.

He had the same unruly dark hair, but something about his facial features did not line up with Harry's. The man's eyes were placed lower, closer to his full healthy lips, his cheekbones were lower, his jaw looked almost square. Harry had wiped his reading glasses furiously before looking at the picture again. And the oddest thing, Harry realized, were the man's hands: the fingers he carded through her hair were short and stubby, not at all like Harry's long spider-like fingers. The young woman's hands did not appear to be exceptionally long and thin either, whenever she moved in the photo to cup the man's face and tenderly look into his eyes, her hands looked average in size and shape. Try as he might Harry could not solve this mystery, so he put it down to the photo being old and of a poor grainy quality.

The doors to the Hogwarts Express hissed open all at once, and Harry raced up the ladder, bags in hand, Hedwig flying right after him, failing to keep up. A cross looking boy in a navy blue cap stood at the top of the ladder, just inside the train, and wanted to see Harry's Hogwarts Letter of Admission. The boy warned Harry that he should keep the Letter with him at all times, say if he wanted to say goodbye to his family on the platform, he would not be allowed back on the train without his Letter.

But Harry had no intention of going back to the platform, he had no family waiting for him to hug and kiss and say his goodbyes. Hagrid was waiting for him at Hogwarts, and Professor McGonagall had likely directly flooed to her own office in Gryffindor Tower. With a hopeful smile, Harry tried to ignore how the students around him hung out of windows and waved at their families, and the pang that caused in his heart.

At least people were happy to see him here. Each compartment he stepped inside welcomed him, some even asked for his autograph. Harry was a blushing mess by the time he'd made it five train cars further, and finally found an empty compartment to dump all his stuff. Harry collapsed on the bench with a sigh. But he grinned, this school year was gonna be good. Better than good, this would be his best year ever. Exhausted and happy, he threw his head back against soft pillows.

The window of his compartment was open, letting the hustle and bustle of King's Cross Station float inside. Amid all the noises, animal cries and odd sounds, Harry thought he heard a voice he knew.

He sat up, perked his ears. There, on the platform, Harry beamed, he couldn't believe what he was seeing.

Harry leaned out the window and shouted as loud as his voice could carry: "Draco!"

The blond boy who stood by a severe looking man with ash blond hair pulled back in a ponytail and an elegant woman with honey blonde hair falling in ringlets around her face, all dressed in light grey robes, turned to the train, looking puzzled, like he wondered who could have called his name. Then their eyes met across the crowd. A healthy flush brought color to Draco's face, and he shouted back, "Harry!", smiling ear to ear.

In less than five seconds Harry was down the rungs of the ladder and on Platform Nine and Three Quarters, running with fire in his step. He'd nearly left his Letter of Admission in the train compartment, but Hedwig, ever the faithful friend, had flown out after him with the Letter in her beak.

Harry caught just the tail end of Draco's conversation with his parents.

"I'm proud of you, Son," the severe looking man said, tapping his snake head cane on the platform, "you're making powerful connections."

Draco averted his eyes. "Dad, it's not like that!"

Draco's dad merely chuckled, then proceeded to greet Harry cordially when he joined them, huffing and panting from his run. Hedwig hooted, dropping the Letter in Harry's hands. Draco's mum complimented Harry on having trained his owl so well, to which Harry blushed and took to scratching the back of his neck.

After being introduced to Harry, Draco's mum Narcissa and dad Lucius quickly excused themselves, bid their farewell, and hurried off somewhere, leaving Draco and him on the platform.

"So how has your summer been?" Draco asked as Harry helped him carry his things to their compartment.

Harry told him all about Professor McGonagall and her many cats. Draco laughed. "That must've been boring!"

Harry had to agree, though from the look of it, Draco hadn't had it much better. He was an only child, just like Harry, as Harry soon found out. This would be the first school Draco would attend, since he'd been homeschooled up until this point. Both his mum and dad had pitched in to teach him how to read and write, and they'd gotten him a decent tutor for violin, which Draco could play both normally and magically: by levitating.

When they'd unloaded all of Draco's bags in the compartment, the boys went on a stroll over the platform, Letters in hand. They still had an hour or so to kill before the train took off; Draco wanted to stretch his legs. They'd be cooped up all evening in that stuffy compartment. Harry agreed.

Loyalty chased Hedwig through the station, their hoots bounced off the high arched ceiling. Harry remarked how peculiar it was that all the Muggles on the other platforms couldn't hear them. For some reason Draco found that very funny.

They were about to head back to their compartment when Harry noticed a cloud of bushy brown hair whip by. Then the cloud came to a sudden halt, and the person turned, to reveal a young girl of his age. She was carrying a heavy looking cat crate in her hands, and her shoulders were weighed down by a backpack that was larger than herself. It was the girl he'd met at Ollivander's. She idled up to them. Harry tried to recall her name, but was saved the trouble when she set down the cat crate and promptly introduced herself as one Hermione Granger.

Compared to all the other kids Harry had run into thus far, Hermione wasn't all that interested in him. "Oh you're that famous boy?" she said, looking down at him. She had to be at least two inches taller.

No, Harry did not interest Hermione in the slightest. She seemed a lot more preoccupied with Draco. She sized him up, taking a good long look at his shiny black leather shoes. "So what do your parents do for a living?" Hermione finally asked without preamble.

Draco looked at her incredulously. "My father doesn't work," he said as though even the suggestion sounded insulting to his ears.

"So he's jobless, then," Hermione shrugged. "What does your Mum do?"

Draco didn't say anything but stared at her some more.

"My parents are both dentists," Hermione said self-importantly, showing off a splendid row of pearly whites.

Harry drew himself up to his full height, still coming up a few inches short on Hermione. "So," he said casually, "none of your parents do magic, then?"

Hermione's smile grew even wider. "What can I say, I'm naturally gifted. Always been better than everyone else at pretty much everything, so it didn't come as much of a surprise when I learned I could do magic as well."

Draco looked like he was about ready to draw his wand and challenge her to a duel right then and there. Harry wouldn't mind to see some magic in action, but there were too many people here, and Professor McGonagall had told him in no uncertain terms that if anyone was caught doing magic outside of school, they could kiss their education goodbye.

So Harry stepped forward instead. "Are you always this bitchy, or is that the Muggle in you?"

Draco clutched his stomach in a fit of laughter. Hermione just stared at them both, raising an eyebrow.

Draco elbowed Harry in the side companionably when she left. "Ha! That was a zinger! Should've captured the look on her face," Draco made a snapping motion with his fingers, he sighed, "too bad I don't have a camera..."

When they reached their train car, they couldn't get on, since a fat boy was blocking the way. He was trying to board the train, but the cross-looking train conductor would not let him on board because he didn't have his Letter of Admission on him. The boy cried and wailed but refused to get out of the way, and a line was forming behind him.

"Hey," Harry said gently, "have you forgotten yours at home?"

"No!" the boy cried, shaking his head, "just loaded my bags on the train," the boy spoke in gulps and gasps, heaving as tears streamed down his round face, "and went down to say bye to my nan, and," he sobbed, "and!"

Harry could about guess what had happened to him. "You left your Letter of Admission on the train?"

"Yes!" the guy cried, then pointed at the conductor, "that's what I've been trying to tell him!"

The conductor shrugged gruffly. "No Letter, no admission."

The boy heaved another sob. "I've always wanted to go to Hogwarts! It's been my dream."

Harry winced. "Well, even if you miss the train, I think you'll still be in Hogwarts."

The boy wailed out even louder, reminding Harry of one of Dudley's tantrums. This was really getting out of hand. "Buh, buh," he blubbered, "but I'll miss the Sorting Ceremony, my own Sorting Ceremony!"

Draco rolled his eyes. "What compartment you in?"

The boy told them. Draco put his fingers to his lip and whistled. Loyalty made a dive for them and pulled up right in front of Draco, fiercely flapping his wings. Harry stared as Draco gave his owl instructions, and wouldn't you know it, minutes later Loyalty was back with the bawling boy's Letter of Admission in his claws.

"Mister Longbottom, please board the train," the conductor said in a deep and impersonal voice, after which the whole line of people waiting piled inside the train, flashing their Letters of Admission as they walked past the conductor.

Loyalty hooted proudly as Draco petted him on the head.

Harry was speechless.

As they reclined in their compartment and waited for the train to take off, Draco told Harry how he'd trained his owl to fetch things. Harry listened with rapt attention, while Hedwig curiously eyed Loyalty.

Loud screams from the platform interrupted Draco mid-speech, and made them both turn to the window. A group of red headed boys was bounding down the platform, they all looked and sounded quite out of breath. Some ways behind them, Harry spotted an older man, a woman, and a cute little girl... all of them had quite striking fiery red hair.

"Hold the train!" some of the running boys bellowed.

Harry peeked his head out the window curiously, and saw the snappish conductor open the doors for them. He didn't even check their Letters of Admission, he just let them all through without a word.

"I was hoping they'd all transferred to Ilvermorny," Draco groused.

"The conductor doesn't ask for their Letters of Admission," Harry whispered, watching the youngest boy board the train.

Draco choked back a laugh. "Why would he? Their father's been elected Minister for Magic."

Harry shot him a look. "But don't they need to prove they are who they say they are?"

"Everyone knows the Weasleys."

Harry frowned; it seemed odd that Longbottom, the chubby boy he'd met earlier, should be judged so harshly for leaving his Letter on the train, an easy mistake anyone could make, Hell, Harry had nearly made the same mistake himself, he'd be toast if Hedwig hadn't saved him, while these boys were invited on the Hogwarts Express with open arms, despite being late. Harry glanced at the large clock in the middle of the station. The train should have taken off by now. It seemed to have been held up just for them...

The youngest Weasley boy opened the door to their compartment, then stopped. He and Draco got lost in a staring match that seemed to last forever, at least the train finally started moving, Harry thought.

"Oh great," Weasley heaved a dramatic sigh, lifting his eyes to the ceiling, "my brothers took so long to pack all their stuff and now this is the only compartment left."

With slumped shoulders he dragged himself inside Draco and Harry's compartment, along with his bags that really filled up the place, and sat down next to Harry, as far away from Draco as he could possibly get inside the tiny train compartment.

Weasley leaned forward, covered his face with his hands and groaned. "Why do I have to share compartments with Mister White Supremacist fuckface?"

A rat crawled out of a hole in the boy's sweater. Draco curled his lip in disgust; Loyalty flapped his wings, training his beady eyes on the rat.

"I'm not a white supremacist!" Harry said, staring at the Weasley boy in abject shock.

Looking out the window at the passing scenery, Draco sourly grumbled: "he's talking about me."

Weasley stared straight ahead at the opposite wall, while absently scratching his rat behind the ears. "You've chosen bloody perfect people to associate with," he said to Harry.

Draco drummed his fingers on the folding table. "He's just pissed that I would never ever go out with a Muggle."

"Exactly!" Weasley cried, pinning Draco with a fiery glare. "That's racist."

"Have you met any Muggles?" Harry said incredulously. He couldn't for the life of him fathom why a Wizard would want to date one.

"Umm... no," Weasley grew quieter.

Draco leaned back on the cushions. "How cute. Last time I checked, Muggles weren't a race."

Weasley reeled on him. "They can't help they're born without magic, can they?"

A nasty grin crept onto Draco's fine features. "Alligators can't help being born in the mud. Would you love to spend some quality time with an alligator? I can arrange that."

Weasley stood, and drew his wand. His eyes had turned to slits. "Wanna put your money where your mouth is, Malfoy?"

Draco reached inside his robes when Harry jumped between them, holding his hands up. "Guys, guys! Stop!"

Weasley sneered at him. "Didn't know the great Harry Potter was such a wimp."

Draco paused, his hand in the breast pocket of his robes. "Harry's right. I'm not gonna lose my Hogwarts Degree of Wizardry over something as silly as this," he snickered at Weasley.

Weasley's nostrils flared. He raised his wand at Draco with a spell on his lip.

"But," Draco added deviously drawing his own wand from his robes, "we can't get in trouble where we can't be found."

Reaching out he grabbed Harry's wrist in his wand hand, and the Weasley boy's wrist in his other hand. Harry's stomach lurched. Their surroundings transformed into a green leafy swamp. Hedwig and Loyalty had gone, but the rat was still perched on Weasley's shoulder, looking like it was about to vomit.

"Where did you apparate us to?" Weasley demanded, grabbing Draco by his robe lapels and shaking him.

Harry took care to step from grass patch to grass patch, avoiding the bogs.

"Well you said you wished to see an alligator," Draco shrugged, "I would refer you to the zoo, but here's a place you can spot them in the wild."

Upon speaking those words Draco briskly waved his wand, and three nearby logs, one of which lay less than a yard from where Harry stood, promptly turned into scaly brown crocodiles that splendidly blended into the environment.

"You are insane," Weasley stated.

Harry was inclined to agree. He hopped away from the closest crocodile before it could get any ideas about having him for lunch, and looked around, hoping to find a way out of here. Yet no matter which way he looked, Harry was greeted with a decaying old forest, as far as the eye could see.

Draco grinned. "Oh calm yourself Weasley, we're only in Wistman's Wood on the Dartmoor, not too far from your home. I reckon no one's foolish enough to pass through these woods for the rest of the day, so we can safely duel here, without the teachers ever finding out." He nodded at Harry, "Harry can be our arbiter, I trust his judgement."

But Weasley wasn't done yelling at him.

"We'll be in so much more trouble than if we just got caught duelling on the train! Apparating without a license, have you lost your mind? You could have killed us Malfoy!"

Draco flashed him a toothy grin. "Who says I don't have a license? The Danish are a lot more sensible about these things." He extracted a card from his pocket, with his name and picture and a bunch of other words that made no sense in English.

"Well we're not in Denmark are we?" Weasley shouted into Draco's face. "Danish Law doesn't apply in Great Britain, you're still committing a criminal offense!"

With dread Harry watched the crocodiles inch closer...

Draco pursed his lip smugly. "I would be, if I didn't have this special permission slip that grants me immunity against such laws, signed by the British Minister for Magic himself."

Weasley stared at the parchment in Draco's hand.

"Uhh guys?" Harry pointed at the alligators that were steadfastly approaching them.

"Incendio," Weasley said.

Licks of flame burst from Weasley's wand and fired at the alligators, which turned back into logs again the moment his fire touched them.

"Aguamenti," said Draco, putting out the flames.

Weasley rubbed his chin and looked at Draco from head to toe. "Not bad, audio-visual illusions that masquerade as transfigured logs. Those alligators looked quite real."

Draco spread his arms. "Well what have you got? Surprise me."

A wicked grin appeared on Weasley's freckled face. "Levicorpus."

Moments after, Draco was propelled upward, hitting a tree branch or two on the way, till he was dangling in the air by his feet. A number of golden coins scattered from his pockets along with his Apparition license and waiver, which Weasley deftly picked up.

"I'll be taking this," he said, fluttering the waiver about before stashing it in the pocket of his robes, "have a feeling it's forged. No way my dad would allow the likes of you to apparate whenever."

"Liberacorpus," Draco muttered before dropping to the ground in a crouch. There was a cut on his right cheek, where a tree branch had hit him, smears of mud covered his face and hair that was tousled from the fall. He snatched his Apparition license from the mossy ground, but didn't care to collect the coins that had scattered all over the place.

"Arresto momentum," Weasley gleefully called.

Draco seemed to move in slow motion. It was like watching a movie at half its normal speed. Weasley ran at Draco, skillfully hopping from grass patch to grass patch, and pulled the wand from his hand before Draco could even do so much as blink.

Folding his arms over his chest, Weasley casually walked over to Harry. "So you can safely say I've won this duel, then, eh? Not much he can do now."

Weasley gave Draco's wand to a stunned looking Harry, and lifted the spell. Draco slumped forward in defeat. Harry returned him his wand and Draco apparated them all back on the train, where surprisingly no one apart from Hedwig and Loyalty had noticed they'd been gone.

Weasley fell back on the bench, in the same spot Draco had been sitting before this all started. "My, duelling sure takes a lot out of a man. I'm starving!"

He reached into one of his bags and pulled out a bundle, unwrapping the checkered red cloth to reveal two thick sandwiches of green eggs and ham.

"I'm Ron by the way," he said conversationally to Harry, who had slumped down on the bench right beside him, "in case you didn't know."

Draco used a cleaning spell on himself, fixed his tie, and sat down across from them. Ron's rat greedily nibbled on the second sandwich that lay on the folding table.

That's when Harry's stomach made itself known. He wished he'd packed some sandwiches, it had honestly slipped his mind. He'd been so excited about going to Hogwarts he hadn't even considered what he'd be having for lunch. Hedwig looked at him sharply. Harry felt guilty, he'd been in such a rush to get on the train, he hadn't thought of bringing along anything for her to eat.

Just like Ron, Draco reached into his bag and placed a small metal lunch box on the table, unclasping the latch to reveal one cracker, a walnut, and a single blackberry. Harry furrowed his eyebrows in confusion. He thought the Dursleys had starved him, but that looked like nothing compared to the scant meal Draco was having.

Ron pointed and laughed. "You on a diet or something?"

Loyalty rotated his head impatiently glancing over Draco's shoulder. Harry realized Draco's owl must be hungry too.

"Watch and learn, Weasley." Draco took his cracker from the lunch box, placed it on a plain white napkin he'd previously spread out on the table, and waved his wand over it.

Harry's jaw dropped as he watched the small rectangular cracker transform into a heap of white buttered bread slices richly spread with sturgeon roe before his very own eyes.

Draco smirked at their astonished faces. "You're welcome to dig in, Harry, if you'd like," he said, taking a sandwich of his own from the pile and biting into it.

Ron huffed and turned away to the window. Harry accepted his offer, feeling grateful Draco hadn't drawn attention to his negligence of packing a lunch.

The sturgeon roe sandwiches were wonderful, Harry had never tasted something so delicious in his life. But as the heap of bread shrunk, his mouth started feeling rather dry. The roe was soft and had a complicated taste, titillating several different taste buds all at once in an orchestra of flavors, but it was also very salty.

After imposing so much on Draco's hospitality, Harry didn't have the courage to ask for something to drink.

Ron noisily slurped on a carton of pumpkin juice.

Draco insisted on Harry having the last salty sandwich.

After trying to politely refuse five times, Harry finally forced it down his dry throat. He watched Draco take the blackberry from his lunch box... with a wave of his wand the blackberry turned into a tall crystal decanter filled with a dark purple liquid, along with a set of two soda glasses and a porcelain saucer.

Draco busied himself with pouring purple liquid into the saucer, and fondly ruffling Loyalty's feathers when he swooped down and dipped his beak into the liquid. Hedwig watched on nervously, then stalked over to the saucer and stared at Draco as if asking for permission, and when he smiled at her she too dipped her head beside Loyalty's, gulping down the purple liquid that vaguely smelled of blackberries.

Well, that was unexpected. Draco poured himself and Harry a soda glass from the same decanter, and sprawled out on the bench with a contented sigh.

"Thank you," Harry said again, letting the sweet berry drink soothe his parched throat.

"Don't mention it."

Loyalty flapped his wings, hopped onto Draco's right shoulder and playfully nibbled on his ear.

"Yeah, yeah," Draco sighed, he picked the walnut from his lunch box and briefly hovered his wand over it.

A mountain of owl feed pellets spread out over the crumb covered napkin. Hedwig hooted loudly and pecked at the food, followed by Loyalty who landed on the table beside her. Ron grabbed his rat by the tail and pulled it away from the feed pellets, muttering "Traitor," under his breath.

When they were all done Draco performed a cleaning spell on his napkin and tucked it into a pocket of his robes. One wave of his wand transformed the empty decanter, soda glasses and saucer into a small silver teaspoon which he placed inside his lunch box.

"Father warned me about our Potions professor, he's very strict," Draco said, turning to Harry.

"Can't be much worse than our teacher for Transfiguration. We got Professor McGonagall."

Both boys groaned. They talked about their classes at Hogwarts, and Ron pretended not to hear a single word they were saying. The world outside had turned dark by the time the conductor popped in and told them to leave their luggage on the train, it would be safely carried to their quarters by the older students, he assured them, First Years were to partake in a special initiation ritual before setting foot on school grounds. Their pets would likewise be looked after, the school had a special aviary for the owls. Soon enough the train stopped by the docks of a great lake, and all First Years poured out. A multitude of charming little gondola-like boats with floating lanterns greeted them.

Adult supervisors in cloaks and pointy hats who had to be their teachers, told them to climb inside the gondolas. Ron jumped into a different boat as soon as he got the chance to get away from Draco, so they didn't see him for the rest of their way to school. Harry was so pre-occupied with the glittering water around the floating lantern and the giant glowing castle in the distance, he barely spoke to the other kids in his boat.

They disembarked on a pebbled shore, and strange frog like creatures that Draco called hodags pulled their boats from the water. As soon as the students stepped onto the shore, the hodags slithered back to the lake, vanishing from sight. One of them barked like a dog before plunging into the water, leaving wide ripples in its wake.

A tall young Witch in olive colored robes and a dark green pointed hat spangled with half moons led them up a narrow path that curved around oddly shaped boulders. Harry was so thrilled to see the castle of Hogwarts, he ran ahead of the group, and stuck close to the Witch in the olive robes who led the way. Her name was Professor Aurora Sinistra, and she taught Astronomy, she told them, although the students in the back of the group probably couldn't hear her. Professor Sinistra had dark skin and even darker eyes that looked black as night, a prominent sharp nose, and an intricate black braid that looped down her back. Harry was surprised to learn that just like the wand maker Ollivander, she knew all their names. When the fat boy who had left his Letter on the train lagged behind, Professor Sinistra immediately called out: "Longbottom, keep up!"

Before he knew it they were at Hogwarts Castle. Harry and his fellow students took in the sights, some gasping in amazement. It looked even larger than it had in the pictures.

They were all invited inside a large hall with a ceiling that seemed to go on forever and strongly resembled the night sky with its twinkling stars. Candles floated above four long tables. The older students were already seated at these, and further, deeper into the hall, the teachers and Hogwarts staff sat at another table which overlooked the great hall. Harry recognized Hagrid among the staff, he waved.

Hagrid waved back! The smile on Harry's face turned into a wide grin, he looked further down the line of educators and then he froze. Albus Dumbledore was looking right at him.

There was no mistake about it, that man was Professor Dumbledore, in the flesh! Harry's tongue was burning with questions, his head buzzing with all the things he'd wanted to say to him... but there were too many students and tables between them, Harry noted. There was no way he could speak with Dumbledore now, he wouldn't be allowed to. With slumped shoulders, Harry turned his eyes away.

A smaller dais caught his attention. The only thing on it was a plain four legged stool. Then McGonagall brushed into the hall with a dusty looking hat in her hands, Harry had been wondering when she would show up. McGonagall commanded every First Year's attention and explained the particulars of the Sorting Ceremony as Professor Sinistra sat down at the teacher's table.

Owing to the many oddities and quirks he'd seen so far today, Harry was not much surprised when they were called upon in reverse alphabetic order. When Ronald Weasley was sorted into Gryffindor, Draco leaned over and whispered into his ear:

"Figures, all the lot of 'em are in the same House."

Not long after, Harry's name rung through the hall. All eyes were on him as he nervously shuffled to the four legged stool on the raised dais. With the moldy hat covering his ears and probing his mind, all Harry could think of was 'Not Gryffindor!' If he had to have McGonagall as Head of House, he wouldn't survive a whole dreaded school year.

"Are you sure?" the purring voice asked him softly. "I see a great knack for learning here, but..." the Sorting Hat paused, "you haven't read very many books."

Harry glared at the floor. He couldn't help it that those wretched Muggles had kept him away from school, and all books in McGonagall's personal library had been too advanced for him to comprehend. All he'd had to read last summer were First Year's textbooks, and he'd read them all cover to cover since there hadn't been anything else to do.

"Alright," the Sorting Hat said, "I can see you're a hard worker, a very hard worker." The hat hummed in approval.

What was that supposed to mean? Harry frowned at the floor, trying to piece together what the hat was telling him. How did that rhyme go again?

You might belong in Gryffindor,
where dwell the brave at heart,
their daring nerve and chivalry
set Gryffindors apart.

You might belong in Hufflepuff
where they are just and loyal,
those patient Hufflepuffs are
true and unafraid of toil.

Well, Harry shrugged, if the hat was telling him to go to Hufflepuff, perhaps that would be right. Who else would know better where he belonged than the Hogwarts Sorting Hat? Harry didn't really care, either way, as long as he didn't have McGonagall as Head of House. Five months living with that crazy old cat lady was more than enough for him.

But the hat did not sort him just yet. It kept scouring his mind for more clues. Harry groaned. Why was the hat taking so long? Everyone was looking at him. This was so embarassing. He sunk lower on the stool, trying to make himself invisible.

The Sorting Hat cackled. "You'll learn how to do that in your Third Year, my boy. Not very patient then, eh?" it asked him cheekily.

Harry wondered if he'd make a good Ravenclaw... after all the rhyme had said:

Or yet in wise old Ravenclaw
if you've a ready mind,
where those of wit and learning
will always find their kind.

Seemed like a nice House to be in. Harry couldn't picture them judging him all too harshly for how weird he could be sometimes.

"Nah," the hat said flatly, "yer too dumb for that House, sorry."

Harry sunk even lower in his seat. He really really didn't want to be sorted into Gryffindor.

"All because of one woman?" the Sorting Hat sounded surprised. "Professor McGonagall isn't that bad, you should give her a chance. She may seem strict and cold at first, but when you get to know her..."

Harry had no desire to get to know McGonagall any better than he already had.

The Sorting Hat let out a deep suffering sigh that made Harry wonder just how old the thing was. "I don't wish to do this, but you're leaving me with little choice." The hat tickled him behind the ears. "Don't do it Harry, don't throw away seven years on a whim."

Harry blinked. He'd been told all Houses were equally valuable, that none of the Houses was any better or worse than the other three, that all four Houses needed each other to make Hogwarts the school it was. But now the Sorting Hat made it seem... made it seem like...

'What's wrong with Slytherin?' Harry thought furiously at the hat. The rhyme from earlier hadn't contained anything damning.

Or perhaps in Slytherin
you'll make your real friends,
those cunning folks use any means
to achieve their ends.

The hat grumbled, but remained tight-lipped, refusing to answer any of Harry's burning questions.

"Slytherin," it spat out at long last, not sounding very pleased about that. Its cloth started feeling itchy on Harry's head. He was relieved when McGonagall took it off him and called for the next student.

The Slytherin table welcomed Harry with a loud cheer. A few older students made place for him by shifting their bags off the bench that ran along the green table.

"Hi," a handsome dark skinned boy said from the right of Harry, holding out his hand. "The name's Blaise," the boy said as he shook Harry's hand, "I've heard great things about you."

Before he could really say much to Blaise or have a meaningful conversation with him, a girl with a dark brown bowl cut ran over to their table, earning more cheers and loud whistles. She settled in on the other side of Harry, and immediately introduced herself as one Pansy Parkinson, "nice to meet you Potter."

"Ehm, call me Harry," said Harry nervously shifting around on the bench.

Pansy had piercing amber colored eyes that watched him like a hawk... or a cat, Harry couldn't be too sure which, either way her presence didn't make him feel very well at ease.

"Alright Harry," Pansy smiled warmly, though her eyes still held some dangerous mysterious kind of energy, "Blaise and I were wondering which class you most look forward to," she said while drumming her fingers lightly on the table.

Harry looked from Pansy to Blaise, to Pansy and back at Blaise again. Did these two know each other? He felt positively surrounded with the both of them sitting on either side of him, he could barely see the Sorting Ceremony from here...

Blaise saved Harry from his confusion by giving a clear nod, toothy grin stretching from ear to ear. "Pansy and I used to go to preschool together, up in Tara, Ireland."

"Ahh..." Harry laughed good naturedly. He felt foolish for not considering preschool before: young wizards and witches would have to learn how to read and write somewhere, wouldn't they? What else could wizarding families where both parents worked full-time do, other than send their kids to preschool?

"I'm not actually Irish," Blaise smirked, "my mom's from Italy, but Pansy here is one hundred percent bona fide Irishwoman."

He winked at her, at which Pansy laughed and reached around Harry to poke Blaise in the shoulder. "Oh Blaise! Shut up," she giggled.

Harry smiled. "Can't wait for Broom Flight class," he confided, "flying always gives me such a thrill, I love it."

"Ah," Blaise nodded wisely, "Quidditch man here? Respect." He held his fist up for Harry to bump.

Pansy inspected her long green fingernails. "I'm looking forward to DADA."

"Sure you're not eager for the Dark Arts themselves?" Blaise winked, "wanna learn a spell or two that'll let you scratch people's eyes out with those green talons of yours?"

To Harry's great surprise Pansy did not take offense at this remark on her nails, but instead threw her head back and laughed hysterically. Blaise joined her moments later, and before he knew it, Harry too had joined in with their raucous laughter and cheering each time the Sorting Hat yelled "Slytherin!"

By the time Draco got sorted into their House, so many students had surrounded Harry that Draco had to sit all the way at the end of their House table, and all Harry could do was wave with a sorry smile. Draco gave him a small smile of his own: at least they were in the same House, could be worse.

Professor Dumbledore made a formal speech, after which they all had dinner in the Great Hall, and when that was over, the Head Boys and Girls and the Prefects came to collect the First Years of their Houses, and Harry found himself following a small group of people down winding staircases that seemed to move, and over bridges, and through dark corridors resembling tunnels. All the way down, Draco's wand emitted tear-shaped puffs of silvery smoke.

The Slytherin dorms were found in the lower depths of the castle, some quarters even lay below the Great Lake's low water mark. The girl Prefect jokingly said that about a century ago, some First Year boys had drowned inside their dorms when the Castle walls crumbled from long time erosion and lack of maintenance, due to their Head of House of that time being greedy with funds. She said their ghosts still haunted the Slytherin Dungeon and could be seen running from the dorms sometime after midnight.

They stopped in front of a plain nondescript stone wall in some random passage that looked no different from the many other corridors they'd been through. The girl Prefect Farley, "that's her last name," Draco had whispered into Harry's ear, she hadn't given them her first name, placed her hand on the wall and whispered one word just loud enough for all the newly sorted Slytherin First Years to hear:

"Ladders."

And she was gone.

They all looked about, puzzled, wondering where she could have run off to. One large thick-necked and flat-nosed boy even thought to check the ceiling, but Farley wasn't there either. Draco suggested that she had apparated, and this was all part of an elaborate practical joke Slytherin Prefects pulled on First Years.

"Hold on a minute," said Blaise, casting a suspicious look at the plain stone wall. "This is a test," he said, smirking at the others.

Draco blinked.

Pansy quickly caught on. She nodded at Blaise, her eyes sparkling with malicious glee as she rounded on her fellow Housemates. "It's a test to see if we really have what it takes to be in House Slytherin."

"Yeah," Blaise sneered, leaning against the plain stone wall, "and a chance for us to prove ourselves worthy."

The heavy-set boy with the flat nose frowned. "Maybe it's like Platform nine and three quarters?" he muttered before running head-first at the wall.

Harry, Draco and Blaise all stared at him in shock as the poor boy bashed his head into the stone and fell backwards, hard on his rear end. To the boy's credit, he didn't show any signs of being in pain, and looked more determined than ever as he stood, balling his fists and glaring at the wall.

Pansy snickered at the boy. "Sure you weren't supposed to be sorted into Gryffindor? I hear their kind makes all sorts of irrational split-second decisions, all the time."

"From what I've heard The Sorting Hat doesn't have errors in judgement," Harry said quietly, surprised when all the whispering died down and everyone turned to listen to him. He cleared his throat. "Regardless of our ability to find the Slytherin House Common Room, everyone here has been selected into our House."

Blaise clapped. "Nice Harry, thanks for lifting the morale!"

Harry couldn't tell whether he was being sarcastic or not. With a thoughtful expression he turned to the wall Blaise leaned on. He stroked the plain grey stones, searching for an unevenness in the surface. Seconds later, Pansy was by his side, doing the same. Harry tried to recall precisely what Farley had done before she disappeared.

Farley had stood exactly in this spot, Harry rooted his feet in the floor, she had placed her hand on the wall and whispered something. What was it? What had Farley said? It had only been minutes ago, but with everything that had been said during these past five minutes and with the cacaphony of hushed whispers going on all around him, Harry was finding it increasingly tough to concentrate. He frowned, was it ...?

That sounded far too simple, but he placed his palm flat on the stone, brought his face close to the wall and mouthed, so quiet none of his classmates would overhear: "ladders."

Before Harry knew it he was falling forward through the wall, and had to take a step to stop from face-planting on the floor. A girl's black stockings and skirt came into view.

"So," he heard Farley's voice say, and looked up to find her smirking down at him, hands on her hips. "You're the first. Let's see how long it'll take those morons to figure it out."

They stood there in the corridor and watched as little by little, Harry's Year's Housemates trickled through the wall. The flat-nosed boy who had brutally charged at the wall was last, after nearly an hour had passed. Draco had moaned and whined about it, and implored Farley to let them go to their Common Room already, but the Prefect refused all of Draco's requests, and had smugly informed them all this was an important team building exercise to promote House unity. They were to wait in this corridor until all Slytherin First Years had walked through the wall. Pansy and Blaise, who had both been second to solve the puzzle after Harry, passed the time by playing a game of magical cards that Pansy had up her sleeve all along. Harry gave up trying to follow their game halfway through, when his friend Draco walked through the wall.

When they had all passed this initial test, the boy Prefect Aegis Rowle called them to a comfortably furnished Common Room that had no windows but was lighted by levitating candles that drifted all around the room. The green leather sofas were all occupied by Older Years, so Harry and his Year's Housemates could do nothing but stand there as Rowle lectured them on basic House Rules.

House Unity was very important, Rowle said it was vital to Slytherin's survival as a House. He likened it to how Witches and Wizards posed one united front against Muggles, obeying the Statute of Secrecy by keeping knowledge of their magical abilities under tight wraps. He trusted his fellow Slytherins to do the same around their classmates of other Houses. What happened in Slytherin Dungeon stayed in Slytherin Dungeon.

He made them all nod to confirm they understood. The password to the Slytherin dorms was to change every fortnight, and would be divulged to them by one of the House Prefects, him or Farley. Punishment for leaking this password to members of a different House would be severe, Rowle assured them.

"No outsider has entered the Slytherin Dungeon for over seven hundred years," Rowle winked. "Let's not change that."

Murmurs filled the Common Room, Harry overheard a few students say a Hufflepuff had snuck inside the Dungeon less than twenty years ago, during the War. Rowle raised his hand; everyone fell silent.

"Some call our House evil," Rowle paused. Then he grinned, his cheekbones went up, turning his eyes to narrow half moons. "I call it savage!"

The Common Room burst into laughter. Some of the First Years were chuckling too, Blaise and Pansy were having the time of their life, and Draco's face had lit up, but Harry just stood there with a confused frown on his face, wondering why everyone around him was laughing.

When the laughter had somewhat died down, Rowle proceeded. "You can't be sensitive in a House like ours. Throughout the centuries Slytherin has bred fine Wizards and Witches of outstanding skill. We fight to win, and we train to succeed," he finished with a wide grin and gave the word to their Head of House, Professor Snape.

The room fell silent like a grave as all hushed whispers died down. A middle aged man all dressed in black stepped from the shadows, and fixed everyone with a stern look from behind his curtain of long dark hair. His ghostly pale skin gave the impression that he hadn't set a foot outdoors in years.

"I expect you all to do your best and work your hardest at living up to our House name," Professor Snape said, trailing his piercing coal eyes over each student. "Anyone caught besmirching our House reputation will be dealt with harshly. I will tolerate no error, especially among my own students."

Snape narrowed his eyes at a Second Year who straightened up like a rod the moment Snape's gaze fell on him.

"For none would take House Slytherin seriously if I granted you lot any liberties."

Professor Snape's voice curled around the name 'Slytherin', as though he were caressing it with his tongue.

"In previous generations," Snape said, pacing about the room, "our House used to employ corporeal punishments to keep our students in line. Spending a night hanging upside down, suspended by chains from the wall was usually enough to bring a student back to their senses."

Professor Snape was not smiling. It had not been a joke.

"In particularly tough cases," he continued, "we have had to toss a student into a pit of venomous rattlesnakes," he shrugged as though that were no big deal, "and eh, leave them there for a week or two. They were always well behaved after that."

Harry gulped. What had he gotten himself into? This man sounded like a raving nightmare compared to dear old McGonnie! Harry started thinking that perhaps he'd made the wrong choice after all. The Sorting Hat had been right! He didn't want to be in House Slytherin.

But now it was too late to change his mind...

Professor Snape rolled his eyes. "But parents have gotten soft over the years after the War," he drawled in a bored tone, "and sensibilities have grown far too genteel, so we have since removed such methods of dealing with troublemakers from our practice."

He stopped right in front of Harry and pinned him with a long hard stare.

Harry felt the sweat dribble down his neck and into his robes.

"Don't make us bring them back," Snape said, looking directly into Harry's eyes.

Then the Professor abruptly turned on his heel and swept out of the Common Room, throwing "five points off Slytherin," over his shoulder.

The Common Room gasped.

"Potter's shirt is not tucked in properly," Snape added by way of explanation, and left.

Harry exchanged looks with Blaise, who had been standing right beside him this whole time, and who wore his shirt completely untucked!

Blaise shook his head in amazement, "either Snape really hates you, or you are one unlucky bastard."

Harry supposed it was the latter. They all went down to the sleeping chambers to settle in. Harry ended up sharing a room with Draco, Blaise and another boy he did not yet know: the guy had spiky light brown hair and thin calculating eyes of a deep blue color, he introduced himself as Greg; they shook hands.

Blaise immediately called top bunk. Draco and Greg awkwardly shuffled by the door and glanced at Harry, letting him enter the bedroom ahead of them, and Blaise patted the other top bunk, suggesting Harry should take it.

Greg settled in on the bed below Blaise, and Draco carried his things to the bed directly beneath Harry's.

As soon as Harry opened his trunk, Blaise took to teasing him over still sleeping with a stuffed animal, at his age. Greg laughed.

Harry paused, clutching his plush toy Tynamo to his heart, the first toy he'd ever gotten, a mere five months ago, the only toy he'd ever had. But he soon found that Blaise dropped it when Harry smiled back, and laughed with them.

They teased each other playfully about this thing and that, all in good fun. Harry taunted Blaise over the gilded pocket mirror he apparently owned, at which Blaise fell back on Greg's bed, lost in guffaws. Harry was rolling on Greg's bed laughing when a loud shriek shocked the merriment out of them, and made them all sit up in alarm, rotating their heads about to locate the sound's source. Had those rumors about the ghosts of drowned First Year boys been true? But it wasn't past midnight...

Draco jumped from his bed like it was cursed, stumbling into Greg's bed as he wobbled backwards blindly.

Harry followed his line of sight, and there, firm in the center of Draco's bed, on top of the velvet green bedspread, sat one large brown rat.

Blaise raised his eyebrows. "That's peculiar, my mother was a Slytherin... and she didn't mention there being any vermin here in her time." He cracked a crooked smile, "sorry, any of you own a pet rat?"

All three of them shook their head no. Cautiously approaching his bed on tip toe, so as not to scare off the rat, Draco opened one of his bags.

He drew back in horror, fingers clutching a bright orange jumper with a large maroon 'R' on its front.

"You've got an interesting sense of fashion, Draco," said Blaise, standing up from Greg's bed and stepping forward to get a better look at Draco's baggage.

Draco turned a sickly green in the face, the jumper in his hands fell to the floor. "That," he pointed at the bag he had carried down here from the Common Room, "that's not mine!"

"It's alright," Blaise drawled smugly, fishing a pair of bright red socks from Draco's bag, "no need to get embarrassed, I won't judge."

Draco's arms and legs were shaking, his face contorted in horrified anger, he looked like he was barely holding in a fit of rage.

"Ooh, what's this?" Blaise said, finding a red and yellow Quidditch scarf in the bag. "You like Quidditch, Draco?" Blaise giggled, "so do I," he dropped the scarf back in the bag, "but must confess, I support a rather different team."

"Those Weasels," Draco hissed under his breath.

"What's that, Draco?" Blaise blinked innocently, cupping a hand to his ear. "I can't hear you," he taunted.

"They must've switched our luggage," Draco muttered to himself in shock, staring at the orange jumper on the floor.

Blaise clapped his hands. "Classic!" his grin was contagious, and Greg snorted, but somehow Harry couldn't find it in himself to go beyond a smile.

It just didn't feel right. He cast a look at Draco, who gawked at Ron Weasley's bags he'd assumed to be his, shivering with revulsion ...or disgust, Harry couldn't tell which.

Draco still seemed a little unsettled one hour later, when all Slytherin First Years hung out in the Common Room, lounging on sofas. Classes wouldn't start till two days later, so they could safely stay up late tonight and get to know each other. Bed times weren't enforced too strictly on the first weekend before school started.

Greg and Blaise sat on a sofa across from Harry, who was flanked by Pansy and Draco.

"So," Harry said, frowning in wonder, "our Head of House, Professor Snape," the man who had just threatened them all with horrid medieval punishment in case they stepped one foot out of line, "that's our Potions professor?"

Draco dipped his head.

"I'm toast!" Harry covered his face with his hands.

Greg chuckled. "Aww, he's not that bad."

Harry dropped his hands from his face and looked at Greg. "He just took five points from his own House, because my shirt was," Harry air-quoted, "not tucked properly."

Pansy threw her head back giggling, her dark brown hair spilled over the back of the sofa, shining in faint candle light. "Yeah, that was wild!"

"No, seriously Pansy," Blaise weighed in, "Harry's right. Snape must have something against him." He spread his arms, "it just doesn't make sense."

"Yeah," Greg nodded thoughtfully. "If we want to succeed this year, we need to set up a game plan. Losers won't make the Quidditch Team when tryouts start next year, I need to get the grade."

Pansy pursed her lips, leaning forward on her crossed legs. "What do you suggest?"

"First week we discover where everyone's talents lie," Greg proposed, talking with his hands. They all listened. "Then we split the homework, everyone does the subject they're good at, and helps the others out."

Blaise nodded slowly, his full lips twisted into a pleased grin. "I can get behind that."

"What do we do for exams?" Pansy challenged.

Draco sneered at her behind Harry's back. "Please, like I need any help with exams," he chortled, "what is this, Hufflepuff?"

Greg laughed as Pansy turned away with a pout. Draco grinned.

"Yeah, I have to agree with Draco," Blaise said casually, with a neutral expression on his face. "We'll have to face our exams individually," he shrugged, "the penalty for cheating is just too high; it's not worth getting expelled over. What do you think, Harry?"

Everyone turned to look at him. Harry was still getting used to having this much attention.

"Well," Harry puffed his cheeks out, stalling for time so he could think of something sensible to say, "if there was a way to get the exam questions beforehand," he looked around their group.

Pansy waggled her index finger at him. "I like the way you think, Potter."

Harry felt his face heat up. The praise went to his head, he really hadn't said anything that profound.

"Good, we should look into that," Greg rubbed his hands together, "one of us can cozy up to the teachers, sort of feel them out, you know? My brother tells me most tests will be written exams, but it's totally up to the teacher."

Blaise nodded, he cracked a smile. "Pansy seems perfect for an assignment like that," he winked, "she could sweet talk a dragon out of roasting her."

"Hey!" Pansy playfully kicked Blaise.

That was when Harry felt something wet and slimy on his hand... He looked to his right. Draco's wand that had been stashed in the sleeve of his robe, was leaking some peculiar green liquid. It seemed Draco hadn't even noticed this was happening, he looked completely unaware.

A puddle of green goo had formed at Draco's feet.

Someone should tell him. Harry cleared his throat. "Draco?"

"Yeah?"

Harry blinked, his friend truly was not aware what was happening. He'd heard wands could act on their own sometimes, without a Witch or Wizard consciously casting any spells, but he'd never seen it in action.

"Your wand," Harry pointed, "it's leaking."

Draco turned to his wand in alarm. The snotty green mucus started dripping faster.

Pansy giggled into her hand, craning her neck to get a better look, but hiding behind Harry so she wouldn't get pelted by the goo.

Draco frantically waved his wand about, trying and failing at casting a cleaning spell. His wand would not respond. The green slime squirted in all directions, covering the sofas in the Common Room. Some Older Years cast umbrella charms to keep themselves dry, while their fellow First Years ran and ducked for cover behind the backs of sofas.

"Is this..." Greg sampled some of it on his finger, and examined the mucus closer, "snot?" he looked at Draco with a barely contained laugh. "Are you that upset over your baggage getting mixed up?"

Draco froze to the spot.

"You are, aren't you?" Greg exclaimed so the whole Common Room could hear.

The Older Years in the room looked on with secretive smiles of their own. Harry wondered what the Hell he was missing.

"What's he talking about?" Harry whispered to Pansy.

Smirking wide, she filled him in on how Hazel wands worked. They reacted to the wielder's emotions, say if something had really hurt the owner's feelings, the wand would absorb that negative energy, only to randomly discharge at a later point in time. The type of magic discharged depended on the wielder's most recent mood swing or present state of mind. Pansy could hardly contain her merriment when she explained that Draco's wand leaking snots probably meant he'd felt like crying! Over his luggage being lost, of all the things to weep about! Pansy bit back another laugh, no longer disguising her amusement, as now the whole Common Room was roaring with laughter at Draco's predicament.

"Premature ejaculation!" Blaise hooted.

Greg grabbed his own stomach and doubled over with laughter.

Harry smiled awkwardly, he had to admit the whole situation was a little funny. Whoever had pranked Draco and Ron had done a brilliant job of it, but... he could see how having your wand made of Hazel wood put you at a certain disadvantage in this regard. Harry rarely lost his own temper, but when he did, he didn't want everyone to instantly know about it.

Draco stared at his wand in horror, face turning red, as it continued spewing dirty green mucus all over the Common Room.

"Oh calm your tits Draco," said Blaise, "this could be a good thing."

"Right?" Greg joined in, grinning ear to ear.

"If that Weasley ever bothers you again," Pansy said sweetly, "you can just rain snot on him."

They all laughed. That was the final straw.

Draco stood on shaky legs. He placed his wand on the low table between their sofas, straightened himself, and as he turned Harry got a better look of his face: there were tears in his eyes, threatening to spill.

Without a word Draco ran from the Common Room, followed by an eruption of laughter that while joyous, sounded foreign to Harry's ears. He found it impossible to join in, as he sat there, staring in the direction his friend had run off to.

After a while, Draco's wand stopped spewing slime all over the place, but still twitched ominously where it lay on the table.

Pansy exchanged a fretful look with Blaise. "Someone's got to do it," she said.

"Don't look at me!" Blaise laughed, "I'd rather stay as far away from that wand as I can. It's dangerous, spesh when Draco's in one of his moods."

They both turned to look at Greg.

"Nuh uh, not me." Greg said very clearly, shaking his head while holding up his hands.

Harry set his jaw. They couldn't just leave Draco's wand here where anyone could take it, especially if his wand was prone to unpredictable discharge of magic. What if it summoned a flood of water into the Common Room, or set the place on fire? The thing was a safety hazard, they had to return it to Draco immediately.

So he reached for the table and picked it up at the wand's hilt, careful to avoid touching the tip. To everyone's surprise, nothing happened to him. Draco's wand stopped twitching the second Harry grabbed it in his hand.

As he left the Common Room down the corridor he'd seen Draco disappear in, he heard Older Years cast cleaning spells behind him. Two corridors further, Harry couldn't tell which way to go... it was left or right, either one seemed equally probable.

Harry felt a strong force pull at his arm, the one that held Draco's wand. He stared at his hand, amazed. Draco's wand seemed to be tugging him to the left... so he went that way. At every junction, a similar thing happened. The wand seemed to guide the way to where Draco was hiding.

He found him crying in a locked bathroom stall, the loud sobs were impossible to miss.

"Go away," Draco told him as soon as he saw Harry's shoes under the stall door.

But Harry didn't. He stayed and waited, saying nothing at all.

The sobs behind the stall door grew quieter, as though Draco felt uneasy crying in front of him. Less than five minutes had passed before Draco flicked the bolt, and the door slowly creaked open.

Draco sat on top of the toilet lid, fully dressed in the grey formal robes he'd worn this morning on the train. His silvery tie was askew, the cut on his right cheek still bled, and his whole face was wet with tears. Green snot dribbled from his nose, onto his upper lip... the napkin wrung in his hands wasn't white any longer.

Harry stepped forward, meaning to place a hand on his shoulder, when Draco said:

"You have my wand."

His pumice gray eyes, wide from crying, seemed to zero in on the wand in Harry's left hand. Draco looked... scared? But what would he be afraid of? Harry didn't understand.

He held the wand out to Draco for the second time today, motioning for him to take it, but Draco turned his face away.

"No," his voice sounded sore, "just do it."

Do what?

"Just do it already and be done with it."

Draco wasn't making any sense. What, what did he want Harry to do?

"Blaise will be wowed." Draco squeezed his eyes shut and braced himself, as if he expected Harry to hit him.

All Harry could do was stare. Since when had he become the bully? This was Dudley's territory, not something Harry engaged in. He'd never harmed another kid in his life! Why... why was Draco so scared?

Harry looked at the wand in his hand, then back to his friend. "I'm not going to hex you or anything," he started carefully, lowering the wand he hadn't realized he'd raised. "Take your wand Draco, this belongs to you."

He stepped inside the bathroom stall and pressed the wand into Draco's hand.

Draco cracked one eye open. "But... but it's Slytherin House tradition," he looked totally thrown.

"I don't give a damn about stupid traditions that get people hurt!" Harry shouted before Draco could get another word in.

"Come on, get up."

He grabbed Draco's left wrist and pulled him to his feet. They swayed a little before gaining steady footing, since Draco was both taller and heavier than him. Moving Draco to the wash basin, he turned away to give him some privacy.

"Thank you," a soft voice spoke through streaming water.

Harry turned. Draco had his head under the tap, he was looking at him.

"You should probably punch me in the jaw though, to make it look real."

Harry's mouth fell open. "What?"


Author's Note:

Just a head's up, Draco is not being nice because he's nice. He's acting that way around Harry because he's smart and knows that Harry is a very powerful Wizard, so he wants to turn Harry into an ally.

Ron is acting so sullen because when he sees Harry hanging around 'That Malfoy Monster', he jumps to conclusions and assumes Harry has already taken Draco's side.

The Malfoys and The Weasleys have been embroiled in a drawn-out family feud over the last five years, ever since the marriage deal between Draco Malfoy and Ginevra Weasley was broken by their parents due to some disagreements (back when Draco was six and Ginny was five years old), and Ron and Draco, being close in age, see each other as rivals.

When Ron sees the famous Harry Potter sitting casually in that train compartment with his arch nemesis That Malfoy Monster, he gets angry and doesn't even consider trying to befriend Harry.

Ron also doesn't really feel the need to make 'strong alliances' since he feels pretty confident being part of the large Weasley clan, having so many brothers already attending the same school, and with their dad heading the Ministry of Magic.

I've taken some liberties with the canon characters since it didn't make sense to me that the rascally Weasley brothers would abstain at all times from using magic out of school, so Ron must have picked up something from his older brothers. It didn't make sense to me that canon Hermione is leagues ahead of her classmates in magic, since she has no Wizarding parents, and I don't see why Wizarding families, especially the Pure-bloods, wouldn't privately tutor their own children years before they went to Hogwarts, putting them at an advantage right from the start... Hermione is smart, but she's disadvantaged in a system that works against her. Realistically, it would take her awhile to become top of her class, and she would be playing catch up throughout the First Year.

Also, Voldy is really really dead in this story, so... no more Death Eaters, no more Dark Marks, no Horcruxes, there's none of that. Harry's magic actually stopped Voldy for good in this universe, so he's the new big shot in town: everyone who hasn't heard of Sybill's prophecy regarding the child destined to bring Voldy to an end (which would be most people), believes Harry to be some super powerful Wizard with great potential for magic. And maybe he is ;-)

Chapter Text

Everybody tries to hide their traces
Everybody wears their masks so well
Everybody needs forbidden places
Everybody has to go through Hell

Everybody knows the war's not over
Everybody hears the bullets fly
Everybody turns the water lower
Everybody says you have to try

Everybody bites the never bitten
Everybody pours their poison out
Everybody wisely remains hidden
Everybody lies without a doubt

~ Everybody lies by Kaiva Koenig


 

"I'm not going to hit you Draco, I only came down here to give you your wand back."

"Fine," Draco said, raising his wand that had calmed down along with its owner. He muttered something softly, flicked his wand, and threw his head back, eyes squeezed shut in pain.

Harry stared as he watched a large ugly bruise bloom on the left side of Draco's jaw. The cut on his other cheek had barely started to heal. He had used a spell to... sock himself in the face. What?

Harry heard footsteps behind him. Turning, he found the large thick-necked boy with the flat nose standing in the door to the boys bathroom. Harry frowned, fingering his own wand inside his sleeve, what did he want?

"We should go get Malfoy's stuff back," the boy said stiffly, looking at the two of them.

Harry blinked, realizing a second too late the guy must think he had smacked Draco! And he hadn't even done anything.

"Weasley's bound to have your things," the boy said, "wouldn't be wise to leave them in his possession for much longer."

And so they followed the boy, who introduced himself as Vincent, back to their bedchambers and dragged Ron Weasley's stuff upstairs, bypassing the Common Room on their way out the Dungeon. Vincent carried one bag all on his own, while Harry and Draco each held onto one loop of the other bag as they trudged up tens of moving staircases. Ron's rat had made itself comfortable on Harry's shoulder by the time they finally reached Gryffindor Tower.

A familiar red haired boy was waiting there, nearby a life sized portrait of a very fat Lady. There were two bags on the floor next to his feet.

"If it isn't That Malfoy Monster," he said, taking in the sight of them, smirking into Draco's bruised face, "they finally let you out of your cage in the Dungeon?"

Draco's face twisted in a scowl. "Not me who's got morons for brothers," he barked, throwing the bag to the floor.

Ron spread his arms dramatically, nearly dropping his wand from his sleeve. "Fred and George thought it would make us 'get along', that whole family feud your parents started is beyond stupid, but I see there's no chance of that happening anytime soon, with you acting this shitty and childlike."

"You're one to talk," Draco bellowed.

"Locomotor trunk," Ron spat, at which Draco's luggage spontaneously levitated at waist-height, "and get your filthy stuff away from me, Malfoy."

Harry stared. They had slaved away lugging those bags from the depths of the Castle up to the very top, when they could have just used one spell? He repeated 'Locomotor trunk' over and over in his head on their way back to the Dungeon, lest he should forget. He had a feeling it would come in handy later on. Draco's heavy footfalls sent angry echoes through torch lit halls, only somewhat softening when they reached the ground floor.

Vincent suggested taking a stroll through Herbal Garden, since they were already outside. In the dark between the foliage, looking out over the Great Lake that glittered in silent moonlight, Draco unclenched his fists.

Once Monday rolled around Greg set their game plan into motion. To everyone's surprise Vincent turned out to have quite a knack for Astronomy: it was useful for finding your way around the wilderness, he said. An avid Astronomer could never get lost. Knowledge of the stars and their position in the night sky had helped Vincent many a time when he'd been out hiking in the wilds with his siblings.

"Whatever you say," Blaise had said, copying his homework.

Out of all of them Draco was the only one who was at least halfway competent at Potions. Their Professor for that class continued to find faults in everything Harry did. And nobody could figure out why. Even students from other Houses picked up on it, and sent sympathetic smiles his way.

Defense Against the Dark Arts was weird... they were invited to enter a dimmed classroom with orange flames burning at the center. A woman in a red dress pulled a black hood over her head and started some incantation, summoning a dense fog as her eyes rolled back. Greg suggested she could be a Dark Witch, but Harry didn't think that was the case.

To no one's surprise, both Pansy and Blaise excelled at Charms.

Transfiguration was trickier; no one from their group seemed to have any talent for it. The best student for that class was a Ravenclaw boy named Michael Corner, and he gladly took Pansy up on her offer to study with him in the Library.

Herbology was a subject none of them really cared about, "too easy," Draco had said, and Blaise agreed.

Greg had the neatest handwriting of them all, so he took their notes for History of Magic, while the rest listened to the lecture with half an ear, and mostly worked on their homework for other classes.

Flying lessons were what made it all worth it, Harry felt, as he zipped through the sky on a school broom, feeling free. Draco somersaulted in the air, laughing, his arms spread out like a bird's wings, while the rest of their class barely made it past the fence. Madam Hooch was impressed. She called them both down, and gave Draco and Harry clearance to fly whenever they wanted, like the Second Years, so they could practice their skill. They had to wear riding gear at all times, but had her permission to fly school brooms whenever they had free time. Greg envied them, but had to admit both Harry and Draco were better with a broom than he was.

As the third week rolled around, Harry grew increasingly frustrated with his own wand: it simply refused to listen to him. He would cast a spell over and over again, enunciate flawlessly, do everything right, and his stubborn wand would just be a useless stick in his hand. He felt stupid, watching Blaise effortlessly perform beautiful magic right next to him. And when his wand did decide to obey, after Harry had said the incantation ten times, the magic it produced looked pathetic in comparison with that of his classmates.

Even Vincent, who was not too bright and often got his spells wrong, could produce more fiery sparks and icier chills with his wand when he commanded it. Harry's skill in casting spells was such an abysmal outlier among his whole Year, and not for want of trying. He knew all the spells, he could recite his textbooks by heart, he just didn't seem able to actually perform any spells properly.

Oddly enough, no one teased him about this. Blaise just looked at him with sympathy in his dark eyes, and Draco covered for him in Potions, where they worked in pairs. None of the First Years from other Houses ever gave Harry any trouble about his pitiful display at magic, not even Ron Weasley, who hated their House with a passion and jumped at every chance to mess with a Slytherin.

But that just made things worse for Harry. He felt like the whole school was walking on eggshells around him, like he was a total failure from day one, so pathetically stunted even the bullies derived no joy from beating him down.

Professor Flitwick, their Charms teacher, assured Harry this was perfectly normal. Blackthorn wands were reportedly difficult to master, but had the potential to become very powerful indeed once properly tamed. Wands made of this wood were best suited for warriors, and some said Blackthorn wands could wield the most powerful magic known to man.

Harry just spent evenings glaring at his wand in anger, willing it to obey.

Yet the wand eluded him like a malevolent trickster hellbent on destroying his life at Hogwarts. Exams were approaching, and all Harry had been able to do was 'Locomotor trunk'.

Hagrid told him not to worry about it, Harry should just relax, and things would sort themselves out. But worry Harry did.

At one of their History of Magic lessons, as the ghost of Professor Binns droned on about the International Statute of Wizarding Secrecy, something really bothered Harry. He raised his hand.

"Yes?" said Professor Binns.

"Why do we have the Statute of Secrecy?" Harry began. "If Wizards and Witches are so much more powerful than Muggles, why do we fear them?"

Everyone turned to look at him. Professor Binns seemed to swallow, his translucent Adam's apple bobbed, shifting his blue tie.

"Why are we living in hiding?" Harry asked, fixing the Professor with a perplexed frown. "Why aren't we running things?"

Blaise nudged him under the table, grinning approvingly.

"Well, ...ahh, umm... you see," Binns did not have an answer to that. He dismissed class early and floated through the ceiling before Harry could approach him with any questions.

Blaise high-fived him in the halls on the way to their Common Room. "Nice work, I was getting so bored there listening to that man go on and on!" Blaise winked, showing the binder in his hand, "I've completed tomorrow's Charms assignment," he dropped his voice so only Harry would hear, "wanna copy?"

Harry pursed his lip. "I honestly wanted to know."

A scowl disfigured Blaise's handsome face and he looked away. "My Mum says they outnumber us, since Muggles fuck like rabbits," he shrugged, training his eyes at the floor, "but no one at this school will teach us that."

Harry raised an eyebrow as they continued walking. "Why not?"

"Because the most logical conclusion would be to wipe them out completely, as Grindelwald tried to do."

Harry asked if this Grindelwald fellow was locked up in Azkaban, he recalled reading something about Headmaster Dumbledore defeating him. Blaise stopped moving, forcing Harry to do the same.

"He's dead," said Blaise.

A lump formed in Harry's throat. They didn't talk much till they joined the others in the Common Room. As they all sat together on one green leather sofa, Greg copied Blaise's Charms assignment, making little changes here and there to make it look like he had done the assignment himself. Meanwhile Blaise leafed through Greg's notes on History of Magic and discussed them with Harry, who tried to read his Potions textbook: Snape would have his head on a stick if he failed to make pink smoke rise from their cauldron again.

The Professor had quickly caught on that while Harry helped put together the ingredients, it was always Draco's wand being waved over their potion. He had cornered them and demanded Harry to perform the potion making spell. After coaxing his wand five times, lightning shot from the tip and struck their potion with violent force, sending a horrific crackling ripple over the surface. Snape studied their cauldron with mild interest, and told Harry he had done it wrong, before he swept off to another table.

Sitting on the sofa between Blaise and Greg, Harry perused the chapter containing the Cure for Boils, wondering what he was missing. Pansy sat with a girl Harry didn't know too well, her name was Daphne, she had long honey blonde hair that she wore in two high ponytails, a narrow pointy nose, and large round eyes which were green as a stormy sea, that was all Harry knew about her. The girls had put down their textbooks and were just starting on the Transfiguration assignment when Draco walked into the Common Room with a corked conical flask that contained a shiny potion which looked like liquid silver.

Blaise whistled as Draco passed their sofa. "Oh Mister Hazel Wand Boy," he called, a cruel sneer on his face.

Several chuckles echoed through the Common Room.

Harry looked up from his book. "Blaise," he looked pointedly at the handsome black wizard, "hasn't he suffered enough?"

It had been weeks since the 'incident' on their first night in the Common Room, and Blaise was still seizing every occasion to mock Draco.

Blaise threw his head back against the sofa and laughed. "Suffering! Oh Harry my man, you're hilarious. I'm just poking his feathers a little, come on, put that book down," he placed his hand firmly on top of Magical Drafts and Potions by Arsenius Jigger, and slammed the book in Harry's lap shut, "join the fun. You've studied enough for today."

Greg took the Potions textbook from Harry and placed it on the nearest low table, there was a devilish glint in his eye, and his thin lips were pursed in a small amused smile. Harry scowled at him.

Blaise wiggled his eyebrows, drawing Harry's attention. "I reckon you can make Malfoy here shoot a very different kind of magic," he whispered.

Harry stared at his friend darkly. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"Go on then," Blaise poked him in the rib playfully, "say something to Malfoy. I'm just dying to see how his wand will react."

Draco looked at Harry warily from the other end of the Common Room, where he sat secluded in a corner, perched on a plain four legged stool. The conical flask with the silver colored potion had been placed on the low table in front of him, along with some slabs of parchment and a quill. One candle levitated just over his right shoulder, shedding light on his improvised workspace.

Harry shook his head, pulling Magical Drafts and Potions back into his lap. "I'm not playing your silly games Blaise, we got a Potions exam next week. Snape will lynch me if I can't cook up a simple Boil Cure."

"Ey Malfoy!" Blaise cried out.

Harry pulled his nose out of the book to glare at Blaise.

Draco watched them both with a fearful look in his eye.

"Potter here needs your help with Potions." Blaise wagged his finger admonishingly at Draco, "it's all on you if Snape takes points from us next week, since you refused to help your best friend out with your favorite subject."

Harry narrowed his eyes at Blaise. He liked the guy, but sometimes Blaise could be a little too much.

But Blaise callously carried on goading Draco, his favorite pastime these days. "I know you were awfully busy this morning furiously flogging your log over Professor Snape's silky black hair, but you've got to take some time out of your day to help out your friends," Blaise reasoned, "or you can hardly call yourself Potter's friend at all."

Draco turned an alarming shade of pink, eliciting giggles from Daphne and Pansy who sat eavesdropping at a low table with their eyes trained on the Transfiguration assignment. A number of Older Years were also listening in, hiding their smirks behind parchments and textbooks.

"See," Blaise eagerly nodded to Harry, "your friend has a thing for our Potions teacher."

Harry opened his mouth to tell Blaise to knock it off, but Greg spoke over him before Harry could get a word in.

"Explains why he's so good at it," Greg whispered in a high pitched voice, "notice me Master Snape, Sir, notice me!"

Pansy burrowed her face in her hands, shaking with laughter.

Blaise winked. "I do suppose under a certain light Professor Snape can look quite attractive. He is one of the younger Professors we've got after all, even when you don't count Professor Binns."

They all laughed. Harry had to admit this part was rather funny, he couldn't help the tiny smile that worked its way to his lip.

"I suppose I should persuade my Dear Mother to date him," Blaise playfully bumped shoulders with Harry, "would really help you in the grade department. Eh, it's better than whoring out Malfoy I suppose, even though the bugger would love that."

Their whole group was in tears, Daphne was hysterical with laughter, unable to hold her giggles in. Harry smiled mischievously. He knew he shouldn't say anything, he knew he should clamp his teeth together and keep his mouth shut, but he couldn't resist. Something itched at him to share the funny thought that popped up in his head.

"Who?" Harry asked, putting on a face of faux innocence, "Malfoy... or Snape?"

Blaise and Pansy rolled with laughter, Greg grabbed his knees, doubling over. Daphne was a blushing mess. And Harry couldn't help the grin that spread across his own face, he had done that, he was funny.

It felt good to be finally accepted for once, to have friends, people who liked him and thought he was funny, even though it came at a price: with guilt in the pit of his stomach Harry glanced over at Draco, who avoided his eyes now.

Draco's wand slipped from his sleeve, landing on the low table.

They all looked. Some Older Years smirked and sure enough, after awhile Draco's wand began twitching. The bright pink spark that followed was fast, short, and loud. With a bang the whole Common Room lit up like they were lighting fireworks.

It hit the conical flask, that suddenly changed shape, grew legs, and before Harry knew it there was a large frog on the low table in front of Draco. A small silver crown with exactly three peaks rested on top of the frog's head.

The frog looked up at Draco.

Maybe it wanted to be fed? Harry couldn't tell. The thing was vomit green in color, with bulging yellow eyes, its large mouth lined with muddy brown slime. What happened next shocked the life out of Draco and sent the whole Common Room into a spiral of wild guffaws.

The frog begged Draco to kiss it.

Harry stared, wide eyed as the Common Room erupted in laughter all around him. He had really messed up, hadn't he? And he'd never meant for this to happen. All he had wanted was to be accepted in his House, to say something funny and make his friends laugh, that's it. He'd never intended to hurt Draco, he'd never meant for this to get so out of hand. But the laughter spread like wildfire as the frog followed Draco around the Common Room, imploring him to give it a kiss.

With a sinking feeling it registered that Draco would never live this down, and Harry felt responsible. If he hadn't... he bit his lip, if he hadn't run his mouth about Snape, who knew what would've happened? All of it could have been avoided, or... at least he wouldn't have looked like such a massive hypocrite, and felt like he'd let down a friend.

Harry tried to find Draco's eyes in the crowd, but Draco wouldn't look at anyone: he kept his eyes trained on the floor as he fled from the Common Room, tightly clasping his wand.

In hindsight Harry should have known. The man seemed just the type of sadistic bastard to watch this all play out from the shadows, when he could have intervened long ago, before it all started with Blaise's crude comments. Still Harry jerked around in shock when he heard Professor Snape's voice directly behind him.

Blaise and Greg's excuse for not seeing their Head of House was the way he had approached them from behind on silent footsteps, choosing not to make his presence known till the tips of his shoes bored into the back of their sofa. The whole room dropped several degrees in temperature when Snape spoke.

"I'm sorry Zabini," he said in a cold foreboding tone, "but I will have to decline that ever so gracious offer to dine with your mother."

Harry could feel Blaise tense beside him. Greg's eyes were wide with fear.

"All men who have been sighted with her," Snape said, casting a thoughtful look at the other students in the room, who had all ceased laughing, "seem to disappear under mysterious circumstances."

Snape left after giving them a week's worth of detention. At least he hadn't taken any points off their House, Greg said with a relieved smile, he was the only one of their trio who hadn't gotten detention. Probably because Snape hadn't overheard him. Harry filed that away for later use: if you had to rag on someone, you did it quietly, so the teachers wouldn't hear. No point in drawing attention to yourself when it would only lead you to trouble.

Blaise suggested Professor Snape wanted to keep what had happened with Draco on the down low, if he were to take points from Slytherin he'd have to inform the other teaching staff to justify this point reduction. Harry wondered how many other incidents went unreported, swept under the rug by the teaching staff, and if this number was any lower in the other Houses. Blaise advised him not to think too much about it, they had gotten off lightly, Harry shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth.

In the hours that passed he tried to distract himself with reading, hoping that if he could escape to a fictional world, he wouldn't have to face his demons or ponder on his impending doom at the hands of Mr. Filch. The only book in his possession that he hadn't yet read was The Heir of Slytherin, the small leather bound copy that held a moving picture of his parents in its front pages. It appeared to have no author, for the book made no mention by whom it had been written, or the author preferred to remain anonymous.

Harry got sucked in immediately when he noticed the story took place in Hogwarts, on these very Castle grounds. However, the story was very strange... and very sad, it told of a boy who studied at Hogwarts just like Harry, except he was the last in a long line of descendants of their House founder, Salazar Slytherin. Harry had nearly finished reading an enthralling chapter of the book when Blaise tapped his knuckles on the long Slytherin table in the Great Hall. Harry looked up from his book.

"It's time," Blaise said with a sour expression. Behind him, Harry could see Argus Filch rubbing his hands with glee.

Harry sighed, stuffing the book away in his breast pocket. "Well," he said, "here goes nothing."

Blaise and him stood from the table and were escorted down to the dungeons by Mr. Filch. First thing Filch did was separate them, divide et impera. Blaise was sent down a long dark corridor, and Harry was told to wait here under the watchful eye of Mrs. Norris, the underfed pet cat Filch owned. Harry attempted to pet her gently on the head, but drew back when she attacked with a hiss and drawn claws.

Upon his return Filch led Harry to their Potions classroom. Harry was to stock the cabinets and shelves with newly arrived ingredients that he would find in crates on the floor. Filch grinned wickedly as he informed him he would not be allowed to leave until the task was done, regardless of whether it cut into his sleeping time. If he had to detain Harry past his bedtime, he would. Professor Snape had given him express permission. But when Filch opened the door to their Potions classroom, someone was already inside.

A cauldron was set up over a low fire, several glass flasks and beakers surrounding it. The person behind the cauldron looked up; Harry stood eye in eye with Draco.

"Get on with it," Filch grumbled and shoved Harry inside the room, shutting the door behind him with a bang.

His footsteps moved away, echoing through corridors beyond the door as Harry stared at Draco.

Draco stared back, cauldron forgotten on the desk. Finally Draco regained his faculty of speech, "what are you doing here?" he said, sounding baffled.

Harry told him about his detention.

"Oh," said Draco softly with a look of disappointment on his face, casting his eyes at the desk behind which he stood. "I was re-brewing my extra credit Potions assignment, Forgetfulness Potion, the one I ruined when..." he sighed, tracing his fingers over the textbook that lay open on the desk, "...yeah."

"Listen," Harry stepped forward, a sense of urgency pulsing through him, his heart in his throat.

Draco's head snapped up. "Yeah?" he said cautiously, hurt still evident on his face.

"It was wrong of me to say that," Harry started, biting his lip in anguish. "I'm sorry. I truly am, I can't tell what got into me, they were all egging me on and suddenly that felt like an alright thing to say," Harry wrung his hands, awkwardly standing in the center of the room, "but it wasn't," he lowered his head, let his shoulders droop down in regret.

"I understand," a sober voice said somewhere above him, "in your position I would have done the same."

Harry stared up at his friend in shock, while Draco simply looked at him like he hadn't said anything out of the ordinary.

Their silence was broken by a loud ribbit, and Harry turned toward the sound. He blinked. The vomit green frog with the silver crown on its head was crouching inside a half filled washbasin, its bulging yellow eyes almost lovingly looking on Draco.

Harry pointed. "That thing still here?"

Draco nodded, looking miserable.

The frog croaked grotesquely. "Draco Dear," it said, "come give us a kiss."

"Merlin," Draco exclaimed, stepping away from the sink, closer to Harry. "It won't leave me alone," he pleaded with his eyes, "I can't go anywhere like this. Can't go to the Common Room, can't go to bed, even had to skip dinner in the Great Hall."

Harry put a finger to his chin.

"I've tried everything short of Avada Kedavring it to oblivion, and yet it won't go away. No magic seems to work, nothing can stop it."

Draco sounded frantic. Harry eyed the frog warily, as it called for his friend again.

"You know the story of the Frog Prince? This could be something like that," Harry shrugged, "perhaps all you've got to do is kiss the frog."

"No way!" Draco exclaimed, appalled at his suggestion. "Have you seen the sludge on its lips?"

Harry raised an eyebrow at him. That's what he worried about, a little mud on the lips? Not whether it carried any diseases? Or unpredictable magical consequences like getting turned into a frog?

"Ribbit," the thing burped, sticking out its long pink tongue, "please Draco, just one widdle kissy kiss?"

Draco shuddered.

Harry rolled his eyes, walking around him to the washbasin. "I'll do it."

"Really?" Draco whispered in hushed surprise.

"Yeah," Harry tossed over his shoulder. What was the big deal? It was just a frog, after all. And if Draco saw no reason to fear it carrying some disease or being cursed, then Harry could be brave.

He reached into the washbasin, picked the frog up, and brought it up to his own mouth when the thing twisted out of his grip and hopped onto his shoulder. Harry blinked. Next thing he knew the frog had leapt from his shoulder to the desk with the cauldron. Harry turned around, just in time to see the frog creep onto the open textbook, leaving muddy footprints on the pages.

"Ribbit," said the frog, "ribbit. Silly git, you won't fit. Ribbit. Draco's gotta be it."

Draco took two steps back, walking into the next desk. "No, no," he moaned with held up hands.

Harry sighed. He grabbed one frog leg, at which the animal yelped in surprise, letting out a string of startled ribbits, and wildly flailed in Harry's grip, trying to kick itself free, but Harry was prepared for this. He dug his nails into the frog's skin, refusing to let go, and twisted the tap open, then held the frog's ugly face under a stream of running water till all the slime had been washed off its fat gob.

"There," he said, holding the frog up in front of Draco. "Problem solved."

Draco approached with great reluctance, the frog readily hopped into his open palm when he held out his hand. He brought his hand up to his face, looking at the frog as if it might bite him.

But the frog waited patiently, making no move to reach for Draco. All it did was stare at him lovingly. Draco puckered his lips, cringed with his eyes, and placed one small kiss on the frog's mouth.

Sparks flew, a random wind pushed Draco's hair from his forehead, and the frog changed shape... morphing till it was no longer on his hand but suspended mid-air, then the shape grew. Harry stared in disbelief as the frog transformed to a human form.

A smirking dark haired boy stood in front of Draco, dressed in long green formal robes, a white shirt and green tie, with dark trousers and shoes, a silver ring on his left hand, coiled around his ring finger like a snake, and a plain silver crown was on top of his head, shining in the dimmed classroom. Though the most striking thing about him had to be his likeness to Harry.

It was as if someone had dressed Harry up like a royal, fancy clothes and all. Harry walked up closer to examine his lookalike, when the guy turned translucent, then vanished into thin air, as if he hadn't been there at all.

Draco and Harry were left standing there facing each other, staring at the spot where the Frog Prince had been, with confused frowns on their faces, until Draco blushed and turned away.

He shuffled back to his Potions project and waved his wand over it, sending a soft white spark into the cauldron. "Ehm, we should... finish our assignments," he said stiffly, "it's nearly bedtime."

In silence Harry started stocking shelves. Draco joined him as soon as he was done pouring the silvery liquid into a conical flask. Together they finished Harry's detention task a lot faster. Blaise was not back yet by the time they retreated to their bedchamber, and just as well, Harry thought. He eyed Draco hesitantly, his friend had been teased enough for today.

Greg opened his mouth to taunt Draco, but held his tongue the moment Harry narrowed his eyes.

As Harry lay in bed, staring up at the ceiling in the dark, he couldn't help his thoughts straying to the Frog Prince who had looked just like him, and what that meant. If it had meant anything at all...

 

Chapter Text

The aching, the haunted,
the ones that no-one wanted
that wander the earth
in search of a place

A place to hide, a place to rest
a means to fit the world at best
solutions, potions do they seek
in books and hidden mysteries.

~ Hope by Kaiva Koenig


Harry lent them his bit of black chalk and sat back and watched Nestor Flint draw four concentric circles around the drain hole on the Slytherin Dungeon bathroom floor. Greg carefully selected fifteen brightly colored marbles from the suede black pouch he'd brought along, while Draco angled his head in, trying to get a better look at Greg's marbles, and commented on their superior light-reflecting quality.

It was all a bit hush-hush, Damien Shafiq held watch as more boys scrambled in, each with their own jangling pouch hidden in the folds of their robes. Harry had never played Gobstones before, but from what he saw, it seemed rather nerdy.

Maverick Savage tossed the first marble, a plain brown one, missing the outer circle by a hair.

A chorus of strangled groans swept through the bathroom, and Greg narrowed his eyes and stuck his tongue out, taking time to pick the right position of his wrist before he tossed a bright blue marble with one gentle well practiced flick.

Harry watched, everyone did as Greg's marble traveled very far indeed, making it to the second ring if you counted from the center.

Greg grinned, "Crabbe's turn," he said, looking at Vincent.

The guy scowled, mashing his fat lips together. An obsidian black marble was clammy with sweat in his fleshy round tipped fingers.

Vincent tossed, holding his breath.

His marble fell to the floor and traversed uneven tiles, rolling with a buzzing sound and slowing once it reached the fourth ring. With a heavy sigh Vincent reclined against a shower cubicle.

Draco sent him a small hopeful smile. "Don't worry mate, better luck next time."

Vincent smiled back. "Yeah."

Ever since that business with the frog, Draco had barely said a word to Harry, and when he did, he refused to meet Harry's eyes, which made guilt weigh all the more heavily on Harry's heart. He knew his crappy excuse for an apology hadn't been enough, that deep down Draco never forgave him, though he said he did.

And Harry couldn't blame Draco for holding a grudge, he'd done a horrible thing, he had sold out his friend for in-House popularity. These days Draco hung out more with Vincent and the lads he roomed with, Maverick Savage, Damien Shafiq and Nestor Flint.

Damien tossed his marble next, a dull green stone that whistled as it rolled, ending up in the third ring. Nestor clicked his tongue, rotating his hand with three coffee-colored gobstones crammed between his fingers.

"No cheating," Greg warned.

Maverick looked upon him like Greg had just insulted his mother. "If I were to cheat at Gobstones," he snapped, "you wouldn't know I was cheating."

Nestor let the middle stone slip from his fingers. It rolled over the floor, into the fourth ring, into the third ring, into the second ring, Maverick cheered as the stone rolled past Greg's, making Greg scowl. Then the brown marble rolled into the central ring, circled around the drain hole, and rolled out of the first ring... Nestor slumped forward with a whine; Greg smirked as the gobstone rolled out of the first ring, into the second ring, and finally came to a stop in the fourth ring.

"Why?" Nestor held his head in his hands, squirming in sorrow.

Draco paused with his hand inside his own pouch, a richly embroidered dark green sack. He eyed the circles nervously, then picked a bright silver colored marble and tossed it with practiced ease without moving from his spot.

Harry blinked, apparently Draco was good at this game: his marble skittered through all four circles, ending up inside the central ring.

"Nice," said Maverick.

Damien plainly nodded in Draco's direction. Greg snarled and rattled his own pouch of marbles, as if he were choosing which stone to pick next.

Harry stood and walked around their circle till he was standing directly behind Draco. He peered over Draco's shoulder, into his embroidered green pouch. Draco did not have very many brightly colored marbles. Most of his stones were dull and darker in color, paling in comparison to Greg's elaborate collection.

"How much you willing to stake?" Maverick placed ten knuts on the floor before him in a stack.

Greg sneered at the pitifully small amount. "Why don't you wager Muggle money if you're so frugal to put seventeen pence in the pot?"

Harry laughed.

Draco jerked around and blinked up at him, having just realized Harry was standing there. The laughter died on Harry's lips.

"Feeling confident today, are we Shafiq?" Greg remarked as Damien dropped six sickles in a stack on the floor.

"You may be in the lead," Damien remarked, "but it's still early in the game."

Vincent stacked twenty knuts on the floor, Nestor shifted a measly three knuts forward, earning more mockery from Greg who added one sickle to the pool with the self assured air of someone who expected to win.

Draco nervously glanced over his shoulder at Harry, then dug inside his pockets and boldly contributed three galleon.

A collective gasp went through their group. Harry raised his eyebrows, that was a lot of money... and he hadn't known Draco to be thriftless.

Draco shrugged. "Did you come here to stare or did you come here to play?" he said, mouth pulling into a smirk.

Taken all together there were now three galleon, eight sickles and four knuts in the pot. Whoever won this game of Gobstones would be a very rich man indeed. Harry watched them all take turns at knocking each other's marbles from the circles. Maverick upstaged both Vincent and Nestor in the second round, by knocking his first marble into the third ring with a well placed shot.

Snake Pit was a bit like snooker, except instead of cues they used other marbles to push their own or an opponent's marbles around on the floor. Two rounds later Harry wondered how his friends were able to tell what marbles belonged to whom. Harry was completely lost.

"It's simple, really," said Nestor before taking Harry's wand and casting a spell with it. "Now you can see what we see," he gave the wand back to Harry.

The marbles had little halos around them, corresponding in color to a similar glow around each player's hands. Maverick's marbles glowed a bright orange-red, Damien's glowed a dark forest green, the halo around Vincent's gobstones was deep bluish purple, Nestor's halo was a light greenish yellow, Greg had a sky blue halo around his hands, and Draco's marbles shone a deep dark blood red.

From what Harry could tell Draco was still in the lead, but Greg was gaining on him. The center ring contained two dark red glowing marbles, and one marble that glowed sky blue. Maverick was in third place, having knocked Damien's marble from the second ring.

"Well, I'm out," Vincent announced suddenly.

Greg raised an eyebrow. "You sure man?"

Vincent bobbed his head. "Only way I can win now is if some miracle happens."

Nestor rubbed his chin. "Well you could... wait no, nevermind."

Draco smiled at him. "You were going to suggest Vincent hit two marbles with one stone?"

Nestor smiled wryly. "Yeah, ...pointless though," he glanced at Vincent, "unless you've got a Noisy Hitter?"

Vincent shook his head.

"Damn," said Nestor, taking a plain grey gobstone from his own pack. With a zigzagging hand motion he flung the marble, hitting one of Greg's and knocking it out of the second ring.

Nestor exchanged a smirk with Maverick, they were now tied for third place.

In the final round Damien got his own back on Maverick, kicking him out of third place, leaving Nestor the only one running against Greg and Draco. The three wizards faced off with narrowed eyes, hands in their pouches, high ringing sounds of stone hitting stone could be heard.

Nestor moved first, tossing a bright golden marble into the center circle, knocking Greg out.

Draco's eyes went wide with surprise. "Last-minute secret weapon?" he said to Nestor. "I haven't met anyone with a strategy like that. You grow stronger as the game goes on."

Nestor grinned, holding out his hand for Draco to shake. "Nice to meet you."

They laughed.

"No, but seriously," said Draco, knocking Nestor's gobstone from the first ring, so only two blood red glowing stones remained at the center, "I'm impressed."

Nestor bit his lower lip wistfully. "Should've seen that one coming."

Draco winked at him. "Sorry, can't let you win mate," he gestured at his stack of galleon, "I've got a lot riding on this."

"That'll teach you not to gamble with a month's worth of your allowance," Greg said, taking a green malachite marble from his pouch.

Draco turned to him in displeasure. "For your information," he began, "I get five galleon and fifteen sickles a month, so what you're..." Draco abruptly stopped talking, and stared at the buzzing green stone in Greg's hand, "...is that...?"

The Cheshire grin on Greg's face only grew. "One of my favorite Noisy Hitters," he said, stroking the marble with his square fingertips, "won it in a Classic game two years ago, hasn't failed me yet."

"You're bluffing," Draco snorted, but Harry saw the fear in his eyes.

"You wish I was," said Greg.

His marble scattered over tiles, bouncing off dents, whirring like the wind. Draco grew pale in the face as Greg's gobstone sped through the third ring and into the second, without hitting a single stone along the way. Harry marveled at Greg's aim, it was impeccable.

The malachite marble crashed into Draco's silver one, booting it from the central ring, then jerked to the right and smashed into Draco's second stone. A loud bang like an explosion reverberated through the bathroom, then the Noisy Hitter started squirting gunk at all losing players, punctuated by Greg's manic laughter.

Draco was too stunned to cast a cleaning spell. Blue slime that stank of rotten algae covered his face and hair. The rest of their group had already cleaned themselves up a bit, Damien held his face under a shower faucet, while Greg leaned forward and drew all the coins and marbles toward himself.

Nestor lamented his own lack of Noisy Hitters, claiming he would have won had he had high quality gobstones like Greg.

"Then why don't you buy some?" said Harry, he knew they could afford it. The Flints were wealthy people, Draco had informed him back when he still talked to Harry.

Nestor laughed darkly; his limited allowance would not let him get the gobstones he wanted, a pack of thirty marbles made of gemstone half of which could be Noisy Hitters, priced at ten galleon, nine sickles and twenty knuts. He'd have to save up for a whole year without making any expenses to afford the kind of stones Greg owned.

"So get good," Greg smirked at him, pocketing Nestor's best stones, "and win some in a game. You can keep these," he rolled the muddiest gobstones back to Nestor, "I have no use for trash."

With a challenging sneer Nestor stared Greg down. "I'll just watch the Ravenclaws wipe the floor with you, Greggy-poo. You rely too much on your precious stones to do the thinking for you."

Greg clamped his fist around Draco's silver marble, and stiffly put it away in his pouch.

Harry's new friends were pleasantly surprised to find he had an unlimited allowance. Unlike most First Years, no adult was in charge of Harry's account at Gringotts, which meant he could withdraw as many funds as he needed whenever he pleased. Maverick took this splendid opportunity to advise Harry on the starter pack of gobstones he should get, if he were so inclined to join them. Harry politely smiled through this tutorial on picking the right pack of gobstones, for gobstones came in opaque cotton bags, and one could not see what one was buying until after one had paid. There was no return policy on gobstones.

The more Harry heard about Gobstones, the less he wanted to do with it. He did not fancy squandering his late grandfather's fortune on little round stones that squirted crap in your face. But Maverick was talking in a lively whisper, eyes wide and giddy with excitement, so Harry just let him talk.

Maverick told him to get the pack of reasonably good gobstones to start with, they cost exactly one galleon, thirteen sickles and ten knuts at Praedico Predico on Diagon Alley. If Harry wanted them, he should tell Maverick before going, because Maverick had a Discount Card he was willing to share.

Draco had hardly broken out of his shocked stupor at having lost when his wand took to twitching. Before he could cast a cleaning spell and remove the clotting algae from his robes, a thick fog left the tip of his wand to form a heavy cloud over his head. Draco blinked. The cloud drizzled down on him, soaking him from head to toe in cold water.

He shivered all the way up to their dorm, leaving a trail of puddles where his feet had been. The dark cloud followed him around, not lightening nor lowering the intensity of its downpour, and seemed to affect Draco alone.

"Hey, at least the rain washed all that stinky goo off you," Greg quipped.

Draco pretended he hadn't just been insulted by one of his so-called friends, and stalked ahead of them, leaving Greg frowning at Harry in confusion. Harry shook his head and followed Draco up the stairs.

Greg took the stairs two at a time, using his long legs to an advantage. Within seconds he had overtaken Harry, and was first to reach their floor, stopping in front of their shared bedroom, and barring entrance to Draco.

"What the hell Greg?" Harry asked when he finally arrived at the scene.

"He'll get rain water all over our things," Greg complained, pointing at the mess on the floor beneath Draco's feet.

Draco shifted around guiltily, looking neither of them in the eye. "I just wanted to change my clothes," he said softly.

"What's the point of that?" Greg wanted to know. "They'll just get wet again." He pinched his nose in a show of frustration. "Just, stay here till whatever your wand conjured stops."

Draco nodded numbly. He shivered again. Harry's eyes went wide, this was just plain wrong.

With an angry frown Harry rounded on Greg, pointing an accusing finger at him. "Don't pretend like this isn't your fault."

Greg hushed Harry and bid him to keep quiet. If anyone found out they had been playing geeky Gobstones, he'd never be accepted on the Quidditch Team, and Greg intended to play Quidditch next year.

"Well if you care that much about your chances of making the Quidditch Team, I strongly suggest you step away from the door and let Draco inside," Harry hissed at him in a deadly tone.

Greg gave a disgruntled huff, but acquiesced, letting them both through. Draco was in a foul mood for the rest of the day. Blaise's "got a black cloud hanging over your head Malfoy," didn't help.

"We were well aware of that," said Harry, as Greg hurriedly plunked all his things on his own bed to save them from getting drenched in the pool of cold water that still leaked from Draco, "thank you."

Harry suggested that if Blaise had to pick on someone, he pick on someone from a different House. Snape would suspend them from the wall if he sensed any more in-fighting.

Blaise groaned. "Yeah no kidding," he winced, "enforced House unity."

Having agreed to leave Draco the fuck alone, Blaise began listing possible targets, he knew of a Hufflepuff or two that would provide many lulz if properly milked. Harry felt deeply disturbed by this very serious seminar on whom to bully next.

The following week progressed far too slow for Harry's liking. Their final Defense Against The Dark Arts lesson of the term had shed no light on what they should expect on the exam. Madame Melisandre had lit another bewitched fire in the dimmed classroom, summoned mysterious fumes that could have been fog but who knew what they were, covered her red hair with a black hood, twisted her painted black lips in anguish, and throatily moaned with eyes rolling back in her skull:

"Lord of Light, protect us from all that is evil, defend us from the Darkness in each and every one of us."

After shuddering in a wanton fashion until Harry was completely convinced she was bonkers, Madame Melisandre croaked "class dismissed," at them, and drunkenly stumbled to her desk.

"What was that supposed to mean?" Harry hissed once they were out of earshot, heading down a hallway to their Common Room.

Pansy shook her head vehemently, making her dark hair bounce with the motion. "I don't know!" she exclaimed, sounding mad at herself for not knowing.

Blaise groaned. "We are so screwed, aren't we? How the blazes are we to learn all this nonsense for the exam?" he grasped the air in frustration.

"What will the exam even look like?" Pansy sighed, "I haven't the faintest clue."

Harry let out a sigh of his own, hanging his head in dreary resignation.

Blaise shrugged. "All I know is I'll pass with flying colors if it's anything like this." He threw the hood over his head, conjured some cigarette smoke, and rolled his eyes back while wiggling his fingers and groaning ominously "woo... Lord of Light."

Pansy clapped Harry on the shoulder as they both burst into laughter. Blaise smirked at them from under his hood.

It happened that this very moment Draco passed them in the hall, also heading out of the DADA classroom, but in the direction of the library instead of their Common Room. Draco shot them a disdainful look.

"She was obviously referring to overcoming your fear in the face of a Dark Wizard," he said, "and channeling negative energy into something positive, drawing strength from the darkness within." Draco wrinkled his nose at them, "weren't you listening?"

Harry blinked; that actually... sounded quite sensible. Pansy looked a little embarassed, like she had been caught doing something silly, and Blaise had a small painful smile on his lips.

Before they could say anything in return, Draco had rounded a corner and disappeared from sight. Harry rushed after him, catching up with his friend in a high arched hallway with large windows overlooking the Quidditch pitch along one side.

"Want to go broom flying?" he panted, doing his best to keep up with Draco's furious pace.

"Not now. I'm busy," Draco retorted.

"After lunch?" Harry raised an eyebrow.

"I'll be busy after lunch."

"How 'bout tomorrow morning?" Harry asked, still hopeful.

"I'll be busy tomorrow too."

Harry became distinctly aware he was pouting, but couldn't help hating how Draco kept blowing him off with such an impassive look on his face, like he didn't care much for spending time with Harry at all.

"When can we set up a flight session?" Harry blurted in the middle of the hallway, making a few Older Years stare at them.

Draco only walked faster. When he saw Harry wouldn't budge from his side, he clicked his tongue in annoyance. "Why don't you ask Blaise to fly with you?"

Harry rolled his eyes. "We're the only First Years allowed to fly unsupervised!"

"Find a Second Year to fly with." Draco made a dramatic swinging gesture with his arms and swept down a corridor that led to the library.

Harry's voice faltered. "But I, ...I don't know any Second Years..."

He stood there awkwardly in the hallway, the windows letting in sun that shone on his shoulders, and watched Draco go down the narrow dark corridor.

The rest of the week Harry amused himself teasing Hufflepuffs with Blaise. He distracted them with tall tales of how he had slain You Know Who as an infant, how he recognized the adder in his crib at once as the Dark Lord's animagus, and had grabbed the snake in his chubby little hands and strangled it to death. The story worked best on impressionable First Year girls. While Harry held their attention, Blaise snuck up behind them and used a spell to make spiders crawl up their legs, earwigs nestle inside their ears, or even caterpillars creep down their spines.

Harry had a right laugh as he watched the girls scamper away shrieking.

While in the throws of laughter after one of these pranks, Harry noticed Ron Weasley approach him.

"Oh, you part of the Sly boy bully squad now?" Ron said, glaring him down.

Ron was a little taller than Harry, and looked quite intimidating when Harry was forced to face him alone, without Blaise by his side.

"What does one have to do to join?" Ron sneered. "Decapacitate a kitten?"

Harry raised an eyebrow at the taller boy. "We weren't bullying them, just teasing. If they want to act all offended, that's their problem."

"Yeah, I'm sure Tekla Tesla and Cordelia Lupin-Black were totally aware this was one of your," Ron air quoted, "'quirky' Slytherin pranks, L-O-L."

"You're one to talk," Harry grinned, "aren't your brothers infamous for wreaking havoc on the school with their oh so quirky Gryffindor pranks?"

Ron had nothing to say to that. He just glared at Harry and walked off, leaving Harry to smirk at his receding form, and laugh about it later on with Blaise and the gang.

One afternoon Harry went up to the broom shed after his morning classes, hoping to clear his head that was buzzing with worry over next week's exams. His wand still acted up, and try as he might he couldn't figure out how he was supposed to tame it. As he pushed the door and walked inside, Harry found the shed deserted save for one boy in a green and grey riding uniform.

Having heard Harry come in, the boy glanced over his shoulder, and they both froze. Harry paused by the door, looking at Draco.

"Umm... sorry," Harry said quickly, "I'll just... go." He turned to leave. Draco had a helmet on, and was fixing shin pads to the back of his legs. It didn't feel fair to make him drop everything.

Harry had his hand on the door handle when he heard a small high pitched voice say "I don't mind flying with you."

Harry turned around, but Draco had his back to him, and was fiddling with the elbow pads, looking nervous. Harry smiled.

They put on their riding gear in silence, without looking at each other. Still, Harry felt a certain sense of support with his friend being there, and although they had much to talk about, he wasn't sure this was the moment to bring it up. They selected two identical school brooms, and took off from the broom shed's balcony.

Harry's problems seemed so insignificant when he was soaring through the sky. He threw his head back and laughed, for once not in malice but out of true heartwarming joy. Flying felt like second nature to him, it was like returning home.

From up here he could see the whole school, and students muck around like ants beneath him, so trifling small. Harry grinned, he didn't have to worry about next week's Broom Flight exam, that was for sure.

"It doesn't mean anything," Draco's voice shouted in the wind.

Harry spun around to find his friend flying nearby. He slowed his pace so they could ride alongside each other.

"What doesn't?" said Harry, honestly confused as to what his friend could be talking about.

Draco looked him straight in the face, grey eyes wide and earnest. "That Frog Prince looking like you," he blurted out, "it means nothing."

Harry blinked. Then, belatedly, he rushed out an "Oh. Yeah, I agree!" feeling the tips of his ears redden either from the wind or this silly conversation they were having while two hundred feet in the air.

Draco chewed his lip and peeked at Harry uncertainly. "I do fancy Professor Snape though."

Harry slowed his broom to a full stop. What?

They hovered in the sky, facing each other, as Draco tried to justify himself. "He is quite young for a teacher," Draco said, "he's younger than my dad by about fifty years."

Harry still did not think this was okay. He told his friend so.

Draco shrugged. "My mom is like twenty years younger than my dad. It's fairly usual in the Wizarding World, especially among Pure-blood families. Professor Snape is only nineteen years older than us."

Harry pointed out that Snape was not Pure-blood, and very much their teacher. No way in Hell could anything happen between them, and it shouldn't. That would be direct abuse of power. Draco slumped his shoulders with a dejected pout. He knew that, he said, but it didn't stop him from fantasizing about Snape late at night... and, in class...

"Eww!" Harry covered his face with his hands, "did you have to put that mental image in my head?"

"You're the only one I can talk to," Draco admitted, staring down at the ground far below them.

"I get that," Harry scowled, "but Snape? Why Snape? We've got Aurora Sinistra for Astronomy. She's gorgeous, and silhouetted against the stars at night, what could be more romantic than that?" he went on. "Why couldn't you fall for someone like her?"

"Well for one thing, she's a woman," Draco pointed out.

"Fair enough," Harry grumbled.

"And Severus is rather handsome."

Harry groaned. "Don't call him Severus!"

Draco chuckled, "I suppose you wouldn't see him that way," he tilted his head, "being his son and all."

Harry raised an eyebrow at him. "Snape is not my dad."

"You sure about that?"

Harry glared at his friend. "Pretty sure I'm in no way related to the Dungeon Bat."

"The man in the picture you showed me looks nothing like you, Harry, while your resemblance to our Potions professor is uncanny."

"What are you even trying to say? My parents loved each other, have you seen the way they looked at one another in the photo?" Harry was furious. How dare Draco suggest something like that of his dead parents?

Draco's expression had turned serious. "Harry, they look fifteen years old in that picture, sixteen, tops. Lots of people don't end up with the ones they dated in school, doesn't mean they weren't in love."

Harry frowned at this new information. "Did your parents date anyone when they were at Hogwarts?" he decided to ask.

Draco shook his head. "My parents didn't go to Hogwarts. Father attended Durmstrang, back when it was boys only, and mother went to Beauxbatons. Though this one time I overheard my aunt mention mother being in a coven with two other witches from school," he shrugged, "don't know if that counts?"

Harry stared at him. "A coven?"

"Yeah... it's like this... intense relationship between three people, combines their energies and makes their magic stronger? The rituals can get a little ...erotic in nature," Draco looked away, no doubt embarrassed to be talking about this.

Harry sensed a change of topic was due. "Snape couldn't be my dad," he said, staring out over the Great Lake, "the man totally hates me."

Draco flew closer so they hovered side by side in the sky.

"He doesn't hate you," Draco said, "he just expects a lot of you."

On their way back to the broom shed, Harry thought over what Draco had said. If his friend's clumsily thought up conspiracy theory was indeed true, he wondered how Snape had failed to say "Hello Son," and why Harry had been sent off to live with distant Muggle relations.

Draco looked cheerful though, he seemed to be smiling in relief. His back was noticeably straighter than when they'd started today's flight exercise, and after performing another unnecessary loop in the sky, his wand randomly jerked from its holster up his sleeve. Draco dove down, catching his wand mid-air, then laughed self-consciously as triumphant violin music filled the air around them.

"Is this... your wand's doing?" Harry asked him.

The music was wonderful, tender as a woman's voice, stroking the high notes as though the violin had a soul, and was pouring its heart out to them.

"It is," Draco admitted, offering him a small smile with pink-tinged cheeks.

Harry smiled back. "I've never heard anything more beautiful in my life," he said truthfully.

"Umm I... left my violin at home, but... can play for you if you visit."

Oh. Was he being invited to Malfoy Manor now? Harry grinned, "I'll take you up on that offer."

The music reached a stunning crescendo, resonating with the beat of Harry's heart, before dissolving as they dismounted from their brooms. In the broom shed they took off their helmets, removed elbow and shin pads, and placed the brooms back on their wall hooks. Draco's movements seemed a lot lighter than before, like he could fly away if he chose to. He was first to head out, and Harry was close behind him when another boy appeared at the door.

Harry stepped aside to let the new boy enter. He was considerably taller than Harry, had to be an Older Year, clad in a black and yellow riding uniform, the Hufflepuff Quidditch Team uniform, Harry realized with a start. The name 'Diggory' was embroidered in gold thread above the Hufflepuff crest on his breast pocket. When he saw Diggory look upon him with interest, Harry knew he was in trouble. Had he taken teasing of Hufflepuffs too far? So they sent a formidable representative of their House to have a word with him? Beads of sweat trickled down Harry's back. What else could Diggory possibly want?

"Why do you hang out with Malfoy," said Diggory with a curved smile, "even among Slytherins, he's like the most pathetic of the bunch."

In shocked silence Harry stared up at the older boy.

Seeing the stunned look on Harry's face, Diggory ploughed on. "Sorry, I thought it fair to save you from committing social suicide," Diggory batted his long girly eyelashes. "Or do you hope to make yourself look better by contrast?"

That was it, Harry would not let this slide. Narrowing his eyes he scowled at the Older Year, and hissed with a low growl: "What are you talking about?"

"Heard he can't even handle his own wand," Diggory bit back a laugh, not in the least bit intimidated by Harry. "Their whole family is laughable: his dad wished to become Minister for Magic so bad he ran an aggressive ad campaign over the summer," Diggory chuckled into his fist, "but nobody voted for him! Malfoy got a grand total of zero votes, lowest number in history. Some even voted against Lucius Malfoy, but their votes could not be counted as they had not in fact picked any of the available candidates. Boy, Rita Skeeter had a field day with that one."

With a deep frown Harry tried to recall reading any of this in the papers at McGonagall's, then again, he tended to avoid the political section altogether. There weren't many interesting moving pictures in that segment, the reports on Quidditch looked a lot more appealing.

"Lucius Malfoy has been bitter about it ever since Arthur Weasley got elected instead, and his son projects all that anger on poor little Ron, youngest of the Weasley brothers." Diggory shook his head with a smile. "Kind of feel sorry for Malfoy, having Lucius as a role model, but still... guy has issues."

Harry had heard enough; he pushed past Diggory, on his way out he hissed through his teeth, "we've all got issues."

Herbology found Harry with a dreadful headache. He wondered why nothing in his life could ever go right when a poisonous Spiky Bush slashed into Vincent's bare arm just below his rolled up sleeve, drawing blood, and forcing Professor Sprout to suspend the lesson and bustle off to the infirmary with Vincent's large clunky body levitating behind her in a stretcher position. Professor Sprout left them alone in the greenhouse, a class of Gryffindor and Slytherin First Years, unattended, which was never a good idea. Harry thought he spotted a couple of Second Year students among the Gryffindors, that must be retaking a class they failed last year. Who failed Herbology? They were either dumb or lazy to the extreme.

Harry overheard Longbottom, the fat boy he'd met on King's Cross Station one month prior and that had been sorted into Gryffindor, talk to a short scruffy looking kid with sandy colored hair. Longbottom seemed taken by the great selection of yams grown on the Hogwarts grounds. He gave a detailed explanation of the many differences between yams and sweet potatoes.

Blaise, Pansy and Greg shared a conspiratory look.

Smirking, Harry nodded their way and sidled up to Longbottom. "Careful there Neville," said Harry, teasingly poking him in the chest, "people might think you're trying to live up to the name Longbottom. On a steady diet of fash and chips you'd really cultivate those impressive man boobs."

His Slytherin classmates burst into hysterical laughter behind Harry, and he had the perfect view of Longbottom's reddening face. Harry smirked, holding back his own chuckles though he was dying from laughter inside, and watched Longbottom try and fail at forming one cohesive sentence. That was when a cloud of bushy brown hair swept into his field of view, and Granger placed herself between them, hands on her hips.

"I dare you to say that again," Granger said, glaring daggers at Harry, her eyes wide with barely restrained rage, nostrils flared in anger.

Harry offered her a cheeky grin. "Which part? I do recall saying a number of things."

Draco muffled his laughter with his hand. Harry shared a look with him, all smiles.

The fist connected with Harry's nose before it registered that Hermione had swung her arm to hit him. And he toppled backwards, then he was falling, falling back with flailing arms braced for impact with the cold concrete floor as soft light filtered in through glass walls. His face hurt, his arms hurt, his pride hurt as he lay face up on the greenhouse floor, staring at his Muggle-born assailant.

Something hot and wet trickled down his upper lip. Harry tasted blood on his tongue.

Granger loomed over him, hands back on her hips and face twisted in a scowl. "You can punch your fellow Snakes all you like," she said, "but you can't go around bullying people from other Houses. I won't allow it."

What? Harry blinked up at her. Word on the street was he bullied kids in his own House? He had never punched anyone in his life!

Hermione tutted her lips. "Why don't you take on someone your own size?"

Technically speaking Longbottom was considerably taller and larger than Harry... but he supposed she hadn't meant it literally. Then, without missing a beat, Granger boldly said:

"Duel me."

A chorus of gasps and hushed whispers spread through the greenhouse. Harry hadn't dueled anyone before, and his wand was in no condition to perform standard school spells, let alone fight. Under any other circumstances he would have turned down the challenge, but Hermione was a girl. He couldn't say "No" to a bloody girl with the whole class watching, he couldn't let them think he was scared of fighting her, although he was.

Greg helped him sit up and Draco offered him his white hankie. When Professor Sprout returned she noticed Harry's apparently spontaneous nosebleed, but did not draw attention to it and the lesson carried on as usual.


 

Author's Note:

No, Severus Snape is not Draco's godfather in this story! XD And Sirius Black is not Harry's godfather. The concept of godparents doesn't exist in the Wizarding World (in this story). Wizards don't follow Christianity and do not get baptised. XD... LMFAO!

 

 

Chapter Text

Call me daylight
that I am
alone and sullen
tender,
strong

Call me whatever
the hell you
like
I will prove you
wrong

~ April by Kaiva Koenig

 

 


 

It was agreed upon that Harry and Hermione's duel would take place on the following weekend, the weekend before exam week. They met up in the Sundial Garden early Sunday morning, a group of Slytherin and Gryffindor First Years, among whom besides the duelists were Ron Weasley, Neville Longbottom, Longbottom's sandy haired friend whose name Harry did not know, Pansy Parkinson, Daphne Greengrass, Blaise Zabini, Maverick Savage, Nestor Flint, Greg Goyle, Damien Shafiq, Vincent Crabbe and Draco Malfoy, along with identical twin brothers Fred and George Weasley who were to be the arbiters for this duel. Greg's fingers drummed eagerly on the magical camera hanging from his neck, he wouldn't miss this for the world.

No pressure or anything, Harry snidely thought to himself. It wasn't like half his House was watching, and whatever the outcome of today's match, it would spread through Hogwarts gossip channels like wildfire, and by tonight surely the whole school would know about his win or loss to Granger. He sighed, casting his eyes at the Heavens, what had he gotten himself into?

They walked up a steep pathway that led to a rocky green hillside behind the school. From up here Harry could see Hagrid's hut. It would be a good day, the sun was just rising behind a thin veil of yellow tinged clouds, but this high up the wind was a lot stronger than it had been around the Castle and by the lake, blowing unruly strands of hair in his eyes. Hermione's hair billowed in the wind, like a menacing lion's mane over her shoulders. She narrowed her eyes at Harry, drawing her wand.

Teachers would not bother them here, the Weasley twins said. This was an ancient duelling arena, the go-to spot for duelists throughout centuries. Whenever Hogwarts students had something to settle, they met up here, usually accompanied by an Older Year to oversee their fight. The teachers knew about it, but sort of turned a blind eye ...unless things really got out of hand, which rarely happened.

Harry drew a deep breath and brandished his own wand, crouching on top of a large stone, ready to leap to safety at a moment's notice. He didn't know any duelling spells, his wand was not capable of performing school spells on his first command, so his only hope of winning this duel was to evade everything Granger threw at him, and hit back with a lucky shot of his own. The Weasley twins fired two crackling sparks into the sky, starting off the match.

Hermione swiped her wand at Harry with the words "Diffindo" on her lips. A blast of pink magic coursed from the tip of her wand, and Harry jumped.

He landed on soft grass a yard away. The stone he'd been standing on had split in two. Harry gulped; just how safe were these duels?

Another Diffindo was leveled at him, this time Harry knew to run while Hermione took aim, confusing her and avoiding getting hit by the blast. What was she trying to do? Tear him to pieces?

Harry huffed, taking refuge behind a sturdy looking boulder. If he'd known Gryffindors were so sensitive to witty banter, he would have kept his thoughts about Longbottom's bottom to himself.

"Wingardium Leviosa!"

Before he knew it the boulder he'd been hiding behind was flying ten feet above his head. Granger skidded down the hillside, coming at him with her wand raised, frizzy brown hair flapping about her face.

Harry ran. He saw a stream up ahead, maybe if he could cross it in time... but Hermione's unexpected "Flipendo" hit him in the back, and Harry tumbled over, falling face down to the ground.

He broke his fall with his hands, wand securely fixed in the holster up his sleeve. Harry coughed, winced in pain from his bruised knees, and peered over his shoulder through narrowed eyes.

"Not bad," Hermione said, dusting off her robes, "you're quite athletic for your scrawny build."

She did not lower her wand. Harry's eyes darted around for clues, anything in the vicinity he could use to his advantage, as the Gryffindor approached with feather light steps. Harry rose to his feet, pointing his wand at his dueling partner as he turned to face her. This made Hermione pause. They stared each other down as the wind passed between them, both wearing determined scowls on their faces.

Harry jabbed his wand in the air between them. "Petrificus Totalus!"

But nothing happened.

He stared at his own wand in horror. "Petrificus Totalus," he said again, more urgently this time, pointing his wand at Hermione.

She laughed. As did a number of other Gryffindorks, like Neville Longbottom who was clutching his sides and cackling like a hyena. For some reason Ron Weasley did not find Harry's failure to perform a simple Defense spell very funny. Though he didn't seem all too bothered for Harry's safety either; Ron stood on top of the hill examining his fingernails and looking over at the Castle every now and then, like he would rather be anywhere but here.

Greg was delightedly snapping pictures with his magical photo camera. Harry groaned.

What was the point of moving pictures when both he and Granger kept standing still? A thought struck him, followed by another. Harry lurched forward, running up the hill toward his opponent.

Hermione had not seen that coming. She took a step back, wand protectively raised, with a knockback jinx on her lip. She blinked in surprise when Harry ran past her, up the hillside, hopping from stone to stone on his way to the assembled crowd. Harry grinned wickedly. If she wanted to hit him, she'd have to go through the audience.

Harry squeezed between a flabbergasted Longbottom and a confused Ron Weasley. He caught his breath and waited for Hermione on the other side. Panting heavily, he examined the thorny stick in his hand, now noticing the spots of blood from earlier when he'd used his hands to break his fall. Some of his blood had soaked into the wood.

Twisting his lip in mad frustration, Harry attempted to rub the blood off his wand using a corner of his robes. But no matter how furiously the wiped his bloody stick, the blood would not come off.

He only succeeded in staining his school robes with blood and getting even more blood stains onto his wand by the time Hermione reappeared on top of the hill, her head tilted to the side and an amused smirk on her lips.

"You fight like a Slytherin," she said.

Was that supposed to be an insult? Harry glared at her. She still had the advantage of standing higher up than him, and there was nowhere left to run. Harry was cornered; to his right lay a thicket of thorny bushes, to his left lay the path to the Sundial Garden, and he had his back to the school.

Hermione aimed her wand. "Now, will you surrender like a Slytherin, I wonder."

This better work, thought Harry, defiantly pointing his wand at Granger. Through clenched teeth he hissed "Fumos."

Both duelists gasped in petrified surprise as Harry's wand reacted instantly, shrouding the arena in a thick cloud of smoke.

Harry beheld his own wand in awe. So you are capable of magic, he thought, stroking the wood with appreciation. Well if he could conjure up a defensive smokescreen, what else could he do? A wicked smirk twisted Harry's lip.

He couldn't see Granger or any of the spectators through the smoke, but he supposed their audience was smart enough to back away. And otherwise the arbiters would take care of them, they were here to keep everyone safe, after all. With a toothy smile Harry unleashed the most powerful magic he knew.

"Verdimillious Duo," he whispered, keeping his voice low so as not to disclose his exact location, and waving his wand in a circle over his head.

A crackle of bright green sparks lit up the smoke around, striking at everything in the nearest vicinity.

He heard loud shrieks and shouts, followed by foul cussing, the mention of Merlin's most baggy Y fronts, and two older voices bellowing "Protego!" over the general hubbub. Harry filed that spell away for later examination, he could use a good shielding charm. With the number of offensive spells taught in First Year textbooks, Harry was surprised they didn't study 'Protego' sooner.

Hermione's voice yelling "Spongify!" off to his left told Harry exactly where she was.

He found her laying prone on a strangely soft looking rock... Hermione rolled over to face him, clutching her wand in a feverish grip. Her eyes wild with shock, her hair was a good deal more unruly than usual, it seemed she had either jumped to get away from his green sparks, or the blast itself had flung her into the sky. Harry almost felt sorry for her when he aimed his wand and muttered "Petrificus Totalus," making her arms snap to her sides and her legs snap together, dropping her wand in the process.

He picked up Hermione's wand and went to hand it over to the arbiters, as he'd seen Ron do in his duel with Draco.

The smoke had cleared, and atop the hill he found two flabbergasted Weasley twins, gawking at him like he had just walked on water. Harry cocked his head in question, holding out Hermione's wand with the hilt facing them.

"Harry wins," either Fred or George Weasley said uncertainly, taking Hermione's wand from him.

No sooner were those words said than Blaise clapped Harry on the shoulder, hollering "Bro! You had us all fooled."

Harry blinked; he had not intended to fool anyone, but Blaise was laughing joyously, and more of his Housemates joined him, clapping Harry on the back and commending his cunning.

"You sneaky bastard," Pansy crowed fondly, ruffling Harry's messy hair.

Harry just stared, wondering what he could possibly have done to deceive them. As far as he knew, he had been forthright and open about everything. He hadn't broken any duelling rules he was aware of, and it seemed the arbiters agreed... they didn't question his victory.

"You could have told me, you know," Draco said on their way back to school as they left a stunned looking Hermione and a frowning Ron behind, "I wouldn't have snitched on you."

Harry raised an eyebrow. "What exactly would you have me tell you?"

"Don't play dumb," Draco pouted. "You knew your wand worked just fine, you were pretending to suck at schoolwork all this time so the teachers would go easy on you and assign less homework."

Harry stopped dead in his tracks. "What?"

"You needn't have lied to me. I would've helped you out at Potions regardless, I don't mind," said Draco. His eyes were wide open and honest, like he believed every word he said. "I like the subject, and... well you helped me out, least I can do is return the favor."

"What... no," Harry shook his head, "you don't understand, I didn't lie." He gestured with his hands, trying to get the point across. "Something must've happened during the duel, I don't know, one moment my wand was being an obstinate piece of shit, and the next... I could suddenly do the spells I had been reading about all summer."

A pensive look crossed Draco's face. The other Slytherin First Years had already reached the Castle, with Greg running up ahead, no doubt eager to develop and pass around the photos he'd taken, while Harry and Draco stayed back, on the path leading to the Sundial Garden. The sun had finally risen in all its glory, and lighted up strands of Draco's blond hair in a golden halo around his head.

"I'm sorry for presuming," Draco said at length, looking Harry straight in the face. "Do you think this was what Professor Flitwick meant when he said Blackthorn wands need to pass through hardship or danger with their owners to become truly bonded?"

Harry didn't know what to think. He told his friend so, and with heavy sighs they walked on, while Draco speculated on what this could mean for the foreseeable future. They were greeted to cheers in the Dungeon. A few Older Years treated them to a fizzy green soda flavored with dragon herb and master of the woods, which was perfect for Harry's parched throat. Everyone in the Slytherin Common Room was convinced Harry had bamboozled them all, despite Harry's many protests to the contrary, and they expressed pride in their fellow Snake's craftiness. So eventually he just gave up correcting them, and enjoyed the party.

Their Head of House Professor Snape dropped by once, wrinkled his nose at them in faint disgust, reminded the Prefects they were supposed to be getting ready for tomorrow's exam, and left in a flurry of black, his robes fluttering behind him as he strode off.

Harry thanked his lucky stars he was not related to that morose man, and went back to having a good time with his friends. Hours later Greg emerged from whatever dark room he'd been developing the photos in, and showed them surprisingly accurate shots of lingering smoke and smashing green sparks. Harry had not known moving pictures came in color; all newspapers McGonagall subscribed to were black and white.

At dinner in the Great Hall he felt eyes follow him the moment he walked in; news had spread, and it had spread fast. Harry smiled awkwardly at Professor McGonagall, who fixed him with a long calculating look, as though she were trying to figure out if the rumors were true just by staring at his face. Presumably satisfied with what she had found in his expression, she returned Harry's nervous smile with a secretive one of her own, and resumed her dinner.

While the Slytherin table looked very pleased with him indeed, Harry spotted a number of Hufflepuffs, mostly Older Years, who narrowed their eyes at him as though he had done something unspeakable. Among them was Diggory, the Hufflepuff Quidditch Team Seeker, who frowned at Harry disapprovingly. As much as Harry enjoyed his victory on Granger and being accepted by his friends, it hurt more than a little that the whole school had so little faith in him. His own House thought him a liar, and a good one at that. Harry dreaded to think what the other Houses thought of him.

Dozens of curious eyes peered at him from the Ravenclaw table, along with a rabbity boy of his own age, presumably another First Year, although with those geeky Ravenclaws one could never be too sure. Harry had been told skipping a grade was far more common in House Ravenclaw, and even without that, most Ravenclaws looked young for their age since they barely exercised, followed unsteady diets and often went without sleep, choosing to spend all their time studying... 'for fun', which left them with frail childlike bodies and weak muscles, while their heads ballooned in size. That was the story that went around Slytherin Dungeon, anyhow. Harry had hardly had enough time to get to know any Ravenclaws in his Year.

When they were all done eating, Headmaster Dumbledore held a long formal speech, wishing them good luck with next week's examinations. With a twinkle in his eye he looked at Harry as he warned them all not to cheat. Any student caught cheating would be dealt with harshly, with methods ranging from temporary suspension to getting permanently expelled from Hogwarts, so it was simply not worth the risk to try.

Blaise elbowed Harry under the table, "if they get caught," he said in a low voice close to Harry's ear.

Harry schooled his face to studious attention and kept his eyes trained on Dumbledore, whose gaze had shifted to another student. Next the Headmaster detailed what would follow in the week after exams, that they'd be permitted to leave school premises if they wished to see their families in the days leading up to Samhain, and how they could safely do so using the main fireplace by the Entrance Hall. Hogwarts would host celebrations on the thirty-first, and if students wished to help prepare the Castle for the feast, they could contact Professor Sinistra.

That was that, and they were sent back to their quarters. Harry did not feel a smidgeon of surprise when he was woken in the middle of the night by Blaise's hand on his back. Greg and Draco stood by the door, both dressed in dark robes, with their hoods down.

Harry groggily got out of bed, dressed in the darkest robes he owned, a dull forest green, and followed the others to the Common Room, where a single levitating candle still burned, making leather sofas cast large shadows on the walls. Vincent and Pansy were waiting for them there.

"Hurry," Pansy hissed, "we've still got to study the questions after we find them."

"Sssshhhhhh," Blaise pressed a finger to his lips. "The whole Common Room doesn't need to know."

Pansy turned her face away, "sorry," she mumbled, biting her lip.

They left the Dungeon on tip toe, passing through the stone wall without making a sound. All written exams were stored in the Headmaster's office prior to examination, Pansy had learned one afternoon sipping tea with Professor Babbling, who taught Ancient Runes to Third Years and up and who loved to talk. Sniggering, Pansy had remarked that the Witch must be enamoured by the sound of her own voice.

The tests were sealed, of course, and it was no simple feat getting inside the Headmaster's office without him knowing, but they managed to fool the portrait into letting them through, using a neat little trick Greg called 'my Dad voice'. Greg knew how to make his voice sound a few pitches lower, and commanded the portrait to let him through in a tone that might have sounded like Professor Dumbledore, if the man was cross-eyed drunk.

The portrait grumbled about his oncoming dementia, and that he should drink less when out with the boys, if he came back to work too besotted to remember his own password. Blaise and Harry covered their mouths to stifle a giggle. Pansy looked about the room, anxiously clutching her wand, while Vincent calmly walked up to the desk drawer, and examined the locks on it. Draco remained out in the hall, to keep watch.

"Has she told you anything about the seals," Greg asked, "anything at all?"

Pansy pursed her lip. "Well..." she tilted her head to the side as she studied the locked desk drawer by faint moonlight, "we can't use magic to break them as then the Headmaster will know it was us."

Vincent stepped away from the desk, hands shaking in fear.

"But," Pansy continued, approaching the desk, eyes narrowed in concentration, "he does not expect us to mug his office the Muggle way."

Pansy reached inside her robes and drew forth a set of ugly looking keys, all thin and wiry... they looked more like hooked metal sticks. She handed the key chain to Vincent.

"Try these," she said, "don't get your fingerprints on the desk."

It took Vincent seventeen tries with as many different keys before he got the top drawer open. Blaise put on a thin pair of smooth leather gloves, and withdrew a roll of parchment from the drawer. The scroll had been sealed by dark red wax stamped with the Hogwarts coat of arms. They all huddled around Blaise who held the scroll at an arm's length.

"Now what?" Blaise muttered, frowning at the stamped seal.

Greg tutted. "Give me a candle," he held out his hand.

"No magic," Pansy warned.

"Yeah yeah," Greg rolled his eyes, "Harry, can you run down the kitchens and pick up a candle? They're bound to have some non magical ones."

Harry nodded. By the time he got back, the scroll had been laid on the floor, and Greg was wearing Blaise's leather gloves when he instructed the portrait to let Harry in.

"Here," Harry handed him the candle, along with a matchbox.

Greg knelt on the floor, and using the candle to melt the wax, slowly with a flat pocket knife, pried the seal off the parchment, not touching the Hogwarts coat of arms.

"You're so good at this," Pansy remarked with a hint of surprise.

Greg winked at her, "years of practice opening my brother's mail. I knew he had a girlfriend before he did."

They spent the following hour opening more scrolls, studying their contents, taking notes, and putting their heads together to solve the given tasks.

"We need more time," Blaise finally concluded.

Everyone nodded in agreement, but they knew they could not remain here for long without getting discovered, and that chances were slim they could successfully break in again, better not to push their luck.

"Greg should copy the questions," Harry said before anyone could think it. "Your handwriting is the neatest, and you write faster than us all," he told Greg, "if I tried to pen these questions down, we'd end up with an ink smeared mess."

Greg smiled, "hand me a quill."

Half an hour of furious writing later, Greg carefully re-sealed all open scrolls, while Pansy placed them back in the order in which they'd found them. Vincent locked the drawer, wiping sweat off his brow. They now had questions to Transfiguration, Charms, History of Magic, Astronomy and Potions, and five hours left before the first exam, which was Charms, to prepare. DADA would not have a written exam, it seemed, like Herbology and Broom Flight Class.

They all tiptoed down to the Dungeon undetected. Blaise and Pansy scurried off to an empty classroom, with the promise of solving the remaining questions, while the rest of them went back to bed. Greg fell asleep the moment his head hit the pillow, his snores filled their dorm with a pleasant, peaceful sort of rhythm. Harry was not so lucky, he lay awake in bed, staring at the ceiling in the dark, thinking of the many ways their scheme could go wrong.

"Hey," he heard Draco's voice from below, "you sleeping?"

"No," Harry whispered back.

There was a groan. "Me neither," Draco whined, like it needed to be said. "I really hope no one catches wind of this. My mom and dad will kill me if I get expelled."

Harry hummed non-committedly, by now he knew Draco could get quite dramatic at times. A thought occurred to him.

"Look on the bright side," Harry said, "if your wand gets snapped in two, you'll get the chance to buy a new one, hopefully one that's not made of Hazel,"

Draco laughed. Greg stirred, then went back to snoring. Harry finished his sentence in a lower voice:

"and you might get sent to Durmstrang, like you've always wanted, or Ilvermorny..."

"Yeah..." Draco whispered back dreamily. "Have I told you they actually teach the Dark Arts starting from First Year at Durmstrang Institute?"

"Only about a million times."

Draco chuckled in the darkness. At some point they must've fallen asleep, for Harry woke to a well-lit bedroom, with Greg and Draco sitting on Greg's bed, going over the Charms exam questions Blaise had stayed up all night solving. One quick look at the other top bunk confirmed his conjecture: Blaise lay flat on his back, fully dressed in his school robes on top of the bed sheets, sleeping like a log.

Harry quietly clambered out of bed. When his feet hit the floor, Draco and Greg looked up.

"Quick," Greg hissed in a low voice, "we've got less than an hour before the exam," and motioned for Harry to sit on the other side of him, letting him read through the scroll he was holding.

"Couldn't you wake me up earlier?" Harry grumbled, wiping the sleep off his face.

Draco shrugged. "Greg wanted to, but you were sleeping so soundly..."

Harry shot him a chilling glare that shut Draco right up, put on his reading glasses and stuck his nose into the scroll. Exactly half an hour later Blaise woke up without a sound or needing anyone to wake him. He climbed down the ladder attached to Greg's bed, and with an air of someone who was well rested, said:

"Well then gents, let's head out. Don't want Professor Flip-dy-wigg to substract points for tardiness, do we?"

Harry yanked the answer sheet out of Greg's grasp. "Wait a second, just this last question."

Blaise smirked, drawing his wand. "Accio scroll."

"Oi!" Harry yelled as the scroll slipped from him and floated into Blaise's waiting hand.

"You're smart enough to solve the final task on your own," Blaise winked, tapping his wand to the cheat sheet. "Incendio." The scroll burst into flame, falling in ashes to his feet.

Harry shot Blaise a murderous look.

Blaise only laughed. "I'll give you a hint," he said as they walked up winding stairs to their Charms classroom, "think of that practical lesson when we had to make a pineapple dance across the desk, but instead of acting like your wand didn't work, imagine actually doing it."

Harry's expression soured. Why was everyone still giving him a hard time over his wand?

The Charms classroom had been magically enlarged to fit all First Year students so they could take the test together, at the same time, negating the need for different versions of the exam. Pansy figured Flitwick was just lazy, one version would make grading a lot easier after all, but she said she couldn't blame him, since it also made cheating easy. She winked at Harry as they took their seats.

To keep them from cheating, privacy charms had been cast over each desk, so although Harry could see Pansy's paper from where he sat, he could not quite tell what it said. Though he relaxed when he read his own paper and instantly recognized both the answer to the first question and its deduction.

Needless to say the exam went by in a breeze. He hurtled through each question down to the very last, the one he hadn't been given answers to. That was the only one he had difficulty with... Blaise had said something about dancing pineapples, though what that had to do with concealing a Mooncalf among a Muggle farmer's herd of cows, Harry could neither tell nor guess. If only he'd been given more time to read the cheat sheet...

Harry glowered enviously at Draco, who had already handed in his test, and was looking around with a bored expression.

'Sleeping so soundly' my ass. Though Harry supposed this was payback for the resentment Draco surely still felt over how poorly Harry had treated him last week. Harry grumbled, chewing on his quill. There was no other way around it, he'd have to pull himself together and use his head to solve this puzzle.

Then it clicked. Of course! Why hadn't he thought of that sooner? When performing a disillusionment charm, your wand trilled the same way it did as when you made pineapples dance. Harry quickly penned down his answer, finishing with a flourish of his quill that spread far too much ink over his parchment but he didn't give a flying pegasus, just as Professor Flitwick told them to put their quills down.

With a relieved sigh he met Blaise in the hallway. "Nailed it," Harry announced, high-fiving his friend.

Blaise grinned. "Knew you'd get that."

Vincent clucked his tongue; he had forgotten the right answer to the fourth question halfway through, though for some reason he had remembered all following questions, including the very last one about that Mooncalf. From a distance Harry saw Hermione comfortingly pat Neville's back while the taller boy was hunched over, hiding his face away in shame. Ron and his mates were loudly talking about the coming Hogwarts Quidditch game, without a care in the world. It would be Hufflepuff versus Slytherin, Harry overheard, and Ron was definitely a hundred percent sure Slytherin didn't stand a chance against Hufflepuff now they had Cedric Diggory as Seeker.

Harry thought about going to the game... he hadn't purchased tickets yet, though there was plenty of time. The game wouldn't start until after Samhain. If he did end up going, this would be the first game of Quidditch Harry would ever see, live, in person.

Yeah, definitely, he would go. Harry made a mental note to purchase tickets that afternoon, before all the good ones got sold out.

The rest of the week went by in a blur; Harry felt great relief that none of the teachers had discovered their cheating, the questions looked familiar since he'd seen them all before. Herbology was easy, it only consisted of telling apart useful herbs from weeds, and Flying went unbelievably well, considering Madam Hooch gave him and Draco a more advanced and complicated version of the exam. They were to fly fast laps around the Quidditch pitch, where Draco proved to be a faster and more agile flyer than Harry. Then Madam Hooch gave a shrill blow of her whistle, and made them fly through an obstacle course, one by one. Draco went first, and Harry watched him weave through the maze, only losing his balance once.

Harry went in right after Draco finished, and scored higher on that part of the exam, showing mastery over making quick turns on a broom, maintaining his balance throughout. Madam Hooch assessed them both critically once they had landed, and instructed them to fly in a rolling motion, making a full rotation in the sky without going off course. Speed was of no importance.

Draco shared a nervous look with Harry. They had done the Rolling move in practice of course, but not made any serious attempt to prepare this move for class. Their practice sessions had mostly been them goofing off in the sky, just having fun.

Swallowing anxiety that crept up his throat, Harry lifted off. Once he'd gained enough speed he swerved off to the right, keeping both hands firm on the broom handle. He let his body slowly fall, as Madam Hooch had instructed weeks ago when they'd been taught this move, feeling his stomach drop as he hung upside down, clinging to the broom for dear life. The feeling passed when he went full circle, and let out a shuddering breath as he returned to upright position.

"Brilliant work Potter!" the teacher called out, penning something down on her clipboard. "Malfoy, you're up next."

Harry felt unsteady on his feet as he dismounted from the broom, and watched Draco go through the same ordeal he just had.

Madam Hooch assured them both they would feel a lot more comfortable performing this move with enough practice, and they had done reasonably well, seeing as the Rolling move was part of Third Year exams. Harry blinked at her, then broke out in a massive shit-eating grin. Madam Hooch grinned back, and told them they could leave, after informing them they could both register with the Quidditch Team Captain of their House. With their talent for flying, they would be an asset on any Team, and should consider going for Quidditch tryouts next year.

Draco looked uncharacteristically glum on their way back to the Dungeon. Which led Harry to pull him aside in one abandoned underground hallway and ask him what was the matter.

"I'd love to join the House Quidditch Team," Draco whispered at the floor, "but Father would never let me."

Harry frowned, wondering what that had to do with anything.

Draco bit his lip, twisting the sleeves of his riding uniform between his fingers. "Father calls Quidditch a vulgar sport for the plebs, not an activity someone of proper upbringing would engage in. I... I can't join the Quidditch team, even though I'd love to. My father... Father would not approve of that."

Harry stared at Draco as though he'd just been told apples grew on the moon.

"Then..." said Harry, eyebrows raised for the solution seemed obvious, "then just... don't tell him."

Draco whipped his head up and gawped at Harry in shock. "Don't tell him?" he repeated.

"Well, ...yeah?" Harry shrugged, "what he doesn't know can't anger him, right? Either way I don't see how it's any of his business. If the school thinks you're good to fly, who cares what your dad thinks."

Draco hung his head with a sigh. "You wouldn't talk like that if your parents were alive."

That small offhand comment hurt Harry more than Draco would ever know. He did apologise profusely for saying it, almost immediately after the words tumbled from his mouth, but Draco's heartfelt apology didn't make his words sting any less, and didn't stop hot tears from spilling into Harry's pillow late that night when he lay on his top bunk facing the wall, unable to escape the vicious circle his thoughts had spiralled to, how he was mother soul alone in this unholy world, how no one cared for him, not really, all they cared for was what he could do for them. In their eyes he was a tool to be used, nothing more than that. A tool to be used, discarded and tossed away when no longer needed.

Less than human, his life held no value at all.

And no matter how he tried convincing himself that didn't matter, he didn't care, that crap like this couldn't hurt him, didn't bother him, wouldn't hurt his feelings, he was stronger than this! Hurt it did. He wept in silence and cleaned his face with a bedsheet when the crying subsided. No one had the right to know. He would take his weakness with him to the grave, he solemnly swore to himself in the pitch black darkness. No one but him would ever witness his pain.

Friday rolled around and all Slytherin First Years assembled outside their Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom, waiting for Madame Melisandre to let them in. Pansy paced in front of the door, filing her nails on her wand. Blaise tried clearing the air with a joke that made Harry laugh, but it went completely over Pansy's head. She grew ever more restless as time went by without a sign Madame Melisandre knew they were here or had any intention of letting them in.

"Maybe we've got the classroom wrong?" Pansy gasped in a panicked voice when ten full minutes had passed.

Vincent knocked on the door. Not a soul answered. Silence stretched on the other side. They exchanged nervous looks. Vincent tried the knob again, but the door was still locked.

With a huffed laugh Blaise claimed this couldn't possibly be the wrong classroom, he'd triple checked this morning. Nestor fished an exam schedule from his robes, and Maverick and Damien read over his shoulder, confirming what Blaise had said.

"Then where's the Red Witch?" said Draco, frowning.

Maverick raised his wand, pointing it at the locked classroom door. "What bollocks, I'm not waiting around for this. Alohomora."

"Wait," Pansy hissed at him, "don't!"

But she was too late, for the door had already begun to creak open.

"Damn it Savage," Pansy hissed in barely restrained anger, "we're not supposed to go in without the teacher."

A pitch dark classroom greeted them, with what seemed to be a dense fog steaming out of it. Daphne hid behind Pansy's back, Greg nibbled on his fingers, Harry gulped. Were they expected to go in there?

Maverick took one bold step forward. "Can't make an omelette without cracking any eggs," he called over his shoulder.

His form disappeared in the blackness. For the longest time Harry heard nothing at all, not even footsteps moving about the classroom. Harry and Nestor exchanged anxious looks. Blaise held out his wand, ready to strike at whatever came out the classroom.

Then they heard the scream.

"My leg, my leg!"

It was Maverick, alright, but they could not discern him past profound foggy blackness. Harry peered inside the classroom and strained his eyes to see, ...nothing. Somewhere deep inside, beyond where the eye could see, Maverick howled out in shock, his screams sounding more frantic by the second.

Greg gave Harry a sidelong glance. "I suggest we stay here and wait for Madame Melisandre," he said, "she'll know what to do."

Daphne glared at Greg with disgust etched onto her pretty face. "You can't be serious," she spat at him, "Maverick's in trouble! We've got to help."

"Why?" Greg wished to know. "Idjit got himself in trouble, shouldn't have went inside a locked DADA classroom, why should I be tasked with saving him?"

"Ugh, boys!" Daphne practically growled at him, before tiptoeing to the open door, squeezing her way past Harry and Blaise to get a better look for herself. She stopped at the doorframe though, her dainty shoes teetering on the edge. Judging by the look on her face she seemed to be warring with the intention of helping out Maverick, and her instinct of self-preservation.

"Hold up," Blaise placed a hand on Daphne's shoulder, making her turn and look at him. "This could be part of the exam," he went on, brows furrowed in deep concentration, "what if Madame Melisandre left some dark creature inside her classroom for us to fight?"

Harry blinked at Blaise, he hadn't thought of this... but it did make a whole lot of sense.

"Since we're First Years, I don't think she would let us take on a creature individually," Pansy added, stepping forward.

"Exactly my thoughts." Blaise nodded with a grin.

Harry smiled. "So it's not cheating if we bring down the monster together," he slammed his fist into his palm for emphasis.

Nestor and Damien cheered. The rest of their Year was warming up to the plan of helping Maverick beat whatever terrified him so. Only Greg hung back with a frown over his nose, lips pursed as though he were holding back something he'd meant to say.

They ran inside the classroom, wands raised. Daphne and Blaise were first, sprinting ahead of the group. A look of blinded ambition gleamed in Blaise's eyes, he seemed awfully keen on getting a good grade for Defense. Harry and Pansy were next to make it through the doorway, closely followed by Nestor, Vincent and Damien. Draco was somewhere in the middle of the throng along with the rest of their Year, save Greg, the only Slytherin who remained standing in the hallway.

Once his eyes adjusted to the lack of light, Harry found his friend Maverick pretty fast. Maverick's foot had sunk into what appeared to be swirling sand that was spread out all over the classroom floor.

"Quicksand," Nestor gasped, tugging at his own leg that was steadily getting sucked into the floor.

Harry blanched, feeling the ground grow soft under his feet. The moment he took a step, sand clamped around his ankles, seeping into and covering his shoes. He took another step and now it felt like his feet were locked in tough concrete, he was effectively trapped, unable to walk away. Glancing around told him the rest of his class was in much the same predicament. Everyone was slowly but surely getting dragged deeper into the floor.

The whole floor was one mess of rippling writhing sand, intent on sucking them in.

"Incendio!" Maverick yelled, wand pointed at the floor.

But his flames were put out by the sand as soon as they had lit.

"Carpe Retractum!" shouted Pansy, aiming her wand at a beam on the ceiling.

A cord of blinding white light burst forth from Pansy's wand to the ceiling. Harry squeezed his eyes shut against the brightness and looked away. He heard a loud squelching sound come from close by, as the cord started tugging Pansy out of the sand. Her face contorted in anguish as she barely held onto her wand, straight strands of dark hair flying into her mouth, getting between her grit teeth. The sand had encased her legs now, reaching beyond her knees.

Daphne's shrill high pitched scream went through the classroom, chilling Harry's blood. She tried ridding her body of the sand, but with every attempt she made to wiggle out, she got dragged in deeper, falling into the treacherous sand.

Pansy lost grip on her wand, which shot straight to the ceiling, extinguishing the cord of light, and fell back into the sand that now encircled her waist. She shared a hopeless look with Harry: without her wand, what was she to do?

"Hold on Pansy, I got you!" Blaise said with a sense of urgency, wading his way through the sand and grappling Pansy securely under the armpit.

Pansy offered him a weak smile.

Blaise pointed his wand at a spot above the door, and said in a cold decisive tone: "Carpe Retractum."

The cord of white light pulled them both across the classroom, legs dangling through the sand. Blaise held onto his wand for dear life, teeth grit in a scowl, while Pansy held onto Blaise, her eyes closed, forehead resting on his shoulder.

They nearly made it to the door.

Harry's heart all but stopped when he saw Greg standing in the doorway. The spell Harry intended to cast at the floor choked in his throat as he watched what Greg did next, too shocked to respond.

"Colloportus," said Greg, just as Pansy and Blaise were inches away from reaching the open door.

Everyone saw the smirk of satisfied superiority on Greg's face as the door banged shut in Blaise and Pansy's face, trapping them all inside.

"Motherfucker!" Blaise cursed, shaking his fist. "Blast it, the bugger locked the door!"

"Unlock it, then," Pansy hissed, trying to grab for Blaise's wand to do it herself.

"Alohomora," said Nestor, flicking his wand in the direction of the exit.

Blaise put all his weight into the door, hitting it with his left shoulder, and getting dragged deeper into the sand. Pansy joined him, hitting the door with her side, pushing hard against it. The sand now came to her ribs.

"It won't budge," Blaise huffed out, "that bugger must've placed a chair in front of it."

Pansy heaved a sigh, wiping sweat off her brow. "Or a ton of bricks. We're not getting out of here," she looked over at Harry, "not through that door."

Maverick twisted his upper body in every which way, but it was no use since his wand hand had gotten stuck beneath the swirling sand. Vincent tried to creep out using upper body strength alone, arms encircled around one leg of a desk. He too got sucked deeper and deeper in the sand that reached up to his chest. Pansy was barely breathing, sand creeping close to her neck, her shirt collar and Slytherin tie the only bit of her clothing Harry could still see. Blaise was keeping her afloat, one hand gripping the doorknob and his wand, knuckles turning white. His face was pulled in a grimace, the sand reached his armpits.

Daphne got swallowed by the sand and went under the floor, blonde ponytails disappearing in a whirl of mud. Pansy choked out a sob, burying her face in Blaise's neck.

That moment Maverick followed, going into the earth. He let out one strangled cry before he vanished: "My gobstones are yours, Nestohh!"

"Maverick!" cried Nestor, reaching for his friend in vain. He was already gone.

Harry gulped, he himself was waist-deep in the muddy sand.

In all the chaos of people hexing the sand every way they could, no one noticed the green sparks that sprang from the tip of Draco's wand and erupted right in front of Harry's nose in a dozen little fireworks. No one noticed but Harry, who turned to face the source of this magic. Draco lay about two yards away from Harry, half buried in sand. He seemed to be soundlessly telling Harry something. Harry frowned, paying more attention to the exact movement of Draco's lips.

"The floor is," Draco seemed to be saying, if Harry read his lips right, "an illusion."

Harry blinked. "What?" he mouthed in return.

Draco showed him a grim smile. "Conquer your fear and it will go away."

That, that was it! Harry frowned, why hadn't he thought of this sooner? Of course a Hogwarts teacher would never let their students die during an exam. What had he been thinking? All previous Defense lessons had been about overcoming fear, for only in darkness do we truly see the light, Harry recalled Madame Melisandre murmur from a deep trance-like state. Her classes had attempted to teach them to embrace their fears, and ...and use them, draw strength from weakness. What better way to test their mastery over themselves than a tricky bind as this one? Harry grit his teeth, and nodded at Draco.

Conquer your fear; that was easier said than done. And Harry saw Draco wasn't doing a very good job at it. His friend had solved the riddle, but failed to perform the task. Sand was steadily creeping up Draco's sides, slow, because he made no move to resist being devoured by the mud, but sure and certain he kept on sinking lower and lower into the floor. Harry bit his lip, he cast a glance at Pansy and Blaise, who were barely staying above the mud, then an idea struck him.

Harry brandished his wand, and cast a spell their way. "Locomotor Pansy's tie," he whispered, making her tie swish back and forth, delivering the message in Morse code. Blaise was sure to see Pansy's tie move, that took care of them both. Next he delivered the same message to Vincent: "Locomotor Vincent's tie."

He hoped they'd got it. Vincent probably hadn't... but anyway, at least someone in their House would pass DADA. Quite frankly this was embarrassing.

Damien sunk right through the floor. Harry wondered where all his drowned Housemates ended up... did this classroom connect to the one directly underneath? Did they all just get spat out of the ceiling? That would be some jolly sight to behold. Well, he supposed he'd find out soon enough, the sand came to his chest, covering his heart. Some grains even slipped inside his robes, under his shirt, tickling his skin.

Blaise and Pansy shot surprised looks Harry's way. They understood. Harry grinned as he saw his friends stop struggling against the mud, and attempt to relax in its hold.

It was a lot like a bath, a steaming mud-bath, Harry thought as he watched the multi colored fog around him, lit up by the various Incendios and jinxes his Housemates threw at it. Now a bright red, then a glowing orange, bright flashes of pink, yellow, pale green, purple and blue lights made the classroom glow all at once in a wonderful rainbow of magic.

It was then that Harry got the odd premonition he was free to move his legs. He tested the hunch, and soon enough was crawling out of the sand on his hands and knees, as though he had willingly let himself be buried inside it by a bunch of preschoolers, and was now choosing to end their game.

His Housemates turned to him in shock, stunned. One girl Harry had never spoken to before demanded to know what he was doing.

Harry just smirked at her. "It won't be much of an exam if I give out all the answers, now won't it?" he winked, twisting his feet out of the suddenly quite solid sandy floor, and standing up, rising to his full height.

He was the first to make it out of the sand! Inwardly, Harry cheered. He turned to look at Draco, who was now neck deep in the sand, with both arms submerged.

Harry sent him a sympathetic smile; he couldn't help Draco conquer his fear, that would defeat the purpose of the exam. But if he could lend him some support in the form of shared misery, he would.

Draco smiled back. The sand went over the edge of his chin. He was falling, falling deeper still. Draco grit his teeth as the sand reached his bottom lip. Harry winced, the sand made quick work of covering Draco's mouth and now threatened to close off his airways.

Pansy crawled out the sand with a huff, quickly followed by Blaise. They dusted off their clothes and walked over to Harry, joining him at the front of the classroom.

The sand buried the tip of Draco's nose.

Harry wondered how he kept breathing; he did look quite pale. The whole thing had gone a lot faster with Daphne and Maverick, even Damien's head had plunged down under the mud in less than a few seconds. Then again, none of them had known to control their panic and just let go. They had all wrestled against the sand, which led them to fall deeper in.

Draco's grey eyes were wide with fear.

'Relax,' Harry frantically thought at him, 'you're stronger than this, it's just sand.' He couldn't bear the thought of Draco failing the test after he had helped him out, it felt so wrong and unfair to Draco, who should have been the first to climb out.

Draco shut his eyes as grains of sand settled on his eyelashes.

'No!'

Harry felt Blaise put a hand on his shoulder, but he couldn't look away from Draco, not now, not when his friend was slowly falling into the sand, sinking lower, not when his friend needed him the most.

"Hey, look!" Blaise chuckled, sounding genuinely happy for someone, "Nestor made it out. Well done man!" in a lower voice Blaise leaned in and whispered softly into Harry's ear, "he must've solved it all on his own. Thank you man, I owe you one, big time."

But Harry didn't care if Nestor passed DADA or if Blaise was eternally grateful to him for passing on the tip. Draco's eyelids were half covered with sand, the tips of his ears still stuck out, but barely. His brows were drawn in a knot.

Harry's stomach twisted in a knot, praying and hoping for Draco to make it. Suddenly Draco's eyebrows went slack. Had he passed out from lack of air? Harry reached out, hand grasping feebly at air, but before he could even take a full step toward his friend, Draco's head resurfaced with a pained gasp that told Harry he'd been holding in his breath this entire time. Draco's arms quickly followed, then he swam out the mud, hoisting himself onto dry sand.

When Draco looked up at Harry, he grinned ear to ear, and there was no doubt in Harry's mind that whatever hurt had passed between them was truly in the past, it lay behind them like water under the bridge.

Harry ran over to Draco and pulled him to his feet, then crushed him in a rough brotherly hug, one he would have given his brother, if he'd ever had one. They laughed, with tears streaking down their cheeks. And soon Nestor and Pansy joined in the hug, jumping up and down in sheer joy.

Blaise clapped Draco on the shoulder, and Harry didn't bother correcting Blaise's earlier assumption that Harry had worked out the clue, and Draco didn't seem to care. They were all just so happy they'd gotten out of a near death experience, even if it wasn't real.

It had felt real, and that was all that mattered.

The rest of their House sunk through the sand. Vincent either hadn't understood the hint, or failed to act on it. Either way, soon enough the lights flickered on, gaslamps hanging over desks lit up all over the classroom, roaring to life. They broke apart and turned to the blackboard, in front of which Madame Melisandre had mysteriously appeared, a curious smile on her black lips. Harry hadn't heard her come in.

"What can I say?" Madame Melisandre spoke, "you are the first to pass my test."

Harry's mouth fell open. House Slytherin was the last of all First Years to take their DADA exam. That meant... that meant!

"House Slytherin has proven itself the best of your Year," said Melisandre, confirming Harry's wild spiralling thoughts.

Pansy squealed in delight, squeezing Harry's hands in her own. Blaise pumped his fist in victory, while Nestor blushed furiously, matching the color of Madame Melisandre's long flowy dress.

"This exam was intended to test how you react under pressure," Madame Melisandre continued, unconcerned with their childish antics. "Defense Against the Dark Arts requires a lot more than simple passive knowledge of the subject. Good reflexes, quick thinking and a resilient mindset is needed to put your learning to practice."

Melisandre conjured a blue flame in the palm of her hand, and caressed it with her other hand, fingers licked by the flames.

"Far from everyone is suited for Defense Against the Dark Arts," she said, staring into her blue fire. "It's not an easy thing to let yourself relax when you know you're in mortal danger. But you must. You cannot face the Dark and fight if you let them scare you. Fear is their greatest weapon against you. I have seen many a Light Wizard lose to their Dark counterparts, simply because they were unwilling to hurt... they feared their spells could kill, and out of fear, out of this misplaced sympathy for their opponent, they held back, and died."

Melisandre's eyes flashed back to them, as though she had forgotten they were still here.

"To conquer the darkness, the first thing you need is conquer the darkness within."

Harry felt a lump form in his throat. Madame Melisandre resumed her speech in a lighter, more matter-of-fact tone.

"All who fell through the floor have failed their first Defense Against the Dark Arts exam, obtaining grade zero, and Mister Goyle gets a grade of negative one, for failing to participate in the exam."

Blaise, Pansy and Draco doubled over in depraved laughter. Harry blinked, he had forgotten all about Greg.

With that said, Madame Melisandre drifted out her classroom, presumably to attend to their less fortunate Housemates. The sand and rising fog vanished before Harry's eyes; they were all standing on a regular stone floor again. In the hours that followed they relaxed in the courtyard, breathing cool fresh air that was such a welcome relief after the trial they'd faced.

Vincent joined them awhile later, all smiles he congratulated them on passing DADA. As far as Harry could tell, Vincent didn't seem aware he had been tipped off, and that was just as well.

They strolled back down to the Dungeon, where Daphne flung herself around Pansy's neck, peppering her with kisses.

Blaise rolled his eyes. "Girls," he groaned before making his dramatic exit out of the Common Room.

Giggling into his hand, Harry followed. He didn't see Greg until much later that day, one hour before lights out, when they were all getting ready for bed.

Blaise refused to speak to Greg or even acknowledge his presence in their shared bedroom, and Harry found Draco doing the same.

"Hi..." Greg mumbled uncertainly, holding his toiletry bag to his chest and looking at Harry.

"Did you have dinner then?" Harry raised an eyebrow, to which Greg dipped his head.

"Nope," he said, staring at his bare feet.

"Might have some Berties Beans left," said Harry, searching through his bag.

"No, no! That's quite alright," Greg squeaked, "I'm not hungry."

Harry held the opened box of Every Flavour Beans out for Greg to take. "You sure?"

"Uh huh." Greg bobbed his head ardently.

"Well... owwkay then," Harry muttered, popping a jellybean into his own mouth. It tasted like poo. Harry spit it out immediately, making the bean land in an ugly splatter on the floor beside Draco's bed, covered in Harry's spittle.

Draco pointed his wand at the floor and cast a cleaning charm, then carried on as though nothing had happened at all. Harry offered him a bean, which Draco took, then Harry offered one to Blaise, and Blaise grabbed a handful of beans, leaving only one inside the box.

Harry ate his last bean in silence. It tasted of wilted bananas.

The following week was no less awkward. Apparently Greg didn't have much of a family to go to, or he wouldn't have spent the nights sleeping in their dorm. Blaise suggested that Greg's home life might be tumultuous, what with his older brother no longer attending Hogwarts but still living at home, there could perhaps be some sibling rivalry hidden in there. The theory that Greg got bullied by his older brother at home made Harry feel bad for him, it was too close to what Harry had experienced himself growing up with the Dursleys. So he tried to be kind to Greg whenever he could, which infuriated both Draco and Blaise, who continued to pretend Greg didn't exist.

They were allowed to leave school premises, of course, and Blaise's mother sent him many owls, asking when she'd be seeing her son again, she was growing quite lonely and worried, what if something had happened to her darling Blaise? But since Harry had nowhere to go for the holidays, as McGonagall was staying at school to help oversee the Samhain feast preparations, his friends had decided to stay also and keep him company.

On the third day Draco invited Harry over to Malfoy Manor for lunch. They flooed to the main fireplace an hour before noon, and spent some time up in Draco's room where he showed Harry his secret collection of Quidditch player cards. The backs of the English National Team cards were checkered glossy red and white with three golden yellow dragons depicted on them, carrying Quidditch balls. Harry shouldn't have been so shocked to find the dragons moved, as did the Quidditch players depicted on the front. Draco said he was made to fly for the English National Quidditch Team, the dragons on the team's emblem were in his name, and one day, he would.

After graduating Hogwarts he wished to travel the world, see all international Quidditch games, work on his flying technique, join the Falmouth Falcons, win the British and Irish League Cup for his team several years in row, and eventually get selected to be Seeker for the English Team. That was the most glamorous position on a Quidditch team, Seekers were traditionally the best flyers on the pitch. Draco enviously stroked the card with Blythe Parkin, current Seeker for England.

Harry reached inside the box of cards and found one colored deep purple and sparkling white, with a red phoenix fluttering fiery wings. That was the German National Quidditch Team, Draco told him, pulling out another card and handing it to Harry. On this card the player was dressed in robes that oddly resembled a dragon's scales, like camouflage. Kosta Fieraru, the card read, was a Chaser for the National Quidditch Team of Transylvania.

Draco had won this card fair and square from Ron Weasley in a game of gobstones half a year ago. One of Ron's elder brothers who had graduated school was now researching dragons in Romania, and brought trinkets back home when he came to visit. Which Harry was surprised to hear; he hadn't known Ron played gobstones... he didn't seem the type. Draco assured Harry that underneath all that Gryffindor braggadocio, Ron was quite the crafty player. A brilliant strategist and not one to be underestimated, for the Weasel knew how to throw a gobstone, and was unafraid of playing dirty.

They had lunch in the sitting room which was decorated for Samhain with cobwebs and evilly cackling pumpkins. Draco's parents looked very happy to see Harry, they made polite inquiries about his progress at school, and complimented him on doing so well. Lucius mentioned the upcoming Samhain celebrations to be held in Stonehenge, for which he and Narcissa had bought tickets. Harry was most intrigued to know how the event organisers would keep the Muggles out, who were sure to come snooping where their noses did not belong.

Lucius laughed at that, then launched into a lengthy explanation on how magical barriers worked, to which Harry listened with rapt attention, while Draco nearly fell asleep halfway through. By the time Lucius had finished detailing the many spells that would keep them safe from invasive Muggles, they had moved on to tea. Harry swirled a fine Assam blend around his cup.

By the end Narcissa had talked Draco into bringing his violin, and blushing furiously, he played for them.

A touching song filled the room as Draco's violin levitated at shoulder height in mid-air. The bow arched over it, smoothly dipping and twisting by magic. Draco did not use his wand to command the violin, it seemed to follow his every behest by force of will alone. An undertone of sadness pervaded the song, but it was subtle, faint, like the performer attempted to hide it, tried to bury his misery under some false sense of triumph, a victory that tasted of defeat.

The song ended on a cheerful note, but Harry could not forget how crestfallen the violin had sounded, how close it had come to crying, if violins could weep. And yet not a note had been out of place, even when the violin wept, it produced a beautiful sadness that felt like honey to his ears. Harry could have listened to Draco's violin all day long and not grown tired of the sound.

"Le Maurien," Draco told him as he gently placed the violin back inside its case. "He's a Stradivarius. Muggles know how to make good violins," Draco chuckled, setting the violin case on a shelf inside his bedroom closet, "but it takes magic to draw the music out."

Sunlight filtered in through the tier curtains as Draco locked his bedroom closet with a knobbled silver key.

"Any player, even the very best, the ones most attuned to their instrument, will invariably impose their own will on the violin, their own sense of rhythm. A violin can only play its own melody when you set it free."

"Is that why you make it levitate?"

Draco nodded. "Yeah, that lets the violin choose its own path." He looked pensive for a moment, "I do have some control, the violin won't play music I don't want it to play, but the process is a lot more natural than barbarically grabbing the violin in a chokehold and forcing its bow over the strings, like Muggles do, which so often leads to strings snapping under the pressure." Draco pulled a face, "it's like they don't realize a violin is a living being, with feelings and a soul. You can't treat it that way, like an object to be manhandled," he shuddered in disgust, casting his eyes at the floor.

When Draco looked up next, the dispirited expression had gone, replaced by one of boyish excitement.

"Come, I've got to show you something."

He grabbed Harry's wrist and dragged him off to a huge room with a high ceiling and sparkling marble floor, that probably functioned as a ballroom for the Malfoys at one point. Harry was about to jokingly ask if Draco had brought him here to dance, when he saw the tapestry that covered an entire wall. Names of hundreds of people were embroidered on the tapestry, some in shiny silk thread, others in silver and gold.

"If anything can tell you're the long lost son of Severus," said Draco, "this magical carpet will."

Harry's knees grew weak; he gaped at the hanging carpet, not caring to hide his surprise... this thing was huge.

Draco placed a hand on his shoulder and leaned into him. "Depicts the lineage of all wizards and witches who ever lived, in recorded history," he said in a low conspiratory whisper, "all the major Wizarding families have one." With a sour face Draco added: "I'm sure the Weasleys have theirs rolled up in the attic somewhere."

Harry approached the hanging carpet on shaky legs, leaving Draco behind him. If he had any relation to Snape, it would be here in the thread. After searching for what felt like fifteen minutes, Harry finally located his own name on the carpet.

But his name was directly linked to those of Lily and James Potter, just as official records said. He shared a look with Draco.

"Perhaps it doesn't know," Draco offered, "after all how would a bloody carpet be aware of undocumented liaisons?"

Harry raised an eyebrow. "You said it was magical."

Draco waved his hand. "We could be approaching it from the wrong angle. Come look at this."

And before Harry could interject, Draco had grabbed him by the wrist and led him to a different part of the tapestry, far removed from where Harry's name had been stitched into the cloth. Harry trailed his eyes over Professor Snape's full name, the names of his parents and grandparents... names of people who had been Muggles were marked with a cross, Harry knew from seeing his Aunt Petunia and her crappy little family on the tapestry, while names of Witches and Wizards were marked with a pentagram.

Harry frowned at Snape's many non-magical relations. "Why does it mention all Muggle relatives?" Harry asked, perplexed. "Seems like a waste of space..." on a carpet that already spanned across the largest room in the Malfoy Manor... all these irrelevant names were making the family tree awfully difficult to read. Harry regretted not bringing along his reading glasses.

Draco had a dull expression on his face as he shrugged. "Muggle families that have intermarried with a Witch or Wizard at some point are more likely to produce Muggle-born wizards, sometimes centuries later. Squibs who assimilate into the Muggle population are also highly likely of spawning magical descendants at some point, so we keep track of them," he explained, though from the look on his face Harry concluded that he too considered this practice rather pointless.

A little bit lower on the tapestry, Harry spotted something familiar. He did a double take, and found Salazar Slytherin's name embossed in gold.

Curiously Harry studied his House Founder's ancestors, then went on to examine his children, and found a new name mentioned among these, one he hadn't heard of before. Slytherin had a fifth son? Looking more closely, Harry recognized the cross above the name, his jaw dropped. Slytherin had fathered a Squib?

A line extended all the way from Salazar Slytherin's name, curving through centuries of Muggles, branching out and confusing Harry, making him look again, so eventually he pulled out his wand and levelled it at the tapestry.

"What are you doing?" Draco shrieked in alarm, placing his hand over Harry's.

He shot his friend a sympathetic smile. "Don't worry, just a simple spell to help me read. I think I've got this."

"You better," Draco warned. But he let go of Harry's wand hand and stepped aside.

Harry focused. "Ostende mihi!"

As the words left his mouth, a red speck colored the tapestry around Slytherin's name like a drop of blood, or a wine stain. Blood red ink spread across the carpet, running along one line that branched through a sea of Muggles, travelling higher and higher up the tapestry... almost to present day, then abruptly stopped on one Muggle's name that had turned a brooding dark red: Tobias Snape.

The next name on the tapestry was not affiliated with anyone but its predecessors. There were no lines extending from this name.

Harry heard Draco let out a loud gasp. "You mean... you don't mean ...!" A hushed silence fell between them, which Draco broke with a whisper: "Professor Snape is a descendant of Salazar Slytherin through his Muggle father?"

"It would appear to be so," Harry said after awhile.

"But then, that means," Draco hissed excitedly, "that makes you a descendant of Salazar Slytherin!"

Harry stepped away from the tapestry, and even further away from Draco, whose eyes had taken on a dangerous glint that made him look unhinged or at the very least slightly insane. "We don't know that," he said, making calming gestures with his hands, "nothing seems to suggest I'm Snape's son. The whole theory sounds super far fetched to me."

"Nonsense!" Draco balled his fists. "You are Slytherin's descendant!" he pointed an accusing finger at Harry.

Harry started feeling less and less welcome in the Malfoy home.

He felt relieved when they left soon after, with Draco's parents bidding their goodbyes by the fireplace, and Narcissa extending a warm invitation for Harry to come stay with them over the Yule holidays. Harry thanked her, and said he would think about it.

Once they were back at Hogwarts, Draco sent him a narrow eyed look. "What's there to think about? Of course you're staying with us for Yuletide, only losers who don't have anywhere else to go remain at school over the holidays. Don't be daft."

With an irritated huff that he couldn't have shown in front of Draco's parents, Harry pointed out that he might wish to spend his holidays at McGonagall's, at Hagrid's, or with any of his other friends. By the end of his rant, Harry found himself with a puffed up chest and hands on his hips... Draco was looking rather pale.

"Sorry..." Draco mumbled, "didn't mean to assume. Just thought... well, I didn't see you visit anyone else's place this weekend. Has Blaise invited you over? Has Pansy?"

Harry noted that Draco deliberately left out Greg. They did not speak about Greg, after the stunt he'd pulled during DADA, he did not exist.

Draco pouted. "I'd love to have Vincent over, but he left on a week long hiking trip with his family."

"Where did they go?"

Draco blinked, taken aback by Harry's sudden casual tone. "Err... Utah in North America, ...I think. I'm not actually sure, could've been Maine for all I know."

Harry bobbed his head. "Cool. I'll ask him when he gets back."

"Yeah."

They made their way back to their dorm to find Greg playing gobstones all by himself on the floor. Blaise was out, probably visiting family.

Draco side stepped around Greg, like he wasn't there. Greg looked up at Harry.

"Hi..." Harry said, lifting an awkward hand in sort of a wave.

Greg smiled at him. "Wanna play?" he gestured at the stones, "I know you don't have marbles, so you can play with mine."

Draco shot Harry a filthy look that said 'don't you dare'. Harry winced at Greg.

"Just a friendly game?" Greg tried.

Harry could see he was quite desperate for interaction... any interaction, it seemed. But it stung to be Greg's last option friend, the go-to when no one else could be arsed to hang with him. Harry felt he was better than that, he deserved someone who chose him as their first choice, someone who invited Harry over for lunch, someone who trusted him with their secrets, someone who actually wanted Harry to stay with them for Yuletide.

He cast a sidelong glance at Draco, who was studiously ignoring both Greg and Harry while doing his business in silence, with a resigned scowl on his face.

"Why don't you go to The Quad and see if anyone from the other Houses wants to play?"

The words were out before Harry had realized he'd said them. Draco stopped in the middle of washing his favorite button-down shirt, wand raised in the air, cleaning charm on his lips. Greg opened and closed his mouth like a fish.

Harry grinned, "I'm sure playing Gobstones won't do much harm to your reputation."

Greg turned red in the face, and stumbled to pick his marbles off the floor, frantically stuffing them in his pockets. The tiniest smile grew on Draco's lips.

"After all," Harry continued in a sudden burst of inspiration, "what matters most in Quidditch is how well you can fly, not the number of Older Years who think you're hot shit."

Greg was out of the room before Harry could say Sir Lancelot du Lac, and the moment he left, Draco burst out in whimsical laughter that shocked Harry. But then he joined in the chuckling, and they were both resting on the floor, side by side, backs pressed into the edge of Draco's mattress.

"Hey, Draco?"

"Yeah."

"I'd uh... I'd love to spend Yule with you, ...if the offer's still on the table."

A friendly arm was slung over Harry's shoulders. "Sure is!"

Two days later Harry flooed out of Hogwarts with Blaise and Pansy, under the pretext of visiting Blaise's house, but actually they went on a stroll through Diagon Alley to purchase Samhain gifts for their friends. In spite of Blaise's many entreaties, Pansy wouldn't let either of them look inside her bag.

"Spoils the surprise," she said, running off to a fountain in the shape of a mermaid.

Blaise shrugged, feigning disinterest. "Whatever, me and Harry got better things to do," he stuck his tongue out at her, linking his arm through Harry's, "meet you here in an hour?"

Pansy stuck her tongue out in response. Just like that Harry found himself dragged off to a curious looking place called Gambol and Japes Wizarding Joke Shop, where they spent the lion's share of the hour. Once he finally managed to wiggle out of Blaise's company, Harry went in Sugarplum's Sweets Shop and got eleven boxes of chocolate frogs. Each box contained five sets of frog and wizard card, and cost him six sickles and one knut. Considerably cheaper than buying individually, as a single chocolate frog was priced at one sickle and twenty-one knuts.

They finished off their day trip at Florean Fortescue's, where Harry had some jackfruit ice cream which was surprisingly refreshing given the cold weather. Pansy asked Fortescue to charm four portions of ice cream in cold stasis, so she could bring them back to Hogwarts to share with her roommates in the Dungeon.

Vincent returned one day before Samhain; as they lounged on the Common Room sofas, Harry asked him how Utah had been.

"No, we didn't go to Utah. We hiked through the Bisti De-Na-Zin Wilderness in San Juan County, New Mexico."

"Oh," Harry smiled self-consciously. He had never left Britain before, and even then, all he'd seen of his own country were two dull suburban towns, a small bit of London, one dreary swamp, a mansion in the middle of nowhere, and the grounds surrounding Hogwarts. A trip to New Mexico sounded quite thrilling, and although Harry knew better, it almost felt like the other side of the world. He wondered if the meadows there were any greener, if the ducks quacked any louder. In one book he'd read America was home to birds that drank from flowers; he wondered if Vincent had seen any of these.

"How does it look like there?" he asked, leaning forward.

Vincent blinked at him in confusion, then said: "Good."

They sat in silence for a good minute before Harry understood that was all he was going to get out of Vincent about his hiking trip.

On the morning of October the thirty-first, Harry was a little late giving gifts. From the moment he woke up he was bombarded with presents from all sides. Blaise tossed a huge plastic spider on Harry's bed, charmed to hop about on his bed sheets. If Blaise had expected Harry to freak out, he was sorely disappointed, for when Harry saw the fuzzy looking thing bounce on his left knee, he threw his head back and laughed.

"Nice one Blaise!"

The man in question chuckled into his hand, then climbed down the ladder of his own bed. Greg was next to leap into action and present Harry with a Voges Self-Writing Quill and three small pots of strong Green Serpent ink as soon as Harry's feet touched the floor, before he even had a chance to reach for his own trunk and the stash of chocolate frogs hidden in there.

"I'm sorry I've been such a shit friend to you lately," said Greg, pushing the quill and ink pots into Harry's hands, "can we turn over a new leaf?"

There was hope in Greg's wide blue eyes, which rendered Harry incapable of rejecting his gift. Blaise sent a pointed look Greg's way, which Greg ignored, as if Blaise wasn't even there. Things did not get any less awkward when Draco woke up, shooting out of bed in a frenzy, scurrying over to his own trunk, and taking out a familiar looking box which he gave to Harry, smiling broadly and congratulating him with Samhain.

Harry opened the box, and, much to his disbelief, found all of Draco's collectable Quidditch player cards inside. He shook his head, placing the lid on the box and offering it back to Draco.

"I can't take this," he tented his brows, "they're your cards, Draco, you worked very hard to get these."

But his friend only gave him a lopsided smile. "Well they're yours now. Besides, I can only get away with keeping these cards at home for so long before my dad finds them and throws them in the trash. They're safer with you."

Harry pursed his lip, as much as he had wanted those cards the very minute he laid eyes on them back at Malfoy Manor, this didn't feel right. Quidditch was Draco's big dream, the thing that kept him going through school. And these cards were the embodiment of that dream. He didn't wish to take that away from him. Besides, he felt his own gift to Draco was rather inadequate by comparison... what were five worthless wizard cards that sold for less than seven sickles, compared to these? He felt cheap, pawning his friend off with a gift like that. The box of chocolate frogs didn't seem enough.

Draco deserved better.

Harry stared blinkingly at the box of collectable Quidditch cards in his hands, when Blaise leaned over his shoulder, and went and made things ten times more awkward with an unneeded remark that came out of nowhere.

"Trying to buy Harry's friendship, are you Malfoy?"

The smile dropped from Draco's face. All of a sudden he looked lost, his earlier confidence melting away. Harry didn't have time to call Blaise out for saying something so awful, he knew he had to act, fast. Before he could think better of it, he reached past Draco, pulled his own trunk from under the bed, zipped it open and produced three boxes of chocolate frogs from the bag.

"Here," he said, handing one box to Greg with a nervous laugh, "I got presents for all of you." Rising to full height, he gave another box to Blaise. "Sorry if you don't like chocolate... ehh, I didn't really know what to give you."

Blaise smirked, accepting the gift. "It's ok."

With an awkward smile Harry placed a box of chocolate frogs in Draco's hands. He had defused the tension in the room with a timely change of topic, even if the presents were rather shitty, he could always get Draco something better next time. It was the thought that counted, ...right?

Then Harry noticed the look of utter revulsion on Draco's face as he eyed the box of chocolate frogs... with trembling hands.

Harry raised an eyebrow. Surely his gift wasn't that bad. The frogs were still edible, even if the cards sucked.

Blaise unwrapped one white chocolate frog and bit its head off as he spoke. "If you're waiting for the frog to tell you 'kuh-kuh-kuh-kisssssss mee Dracy-poo puh-wease', you'll be waiting a long time."

Draco shuddered, nearly dropping the box of chocolate frogs. His face went quite green, he looked like he was about to throw up. In the back of the room, Greg snickered. Harry felt like knocking himself on the head. How could he have been so dumb? Of course it had been a stupid idea to give everyone frogs! But so many things had happened since then, that Harry forgot all about that business with the Frog Prince... and now he was bringing it back up. What a thoughtless excuse for a friend he was! Harry turned his face to the ceiling and squeezed his eyes shut, supressing the urgent need to tear his hair out.

He wished he could take it all back, wished he hadn't given Draco those stupid frogs, wished he'd never even bought them! If there was some device, some form of magic that could take him back in time, and prevent this from ever happening, Harry would do anything for that.

Blaise sauntered over to Draco, and Harry's eyes flashed open. In silent misery he watched Blaise rip open another packet and pull out a milk chocolate frog. The frog wriggled in Blaise's fingers, but he held it tight, squeezed between thumb and index finger as he brought it to his mouth.

But instead of eating it, instead of biting at the frog with his teeth as he'd done before, Blaise puckered his lips and gave the frog one big smacking kiss.

Then he chewed its head off. Greg was rolling with laughter on his own bed, trying and failing to control his fit of giggles. Draco scowled at Blaise, who simply smirked at him as he finished off his frog. Draco's fingers tightened on the box of chocolate frogs in his hands. His wand, that lay on a shelf over his bed, twitched and stirred ominously.

"Thank you for the gift," said Draco, turning to Harry.

His voice sounded cold, but there was no anger or hurt in his face. It was like Draco had been etched in stone, like he'd become a stone man, incapable of showing any feeling. There were no tears, no pain, no fury... nothing, a bleak nothing had replaced his friend. And for that one moment, Harry felt like he didn't know Draco at all.

Then a blinding orange flash illuminated their dorm room as a spurt of magic issued from Draco's wand.

Greg spontaneously grew fox ears and a bushy brown tail on the spot, when the beam of magic hit him. Blaise's teeth grew into bloody fangs, and he sprouted raggedy dark wings on his back. Harry was not so lucky. When the blast of magic inevitably reached him, he felt a rag tighten over his mouth. Moments later, strips of rags were wildly spinning all around him, and Harry found it difficult to move his arms. The rags encircled his body on all sides, going over his pajamas, tightening around his neck. He could still breathe and hear and see well enough, but when he spoke his voice came out muffled by cloth.

"What the hell just happened?" Harry said, or wanted to say, ...he wasn't sure if the others heard him properly.

The unmistakable sound of Draco's laughter filled the room. "Look at you!" he shouted, pointing at Blaise and doubling over with giggles.

Blaise traced a finger down one of his fangs. His voice came out differently now the shape of his teeth had changed so drastically. "Am I supposed to be a vampire?"

Harry tried to walk, and found he could still move his legs, though with some difficulty. They were less bendy now, and he was forced to place his feet in odd unnatural poses just to take one step forward. His arms barely bent at the elbow, and his hands were no use to him, since his fingers had all been bound together in mittens he couldn't take off.

Greg studied himself in Blaise's golden pocket mirror. "Hey, I don't actually look all that bad," he stroked the furry fox ears on top of his head. "They go with my hair. Thanks Draco, didn't expect anything from you this Samhain."

Draco grinned back. "Count yourself lucky, Goyle."

"Yeah... what is this monstrosity Harry is supposed to be?" Greg pointed at him.

Draco erupted in another fit of laughter.

"Looks like a mummy to me," said Blaise, tilting his head to the side and studying Harry more closely, "or a zombie."

"I can still hear you," Harry said, though it probably sounded like gibberish to all of them.

"Nooo!" Blaise gasped dramatically, clutching the sides of his head, "the zombie wants to eat my brain."

Then he jokingly pretended to run away from Harry, arms outstretched and feet cycling on the spot. Harry laughed at that.

"Assuming you have a brain," Greg remarked, casually leaning back on his bed.

Blaise rubbed his chin in mock thought. "Well, considering Malfoy has done us the honor of arranging these wonderful costumes, the least we can do is repay him in kind."

The laughter died in Draco's throat as Blaise pulled out his wand. "Ehh, Blaise, it was an accident," Draco squeaked, raising his hands in self defense. His wand remained on the shelf behind him, lying perfectly still.

Blaise winked. "Don't worry, I've got the perfect costume in mind for you. Just... stay still."

The plastic spider was still hopping around on Harry's bed by the time they left their dorm room. Up in the Common Room they found Pansy with a basket of tiny levitating pumpkins that sang a sweet Samhain song. Each little pumpkin seemed to sing the same song, but in a slightly different pitch. So the Common Room was abuzz with a chorus of soft song, as Pansy went around, presenting one to every First Year, and even a few Older Years she knew by name.

"You're about five years too early to start campaigning for Head Girl," said Blaise, striding up to her.

Pansy cracked a laugh, placed a pumpkin in Blaise's hand and said she had something special for him, that he'd get later.

"Can't wait," Blaise said, wiggling his eyebrows.

She noticed the rest of them, then, looking Harry up and down a few times before turning back to Blaise.

"Oh, you dressed up for Samhain?"

Blaise grinned, showing off his fangs. "I'm a vampire, Harry's a zombie, Greg's a furry, ..."

"Hey!" said Greg, "I'm a fox, thank you very much."

With an amused grin Pansy looked at Draco. "What are you dressed up as?" she said, offering him a singing pumpkin.

Draco crossed his arms over his chest and pouted. He had a large hazelnut husk on top of his head like a hat, and wore long fresh green robes that resembled leaves over his pajamas.

"None of your business," Draco hissed, refusing the pumpkin.

Pansy just smiled, not bothered by his rudeness at all. She put the pumpkin away in her basket, and turned to Harry.

"Hmm, the last time I dressed up for Samhain was two years ago," she chuckled, "I was nine, but you guys make it look cool. Wish I had a stunning costume like yours."

Blaise curled his lip mischievously. "Your wish is my command."

With a flick of his wand, Pansy's heavy school robes transformed into a shimmering green dress covered in spangles. A silver tiara with diamonds manifested itself in her dark hair, and she lifted off the floor, green satin shoes levitating a few inches above ground.

She tried putting her foot down, but remained afloat, unable to touch the floor. As she paced about angrily, all she ended up doing was walking on air.

"Put me down!" Pansy demanded, pointing her wand at Blaise.

He laughed. "But that would ruin the costume."

"What costume?"

"Why, you're obviously the Light Princess."

Pansy rolled her eyes while Greg and Harry laughed.

Their costumes turned out to be quite the eye-catcher, and soon enough there were werewolves milling about the Common Room, ghosts, sparkling vampires, French musketeers, demons, angels, lizard people, and a whole lot of girls with cat ears...

"You're quite the trendsetter," said Blaise, nodding toward Draco with newfound respect.

Then he let Pansy in on what had transpired in their dorm room. She laughed hysterically while Draco pointedly ignored both her and Blaise.

Harry located Nestor, and gave him and his roommates a box of chocolate frogs each. With Vincent in tow, he walked back over to their little group. Pansy fixed a singing levitating pumpkin to the bandages on Harry's left shoulder, and he gave her a box of chocolate frogs. He now had three boxes left; two of which he intended to give to Hagrid and Professor McGonnie, and the last he would keep for himself.

Once they all retreated to a quiet hallway of the Dungeon, Pansy gave Blaise a soft paper parcel. He opened it to find a beautiful pale green Quidditch scarf. After running his hands all over the scarf and putting it on, fondly stroking the fabric, Blaise remarked that the scarf's pattern was not common, he'd never seen anything quite like it. He quickly came to the suspicion that Pansy must have knitted this herself, which she confirmed. The scarf was hand made, knitted specifically for him. Pansy pointed out the scorpion motifs on the scarf that she had taken from the Zabini family coat of arms.

"When did you have time to knit this?" Blaise gasped out in surprise.

"Didn't take me long at all," Pansy sounded smug. "The scarf practically knitted itself," she said, tapping her wand to her chin.

"You didn't..." disbelief tinged Blaise's voice, "wow, that's an advanced charm."

Pansy nodded, smirking triumphantly. The trick was to loop a slipknot on the right-hand needle and tie together two bales of yarn before you cast the spell to levitate the knitting needles. Designing a cool pattern beforehand was also preferable, otherwise the needles would just randomly pick a pattern of their own, and end up knitting some chaotic mess.

"Err... I got something for you too," said Blaise, dropping a small box in Pansy's hands.

The box contained a pair of elegant black leather gloves. Pansy squealed out in delight the moment she saw them.

"Ahh! They're from Venice," she said, reading the label, "my favorite brand. I've wanted these ever since the New Collection came out this summer. How did you know?"

"I didn't," Blaise said with a lopsided smile. "Mother picked them for you."

"Well your mum gets a big fat kiss from me."

They each received a different pet rock from Vincent, who claimed the rough unpolished stones had medicinal properties. Draco got a pitch black stone that resembled a charred piece of wood, which Vincent called 'schorl'. Greg got a dark blue stone that matched the color of his eyes and was covered in a smattering of golden specks, "lapis lazuli," Vincent said.

Pansy got a stone that was smooth, round, and of an odd silvery white color that seemed to change as she rotated it in the dim light of the hallway. "Moonstone," said Vincent.

Upon hearing that, Pansy smirked. "Got the message, thanks. I'll try to be less of a nightmare when I'm on my period."

Harry raised his brows. These stones had meanings? Vincent was communicating with them through stones?

He was surprised Pansy could even tell what the stones meant. Vincent placed a coral colored crystal into Blaise's hand. That was a 'sunstone', Vincent told them, without saying much else. And Harry was given a bright orange stone called 'carnelian'. A crack of dark red ran through the stone, as though it had been bashed with a hammer. Someone had tried to break it, but the stone held strong and remained in one piece, even though the cracks showed.

Blaise pulled Harry out of his musings and led them all out of the Dungeon, up to the ground floor of the Castle, and into the courtyard, where six large bonfires had been lit up. Children were running through the fire without a care in the world, most of them Gryffindorks.

Harry stopped and stared. The question in his head was on Draco's lips before Harry could say it:

"Is that... safe?"

Professor Sinistra, who stood by the main entrance to the courtyard, as a supervisor, cast a critical look at them before speaking.

"The fires have been charmed to form a protective barrier around every human who runs through them, though I would not recommend bringing any pets. We don't know how well these barriers work on animals."

Draco swallowed, nodding. The leafy hazelnut husk around his head fluttered in the wind.

Professor Sinistra smiled. "Your costumes will not catch fire."

"Well then, what are we waiting for?" Greg said, and with a loud yell he ran through the flames, raising his arms in victory as he came out on the other side.

Blaise and Pansy followed, and soon enough they were all frolicking about the blazing courtyard, heads thrown back with raw laughter. Harry found it a bit strenuous to move about in his costume, and while the magical barrier around him held the flames back, it did nothing to stop the heat that wafted over, making him sweat buckets under his mummified pajamas. He had to take a break and step out of the fire, where a pleasant wind cooled his face.

He went in the Great Hall, hoping for something to drink. But once there, he found the rags so tightly wrapped over his mouth, he couldn't get them off. With a sigh he trudged back to the courtyard, where his friends were cooling off, resting on stones. Vincent leaned his back against a stone pillar, Blaise and Greg were sitting on the ground, panting, exhausted, Pansy hovered over the stones in a cross-legged pose, the skirt of her dress haphazardly folded over her knees. She was trying on her brand new leather gloves. Draco sat perched on a windowsill five feet from the ground, legs dangling capriciously.

"Can anyone untie me?" Harry mumbled through the cloth, walking over to his friends.

Blaise and Greg looked up at him, frowning in confusion. Harry groaned. He pointed at his mouth, then his stomach... still no reaction. With a resigned sigh he used the universal body language of someone who really really needed to piss.

Greg howled out in laughter. Draco turned to look their way, and also sneered at Harry's expense. Though Blaise climbed to his knees, drew his wand, and started whispering spells at Harry, without poking fun at his unfortunate situation. Harry held quite still; Blaise was good at this, if anyone of his friends could lift the spell Draco's wand had cast, it would be him.

But over ten minutes later, nothing happened. Blaise clicked his tongue in frustration. Pansy tried her hand at freeing Harry from the bandages, but it was no use. As a last resort Greg tried peeling off the rags with his pocket knife. He succeeded in freeing Harry's mouth from the cloth, but as soon as Greg let go and Harry breathed fresh air, a new bandage snapped over Harry's mouth out of nowhere, sealing his lips.

"It's not coming off, huh," he said through the bandage.

They didn't hear him.

"Gregory Goyle!"

They all jumped upon hearing McGonagall's voice right behind them.

"What do you think you're doing to Harry?"

Greg scrambled to pocket his knife, which had been inches away from Harry's face.

"Eh, Professor, I can explain!" Harry yelped, turning around. "Greg was just helping me get the costume off."

But of course, no one understood a word of what he said. It all sounded like a muffled mess through the cloth covering his mouth. Professor McGonagall's eyes widened upon seeing him in the zombie getup. Then her brows furrowed and she looked really angry.

"You went to Diagon Alley, didn't you?" she pointed an accusing finger at Blaise, who gulped, guilt written all over his face.

"Alone," McGonagall's voice was rising, "without an adult, or even an older student to accompany you."

She sounded equally angry and horrified. None of them dared say a word. Draco hopped off the windowsill, and straightened up beside Vincent, both of them stood stiff as a rod.

McGonagall pinched her nose, drawing her wand. "And all for... for these hideous costumes," she sounded outraged.

"Those peddlers on Diagon Alley!" with a flick of McGonagall's wand, Pansy dropped to the ground, landing on her feet.

"This is why you must never go there unsupervised. Those peddlers are filth, scum, irresponsible money grabbers, how dare they perform such intrusive spells on you! Spells you are not yet equipped to remove by yourselves. They could have used any magic on you, and you would've been none the wiser. They could have used Dark Arts on you, irreversible spells, and then disapparated, like those peddlers are wont to do when the police arrive. What would you have done then? Patronizing unlicensed peddlers on Diagon Alley! What were you thinking? Honestly! Samhain costumes," McGonagall spat out the word like it made her want to vomit.

No one corrected McGonagall, that they hadn't had some obscure Diagon Alley peddler magic them into these costumes for the party, that Draco's wand had actually done all of it... well, minus Draco and Pansy's costumes, which were a lot easier spells that Blaise knew how to dispel.

One wand flick later, Harry was freed from the bandages; he felt a little silly standing there in his pajamas. Some Gryffindors were watching by with amused smirks. Blaise, Greg and Draco followed next, turning back to normal with a flick of McGonagall's wand. Pansy hurriedly took off the diamond studded tiara, trying to hide the thing before McGonagall could get to her.

"Don't even think about it," McGonagall warned. "I've half a mind to take points off Slytherin at this blatant disregard for the rules. You were permitted to visit your families by floo, not go gallivanting around London," she bristled. "Don't know why I haven't taken points off your House yet, must be the holiday spirit."

Pansy pouted as her tiara disappeared into thin air, and her pretty dress transformed back to plain school robes.

McGonagall was surprised to hear Harry had a Samhain gift for her. "I'm hoping it's not this," she waved her hand, "disaster?"

Harry smiled sheepishly. Professor McGonagall told him he could find her in her office, and stormed off, out of the courtyard, back into the school. Pansy, Blaise, Greg and Vincent went off to have breakfast in the Great Hall, while the Draco and Harry trudged back to their dorms, to change out of their pajamas and make themselves look presentable.

For the longest time they avoided speaking, until Harry cut the silence.

"I'm sorry, should never have given you chocolate frogs. Don't know what I was thinking, really. I'll just return the box and get you something else."

"That's okay," Draco grinned lopsidedly. "Your antics in that silly costume more than made up for it."

Harry barked out a laugh, startling the few Hufflepuffs they passed in the hallway.

After breakfast Blaise showed Harry the plastic spider had an on-off switch. It was a simple spell, really. All he had to do was say "hoppety hop" whilst pointing his wand at it, and the spider would start hopping about if it had been laying still, or stop moving altogether if it had been in motion. Blaise told him to keep the spider, scare a few people.

Later that day Harry visited Hagrid, and presented him with a box of chocolate frogs. Hagrid thought Harry's toy spider was pretty funny. He offered Harry a generous helping of rock cakes, which were round and battered lumps of dough filled with tiny cubes of fruit. The surface of these cakes was rock hard, but Harry found that when you broke one with your fingernails, they were super fluffy and delicious on the inside. He also dropped off a box of chocolate frogs at McGonagall's office. McGonnie smiled at him warmly and told him he was a good kid, which unnerved Harry a little, after he had been shouted at for those costumes.

The real festivities started in the evening, as the sky darkened over the Great Lake. All the candles had been removed from the Great Hall, which was illuminated only by carved pumpkins. The largest pumpkin had to be six feet tall, and the intricate carvings on its shell told the story of Finn MacUmaill, a legendary Irish warrior, and his many battles against Dark Creatures and Dark Wizards of Old. Dinner was a purely vegan affair, as they were told eating any meat or fish on the Night of the Dead was blasphemy. Then they poured out of the Castle, onto school grounds where charmed fires blazed through the night. The Hogwarts staff struck up a song that swelled as the student body sang along, letting their voices carry with the smoke, up into the blackness, to the stars.

The song was beautiful, it was a song for the Dead.

Harry felt tears well up in his eyes as he gazed at the stars, singing to his best ability, which was not very good. He didn't know any of the lyrics, just repeated what the people around him sang, and lagged a few verses behind. But that did not matter much, for his small voice was drowned out by the music all around him, and even if he messed up a few lines, that wouldn't break this powerful stream of sound. Harry felt it quake through his very being, from his crown to his toes, the magical song washed over him.

He shut his eyes and cried, feeling no shame. He cried for the dead, for his mother and father, for the many people the Wizarding World had lost in the war. When he opened his eyes, he found he was not the only one weeping. Headmaster Dumbledore dabbed at his eyes with a handkerchief, and Harry was shocked to see a single tear trickle down Professor Snape's face. The shock of a sight like that nearly shocked Harry out of crying. Then he reckoned Professor Snape must have lost a loved one in the war too... it had only been ten years ago, after all. Those wounds were still fresh, and ran deep.

When the singing drew to a close, they broke apart: the teachers going off to Merlin knows where, and the students splitting up in Houses and Years and smaller groups, milling about the Hogwarts grounds, chatting and playing games. Older Years joined in the reckless running through fires, some casting loud cries of joy to the heavens. It seemed an odd way to celebrate Death, but then Harry supposed the other part of Samhain stood for Rebirth, and maybe, just maybe, he cynically thought, some rejoiced at the death of others... for it reminded them they were still very much alive.

Pansy and the girls were roasting hazelnuts by a bonfire in the courtyard. When Harry walked over to them, Daphne jerked upright. For the longest time they stared at one another, and despite feeling quite confused, Harry found it impossible to look away from Daphne's teal colored eyes, which were almost as green as his own.

Maverick broke the spell when he clapped Harry on the shoulder with a "Mate, let's go down to the Dungeon, my brothers say the chillest party is down there!"

Daphne blushed, looking at the flames, her back slightly turned. Pansy and the other girls from their House were still busily roasting hazelnuts. Harry frowned, wondering what those hazelnuts were for, but followed Maverick and friends down corridors and winding hallways. Somewhere on the lower levels of the Castle they ran into Draco and Greg, who enthusiastically joined them upon hearing there was a massive party in House Slytherin. At the end of the final hallway, Maverick nearly walked into another student. They all stopped, blinking stupidly, to find a crowd of students in the normally vacant corridor that connected to their Common Room.

Something was blocking their way to the Dungeon. Harry squeezed between Older Years and stood on tiptoe to see what everyone was looking at. There, in the hallway, stood a tall boy clad in Slytherin green, but between him and the plain stone wall, something shimmered in the air like a cloud of smoke. A ghost, Harry belatedly realized, that thing had to be a ghost.

"Go back to where you came from, unsufferable Gryffintard!" the older boy yelled at it.

The ghost responded by making obscene farting sounds. Most Slytherins around Harry covered their ears, and wrinkled their noses in disgust, though Harry could not smell a thing. By now Harry's friends had wriggled their way over to him in the crowded hallway.

The tall boy drew his wand, pointed it at the ghost and barked "Aqua Eructo," producing a jet of water from the tip of his wand.

But the ghost dematerialised its legs, letting the water pass through and splash over the wall. "Haha, missed me!" the ghost said, sticking out its long tongue at them, and wiggling its ghostly fingers tauntingly on either side of its head.

The boy growled.

Nestor Flint looked on in surprise. "That's my brother," he whispered, staring at the older boy, "my older brother, Marcus. He's a Beater on the House Quidditch Team."

Greg nodded in acknowledgement. Harry recalled Greg's desire to make the Team next year. Marcus sent another jet stream after the ghost, which the ghost avoided too.

"Haha, missed me again!"

"Peeves," Marcus bellowed, shaking his fist at the ghost, "wait till McGonagall hears of this. You'll be sorry you ever stepped foot in the Dungeon."

The ghost started laughing in a painfully high pitch that seemed to tear Harry's ear drums apart. "Bwahahahahah! What can she do to me? I'm already dead!" the ghost cackled.

"C'mon, let's get out of here," said Harry to his friends, reflexively gripping hold of Draco's sleeve as he wormed his way back out through the crowd. It was clear they weren't getting inside their quarters anytime soon.

They wandered underground hallways aimlessly before settling on an empty classroom where Maverick made his chocolate frogs compete against Nestor's, seeing whose frog could leap higher. Damien played a magic trick, pulling a rabbit out of his top hat. The rabbit sped away, white tail flashing round a corner. Draco argued with Nestor over who would win the British and Irish Quidditch League this season; it was the year the Kenmare Kestrels would make their big comeback, Nestor was convinced.

"No, the Falmouth Falcons will never let that happen," Draco said. "Let us win, but if we cannot win, let us break a few heads," he quoted their team motto.

The match of the Falmouth Falcons against the Kenmare Kestrels would be the first League game of the season, to be held in Yeovil over the Yuletide holidays. Even if the Falcons lost, Draco reasoned, they would leave team Kestrel so battered and bruised that they'd have to employ their reserve players in the next League game, and wouldn't stand a chance to win the League.

In the midst of all this arguing, Harry thought he heard a faint hissing sound come from behind the closest wall. He trained his ears at it. The sound grew louder, till he could make out words.

"Ssssooooo hu-hu-hunngrey... ssssomeones forgotten tuh feedss mee.... ssssssss...."

Harry frowned. "Hold on, are you hearing anything?"

His friends looked up from what they'd been doing. All wore confused expressions on their faces. Harry told them about the voice beyond the wall.

"Nope," said Maverick, "don't hear a thing."

Well that was weird. Harry had hoped he'd stop being the odd one out, and nothing uncustomary had happened to him ever since he'd left the wretched Muggle World behind, he'd finally found people who accepted him for who he was, a place where he felt normal. But now he was hearing a voice none of his friends could hear.

And the voice was growing louder.

"Haff yoo come to fffeeedssss mee? ...sssssorry ffor doubting youss, ....Harry ....sssss"

Harry froze in fear as the voice called him by name.

"Shhhooot tuh ttthhe kitchenz ssss.... quick, ....nibble on a chickensss.... anything, 'nythinnng will doo.... I'm hungrysssss...."

Could it be another ghost?


 

 

 

Author's Note:

Yes, McGonagall performed legilimency on Harry in the Great Hall after his duel with Hermione, so McGonnie knows Harry didn't lie about his wand not working to lower expectations and get less homework, but Harry doesn't know that! X3 He does not (yet) know legilimency is a thing. Some Ravenclaws also tried performing legilimency on him, with varying degrees of success. The Hufflepuffs all unanimously decided that Harry had been lying all along, and saw no reason to test their hypothesis. :3

 

Chapter Text

I come among the peoples like a shadow.
I sit down by each man's side.
None sees me, but they look on one another,
And know that I am there.
My silence is like the silence of the tide
That buries the playground of children;
Like the deepening of frost in the slow night,
When birds are dead in the morning.
Armies trample, invade, destroy,
With guns roaring from earth to air.
I am more terrible than armies,
I am more feared than the cannon.
Kings and chancellors give commands;
I give no command to any;
But I am listened to more than kings
And more than passionate orators.
I unswear words, and undo deeds.
Naked things know me.
I am first and last to be felt of the living.
I am ....................................................................

 

~ Hunger by Laurence Binyon


 

Harry made up some excuse to leave his friends in the classroom, and followed the disembodied voice down a corridor. The hissing grew louder.

"The kitchenssssssss, fassster."

Harry stopped in a deserted hallway and stared at the wall. He could hear rustling sounds behind the bricks, like someone was moving through the pipes.

"Ssssoooo huunnngry ...ssss..."

"Who... who are you?" Harry whispered back in a tremoring voice.

"Ayye doo nott haff a naim," said the thing beyond the wall, "ssssoo ssssssorrree."

"How do you know my name?" Harry quizzed it, cluthing the fabric of his robes.

A chipper hissing issued from the wall. Harry took a step back.

"Your naimz no ssssssecrett, Harrry Potterrrrrrr."

He felt his heart contract in his chest. Sure it was Samhain and all, but this was plain creepy. Professor McGonagall's lessons resurfaced in his memory: she had told him that the boundary between the mortal realm and the spiritual world could be crossed more easily on Samhain.

Harry stood his ground. "What do you want?" he demanded, hands balling to fists.

"Fffoooodssss," the voice hissed back. And beyond the wall, Harry thought he heard a strange slithering sound, like dripping water.

He raised an eyebrow. "Why don't you go to the kitchens, then? You seem to know your way around the Castle."

"Can't. Ttthheyz locked me upssssss..."

From the freaky sound of its voice, that seemed to be the best place for this creature, whatever it was. Even if Harry had a key to its cage, there was absolutely no way he could be persuaded to let it out.

"Listen," he said, "I gotta go, my friends must be wondering where I am."

"Waittssss!" a loud hiss called from the wall, stopping Harry mid-step.

His blood ran cold, and beads of sweat gathered at the nape of his neck.

"Please, all I needz for yoo tuh eatssssss."

Harry blinked. "You want me to eat?" he pointed at his own chest.

"Yessssssssss," the voice hissed back.

"I thought you were the hungry one?"

"Itz a sssspell, letsss mee drink bloodssss evvry timez sssomeone in ttthhe Casssstle eatsssss..."

Harry frowned. That didn't make sense, the whole student body and teaching staff had eaten dinner in the Great Hall just hours ago; he told the creature so.

"When ssssomeone eatssss.... meatsssssss."

Oh. A beat passed in silence. The whole Castle had gone vegan tonight; even the pets had been given purely plant-based pet feed pellets. When he visited Hedwig up in the Owlery, he found her scowling disdainfully at her food bowl. Though with time, she swooped down next to Loyalty, and took to half-heartedly pecking at the pellets.

"Oww, okay," said Harry. "Suppose I can have a little meat, if that'll keep you sated."

He took off in the direction of the kitchens, not willing to imagine what could happen if this monster went hungry. The last thing Hogwarts needed was some dark creature on a killing spree during a public holiday.

"Yesssssssssssss," the voice rejoiced as Harry's feet trudged up stairs, toward House Hufflepuff.

He took a right turn before the entrance to the Hufflepuff dorms, ending up in a wide corridor that smelled faintly of pumpkin soup. However when he finally reached the kitchens, which were oddly deserted at this time of night, he could not find a scrap of meat. He searched the pantries. But all stock, the canned meat and sausages he had seen here before... had gone.

All he found was a cage with two lop-eared white rabbits inside. One of them was asleep. The second rabbit turned two stupid wide eyes on Harry and stared at him stupidly.

"Kill," the voice hissed, "kill."

"Now hold on a second," Harry shouted at the wall, completely and utterly furious.

Eating a slice of meat on Samhain was one thing, but butchering a small defenseless animal that had done him no harm, all because some insane ghostly voice told him to? He was not stupid. If the Hufflepuffs were playing some dirty prank on him so he'd get caught breaking a school rule and be kicked out of Hogwarts, to teach him a 'lesson' about lying, since they obviously didn't believe him when he told them the truth about his own wand, Harry was not going to hand it to them that easy. He drew his wand, pointing it at the wall where he'd last heard the voice.

"What exactly are you? And don't try to weasel your way out of this; I won't settle for half-truths. Give me a complete answer."

A long hissing sigh swept through the kitchens. Harry held his breath. When the voice spoke again it sounded melancholic.

"Basilisssk, thatz wott aye yam. Sssalazzarr Sslyttthherinn putt meh hear, guard ze ssschool... butt alasss, tthe otthherr Houssse Founderz deed nott take too kindley tuh meh. Zey locksss meh yup, fur goodz... onleh Slyttherinn couldz releassse meh, 'e died."

Harry stared blankly at the wall, his wand hand lowering.

"Oll aye asssk iss fur wan lill meal, please, Harrreh, feedz meh... ssso huunngrey..."

He thought over what the Serpent had said. There weren't many inconsistencies with the story. Hagrid had told him about basilisks, giant snakes that should never be looked directly in the eye, for their gaze alone could kill. If Salazar Slytherin's spell had kept the snake alive so far, deep in the Dungeon, quenching it on the blood from each animal that was eaten by residents at Hogwarts, the creature could have lived quite long indeed. Still, one thing was unclear to him.

"What happens when you go without a meal?" Harry asked, staring at a crack in the wall.

"Pettsssss of sssstudentss could gett ...lossst..." came the hissed cryptic message.

Wow, Harry swallowed around a lump in his throat. His eyes found the white rabbit again, which stared back at him, its brown eyes wide... its face expressionless. He located a large butcher knife on the counter. It was either this rabbit, that would get eaten tomorrow anyway, or the day after, ...or a dearly beloved pet Harry knew his fellow students would sorely miss.

He imagined Hedwig getting devoured by a fifty foot long serpent. That settled it. With determination he stepped toward the cage. The rabbit did not budge, it kept staring at him, stupidly. He did not even see it blink.

Harry heaved a sigh. "I don't want to do this, little one," he said, opening the cage and wishing the rabbit would just hop out and make a run for it, so he wouldn't have to do this.

But the rabbit stayed put. Harry reached a hand inside the cage. The rabbit made no move to approach or run away. It merely stared at Harry's hand, mesmerized, as though it had never seen a human hand before. All these sluggish reactions were making Harry's task increasingly difficult. How did you kill something so innocent? The rabbit did not even try to kick free when Harry raised it in the air, then set it down in the metal washbasin.

Cocoa brown eyes stared up at Harry.

"I'm sorry," he breathed, raising the knife over the sink.

He brought the knife down, letting his eyes droop the second his knife cut into something solid. Warm liquid splashed over his hands. The smell of blood was in the air. The animal did not make a sound. Horrified at what he'd done, Harry flashed his eyes open, to find the poor thing dead in the sink, its legs still writhing.

A geyser of blood gurgled from the rabbit's neck, where Harry had cut it. He brought the knife down again and again, arms shaking, feverish with sweat, knees buckling and a steady headache building behind his brow as the nauseating smell of death filled the room. Eventually the rabbit stopped moving altogether. It lay perfectly still.

Harry panted, knife still in hand.

The rabbit was a lump of white fur in the washbasin, stained in red. Its large eyes stared up at its killer. Harry didn't know how to close them, the rabbit didn't seem to have eyelids, or they were so small, Harry couldn't locate them on the rabbit's small face.

Now onto the hardest part... he was not sure he could stomach this. With trembling fingers he picked up a lifeless paw. It was still warm, and bendy in his grasp. Tears welled up in the corners of Harry's eyes, he couldn't believe he was doing this. With a shaky hand he set the knife to the animal's flank and started to cut, cut, cut the fur away, just one small rectangle. He found himself exerting a lot of force, his upper arm muscles and shoulder aching, as the fur refused to part from the skin. When he finally had enough meat exposed to the air, Harry dropped his knife in the sink, sighed, bent over the counter, lifted the dead rabbit up carefully, and bit into its flesh.

It tasted awful. He nearly spat out the bloodied mess, but forced himself to chew, mince the meat and swallow. Then the blood drained from the carcass in his hands, as if by magic.

"Thanksssssssssssss," the Serpent hissed through the wall.

It is magic, dumbass; he thought, tightening his grasp on the feeble rabbit paws. The lump of fur felt considerably lighter in his hands. All blood had left its body, leaving the flesh where he'd set his teeth oddly dry and pale, its pinkish redness gone. The only hints of blood that remained were the stains on the washbasin, the knife, and his hands. He reached for the tap to clean up the residual mess when he heard footsteps behind him.

Harry whirled around. Before him stood another boy of the same height, dressed in robes of Ravenclaw blue. In a fright Harry recognized him as that rabbity boy from the Great Hall on the day of his duel with Granger.

The boy beheld him with curious eyes. Harry realized a second too late that he still had the lifeless lump of fur in his hands, and that his lips must be stained with blood, some of it trickling down his chin... The open rabbit cage was in plain sight, the other rabbit had woken up.

Merlin's balls. Harry considered legging it right then and there. He dropped the carcass in the washbasin, and took one step toward the door, when a friendly smile appeared on the other boy's face. Harry froze to the spot.

"Good evening," the bloke said politely, "Just came down here for a snack. Please, don't stop your ritual on my account. I'll be out of your hair in no time."

He walked over to the counter, stood on tip-toe, and reached past Harry to pick a box of Star-Crossed Charms Cereal from the shelf. Then he casually filled himself a bowl, raising his wand and muttering something under his breath before a dollop of blueberry yoghurt dropped onto his cereal, out of nowhere. He looked up at Harry, who still stared at him, astonished.

"See, I missed dinner in the Great Hall tonight," he smiled ruefully. "My experiment lasted a tad longer than planned."

"Experiment?" Harry stammered out, now openly gaping at the boy in shock.

"Yeah," the boy said, smiling brightly. "I'm still running tests, but the results look good so far."

There was a giddy excitement about him.

"Oh, sorry! Forgot to introduce myself. My name's not Theodore," he said with a little wave of his hand.

Harry blinked at him; why would this bloke tell him what his name was not? What was the point of that? Ravenclaws sure were weird... The boy produced a spoon from somewhere and started chowing down on his cereal, eating faster than Harry had ever seen someone eat before. The lad barely even tasted his food as he swallowed it down. That took all the enjoyment out of eating.

"Umm... so what Year are you in?" Harry hesitated to ask.

They looked about the same age, but with Ravenclaws, the boy could easily have skipped a grade, or just never gotten a visit from the Puberty Fairy... Harry didn't want to assume.

The other boy grinned at him. "I'm in your Year, silly."

Harry blinked. He had been called silly before, but never with the degree of fondness this boy put into the word. From this boy's mouth, silly almost sounded like a term of endearment, rather than an insult.

"We arrived to Hogwarts in the same boat."

Oh, now he did feel rather silly. Aside from Draco, he couldn't remember any of the other kids who'd crossed the Great Lake with him. He had been too preoccupied with admiring the sights of the Lake and the Castle to notice what went on around him. Harry smiled back sheepishly.

Not-Theodore had finished his cereal by now. "Ahh, that was good. Sorry to interrupt your ritual, Harry. May I call you that? Harry?"

Harry gave a dazed nod.

"Okay! I'll let you get back to what you were doing, Harry, so sorry to disturb."

And with those words he was gone; leaving his unwashed bowl and spoon in another sink. For the longest time Harry listened to placid even-paced footsteps that moved away from the kitchen, up the stairs to Ravenclaw Tower. A shudder ran through him. When he could hear no more footfalls, he turned back to the basin and washed his hands, scrubbing every last bit of dirt from under his nails till his hands were glowing red under the lukewarm water. He wrapped the animal cadaver in paper and threw it in a waste bin. Next he washed the knife with detergent, placing it back on the counter where he'd found it. He was busily washing blood stains off his own chin when he heard the Serpent speak again.

"Massssterr Harrrehh hasss been sso kind," said the snake.

Why was it calling him 'Master'?

"Leht meh repay your sssserrviss... Aye sussed ah sssseekrett," the Serpent hissed ominously. "Sssssomeonez affftuh ze Kvidditch Cupssss..."

Harry frowned, hearing the voice travel around him, as though the Serpent were moving through the drainpipes.

"Pritteee boy mussst nott touch ze ssssnitch, iff 'e wonts tuh livv," was the last thing Harry heard the Serpent say on its way down the Castle.

Minutes later Harry hurried back to the Dungeon, running on tiptoe. He did not look forward to the private Samhain party held in their Common Room. All he wanted was to lay his sorry self in bed, sleep it off, and forget. Forget this crazy day ever happened. If he'd had a flask of Forgetfulness Potion within reach, he would've used it without a second thought.

His dorm was mercifully vacant when he drew open the door and plodded inside on heavy legs. They must all be at the party, he thought to himself, pulling the covers up to his ears to block out the sound of wild music that wafted over. Before he knew it, he had fallen in a deep dreamless sleep.

Next day started just as any normal schoolday. Harry rubbed the sleep off his eyes while listening to the typical sounds of his roommates going through their morning routines. He let out a long contented sigh, small smile forming at his lips as he climbed down the ladder. He dressed and joined up with his Housemates at their table in the Great Hall, stomach rumbling.

He had barely bit into his buttered scone when Headmaster Dumbledore stood to make an announcement. There had been a terrible killing last night. A student of Hogwarts had committed an atrocious act, prematurely ending the life of Head Chef Zeff's beloved pet rabbit Persephone in the most horrific way one could think possible.

Harry felt a pit form in his stomach. A pitch black hole, wherein all his appetite drained.

Dumbledore felt ashamed for having a student like that reside at his own school, and expressed a desire for the student in question to come forward of their own accord and own up to the crime. However, as he doubted that would happen, for the nature of this crime was so foul he could hardly expect the perpetrator to possess the moral fiber, Dumbledore assured them the culprit would soon be found. The student had been foolish enough to leave a set of teeth marks on the rabbit's body. Professor Grubbly-Plank would do the rounds while morning classes were in session, taking teeth moulds of all Hogwarts students. They would find the bad boy, or girl, soon enough.

The scone fell from Harry's hand, making a loud 'clink' as it dropped on his plate.

Some heads turned his way, among whom Blaise and Pansy. Harry gulped down the fear in his throat.

"Who could do such a terrible thing," he lied. "Someone that would kill a defenseless small animal is capable of anything."

Pansy nodded, and placed a reassuring hand on top of Harry's. He hadn't noticed when his hands had started shaking.

"We are safe," Pansy intoned, "they'll catch the culprit soon enough, and when they do, the student will surely be expelled. No way they'll let a monster like that attend Hogwarts with the rest of us."

Blaise nodded, offering Harry an encouraging smile. All it did was make his blood curdle. He could hardly bring up mitigating circumstances when everyone was so dead-set against him from the very start. He hadn't known the rabbit was a bloody pet called 'Persephone', of all things. If he had, he strongly doubted he would have gone through with the act, he would've just let the Serpent fend for itself, fuck if someone's pet got mauled. The Hogwarts staff should've known better than to let a vicious monster go hungry on Samhain.

Harry sighed. He ate with great reluctance, and dragged himself off to Charms, his first class of the day. He had to find a way to avoid letting his dental impression get taken. But how? Then a thought struck him. It stayed with him all through the lecture, and once Charms ended without a visit from Professor Grubbly-Plank, he pulled Blaise aside.

Blaise raised a well-shaped eyebrow. Harry bit his lip, maybe he shouldn't, but Blaise was his only option. So he stepped closer to his friend, and said in a low voice:

"Remember you still owe me, for helping you pass DADA?"

He knew that was a dirty move, but he was fresh out of options. Blackmail was the last weapon he had, and he intended to wield it to his greatest ability.

"Yeah..." Blaise trailed off uncertainly, apparently not realizing where this was heading. That was good.

"I need your help," Harry pushed on. "Can you promise me to stay quiet about this? Whatever I tell you remains between us, right?"

Blaise frowned. Harry held his breath.

"Yes, okay," said Blaise, studying Harry's face quite closely.

Harry nodded grimly. "Quick, change the shape of my teeth."

Blaise started blinking rapidly. "You want me to transfigure your teeth?" he said, looking at Harry like he'd gone stark raving mad.

Harry bobbed his head up and down erratically. He didn't have time to argue, Professor Grubbly-Plank could drop by any minute now.

"I'm not even that good at transfiguration," Blaise argued, "I'd probably botch it."

"You're better than me," Harry pointed out. "And it doesn't have to be something big, just... move my teeth by a fraction. That's all I need, really."

Understanding dawned in his friend's eyes. "It was you," he whispered out in shock.

Harry had the good sense to look sorry. "I didn't know, okay? I had no idea that rabbit was someone's pet. I was led to believe it would be served up for dinner tonight."

Blaise snorted out a laugh. "How was one little rabbit going to sustain the whole school?"

"I don't know," Harry spread his arms, "magic?"

With a slow sigh, Blaise shook his head. "Did you at least have a good reason for doing it?"

Harry felt conflicted. He direly needed his friend's help, but wondered how Blaise would react when told the full story. Harry didn't want to get branded as 'that weird kid' again... he'd worn that label for far too long in the Muggle World, with everyone judging him, no one willing to listen to a thing he said, hear his side of the story, no one wishing to understand him. Harry just wanted to belong. And he couldn't belong if strange disembodied voices were talking to him, and only him.

"I can't tell you," he said, wincing as the words left his mouth, "okay?"

Blaise remained silent. Harry heaved a sigh; he knew Blaise would not be satisfied with this explanation. The only other option...

...was to lie.

"Look," said Harry, tilting his head to the side while narrowing his eyes. He fingered the wand up his sleeve, its rough thorns felt oddly comforting. "I tried to cast a necromancy spell."

Blaise's jaw dropped. Harry ploughed on. If he was this deep in, another lie wouldn't hurt his case.

"It didn't work, something must've gone wrong during the incantation. I think I performed the ritual right."

Blaise regarded him with unconcealed awe.

Harry shifted on his feet. "I'd appreciate it if we could keep this between us."

"Absolutely," his friend said in a serious tone.

They barely made it in time to their next class, History of Magic, with Harry's teeth placed slightly different from how they had been before. Professor Grubbly-Plank entered halfway through the lecture, and Harry calmly let her take his dental impression when his turn came. It was nice to have competent friends.

The following week of school passed by with not much of an issue. Greg and Blaise were talking again, that was good. Better than the awkward pauses and uneasy silences Harry had been subjected to over the holidays. Everyone was getting excited about the upcoming Quidditch game between Slytherin and Hufflepuff, even people who weren't that into Quidditch.

Harry found Pansy and Daphne in the Common Room one morning engaged in an animated discussion with Millicent Bulstrode, the witch who had demanded Harry give her a hint at the DADA exam, over which of the Slytherin Chasers was faster on a broom. Daphne and Pansy didn't even like Quidditch.

Pansy only tolerated the 'dull sport' because of Blaise. And Daphne... well, come to think of it, Harry didn't really know. He'd never had a full conversation with her.

Harry was glad he'd purchased his own ticket to the game a week in advance. Because by the start of this week, Slytherin boy Prefect Aegis Rowle, who had bought up all the good tickets early, was reselling them at a far higher price. Ron Weasley grumbled something about how money hungry Slytherins couldn't pay him to watch their game, but laid down a sufficiently large sum regardless, buying tickets for all his friends, even Longbottom.

The game was scheduled on Saturday, and that morning was wild with everyone bustling about waving flags and banners for the Houses they supported, making a heck of noise in the Great Hall. Professor Snape sporadically shouted at them to be silent, and the Slytherin table would quiet down, until a fresh new wave of noise would well up in response to some taunt from a Hufflepuff or Gryffindor.

Blaise was wearing his pale green Quidditch scarf, and Greg was similarly decked out, though his scarf looked a lot more plain. The patterns on Greg's scarf were crude, like the garment had been mass produced, with some stitches missing here and there. Nevertheless Harry caught Draco stealing envious glances at Blaise and Greg, as he grumpily ate his porridge.

Harry and friends climbed up to the seventh row in the stands. Taking a seat Harry found himself squashed between Nestor and Blaise on the rough wooden bench. Maverick, Damien and Nestor were all holding up a huge green banner with a coiling black snake on it, and howling their support for "Team Slytherin!" even though their House Quidditch team hadn't even flown onto the pitch yet. Harry shook his head with a smile, their voices were sure to be hoarse by the evening.

Pansy sat between Blaise and Greg, listening to the fierce debate the boys were having, and offering her input every now and then, only to be vehemently rebuffed by Greg, who claimed girls didn't understand the rules of Quidditch, and everything she said was rubbish, utter nonsense, and totally wrong. She just laughed at him, looking every bit amused at Greg's display of anger. The madder Greg got, the happier Pansy looked...

It seemed that Daphne wasn't much of a Quidditch fan, or at least she didn't care enough to actually buy a ticket and show up to the game. Harry did spot Millicent Bulstrode, however, sitting by herself on the ninth row, surrounded by some Older Year Housemates, who mostly ignored her. She did not look lonely though; her eyes were glued to the pitch, an excited smile on her face.

That made Harry smile, too. He figured Greg had to be wrong about girls not knowing a thing about Quidditch. There was one, up on the ninth row, who looked very happy to be here indeed.

Draco didn't go to the game, he hadn't bought a ticket. He tried to brush it off by claiming he didn't care either way, this was not 'the real thing', just some silly school affair that wouldn't matter in the grand scheme of things. No one would even remember a Hogwarts Quidditch game ten years down the line. This was just some pointless gamble for brownie points with the teachers, who were literal nobodies when it came to professional Quidditch. And Draco was only interested in real Quidditch players.

But Harry saw through the act. He noticed the pained sadness in Draco's eyes, in his body language... the envious looks he kept shooting Blaise and Greg.

Draco was not happy about missing out on the first game of the year, not one bit.

The game started. Marcus Flint flew onto the pitch, waving at them with a wide grin that oozed confidence. He swung his spiked bat around, putting on a show for his supporters. Cheers and boos multiplied. The Gryffindorks were here to cheer on Team Hufflepuff, and to scope out their competition. Next game in the line-up was Ravenclaw versus Gryffindor. Losers would play against the losers, after that. And then winners would battle winners for First Place. The chanting didn't quiet down till Madam Hooch blew her horn shaped whistle.

By now all players of both teams were hovering above the ground, circling the pitch. Harry recognized Hufflepuff Seeker Cedric Diggory, who seemed to be dressed in brand spanking new Quidditch robes, that looked rather good on him. Then the flying balls were released and all hell broke loose.

Literally. Quidditch was one huge chaotic disaster and Harry loved every minute of it. He could hardly keep track of the Quaffle and the two Bludgers that flew around everywhere, confusing both teams. The Slytherin Chasers scored five goals in row, earning Slytherin a nice fifty points and demonstrating brilliant teamwork in their flying formation. Harry sat on the edge of his seat, cheering along with his friends whenever a Slytherin Chaser shot the Quaffle through one of the three Hufflepuff hoops.

Though he quickly found Draco had been right about the Seekers 'stealing the show'. Diggory displayed quite the flying skill as he swooped and twirled around in loops, flashing his bright yellow riding uniform. His golden rimmed helmet sparkled as it reflected the sun. Each time Marcus Flint hit a Bludger his way, Diggory dodged it with ease.

The Slytherins were just ten points ahead when Diggory spotted the Golden Snitch, the tiny wallnut-sized ball that would end the game and award Hufflepuff one-hundred-and-fifty points if caught. Harry gripped the folds of his robes as he watched. The shouting around him was an afterthought. This was it, the moment they had all been waiting for.

Cedric Diggory made a nosedive.

The Slytherin Seeker followed, lagging just one broom-length behind, as the two Seekers spiralled downward, after the Snitch.

Marcus Flint hit a Bludger their way. Diggory ducked, letting the Bludger pass over his head, only nicking his robes a little. The Bludger flew upwards and hit the Slytherin Seeker square in the stomach, nearly knocking him off his broom.

Cedric stretched his hand, inches away from the Snitch.

The Slytherin crowd booed. Harry hung his head. It was all over. Then the entire stadium fell silent in hushed surprise.

Harry looked up. He stared. A small green snake protruded from the Snitch; it coiled around and crawled up Diggory's outstretched arm. The next events all happened within seconds. Diggory fell, his broom clattered down after him, and his horrible loud shout of pain made all the other players stop and look. The snake had coiled itself around Diggory's leg, and bitten him.

Madam Hooch rushed over to cushion his fall, letting Diggory land gently on the grass. He writhed in pain, and the snake hissed at Madam Hooch, before she hexed it away. The Golden Snitch had miraculously vanished, or perhaps it had not been there at all. Madam Pomfrey ran onto the pitch, holding her skirts and apron, wand in hand. With a white face she inspected Cedric's hurt body.

No one had officially called for a time-out to pause the game. The Slytherin Chasers used this to their advantage to score two more goals while the Hufflepuff Keeper wasn't looking. And then Harry noticed something gold blink high up in the clouds. He was not the only one who noticed. The Slytherin Seeker soared up to the sky, without any of the Hufflepuff players in his way, who were still frozen in shock, watching their teammate collapsed on the ground. Not bothered by the Bludgers either, the Slytherin Seeker chased after the Snitch, then reached out and grabbed it.

He waved his hand around, shouting "I got it, I've got the Snitch!"

It was as if Madam Hooch did not hear him. Team Slytherin dismounted from their brooms and approached her warily. Madam Pomfrey fussed about Diggory, checking for bone fracture and running diagnostic spells, when the Hufflepuff players descended one by one.

Diggory was levitated onto a stretcher, and carried away by the Hufflepuff Beaters. Madam Pomfrey said his injuries were serious. He would be lucky to fly again. Blaise made some tasteless joke about it. Greg and Harry laughed, while Pansy elbowed Blaise in the ribs, fighting the smirk that crawled onto her lip.

Later on, Harry felt guilty for having laughed along with them. This was no laughing matter. Their House got accused of fixing the game, and despite total lack of evidence, Team Slytherin was disqualified, the result of the match pronounced null, further Quidditch games had to be rescheduled, completely re-arranging the tournament bracket, and seventy points were taken off House Slytherin, entirely obliterating their advantage on the other Houses up to this point. Everyone was in a dark mood by the time they dragged themselves back to their Common Room.

Draco stood from a green leather sofa when he saw Harry walk in.

"So how was the game?" he asked innocently.

Multiple sets of angry eyes turned on him. "Haven't you heard?" Marcus Flint barked.

Draco raised an eyebrow, looking at Flint. "That bad, huh."

The uppercut punch to Draco's chin was swift and powerful, sending him reeling back. He collided into the sofa, letting out a soft oof.

Harry stared slack-jawed, arms hanging limply at his sides. Surely sentiments were running high, but that was no excuse for violence. Even then, Draco couldn't help not knowing the outcome of the match. He hadn't even been there to see!

Balling his fists, Harry stepped forward, bodily placing himself between Draco and Flint. He knew Marcus was physically stronger, and could very well beat him to a bloody pulp if he liked, but Harry held his ground, glaring him in the eyes.

"What do you want?" Marcus finally bit out, some of his anger subsiding.

A low growl escaped from Harry's throat. He was surprised at the sound of his own voice.

"You're taking it out on the wrong man, Flint. Draco loves Quidditch, it's his folks that won't let him go to games."

Marcus blinked stupidly.

"He wasn't there," said Harry. "He didn't see, he doesn't know!"

By the end of it he was shouting, voice hoarse and panting from subdued rage. The whole Common Room was listening, silent, their anger fading, making place for low-spirited remorse.

"Sorry," Flint gruffly said to Draco, who sat up, rubbing his chin with a confused frown on his face.

"That's okay," Draco muttered, looking at the floor.

Flint turned without a word to Harry, and hurried off to the dorms, likely to change out of his muddied riding uniform. Everyone else went about their own business, like nothing had happened. But the smell of defeat hung in the air, and their movements were sluggish, like they had all just been beaten by Team Hufflepuff.

Harry dropped down on the sofa beside Draco.

"Thanks," Draco whispered, "for standing up for me."

When Harry looked over to him, he saw the lingering fear and shock in Draco's eyes.

Harry raised and dropped one shoulder. "That's what friends are for."

He was so not ready for the star-struck smile that bloomed on Draco's face. The rest of Harry's friends spent the remainder of their day moping around the Common Room. Next to no Slytherin showed up to the Great Hall at dinner. Harry was surprised to find their table so quiet, Draco said he liked it better that way.

Apart from him and Draco, only a small number of Older Years sat by the long green table, among whom Prefects Farley and Rowle, along with the Head Boy, a short statured young man with greasy dark brown hair and a very weak chin.

Some claimed he had no chin at all.

But most Slytherins in Harry's Year were absent. They all missed Dumbledore's great announcement that one disturbing character had been sighted lurking the Quidditch Pitch this afternoon, around the same time Diggory had suffered his unfortunate fall. Harry perked his ears, listening with rapt attention, determined to catch every single word of what the Headmaster had to say.

Apparently the suspicious figure had been six feet and two inches tall, and wrapped in a dark cloak when spotted; his face obscured by a pointed black hood. The stranger's anatomy was definitely male, with broad shoulders and somewhat skinny limbs, from what could be seen underneath his cloak which had gotten thrown open by the wind when the man made his hasty escape. He had been seen pointing his wand at the Quidditch players... the Hogwarts staff did not yet know how, but this man was likely involved in the tragedy that had occurred on the pitch today.

Dumbledore told all students to report to him immediately if they even heard of any relevant information.

Soon enough Harry finished up his dinner and followed Draco back down to the Dungeon. They rounded another moving corridor when a sudden hissing sound made Harry pause.

Then he heard it.

"Height tuh sssay aye tole' yuh ssssso............"

Memories flooded back, stuff he'd been trying to forget. Hadn't the Serpent said something about the Quidditch Cup that night? Something about a... a pretty boy... Merlin, that had to be Diggory!

No.

Harry felt his whole world spiral out of control.

No, no, no.

The snake had known about the attack, at least one week in advance. It had known and tried to warn Harry! But he'd been too dumb to understand, too foolish to listen. Fuck. Blaise's cussing had started rubbing off on him, Harry thought numbly.

The Serpent knew. But... how? If the thing had been locked up in a cage and prevented from crawling into the kitchens, how could it know what happened on the Quidditch pitch outside? Harry sucked in a long breath. Nothing made sense, he needed more information. Only where to get it... the following moment felt very much akin to a light bulb flashing above his head.

He sped down the stairs, taking two at a time, running past Draco in a desperate need to get to his dorm room. The book. The book was there, the green book with the picture of his parents, the one McGonnie had given him, The Heir of Slytherin. He was three quarters through the little leather bound novella, and the previous chapter had mentioned something about a Basilisk hidden inside the Chamber of Secrets, a room which was supposedly located somewhere in Slytherin Dungeon.

What if fiction held a grain of truth?

Once in his dorm room, Harry threw himself on his bed, located his glasses and started furiously reading, his eyes skimming the page, skipping over paragraphs and paragraphs of pointless drivel till he found what he was looking for. Mesmerized, he read. It was all there, all there on the page. The Basilisk had been housed at Hogwarts since the days of Salazar Slytherin himself, instructed to attack any stray Muggle that dared set foot in the Castle. The Serpent was here to keep them all safe, to protect students from vicious bloodthirsty Muggles who used to burn Witches and Wizards alive.

Harry read that part with rattled breath. He pictured what it would feel like... to burn to death. The picture did not look pretty.

He read on. Wizards who could listen and talk to snakes were very rare, the book said. Only a few Wizarding bloodlines had produced people who were capable of such a feat. The Slytherin family was one of them. Salazar Slytherin was one of the few Parselmouths of his time. He was the only one of the House Founders who could understand the Basilisk kept at Hogwarts, and command it.

This was one of the many reasons why the other House Founders distrusted the Serpent, and called for it to be permanently locked up. They felt the snake was a secret weapon Salazar could wield against them if any conflict between their Houses ever arose. Seeing as they could not understand a single word of what the creature said, its ominous hissing and considerable bulk intimidated them. Who wouldn't be frightened by a scaly fifty foot long reptile looming over them? Especially when it emitted sounds that did not sound remotely human.

However the curious thing about Parseltongue was that it sounded like normal human speech to people who could speak it. A person who could talk to snakes, a Parselmouth, would hear them hiss in his mother tongue, and might not be unaware he was talking to a snake.

Harry set the book aside, sitting up in bed and rubbing at the bridge of his nose. Now it all made sense; he recalled how his friends hadn't heard a thing... how no one in Hogwarts had been aware they'd let a pet Basilisk go hungry on Samhain.

He was a Parselmouth, perhaps even the only Parselmouth currently residing at Hogwarts. He threw his head back and groaned. Why did his life have to be so complicated? He placed his reading glasses on the shelf and lay back down, staring up at the cracks in the ceiling. When had this place last been renovated? It reminded Harry too much of the cupboard beneath Uncle Vernon's stairs... he sighed.

It was time to face the facts. Someone was after the Quidditch House Cup, someone who didn't play fair, someone who wanted the Cup for themselves even if it meant permanently maiming people... and Harry was a Parselmouth. He could speak to and understand the Serpent of Slytherin, that had somehow been aware of this plot to disrupt the game, had predicted Diggory's fall, warned Harry about it...

Harry squeezed his eyes shut, breathing deeply. One thing was clear. He couldn't keep this information to himself any longer. The whole Hogwarts Quidditch association was in danger.

He had to tell Headmaster Dumbledore.

 

 

Chapter Text

...and his nipples were Castor and Pollux
and his windpipe was Blood on the Tracks,
his bladder and spleen were Hieronymus Bosch.
His eardrum was a sheaf of lyric poems.

And his ribcage was a fossil Stegosaurus
and his calves were the rails of a ladder.
His lips were Monopoly hotels
and his blood was hot sauce.

His teeth were a set of white chessmen,
his temples were statues of the Buddha,
his diaphragm was a garden trampoline,
his arms were kestrels hovering in the wind.

And his liver was a case of grand cru Medoc.
And his shoulder blades were shoals of mackerel.
His armpits were a dinghy's rusting rowlocks
and his palms were renewable energy.

 

~ Self Portrait at Fifty, Bloodlines by Andy Brown


 

However when Harry arrived at Dumbledore's office right after breakfast the very next day, and was told by Dumbledore's elderly receptionist to wait in the anteroom, he was the only one there dressed in green. Five older students all robed in black and yellow stared him down, with fervid hatred in their eyes. One girl dressed in Gryffindor orange sat in the corner, reading a book. She had reached the middle of her novel by the time all the Hufflepuff students filed out. Harry regretted not bringing along anything to do. He still had that star chart for Astronomy to complete. When the Gryffindor girl got called in and Harry was alone in the waiting room, he tapped his feet restlessly on the carpet, glancing over at the portrait every now and then, both hoping and dreading the portrait hole would open. The girl finally left, and Harry jumped to his feet. He took two paces towards the portrait hole when it swung closed again, and the portrait informed him that open office hour was over and Headmaster Dumbledore would not be accepting any more queries today. If he had something to discuss with Albus Dumbledore, the portrait told him to come back on Monday.

The first thing Harry did after class the next day was rush up the stairs to Gryffindor tower. He entered the anteroom huffing and panting, and leaned against the door frame for support when he saw the number of students milling about the place. None of them were Slytherin. Mostly yellows and reds filled the room, with perhaps one or two Ravenclaw blues. At least he had his book with him. He sequestered himself in a nook by the window, hidden from the angry Hufflepuff glares behind the foliage of a large weeping fig, and, perched on the windowsill, read from The Heir of Slytherin. He'd finished the book by the time the anteroom had cleared out. Now, eagerly he ran toward the portrait hole.

It slammed shut in his face. Open office hours were over for the day, come back tomorrow.

He did. However the process repeated itself. This time there was an officious red-headed Gryffindor boy who cornered Harry in the hall and raised complaints about Professor Snape, who had apparently taken points off Gryffindor unfairly. The bespectacled and freckle-faced Older Year reminded Harry that none of the Gryffindor teaching staff acted this way, and went so far as to claim that Professor Snape was not fit to be Head of any House. The manner in which Professor Snape abused his authority was inexcusable. Someone should start a petition to get him sacked.

The Hufflepuffs cheered. Harry quickly looked inside the waiting room, but found no-one from his own House. There weren't even any Ravenclaws around.

"Are you a Weasley?" Harry timidly asked the bossy Gryffindor boy, whose fiery red hair looked rather impressive.

"Percy Weasley, what's it to you?"

Harry shrugged. "Just curious."

The Weasley boy snorted. "Yeah right, a Slytherin just being curious, and my name is Prince Vlad the Impaler."

Behind him, the Hufflepuffs dissolved in hoots of laughter.

"Helps put a name to the retard I'm cussing out in my head," Harry grumbled.

Percy Weasley raised his ginger eyebrows. "What did you just say?" he cupped his ear with the palm of his hand and took a large step forward, invading Harry's personal space.

"Oh nothing," Harry said. Side-stepping around Percy he fled inside the anteroom, where he quickly found his favorite spot behind the potted plant.

He managed to avoid further harassment by the other students, but Headmaster Dumbledore still wouldn't see him. Harry was about to leave when a thought struck him. Why couldn't he schedule an appointment? Surely the Headmaster had time set aside for the more serious matters which could not be resolved within fifteen minutes. Harry reckoned his was one of those. He turned to the receptionist behind the high mahogany desk, and waited as she searched through a large diary.

The first free time slot for an audience with Professor Dumbledore was two weeks from now. The receptionist said she couldn't schedule a meeting anytime sooner. Harry grumblingly accepted. What he had to tell Dumbledore was urgent. But the ancient receptionist would hear none of it. She maintained that everyone had supposedly 'urgent' matters these days, and lamented over how today's youth was not taught the virtue of patience.

Harry did not hear a word from the Serpent over the following two weeks. He was beginning to hope it was all some big nightmare concocted out of shock. Maybe the Serpent did not actually exist... perhaps it was all in his head.

Cedric Diggory, the Hufflepuff Seeker, had been confined to the Hospital Wing. He couldn't walk, the rumor went. House Hufflepuff was in a state of disarray, though they did have a replacement Seeker lined up for the next game to be held on December first, against Team Ravenclaw. With the way things were looking, it seemed unlikely Hufflepuff would win. Harry had already purchased tickets for the game, he would go and see it no matter what.

The dubious figure that had been seen lurking by the Quidditch pitch during the game last Saturday had still not been found. There was a general consensus among Hogwarts students, especially the Hufflepuffs, that the Golden Snitch had been hexed with Dark Arts, and that House Slytherin was somehow involved. Harry and his friends received many a scolding look from Older Years of other Houses, as if a First Year could be responsible for such advanced level Dark Magic. The concept itself was hilarious. That had to be the main reason why Blaise announced he was 'boycotting' the event.

"Let them buy their own tickets," said Blaise. "I don't care who wins: the overgrown sniveling skunks or the crowing black birds."

With a firm nod, Greg agreed. "I won't be going to their pathetic excuse of a game. They like to act all morally superior, but when it comes down to it, Hufflepuff doesn't stand a chance against our House on the Quidditch pitch. They can virtue signal till the cows come home, but fact remains: the only way they can win is by taking Team Slytherin out of the equation with their bogus rules and regulations."

Pansy pouted, "and I hate how they took seventy points off our House without a shred of evidence! They didn't launch an investigation, just declared us guilty in front of the whole school." She clawed at her robes with her lacquered green nails. "We worked hard for those points."

Harry agreed, sort of... if you considered the exam cheating caper they'd pulled off to be 'hard work', but he liked Quidditch far too much to miss out on a game. He wondered if Team Ravenclaw played any different, if the House philosophies influenced flying styles. He would certainly be trying out for the Quidditch Team next year. Nothing could stop him. The best he could do till then was visit as many Quidditch games as he could, watch and learn techniques he'd later practice flying with Draco, high above the Castle, where no one could touch them.

Of course Draco had other reasons for not going to the game. He said the whole thing was amateurish, not worth discussion. Hogwarts Quidditch Teams couldn't hold a candle to the English Under-Seventeens. What was the point of going to some sub-par event when he could read all about the British and Irish Quidditch League in the Quidditch journal he'd surreptitiously subscribed to? Sure he wished he could go to a real event like that, see professional players fly in person, that would be the dream.

Was there a magical equivalent of the telly, Harry ventured to ask.

Draco blinked back at him. "What's a telee?"

"Nevermind," said Harry, turning back to his dinner.

They had polished off the ghoulish goulash by the time Harry followed his friends up to The Quad. All treading on tiptoe, with soft clinking chimes coming from the pockets of their robes. Greg led the way, the soft halo around the tip of his wand lit up a few steps in front of him. The light did not reach Harry though; he stumbled after his friends in the dark. It was too risky to cast more than one Lumos. They weren't doing anything wrong, but they didn't wish to get caught doing it.

Gobstones was not exactly... the coolest after-school activity in town.

The Gryffindors were lucky, Greg muttered bitterly. They did not have far to go: Gryffindor Tower was situated on a corner of The Quad. It would be so easy for them to slip down to The Quad and sneak back inside their dorms after the game was over, without ever getting caught.

Nestor reminded Greg that Gryffindor wasn't the only House partaking in tonight's tournament. Ravenclaw Tower was quite a ways off from The Quad.

Draco rolled his eyes. "Oh please, those Poindexters jump at any excuse to flaunt their autism. Bet they run a weekly contest on who can outgeek the rest. They aren't trying to hide the fact they play Gobstones, they wear that crap like a badge of honor."

Greg made a handwave to say something like 'there you have it'. Nestor said nothing. They rounded a corner when Greg suddenly stopped. Harry bumped into Draco, then quickly mumbled his apologies.

"It's okay," Draco whispered with a smile Harry barely caught in the dim light of Greg's Lumos before that went out.

"We're here," said Greg.

The Quad was cold and empty. Harry looked up at the stars twinkling in the night sky.

"Where are the other teams?" Draco ground out waspishly.

Nestor looked lost. He fumbled with the sack of marbles in his hands. "We've been set up..."

"Oh yeah?" Greg spread his arms out, "then where are the cameras? What's the point of humiliating us when there's no one here to see? No witness to capture the moment?"

Nestor twiddled his thumbs sheepishly, without saying anything.

"Huh?" Greg pushed on. "It's not even past curfew. We can't get in trouble for walking around school with a bag of marbles in our hands like a right set of morons."

Harry did find it funny though how no one had shown up, not one person from the other Houses.

"Do you reckon they're scared?" said Nestor, eyes gleaming in the moonlight. "They know we'd wipe the floor with them, and take all their precious stones."

Draco giggled into his hand. "The Huffing Puffs would prolly blame you for hexing their marbles."

With a face hard as stone, Nestor looked at him. "My brother would never, and I repeat never, cheat at Quidditch."

A shiver ran through Harry, the chuckles died in Draco's throat. It was too easy to forget Nestor had a brother on the Quidditch team.

They weren't anything alike, the Flint brothers. Marcus was callous and strong, a bear of a man, towering even above his fellow Fifth Years. He was a demon on the pitch, where his inner fighting spirit emerged, tsunamied and trampled all over the other players. Sometimes even his own teammates... it was not uncommon that Marcus wounded one or two of his own teammates during a game by sending a Bludger their way. He didn't mean to, most of the time, but Marcus had the unfortunate disadvantage of not knowing his own strength. Muscle control was a problem, and at times when he only intended to hit a Bludger half as hard, in the intense heat of the game a soft knock with his bat turned into a killing strike.

Thank the holy trinity of Verbeia, Vinotonus and Veteris, that modern Quidditch did not allow Beaters to swat their bats at other players, or Marcus would have broken quite a few bones in his three years of playing Quidditch for House Slytherin. By contrast Nestor felt more at home behind a book than on a broom. He could fly, but he was not very good at it. And he did not feel inclined to challenge his older brother for the undisputed title of Quidditch King. It was admirable how the brothers supported each other in everything they did, very different from how Greg's home life must be. Perhaps that explained why Nestor and Greg never really got along...

Draco looked at his own shoes. "Come now Ness, you know I didn't mean it that way. The Puffs are goody-goody, is all."

Nestor shrugged. "Whatever, let's just go."

They all turned to leave. Wordlessly Harry said his last goodbyes to the stars, when sets of shuffling footfalls could be heard from all directions. Greg tensed. Draco reached inside his sleeve, ready to draw his wand at the least warning. Nestor's eyes narrowed to slits. Then Harry heard the unmistakable sound of softly clinking gobstones.

Small groups of First Years trickled onto The Quad from all four corners. They stood some distance apart, with their gobstone pouches in hand, looking awkwardly at one another.

"About time," Greg grumbled, swiping the back of his hand across his mouth.

The group approaching from Gryffindor Tower took a bold step forward.

"Not chickening out on us, are you?" said their leader. He was covered from head to toe in a dark cloak, that could've been scarlet but looked black in the shadows of the night. Harry thought he recognized the voice.

Greg snorted. "As if."

The other groups became bolder, less wary in their approach. One group began fussing about with old fashioned lanterns, and conjured large, soft looking cushions for themselves on the stone floor. In the warm glow of those lanterns, Harry recognized Hufflepuff uniforms. He was surprised to see they had girls on their team, too.

He turned back to the Gryffindors just in time to see their leader drop his hood. His cloak was scarlet, indeed, and soon Harry found himself staring at none other than Ron Weasley.

Their eyes met across the courtyard. Ron scoffed. "Well well well, if it isn't The Boy Who Didn't Die; you play Gobstones now?"

Harry scowled. "No," he said in a hard tone, "I only came to watch."

"Hmm," Ron drawled, looking him up and down. "Concerned about muddying your robes with Gobstone gunk? How genteel."

Those last words were said with a hint of sarcasm. Though Ron found an airy way to deliver them, such that he could not be accused of any mockery.

Harry couldn't place the other two students who were with Ron. As they all pushed back their hoods, he noticed one of them was a girl with short golden brown pigtails that shone in the faint light from the Hufflepuff lanterns.

She raised an eyebrow at Harry. "Have I got something you're looking for?" she said with a hint of confidence in her voice.

"Umm, no," he stammered, quickly collecting himself. "You can call me Harry. Could you tell me your name?"

The girl's eyes widened. She looked genuinely surprised. "It's um Dunbar, Fay Dunbar."

"Pleased to meet you Fay."

The girl's cheeks turned crimson, and Harry too, felt his face heat up. He shuffled his feet on the spot to hide his nervousness.

Nestor elbowed Harry in the ribs and leaned in close to whisper: "So, love at first sight is real."

Harry shoved his friend off with a smile. "Shut up."

The stout-looking boy who'd stood behind Ron all this time took a step forward and held out his porky hand to Harry, which made Harry pause and blink at him. The boy's cloak was a deep dark red, and bright orange robes spilled out from underneath. His dark blond hair covered his forehead, nearly reaching his eyes.

"Hi," the guy said with an easy smile, "I'm Ernie Macmillan."

He enthusiastically shook Harry's hand, leaving a tingling sensation when Harry finally got his hand back.

Ron however did not seem too pleased by this fraternizing with the Slytherins. Flaring his nostrils he crossed his arms and stuck up his chin, while closely following Harry's movements through narrowed pale blue eyes. The creases around his long nose only made his freckles look all the more prominent.

Out of thin air Nestor conjured a plain grey linen rug for them all to sit on, and Greg planted his buttocks down square center, on the thickest and softest part of the rug. Nestor sat on Greg's left, leaving very little space for anyone else. Draco made do with the bit of carpet on Greg's other side: he sat precariously perched on the tail end of the rug, a threadbare corner, so half of Draco sat on the rug, and the other half sat directly on the cold stones, leaving some space between himself and Greg.

Draco patted the space and smiled up at Harry. Meanwhile the Hufflepuffs made themselves comfortable on their many luxurious cushions, each player a cushion of their own. Ernie arranged for a number of burning torches to levitate around his team, painting the Gryffindors an orange-red, and casting dark shadows over Ron Weasley's face. Fay snapped her wand once, and three tripod chairs appeared in her arms. She handed two to Ernie and Ron, and all three Gryffindor players unfolded their stools and sat, with Ron at their center, towering high above the other teams.

The Ravenclaws were all seated along one wooden bench that did not seem awfully comfortable, but at least looked clean. Plum-sized spheres of ball lightning floated over their heads. Harry did a double take when he recognized one of their players. It was that guy, the weird rabbit-faced boy he'd met in the kitchens on the night of Samhain, the man whose name was not Theodore. Harry blanched. Not-Theodore noticed him and smiled back with a friendly wave. His brown hair shone with a blueish tinge under the cold light from the spheres of ball lightning.

"Hey-a Harry," he said leaning forward, without getting up from the bench. He didn't need to, as the Ravenclaws and the Slytherins were seated pretty close together.

"Hi," Harry muttered.

Looking further down the line, he thought he recognized Michael Corner. The boy with shoulder-length black hair who was a Transfiguration study buddy of Pansy's, and the main reason why Harry and his friends passed that class. Not-Theodore caught him staring.

"I see you've met Mike," he said, tapping Corner on the shoulder, causing the guy to look over.

"Yeah... hi," Harry said, feeling even more out of place than he had upon walking onto The Quad.

Mike's dark brown eyes crinkled in a smile.

"And this is Tony," not-Theodore grinned, tapping another one of his friends on the shoulder.

A blond haired boy whom Harry had never noticed before looked up. Tony had a sparkling silver marble in his hand. Opening and closing his blueish grey eyes a number of times, he studied Harry with interest.

"You're... Harry Potter," he finally said. He sounded surprised.

Harry twisted his lip in an awkward smile, "in the flesh."

A frown settled on Tony's brow. "As in, a separate entity residing within Harry Potter's physical body, ...or ...as in, you are Harry Potter?"

For the longest time Harry just stared at the Ravenclaw boys. When it became clear to him that Tony was not pulling his leg, and had in fact asked this question in full earnest and was waiting for a serious answer, Harry forced a small smile on his lips and said without a trace of sarcasm:

"Yeah, it's really me."

Merlin, those Ravenclaws sure were a weird bunch. Harry did not know how Pansy put up with this on a daily basis, but from that point on, he would value and respect her as a Saint. Tony blinked again, then offered him a warm and welcoming smile.

"Call me Tony. I know you might not remember the night You Know What happened, but all of us really appreciate what you've done for the Wizarding World. I don't think my parents would be alive today if it wasn't for you, so... thank you Harry."

Harry... had no clue what to say to that... It sounded so sincere, so heartfelt, he feared he might break the boy with a crude word flopping from his mouth, even a basic 'thank you' sounded cheap. So Harry just awkwardly bobbed his head in what he hoped passed for a nod. The guy smiled sweetly at him. Harry reckoned he must've done something right.

"This game sure is fun though," said Tony, cracking up. "Who would've thought playing marbles could be more entertaining than Pokemon?"

Harry raised an eyebrow. "Pokemon?"

The lady in the toy store had talked about Pokemon, but that was in Muggle London... that meant... That meant Tony had to be at least partly familiar with the Muggle World. Harry frowned. But how?

"Yeah," Tony laughed, entirely oblivious to the mental gymnastics going on inside Harry's head.

"Don't know what it is, maybe the way these marbles squirt gunk at the losers," said Tony, rotating the silver gobstone in front of his face. "But there's a ton more thinking and strategy involved in Gobstones than Pokemon. Ha! I beat Sword and Shield on a Nuzlocke run without even whiting out once, all within one day. Pokemon lacks the challenge. Gobstones really makes you think, weigh all your options. You can't just brute force your way through Gobstones. You need a good strategy, and to adjust your strategy based on what you see the others do. It's so much fun!"

Harry nodded along numbly.

"Oh, eh heh, sorry," a shy smile crept on Tony's lips. "I just love this game so much. Please, stop me if I'm rambling."

"No, ...uhh, it doesn't bother me," Harry hastened to say, "you... you weren't rambling, it's umm... it's cool."

"Ahh, thank you! Gobstones has so many facets. A lot of different factors determine who's gonna be the winner. Most of it comes down to a mind game between the players, and knowing the right tactics to use, but being good at tossing marbles is also quite important. I didn't actually play the game until a couple of months ago, when Theory got me into Gobstones."

Harry frowned. Sure some of his schoolmates had rather unusual names, but he'd never heard that one before. "Who is 'Theory'?" he said in a perplexed tone.

"Oh!" a wide grin bloomed on Tony's face. "That's just what we call Theodore, a fitting nickname seeing as he comes up with dubious untestable wild theories all the time."

Harry tilted his head in amazement. So... the boy he'd met in the kitchens on the night of Samhain was indeed called Theodore... Then why had he said his name was not Theodore? This Theory fellow was proving to be even more confusing than Tony, who had seriously considered Harry's body to be possessed by some 'entity'. While Harry was pondering these things, Michael Corner leaned around 'Theory' not-Theodore, and joined the conversation.

"Your name is too fracking long!" Mike laughed, poking Theory in the ribs.

"Hey!" said Theory in mock protest, quickly dissolving to laughter.

Harry shook his head slowly, smiling at them in amusement. He was perfectly certain he would never really come to understand Ravenclaws, but they sure were a goofy bunch. When their whinnying died down, Tony told Harry more about the game they were all about to play, and assured him that Gobstones was not purely pay-to-win. A player could increase his chances of winning by playing with better stones, but one did not need to own good stones in order to win. You could play with the cheapest set of gobstones, and still beat another player who had far more valuable stones, if you played your marbles right. That's how Tony had won this silver colored marble from Greg a couple of weeks back.

He proceeded to recount various strategies he'd read in this Gobstones zine he was subscribed to. Harry tuned Tony out halfway through. It was plain to him that Gobstones was not his thing, and wouldn't be for the foreseeable future. He watched the House teams each lay out a small sum of money on the ground. Of all teams, Team Slytherin placed the least amount of cash in the pot, while Team Gryffindor gambled the most.

Nestor called the Gryffindors 'too big for their boots'.

Ron accused the Slytherins of being 'Dark Wizards', for they had hitherto not arranged lighting of any kind, and still sat plunged in darkness. Fay and Ernie glanced nervously from Ron to Harry and back at Ron. One or two Hufflepuffs laughed.

"Fiat Lux," with a sly smile Draco waved his wand, and what had to be ten million fireflies swarmed the air around them, making Team Slytherin bask in a lime green glow.

Ron narrowed his eyes at Draco. "This game won't be over as fast as our last," he warned.

"I would hope so," Draco snarked back. "Unless your brother sent you another Transylvanian Quidditch card for Samhain?"

Ron gnashed his teeth and requested a one-on-one match against Draco, right here, right now, despite Greg being Captain of the Slytherin Gobstones team, and Ron being Captain of the Gryffindors... The other players exchanged furtive glances, but otherwise said nothing at all, letting Draco and Ron indulge in their frenzied rivalry. Five nail-biting minutes later, well... Greg had been chewing on his nails, Ron was covered head to toe in dripping green Gobstone juice that smelled vaguely of rotten eggs, and Draco had a smug self satisfied grin on his face. He stood from the rug and strolled over to Ron's side of the circle, holding out his hand.

"Pay up."

Ron uttered strangled curse words as he performed a cleaning spell, then reached inside his breast pocket and slapped a Quidditch player card into Draco's hand. Excitedly Draco rushed back to his own team, dropped to his knees on the rug and proceeded to show off his winnings: a brilliant sparkling card that depicted Aurel Nechita, current Keeper for the National Quidditch Team of Transylvania, dressed in a uniform of dark green dragon scales.

After boasting about it and letting the Quidditch card glitter in the faces of everyone who would come over to look, Draco handed the card to Harry for safekeeping. Feeling Ron's heated glare on him, Harry stashed the card away in his own breast pocket. Subsequent games passed smoothly after that... little thing between Malfoy and Weasley. People got covered in gunk, people cleaned themselves up. It became apparent that no one was to touch the pot until all games were lost and won. The Gobstones team with the highest score by the end of it would take the pot.

Nestor progressed to the next round, beating both Mike and Ernie with ease. Greg faced a little more opposition. He was in the same pool as Fay and Theory, who really put Greg's skill to the test, despite possessing a lot less valuable stones.

In the end Greg lost to Fay, and got swamped with a foul smelling burnt sienna slime. He did not look too happy about that, particularly to have been beaten by a girl. That must suck. Greg played Gobstones since he was five years old, he'd been steadily building a good set of stones over the years, adding to his collection with each new conquest. To lose his best marbles all in one go, that had to hurt. Ron pointed at Greg and laughed. Tony looked over at Greg with a commiserating smile; no one liked it when Ron picked on people. Ernie shifted uncomfortably on his tripod stool.

Theory and Fay moved on to the next round, while Greg wound up in the losers pool. Ron held his ground against Draco in their revenge match, both boys defeated the Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw players in their pool, advancing to the next round. A wicked smile crossed Draco's lips as he leaned in and whispered something in Nestor's ear. The other Slytherin grinned back.

"Oi, what you Snakes plotting?" said Ron leaning forward, perched on the edge of his stool that tipped over with two legs off the ground.

"We're discussing strategy," Nestor calmly said, "something I would suggest you also do."

Ron bared his teeth at them. But when his turn came to toss a stone, he was calm as still water, eyes narrowed, hand poised over the Snake Pit. Then he pitched a ruby gobstone right in the center of the four circles. Ron looked up and smiled.

It was a smile to be reckoned with, like he would take them all on if he could. Fay tossed her stone next, and while it didn't travel quite as far as Ron's had come, she landed an impressive strike in the second ring. With his first marble Nestor knocked the sole Hufflepuff player out of the pit. Draco proceeded to kick Fay's marble from the second circle, taking her place.

Fay mashed her lips together and narrowed her eyes, focusing on the Snake Pit as her fingers drummed nervously on her gobstone purse. Ron scowled at Draco, who returned his heated glare with a diabolical smile. The winner's pool played on.

They were down to the final marble toss, by which point Ron and Draco were the only remaining players with gobstones inside the two inner circles. Everyone else had been pushed to the peripheral rings, or entirely out of the pit. It was all down to Draco and Ron. Harry watched Ron search through his pack for a suitable stone, and Draco experimentally flick his wrist back and forth. Fay raised her wand to cast an umbrella charm against the gunk that would inevitably hit her. Greg and Nestor watched the money pool with anxious eyes. None of them noticed the plain obsidian marble in Theory's nimble fingers.

That is, until Theory tossed his marble.

The glassy black gobstone felt like it had come out of the blue. As it sped into the fourth ring it touched one of Theory's earlier marbles, and bounced off of that, gaining momentum. The dark stone rolled into the third ring, and knocked into another one of Theory's marbles, but instead of sending the other marble scattering away, this impact launched the obsidian gobstone into the second ring. A collective intake of breaths could be heard around the pit. Harry too, found his throat constricted as he watched true mastery at play.

Theory had purposefully spread his marbles over the pit so they could serve as stepping stones for the final gobstone in his arsenal.

Draco gazed at Theory with unrestrained awe.

With amplified speed the obsidian gobstone got propelled into the central ring. If it kept on rolling like that, it would reach the other side and roll right out of the pit for sure.

"Clever," Ron decided to acknowledge, he looked over and nodded at Theory, "but you should've used a higher quality gobstone for that. Sapphire Noisy Hitter would've done the trick."

Theory shrugged. His face was an impassive mask. "A plain gobstone should suffice. You wouldn't swat a fly with a Quidditch bat, would you?"

Ron frowned. "What's that supposed to mean?" he said just as the dark gobstone crashed into his blood red marbles, sending them flying out of the ring.

Draco barely had time to gasp as the impact set off a domino effect, making Ron's marbles collide with his. Their stones absorbed the crazy speed of Theory's marble, which slowed and came to a full stop.

Moments after, Theory's black gobstone was alone in the central ring. Draco ducked his head just in time. The obsidian marble started pelting all players in the winner's pool with a thick black liquid that smelled a lot like tar. Streaks of coal colored grease landed on Draco's knees and muddied his hair. Fay's transparent umbrella worked like a charm, keeping her dry. Nestor shielded himself with a large frying pan that he must've conjured from somewhere. The Hufflepuff player turned away, so that only his back got sprayed with goo.

Ron had been staring at the Snake Pit with a slack jaw. He got a mouthful of the crap. Spitting and spurting, Ron bent over, coughing up the gobstone gunk that had gotten inside his throat. When he finally managed to breathe and see through the dirt on his face, he looked up at Theory, swiped the back of his hand across his mouth, grinned and said:

"Don't tell me you started playing Gobstones from the cradle."

Theory casually reached forward to pick up his marbles, dropping them back in his pouch. While Draco and the Hufflepuff player cast cleaning spells, Harry noticed that Theory didn't bother with claiming their gobstones as his prize. His pale sun-deprived hand moved only to collect the stones he had previously owned. They were all of a dark, desaturated color, and looked fairly cheap. Some were cracked in places, a testament to time.

"Why should I lie?" said Theory, eyeing Ron with a mild smile. "I started playing Gobstones exactly one year and six months ago, Malfoy taught me."

All heads turned on Draco.

"You know each other?" Nestor said in a soft voice Harry could barely hear.

"Not really," Draco muttered under his breath, reaching forward to gather his gobstones.

They did not get discovered on their way down to the Dungeon, despite how Draco kept bewailing the money they'd lost to Team Ravenclaw. Though when they arrived at their dorm, clinking gobstones hidden deep inside the folds of their robes, Blaise, who was just getting ready for bed, looked very surprised indeed to see all three of his roommates together. He pestered them about it non-stop, wanting to know what they'd been doing.

"We played dodgeball," Draco said with a sarcastic drawl.

"Yeah right," said Blaise. "C'mon, what've you been up to?"

Greg looked really uncomfortable. He bit his lip and hurried to hide his gobstone pouch inside his trunk that he kept under his bed. His face had turned a sickly shade of grey.

Before Blaise could interrogate them any further, Harry tapped him on the shoulder and fabricated an elaborate story on the spot. The story involved the Potions prep room, Herbicide, and two Hufflepuff Fifth Years who had been distraught to learn their halochromic pet cactus was no longer alive. By the end of it Greg had safely stashed his gobstones away and was sat on his bed, giving Harry a look that said 'thank you', while Blaise was laughing his head off. Some ten minutes later the boy Prefect Aegis Rowle popped in to say lights out in five.

Staring up at the ceiling Harry fell into a restless sleep. His talk with Professor Dumbledore was scheduled for tomorrow.

The list of questions he had for the Headmaster kept running through his mind all morning, he could think of little else in class. Even misheard the assignment Professor Snape had given them, and nearly ruined his own Pompion Potion by chucking lily of the valley berries in their cauldron. As luck would have it Draco saw that, and made the red berries levitate back inside the jar before these could drop in the sputtering depths of their brew and make the potion explode in their faces.

Professor Snape wrinkled his hooked nose in distaste as he passed their table, but otherwise ignored Harry's absent-minded antics. As soon as he'd crossed over to the other side of the classroom to berate a Hufflepuff student for failing the class, Draco leaned in close and said in a hushed whisper:

"You feeling alright mate?"

With a mutter of "I'm fine," Harry turned back to his Potions textbook that lay on their table, opened at the wrong page, and pretended to read.

He was forced to look up when Draco's fingers appeared between the pages.

"Wouldn't hurt to pop by the Hospital Wing," said Draco, leafing backwards to the correct page.

Harry tuned out his friend and carried on brooding. If he was seeing Dumbledore today, there was no reason why he shouldn't bring up any of the things he really wanted to know. He had a scheduled appointment of thirty minutes. That gave plenty of time to ask the first five questions on his list, and bring up that business with the snaky Snitch.

At precisely five to four Harry walked through the anteroom and knocked on the frame of the portrait. He had to wait a couple of minutes before the portrait hole swung open, letting him in.

"Ah, Harry Potter," said the Headmaster. He wore soft pantofles with long pointy toes that curved up and curled in at the end. Deep purple robes enveloped his whole body like a wide unshapely woman's dress. His snowy white beard fell carelessly over his chest and stomach... Harry thought he spotted an orange ladybug crawling up that beard.

"Please, do have a seat." His ringed hand gestured toward a set of high backed chairs that were placed in front of his desk.

Harry bobbed his head and slowly wobbled toward one of these chairs, then sat at the very edge of it. He nervously played with his tie. Did he have the courage to ask the questions that haunted him? To bring up the stuff that really mattered?

Dumbledore casually strolled around his desk and plopped down in the chair behind it. The ladybug in his beard took flight and buzzed around the room. Harry followed it with his eyes for a few moments.

"Coccinellidae, lovely creatures," said Dumbledore, making Harry refocus his attention back on him, "they are the best natural deterrent against greenflies. Professor Sprout would not get anything to grow without these little workers."

Harry frowned. "Right..."

The expression on Headmaster Dumbledore's face was oddly peaceful, like he was in an exalted state of happiness, void of all trouble. If Harry didn't know any better, he would've guessed the Headmaster was drunk, or under the influence of some magical drug.

"I umm... I had a number of questions for you, Sir."

"Shoot," said Dumbledore, leaning back in his chair and making a finger gun at the ceiling. Little golden sparks crackled up from his finger, dissolving in the air above his head.

Harry stared at the sparks. "Well... you see, I was wondering if you'd known my parents? When they were students here?" he crumpled his tie in his hands.

"Oh, yes," Dumbledore nodded sagely. "Your parents were very good people, and outstanding students during their time at Hogwarts."

"What Houses were they sorted in? Were they any good at Quidditch?" Harry leaned forward, tie forgotten, fingers drumming anxiously on his knees.

A curious smirk crossed the Headmaster's lips. "Your father... might have been a Chaser on his House Quidditch team. Your mother was a Gryffindor. You truly knocked our socks off at the opening ceremony, Harry, most people thought the Hat would place you in House Gryffindor."

With a bashful smile Harry admitted that the Hat had indeed tried to put him in Gryffindor, but the thought of having overbearing Professor McGonagall as Head of House had averted that outcome.

Dumbledore threw his head back and laughed a jolly, hearty laugh that would befit Santa Claus. "I've been meaning to ask you, how did your summer with Professor McGonagall go? Did you like it there? She wants you to stay with her for the following four summers, until you come of age. But I should like to hear your thoughts before I make my decision on the matter."

Harry conceded that he quite liked it at McGonnie's. She was strict with him but also fair, and while he really enjoyed staying at Hogwarts with his mates, he would much rather prefer being placed under Professor McGonagall's care, than to be sent back to the Dursleys.

Headmaster Dumbledore nodded while pensively stroking his beard. "Yes, I have no objection against your staying over at Professor McGonagall's. She has never had any kids... I suppose this is her making up for lost time."

Now seemed like as good a time as ever to pop the big question.

"Professor,"

The Headmaster pulled himself from his musings and trained his eyes on Harry, who bit his lip, suddenly feeling rather uneasy. Could he even bring up this dreadful topic without spontaneously bursting into tears? The last thing he needed was to look fragile and vulnerable, because then Dumbledore would never believe him about the Basilisk and what he'd heard...

"...why did you have me placed with my Aunt and Uncle after what happened to my parents? Did no magical family wish to adopt me?"

"The offers to take you in were loud and many. Harry, after what you did for the Wizarding World, every Witch and Wizard in Britain wanted you as their son."

"Then ...why?"

Dumbledore let out a deep melancholy breath. A guilt-ridden look of sorrow crossed his weathered face.

"Well you see..." and then the old coot proceeded to regale him with an incredible tale of the Dark Lord being vanquished, but how they could not be 100% sure he was really gone.

While Harry listened, his eyes went wider and wider, his temper flared hotter and hotter till it ascended to a white-hot fury that threatened to spill out, spread all over and totally wreck his mask of unassuming friendliness. He dug his hands inside his pockets, grabbing fistfulls of robe in frustration, but held his tongue.

Professor Dumbledore was crass enough to spin him some hogwash about his mother's 'Luv' acting as a magical shield that kept him safe from the Dark Lord, should he return from the dead. A shield that supposedly was strongest when Harry lived around blood relatives... for somehow his mother's 'Luv' had gotten in his blood, (she must've given him a whopping dose of 'Luv' by way of direct injection into his main vein) ...and since they could be absolutely certain he was his mother's son, they had left him in the care of his mother's little sister Petunia Dursley, in spite of her (unfortunate) disdain for magic.

Harry just sat there, staring at the quills on Dumbledore's desk as he listened to the man talk. If he'd had any expectations of how his meeting with Professor Dumbledore would go, this was not it. Felt more like listening to the ravings of a lunatic in a home for the elderly, than the responsible voice of an adult who was hailed as the greatest Wizard of modern time. Harry's shoulders sunk in despair. His whole point of going here, of talking to the Headmaster, seemed to disintegrate into nothing.

He couldn't trust this man with his knowledge of the Serpent and the hexed Quidditch Snitch. So when Dumbledore finally fell silent, Harry thanked him for the information and stood to go.

"Ah, Harry my boy, listen."

Harry paused mid way between desk and portrait. Professor Dumbledore leaned back in his seat, steepling his wonky old fingers.

"It has been brought to my awareness that some... Slytherin students... have attempted to cheat at their tests last term."

A chill ran down Harry's spine, making him shiver.

The Headmaster looked him directly in the eye. "You wouldn't happen to know anything about that, would you?"

Harry willed the fear from his face and calmly said "no Sir."

Dumbledore's bright blue eyes twinkled. "Okey-dokey, sorry for pestering you with this nasty business. Run along now."

Harry bolted out of the Headmaster's office, his face burning with shame.

But the Serpent's foreboding words remained in the back of his mind all afternoon. The next game in the Hogwarts Quidditch League was just two days away. Harry felt like he had to do something, yet he didn't know what.

As he sat cross-legged on Draco's bed, playing a card game with his friend, he thought of ways how to lure the stealthy Serpent from its hiding place. And how he'd get the Serpent to talk...

Draco slapped a Beater card on the space of bedspread between them. "And I win, again."

Harry blinked, pushing his glasses further up his nose as he studied the Quidditch Player cards laid out before him. "Oh, yeah... I guess you do," he shrugged, stacking the cards back together. "Up for another round?"

With a displeased scowl Draco raised an eyebrow at him. "What's with you today? You normally put up more of a fight, I might as well be playing against the wall," he gestured at it, waving his hand in frustration.

"Ehm..." any thoughts of slipping out of this and pretending he was totally fine vanished from Harry's mind when he noticed the worried look on his friend's face.

Harry looked down at the Quidditch Player cards in his hands. England's team Seeker Blythe Parkin was on top, holding a golden Snitch in her hand and offering Harry a soft smile of encouragement. He shut his eyes and let out a heavy breath, setting the stack of cards down on the bed.

Telling Draco about the Serpent would be a terrible idea, and a terribly appealing idea. No longer would he have to walk around with this secret weighing him down, this knowledge would become their shared burden.

Still Harry hesitated to tell Draco... he eyed his friend sceptically. Could he really trust Draco? Perhaps if he only told him a little bit, just enough to sate his curiosity, and not to spark a hunger for more.

"I have concerns about the upcoming Quidditch game," Harry stated, without fibbing a word. He truly was worried about the Quidditch players of Hogwarts. "What if whatever happened to Diggory happens again?"

"Well yeah," said Draco leaning back, "that was brutal. I hope they catch the bastard that did it. But I don't see why it should happen again. I mean, Diggory is popular... very popular. The guy both has many supporters and plenty of haters. A guy like Diggory is sure to ignite some envy." Draco smirked, listing the points off on his fingers: "he has good looks, good grades, a perfect record, was great at Quidditch and just about any other sport." Shaking his head, Draco let his head rest on his pillow and stared up at the back of Harry's bunk, as he stretched his hand out and made a floating gesture through the air. "You fly too close to the sun..."

Harry pursed his lip. "What if... what if it wasn't about Diggory?"

Draco looked at him. "Who would it be about, then?"

"What if this was bigger than Diggory? What if someone was after... after the Quidditch House Cup!"

Draco frowned at that. He sat up slowly, neck held at an odd angle. "You know something."

"Yeah," Harry breathed out, slumping forward in defeat. He was going to tell Draco everything; there was no way around it.

To his credit, Draco remained silent and waited for Harry to talk, not urging him on or trying to pull the secret out of him. Maybe that was what did it, because before Harry knew what he was doing, he looked his friend in the eye and said

"The Serpent of Slytherin speaks to me."

 

 


 

Author's Note:

Yes, in this story Petunia Evans was one year younger than Lily Evans (who was the same age as Severus Snape, that is, nineteen years older than Harry and Draco). Also, I've aged up Dudley to be about two years older than Harry. So (in this story) Harry was born when Lily was nineteen years old, fresh out of Hogwarts... and Petunia would have been eighteen years old at the time... and already have two-year-old baby Dudley crawling around... So yeah, Petunia Evans was a teen mom. (Dudley may or may not have been Vernon Dursley's biological son;) perhaps Vernon married Petunia later on, after she had a child, (after Dudley's daddy broke up with her), and adopted Dudley as his own son.

So basically !cucked Vernon.