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Nine

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Chapter 1, Burning Whale

(5,000 words)

"Boy!"

He could hear the fury in his Uncle's voice even through the closed door. At once, he knew he had somehow gotten himself in deep trouble. Or more likely, Dudley had found a way to get him into trouble.

His teeth clenched at the thought of his cousin. He couldn't help it, he didn't like the fat boy at all. And, no, he didn't say fat to be rude, for Dudley was thrice the size of himself and they were still the same age.

Dudley Dursley. Actually, he could go as far as saying he very much hated that son of a whale. Not that he ever really would say it, but there was a certain satisfaction of being able to think it so clearly and the Dursleys would never know.

Although, he was sure that they in fact did know already, just like he knew that he himself was the very bane of their existence. Had they not been related, and had they not been paid for taking care of him, then his Uncle and Aunt would have left him at the orphanage the same day he appeared on their doorstep.

"Boy! You get in here this moment, or I will show you the proper way of using a kitchen knife!" came the rumble of Uncle Vernon's not so sweet voice. He could almost feel the floor vibrating from the force of it.

He hurriedly marked the page of the book he was reading and hid it under the filthy mattress. The small door came open when he lifted the hasp and he crawled out awkwardly. The cupboard he'd slept and lived in for as long as he could remember was getting much too small for him, and he suspected it was affecting the way he grew. Having to lay crawled up to fit the small space several hours of the day would be a good way to explain how short he was. Of course, that could also be blamed on years of malnutrition and hard work around his relatives' house.

He approached the kitchen warily, as he always did when nearing his Uncle. As he set foot on the light grey tiles, the enormous mass of meat that was a man fixed him with a narrow glare.

"Boy", grumbled Uncle Vernon, mustache bobbing up and down as he spoke. "What took you so bloody long?"

"Nothing, sir", he answered quickly, not wanting to increase the man's impatience. He quickly regretted this, though, as his Uncle's face turned thunderous.

"Nothing? You mean to tell me that the delay was because of you lazing around? Huh? Answer me!" he shouted, spit flying like lava from a volcano.

He knew his Uncle was close to crossing the line now. Out of instinct, his body started to curl in on itself at the harsh tone. He knew very well that the threat about the kitchen knife from earlier had been real. If he didn't do anything to satisfy Uncle Vernon now, he'd soon have a few additional scars to his impressive collection.

"That's not what I meant, sir", he said hastily, hearing how his voice trembled slightly despite trying to keep it steady. "I'm a stupid boy, and I, er, got tangled up in my bedsheet when I heard you call. Forgive me, sir."

He looked down at the floor, showing submission. If he looked Uncle Vernon in the eye now, it would be taken as disrespect or rebellion.

"Hm", came a grunt. "If you're too incompetent to handle even the sheets, then I will be forced to take them away. From now on, you will be sleeping on the mattress and the pillow." A look of satisfaction swept over the fat face before he turned stern again. "You hear that, boy? Useless freaks don't deserve sheets. Be happy we let you sleep in the house and don't throw you out in the garden."

He felt like crying with despair, but bit back the tears of unfairness and nodded. Now his own stupidness had lost him the one source of warmth he had in his small cupboard. What was wrong with him? If he had just put the book down sooner, then this would never had happened. Stupid, stupid, him.

"I asked if you hear me! Answer when I speak to you, freak!"

He swallowed thickly and nodded, murmuring a quick "Yes, sir, forgive me."

Through his lashes, he watched Uncle Vernon stand from his poor chair with a screech and walked up to stand right before him. The fat on the man's body kind of moved around as he walked, as if it had a life of its own. He could imagine it had. Maybe there was an extra brain somewhere in there that only controlled the fat's movement.

Wasn't that an odd thought?

Before he could think further of the fat-brain, though, a loud crack echoed through the house and he wasn't seeing his Uncle's swollen belly anymore. Instead, his head was tilted sideways and… his cheek hurt.

It took a while to realise his Uncle had slapped him. Again. It took a few seconds longer to notice he was hyperventilating.

"Shut up, freak", ordered Uncle Vernon coldly, making him twitch. "That was for taking so long."

"Yes, sir", he whispered, afraid to move or speak too loudly. It wasn't often that his Uncle or Dudley hit him in the face, because the bruises would cause suspicion in the neighbourhood. Aunt Petunia didn't like bad rumours circling about their family and since she was such a gossiper herself, she knew how bad it could get. Privet Drive was like paradise for people like her. People like the Dursleys.

He hated it.

"Now", he heard Uncle Vernon saying. He was standing too close for his comfort. He could almost feel the man's sticky breath attaching itself to his skin and sticking there like cancer. He shuddered. Vernon continued, "Dudley will be back from Hogwarts in a couple of hours. Your Aunt and I will be getting him at around five. By then, I want the house to be perfect for my son. You will clean his room and cook dinner and dessert. Make it good, or I will let him curse you for the whole weekend."

"Of course, sir. I will be done before five. Anything else?" he asked, careful to not grit his teeth when Uncle Vernon spoke of his damn lucky cousin.

"No. Leave now, and keep out of my sight." He stood still, waiting for the man to take a step back so he didn't have to press up to the wall to get away. His Uncle didn't like this. He roared, "Are you both brainless and deaf? I told you to leave!"

He nodded jerkily and almost crawled out from the small space between his Uncle and the wall. When he was out, he rushed away from the kitchen and made it upstairs before he couldn't control his breathing anymore. For several minutes, which felt like hours, he took deep, calming breaths.

Weak. He knew he was. So awfully weak he couldn't stand up to the man he feared and the cousin he hated. Weak in body, weak in mind, weak in magic…

Oh yes, magic. The one thing Dudley excelled at like no one else in his family line, and the one thing he had never had.

While Dudley got to go to Hogwarts ever week, he had to stay at the Dursley's house and work until his body felt numb. When Dudley had gone to Diagon Alley with Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia to purchase a wand, he had been locked up in his cupboard, still hopeful that his Hogwarts letter would come.

That was five years ago. Dudley was now in his sixth year at Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry and grew for every year that passed by, both in size, ego, and magical ability. He was cuddled by the teachers, looked upon by his classmates, and the Headmaster absolutely adored him. He knew neither teachers nor the Headmaster, namely Albus Dumbledore, were supposed to have favourites and he loathed how beloved his cousin was while he… well, he was loved by no one.

But who loved a squib, anyway?

He would do anything to go to Hogwarts and to have even the tiniest ounce of magic. As a child he had dreamt of the day he'd be free from the Dursleys and the magic school would welcome him with open arms and tell him he belonged there.

But no. As a matter of fact, he had never attended any school. Ever. The Dursleys had always been set on keeping him a dirty family secret, and that meant no exposure to the world outside of Number Four, Privet Drive. The only time he ever went out was when he had chores to do in the garden or the house needed painting. If the neighbours wondered what he was doing there, Aunt Petunia would explain in her shrill voice that he was a hired gardener and that he was older than he looked. The Dursleys did not involve themselves in child labor, thank you very much.

He sighed and pushed himself away from the wall he'd been leaning against. The room closest to him belonged to Dudley. It was his cousin's second room, since the fat boy had too many toys to fit in his bedroom. One could think that the amount of toys would decrease after Dudley reached his teens, but oh no, the pile had kept building. The whole thing was like a Hydra. Chop off one head and two new grew; throw away one broken toy and two new would soon replace it.

He passed by the toy room and the rest of the house's residents' bedrooms on his way to the small broom closet at the end of the narrow hallway. He proceeded to drag out the tools he needed and went to clean the two rooms.

As he worked, he could hear his Uncle turning on the television downstairs and casting an Accio Beer.

All the Dursley's were magical, but both Vernon and Petunia Dursley were below average when it came to their magical strength. That was why Dudley was such a wonderchild, because he was very much over average wizards and witches. Almost everyone in the magical regions of Sussex knew who Dudley was. They all wanted to tutor the fantastic boy in both music and art during the weekends; two subjects that were not taught at Hogwarts, though could still be used magically. Especially music. There were certain spells and rituals where music had to be involved for the magic to work.

Unfortunately, he had heard Dudley singing. He never wanted to undergo that torture ever again. If his cousin's voice had been unattractive before, it was nothing compared to how he sounded once he attempted those higher tones.

Singing was the single thing he could do better than Dudley, if one didn't count cooking and cleaning. He'd discovered the ability many years ago on Dudley's birthday. The Dursley's had left him locked up in his cupboard for hours while they had their fun at a muggle amusement park. As soon as the door had closed and the house stood in total silence, he noticed he could still hear the television going in the living room, which was luckily only just across the hall.

The volume was loud. He could hear every word that was spoken and not too soon a show about muggle food switched to a show about a singing competition. He had sat on his thin, soggy mattress with his ear pressed against the bars on the door and listened to songs he had heard before on Aunt Petunia's small radio in the kitchen. He even knew the lyrics to some songs.

He'd started to sing along and was surprised at how wonderful he found the experience to be. Never before had he felt so delighted over something and he sang with the artist for as long as he could, until the show ended. He'd hummed to himself happily for the next coming hours as he'd waited for the Dursleys to return home. He'd felt truly content.

Without really noticing, he started humming a tune as he vacuumed Dudley's bedroom. He did so quietly so that Uncle Vernon would not hear him and come barging in yelling about useless freaks and how they never did as they were told.

He was afraid that would end with worse than just a raised voice. He avoided beatings if he could.

And one did not intervene with Vernon Dursley's beer time. Not if one valued one's life.

~/Nine\\~

He was back in the kitchen when the front door slammed open at exactly five thirty in the afternoon. The food stood ready and steaming on the kitchen table, made for three, and there were currently two pies being baked in the oven. One pie wouldn't satisfy Dudley alone, so he'd made an extra.

Speaking of the troll, his cousin came waddling from the hall with a proud face and head held high, though this did nothing to lessen the size of his multiple chins.

Dudley, who was a somewhat smaller replica of his father, headed straight for his chair at the table. His plate was soon full of food and he was shoving it into his mouth like it was the only thing he'd ever learned properly.

When his Aunt and Uncle entered the kitchen, Dudley was halfway through the mountain in front of him, and that was only his first portion.

Aunt Petunia - the very opposite of her son and husband when it came to size - immediately went to coo her wonderful little boy as if they hadn't just seen each other seconds ago.

Dudley waved her away with a grunt and returned to his steak. The rest of the Dursleys settled down and started having a pleasant family meal while he stood by the kitchen counter and watched them.

Petunia chirped, "Dudley, dear, how was your week at school?"

"Cool. Hufflepuff's still in the lead for the House Cup, just like always." He smirked smugly. "I get the most points, of course."

Petunia beamed at her son, showing perfect teeth that didn't look so good on her.

"That's wonderful, love. Have the Slytherins been any trouble lately?" she asked worriedly, putting down her cutlery so that she could focus solely on Dudley. As if Dudley even noticed, with his head buried in the potatoes like that.

"Yeah", mumbled his cousin through a mouth stuffed with food. "That Parkinson hag and her bodyguards are just too dumb to be real. I think Crabbe and Goyle are the illegitimate children of Hagrid or something." Illegitimate? Dudley must've heard that from someone else, because he couldn't imagine such a difficult word having any place in his cousin's vocabulary. "Anyway", Dudley continued, "I'm glad the Malfoy brat switched schools all those years ago. I don't think I could've stopped myself from using a very complicated hex on him otherwise."

At this, Uncle Vernon laughed heartily. It was a kind of deep, yet oddly wet sound as if he was gurgling water.

"That's my boy! Don't ever let anyone get to you", he said and received a saucy smile from Dudley.

He had noticed how some words could mean the same thing while at the same time have two completely different meanings.

Like the word 'boy'. When Uncle Vernon spoke to Dudley and called him boy, it was because he was proud Dudley was his son and that he loved him. But when Uncle Vernon called him boy, it was because he was a freak and to show he wasn't worth anything.

This used to confuse him when he was smaller. He had thought that boy was only a word for children that had been very bad, and that maybe Dudley had also been bad when Uncle Vernon called him that. But then Uncle Vernon said that his Dudley was never bad and that he would never be angry at his little boy.

He thought Uncle Vernon said strange things sometimes. It was difficult to always understand.

"Speaking of young Mr. Malfoy, dear, I heard from Professor McGonagall that his father was over at Hogwarts this week", said Aunt Petunia. She had that glint in her eye that said she was ready to suck up every bit of gossip she could get.

Dudley's face brightened up suddenly and he actually left his plate to speak to his mother.

"Yes, Lucius Malfoy came to tell us about politics in case anyone was interested in going into that business after school, but really we just talked about Chrestomanci. It was awesome." Dudley looked thoughtful for a moment before stating, "I want to meet him someday."

"Chrestomanci?" pressed Aunt Petunia, looking as excited as a child put in front of a lollipop. "What did he say?"

Dudley cleared his throat and took on an expression of importance; a slight failure because of the sauce smeared all over his face.

"You see, mother, Lucius Malfoy, or Lord Malfoy, revealed that he was Chrestomanci's secretary. You wouldn't believe the things he told us."

"Oh, do go on, Duddykins! Tell us more", encouraged his mother.

Dudley went on with rambling endless details about how Lord Malfoy had told them Chrestomanci lived in a castle hidden where no one could find it unless Chrestomanci wanted them to, and how you had to go there by carriage, because only Chrestomanci could apparated or use portkey inside the wards, and how the carriage looked and that it was made in Switzerland or Sweden or somewhere else and it was blue.

He thought it sounded magnificent. He listened as if he was bewitched to every word that Dudley spoke, every simple description that he struggled to get right with his uncomplicated words. Still, he could not stop listening.

He knew who Chrestomanci was. Everyone knew who Chrestomanci was. He was the King of all wizards and witches and magical creatures in all the worlds. Chrestomanci was the most powerful wizard of all, even more than Dudley. It was said he was so powerful, he was immortal.

He admired Chrestomanci with all that he was. If he could see, just get a glimpse, of the man, then he was sure he'd be happy for the rest of his life no matter what the Dursleys did to him.

The family around the table went on to speaking about their plans for the weekend, much to his disappointment, and he stood listening to Dudley whining about how he had to take lessons in music and art even on his free time. After a while, they went quiet again and just ate.

He had to stay there, in case one of his relatives would ask for something. Like now, for example, when his cousin lifted his face from the plate to snap his head up and look at him.

"Freak", he spat, pieces of meat sailing to the floor from his mouth. "Where's the dessert?"

"In the oven", he said politely.

Dudley sniffed, as if he was a pig looking for fruit. He nearly snorted. As if Dudley would ever eat a fruit.

When his cousin couldn't smell what the dessert was, he demanded, "What is it? How much is it?"

"Bakewell tart, two of them."

"Bakewell tart?" asked Dudley, nose wrinkling with irritation and confusion. "I don't think I've eaten that before. I don't think I'll like it."

He fidgeted nervously with the hem of his hand-me-down shirt. "It's kind of like a pie with-"

"Mum, I don't like the food Freak made today. It's disgusting", stated the fat boy, although he had just gladly eaten of the steak he'd made.

Aunt Petunia gave her son a sympathetic look and then turned angry eyes on him. Her lips were pressed together, causing her to make that face that meant he was in trouble.

"Look what you've done, boy. Can't even cook like a normal person, that's how much of a freak you are. Wasn't enough for you to be a squib already, you just had to sink even lower. Now my dear Duddykins will be hungry because you messed it all up."

They were all glaring at him now. He stood there stiffly, waiting for one of them to explode; most likely Uncle Vernon or Dudley.

Surprisingly, none of them did anything worse than Uncle Vernon turning purple. The fat man bit out, "Go to your cupboard, and stay there. We're going out for dinner tonight."

He wasn't about to complain. He offered a quick "Yes, sir", and hurried to the safety of his cupboard.

He only hoped the day would end like this.

~/Nine\\~

Aunt Petunia left the kitchen soon after to 'powder her nose' in the bathroom on the second floor. He had heard how Uncle Vernon had firecalled a place called The Leaky Cauldron in London to book a table. He wondered if the restaurant was perhaps nearby Diagon Alley. Not that he had the faintest clue what Diagon Alley really was, except for being a part of the magic community, but Dudley had bragged about it when he'd come home with a wand when they were eleven.

The door to the bathroom upstairs closed with a bang and then went quiet. Aunt Petunia was sensitive about her privacy and always put up both locking charms on the door and several layers of silencing spells. He figured she'd be staying up there with her makeup for a good while.

He dug out his book from under the mattress and curled up under his sheet, wanting to savour the feel of it while he still had it. Chances were small that Uncle Vernon would forget about his promise and take it away.

He brought his hand up to his cheek to touch where his Uncle has slapped him. It wouldn't bruise, after all. Just turn red for a while. He was sure Uncle Vernon had done so on purpose so he could still work outside in the garden.

He let it go and switched on the naked light bulb hanging from the ceiling and opened to the page he'd been on. The book would chase away thoughts of his relatives.

He wasn't supposed to be able to read, much less have a book in his possession. He'd only learned because he'd eavesdropped on Dudley and Aunt Petunia when his cousin had been taught to read. Sometimes, he'd been able to sneak a few of the easy books into his cupboard before nightfall when the Dursleys were too tired to notice anything was gone.

This had led to his love for books and his need for learning everything he could remember. At that moment in time, he was devoting his free time to books of history. He'd snagged a book on the subject from Dudley's bag. The boy had only assumed he'd lost in at Hogwarts and Uncle Vernon had bought him a new.

He was reading peacefully about ancient Rome when suddenly the small door to his cupboard slammed open and was replaced by a walrus… he meant Uncle Vernon.

"Now, about that sh-" The words seemed to clog themselves together in that fat throat with a choking sound. Those blueish eyes widened comically when they settled on the history book in his lap.

He immediately felt something akin to panic rise inside him. He didn't know what else to do then hide his treasure again before Uncle Vernon could react and take it away from him. His hands trembled as he twisted to push it in under his mattress, and it just went under when meaty hands grabbed his arms and threw him out of his cupboard.

Uncle Vernon slammed him up against the wall next to the small door, making sure his head knocked back hard. He moaned pitifully.

"Where did you get that?!" roared his Uncle, face close to his. He thought he might go deaf for real this time.

"I- I didn't-"

"You fucking stole it, didn't you, freak?! You took it from Dudley!" He was slammed back again. Stars appeared before his eyes, making Uncle Vernon blurry even though he had his glasses on.

"I'm sorry", he gasped. "I will never do it again."

"Like hell you'll never do it again, scum. When will you bloody understand that you're not worth anything?" Uncle Vernon spat.

A hand closed around his throat tightly. He tried to swallow but found he couldn't. Vernon stared him in the eye as he slowly choked him.

"Please… sir", he croaked out, pleading with his eyes. He couldn't breath.

Uncle Vernon sneered ugly, but released his hold. He fell to the ground, coughing so hard his ribs hurt. It felt like he had breathed in nails and they had embedded themselves in his throat and lungs.

While he was doing his best to catch his breath, he caught sight of Uncle Vernon turning to his cupboard. With dawning realization, he understood what was going to happen next.

"No!" he wheezed out hoarsely. He was going to take away his book!

"Shut up, freak! If you value your life, you stay out of this." His Uncle bent down and halfway disappeared into the small space under the stairs. He heard noises of Uncle Vernon trying to dig out the book from underneath the mattress.

"Don't!" he rasped and fought to get up to his feet. He staggered to his Uncle and tried to grip the man's shirt to pull him out.

Uncle Vernon growled and reached behind him to push him away. He knocked into the doorframe to the living room and saw red.

In the same moment that Uncle Vernon let out a triumphant "Ah!" and started to crawl out, there was a loud sound of glass breaking from within the cupboard. The enormous man let out a surprised shout and made to stand straight, but hit the back of his head against upper edge of the doorway and fell to the floor with a loud thud.

He stood unsure for several seconds, just looking at the unconscious body of Vernon Dursley. It would've probably been a lot longer before he moved if it hadn't been for the small fire that was now eating up his sheets and mattress.

The lightbulb had exploded, sending sparks everywhere and igniting whatever they reached.

He wasn't planning on standing there any longer if the flames were going to spread. The history book was in Uncle Vernon's slack hand. He reached forwards and snagged it quickly to save it from the fire. Then, he hid it under his too big T-shirt and ran to the base of the stairs.

He was about to call for Aunt Petunia when he remembered that she had charms placed on the door. She wouldn't hear him anyway. Instead, he recalled Dudley placing himself in front of the television and went there. He had to step over Uncle Vernon to get there.

"Dudley", he called out, not sure if his cousin would hear over the volume. Taking a look over his shoulder, he saw that the flames were steadily growing. They were very close to Uncle Vernon's head now.

Dudley grunted. That was technically a yes in his language.

"There's a fire! We have to get out, now!"

Another grunt, a nod, and nothing else was his answer. Whale Jr. didn't move from his spot on the couch. He stared at his cousin disbelievingly. Behind him, smoke began to billow out in dark grey clouds. They had to leave the house soon if they didn't want to choke to death.

"Dudley, I mean it! Get your fat arse out of the bloody sofa before I leave without you", he screamed, surprising himself. He couldn't remember using words like that out loud.

Thankfully, Dudley finally snapped out of it. He twisted around to stare at him open-mouthed with the television still going in the background, showing a childish cartoon.

Dudley's gaze shifted to the burning flight of stairs. If it was possible, his eyes grew larger. An indignant squeak escaped his cousin and he was on his feet with surprising speed, racing for the back door leading to the garden. The hallway to the front entrance was too filled with fire and fainted Vernon for either of them to pass through there.

He followed his cousin as the boy ran out and threw himself dramatically on the grass as if he had just escaped a dragon. He guessed that wasn't too far from the truth.

Dudley was panting heavily from his little run when he came out from the house, having walked calmly. He had… forgotten about trying to drag out Uncle Vernon from the cupboard, but as he turned back to look through the windows of the perfectly clean kitchen, he caught sight of the big body starting to move in the hallway.

It was too late for Vernon Dursley, he decided when his Uncle sat up and his hair was on fire.

He turned away from the sight.

Fire had spread everywhere within seconds. He couldn't deny being scared; the heat of the flames burned against his skin and a pillar of smoke rose towards the innocently blue sky, staining it. But, he found when analysing the feeling, the fear was not for his two relatives still in the house. Later, he would face guilt for being so emotionless at the knowledge of their deaths. After all, they had raised him.

He was only scared of the fire, though, and as he watched the flames climb high, he clutched his history book tightly against his chest and listened to Dudley snivelling on the grass and the screaming of a burning whale inside a house he would never return to ever again.

Chapter Text

Chapter 2, Coachwoman

(5,000 words)

 

He and Dudley were sitting on a park bench at the playground not far away from the burning house. It was Dudley who had ordered they leaved the garden before the house exploded. He was somewhat doubtful that would actually happen, but then he thought of glimpses he’d gotten of action movies on the television and kept quiet.

 

Tears and snot was still running freely down his cousin’s face. He thought Dudley might pass out from dehydration if he didn’t stop bawling soon.

 

He wasn’t crying like a baby. In fact, he had the weird urge to smile, but didn’t since smiling was something you did when you were happy and he was sure he didn’t feel happy. It was another type of feeling, like relief but still different.

 

While Dudley shook from sobs at his side, he took his time to look at his surroundings. The sky was cloudy and rain hung in the air, but to him it was quite beautiful. October weather always had been quite dramatic. The swings on the playground were dirty with sand and bird crap, swinging calmly in the wind. An orange slide that looked like it had once been red had cracks running through it like veins. To him, it was interesting to watch when they sat there.

 

A pop sounded behind them, making them both jump in surprise. Dudley twisted around on his seat while he was non-lazy enough to stand and turn.

 

There was a man standing on the other side of the bench. He took in his appearance with great fascination. He was the first ever not fat man that he’d ever seen outside of the television, although he wasn’t bulky like the men in movies either. He was somewhere in between, with blond hair hinting on red tones and green eyes.

 

He had green eyes, too, but they didn’t look like this man’s. His were clearer and the stranger in front of him had more dull shades of murky green.

 

The robes the man wore were green as well, but they didn’t fit very well. He’d seen robes a few times before on Dudley, but the Dursleys preferred to wear muggle clothes as they lived in a supposedly muggle area of Britain. However, he supposed Uncle Vernon wouldn’t look that good in robes. Especially not now that he was dead.

 

“Finally!” exclaimed Dudley, sounding both relieved and impatient. “I’ve been waiting for ages.”

 

They had been waiting for this man? Was he from the fire department? If so, then they needed to update their uniforms. He couldn’t see how anyone would be able to tame a fire with those long flimsy robes without getting caught in the flames. They were very impractical. But then again, he guessed fire could be taken down with magic.

 

The man smiled at them. No, scratch that, he smiled at Dudley. He couldn’t be smiling at them both; no one ever smiled at him with any real happiness.

 

“I can imagine”, said the man. His voice was deep and a little raspy. “There are Aurors down at your house working to extinguish the fire. We feared when we couldn’t find you that you had been in the house with your parents-”

 

“My parents? Are they still alive?” interrupted Dudley.

 

The man gave him an apologizing smile. “I am truly sorry, Mr Dursley. Our spells registered a body in the hallway and another one on the second floor. We could do nothing to save them.”

 

Dudley broke down crying again and curled up as best he could on the bench and ignored the official looking man. He watched his cousin, feeling almost sympathetic. Almost.

 

The man turned to him and spoke, “Thank you for taking care of your friend while we were busy. Would you like to come with him to the Ministry and keep him company until we’ve found him a place to stay?”

 

He nodded slowly. Then, a smile broke out on his lips when he thought of visiting the famous Ministry of Magic. He’d heard Uncle Vernon talking about it many times, and he’d seen it mentioned on headlines in the Daily Prophet lying on the kitchen table each morning. Things seemed terribly exciting over there.

 

“Yes, sir, I’d like that”, he replied politely. He knew how to act around strangers a little, since he’d listened from his locked cupboard many times as Uncle Vernon had business people over for dinner. It was one good thing that the now dead man had taught him.

 

“Good, good. Oh, yes, I should introduce myself”, he said with a goofy smile. “Atticus Cutcliffe, Administrative Registration Department, at your service. And please call me Atticus.” He bowed quickly, mostly turned towards Dudley even though it wasn’t him he was speaking to. “Now, we should get you and your friend out of this place. It’s much too muggle and the weather promises colds. Here, I’ll apparate us there.”

 

He stepped around the bench and came standing with both arms reaching out; one to Dudley and one to himself.

 

When none of them reacted - he didn’t understand what to do and Dudley was too busy bawling on the bench - Atticus shook his arms expectantly. He got the clue and grabbed the one extended to him. A poke in the ribs was all his cousin needed to grumpily stand, eyes red and nose running. As soon as Atticus had them both in a secure grip, he twisted on the spot and there was a loud crack.

 

The playground was empty once more.

 

~//Nine\\~

 

His body was being squished through a tube. He couldn’t breathe; his lungs were pressed together and his ribs were on the brink of breaking. For a horrible moment, he thought he was about to die. In the next, he was on solid ground, stumbling to the floor as the world around him spun like crazy.

 

“Good gracious, you’re a sensitive one, aren’t you?” said a voice somewhere outside his line of vision. Hands gripped his upper arms and he was hauled to his feet.

 

“Thank you, sir”, he mumbled, pressing a hand to the side of his dizzy head. He didn’t feel quite like throwing up, but it was a close call.

 

Atticus, he noticed when looking up, was the one who had helped him stand. The man was standing as tall as before, seemingly not affected by the apparition at all. Dudley would be the same, he assumed, if the boy hadn’t been crying his eyes out still.

 

He couldn’t really blame him. Dudley had just lost both his parents after all.

 

“Cutcliffe! You found him at last.”

 

He diverted his eyes from Dudley to take in the newcomer. By doing this, he also caught sight of their surroundings. He became fixated.

 

It was a simple office; creamy brown walls; bookshelves full of binders; a broad desk decorated by trinclest and neatly stacked piles of paper. Boring to most, however to someone who had never seen further than the identical neighbor houses it was like a whole new world. It was the first time he saw that shade of brown on the floor; the first time he saw that painting; that door; that lamp. And the smell! The Dursleys’ house always smelled the same, and the garden depended on the weather, but the office smelled of new paper and dust and ash. He supposed the last one was because of the fireplace to their right.

 

This was also the first time he saw a real woman except for a few occasional faces through the window and Aunt Petunia and Aunt Marge. Behind the desk sat a short, stern-looking little lady with curly white hair and rectangular glasses. He thought she looked rather old, but she didn’t have many wrinkles. Perhaps it was just the hair?

 

“Indeed, Madame Taberna. You’ll be glad to hear that Mr Dursley here was found unharmed and safe just a few yards from the scene”, said Atticus, patting Dudley’s shoulder. His cousin had managed to pull himself together a bit at the sight of Madame Taberna.

 

“Yes, I heard. Very unfortunate, it is. Such a fine family; you must be taking this hard”, noted Madame Taberna, not looking very sorry although he was sure she was very emotional on the inside… perhaps. “What of the residence? Have you determined the source of the fire?”

 

“There seems to have been some problem with the electricity by the staircase. Muggle technology, most likely. The house will have to be demolished and rebuilt, seeing as the damage is too great. While the property still belongs to the Dursley family, young Mr Dursley will not be able to claim it before he’s seventeen. I’m afraid we have to find somewhere else for him to live in the meantime”, informed Atticus.

 

Dudley whined miserably.

 

Madame Taberna nodded solemnly. “Marge Dursley is having one of our men over at this very moment. Other living relatives will be looked up during the time it will take before Ms Dursley gives us an answer. Mr Dursley here will need access to the family vault to replace his destroyed belongings.” She looked Dudley over. Her eyes seemed to bore into him. “Was your wand inside the house?”

 

Dudley met her gaze with wide eyes, shaking his head. “I have it in my pocket. I was doing my homework when the fire started.” He pulled out his wand to show it.

 

He knew that wasn’t the truth. Dudley had been sitting on his fat behind in front of the television when the fire started. He played with the thought of exposing the lie for a moment, but let it go. Uncle Vernon may be gone, but no one would listen to a squib anyway.

 

“Good”, said Madame Taberna with a tight smile. “Cutcliffe, will you show Mr Dursley and… I’m sorry, I don’t think we’ve been introduced yet.”

 

He froze. The important woman behind the desk was looking at him now. What was he supposed to do?

 

“I’m- er, I mean, I came here with Dudley”, he stuttered nervously. The gaze he was given was so piercing it felt like she could see right through him. Maybe it was some kind of powerful magic he had never felt before. He didn’t like it at all.

 

“Don’t bother, Madame. He’s just a worthless squib”, Dudley told her, spitting out the last word. He said nothing and waited for Madame Taberna to nod thoughtfully. He saw how her nose wrinkled almost unnoticeably when she heard what he was and felt his heart fall. Would they throw him out?

 

“I see”, she muttered disapprovingly. “He is with you, however?”

 

“I guess.”

 

“Then Atticus may show you and you acquaintance to the lobby. You will be contacted as soon as we have further information on the situation.”

 

Dudley’s face turned alarmingly red all of a sudden and he spluttered loudly.

 

“The lobby?! You can’t be serious! I demand to speak to the Minister, this moment!” he shouted, taking a threatening step closer to Madame Taberna, who didn’t seem intimidated at all. Rather, she looked impatient.

 

“The Minister is a busy man, Mr Dursley. I must say he doesn’t involve himself in business as small as this. Now, please, follow Mr Cutcliffe to the lobby”, she ordered sourly.

 

With his now shocked-to-silence cousin and Atticus in the lead, they left Madame Taberna’s office and walked quietly down a corridor. There were doors on either side, probably more offices, but barely anyone else was out in the hallway. He wondered if the whole Ministry of Magic was this calm or if it was something unique for this department. He could imagine there wasn’t really much excitement here, being the Administrative Registration Department. The sound of it was a bit boring, he thought.

 

After a few turns and more walks through corridors, they arrived at a nice looking lobby. Simple chair and some sofas stood lined up along the wall, others around small tables here and there. He decided, when seeing the pictures of flying rugs on the opposite wall, that it looked comfy enough.

 

Atticus left them with a polite farewell, assuring them that they’d have everything fixed and done in a matter of hours. He didn’t wait for an answer.

 

When the man was gone, Dudley huffed irritably and went to sit down heavily in one of the couches. He followed and took a seat in the chair across from his cousin.

 

For long seconds, there was a blissful silence hanging in the air…

 

Until Dudley opened his mouth and started whining again.

 

“I can’t believe this!” he cried, pouting unattractively. “Doesn’t she know who I am? Stupid hag!”

 

He didn’t say anything; just watched as Dudley trashed around screaming on the poor unsuspecting sofa. The oversized boy punched and clawed the pillows, throwing himself back and forth. He’d get a headache if he continued doing that. Dudley would blame the pain on him, he knew.

 

It was another thirty five minutes, according to the plain clock on the wall, before Dudley finally tired of raging around and stilled, breathing so hard it looked as if he’d just run a marathon.

 

“I’ll have Auntie sue them”, Dudley muttered as darkly as a sweaty, red-faced, sixteen-year-old could. “Just wait till she hears about this.”

 

He nodded absentmindedly, feeling rather relaxed in the otherwise empty lobby. The chair wasn’t that comfortable, and the paintings kept repeating what they did over and over again, and he was a little bored, but it was a good kind of easy boredom.

 

He couldn’t help but wonder what would happen to him when Dudley was sent to live with Aunt Marge. Would he be left at an orphanage, like the Dursleys had threatened to do? Despair filled him at the thought. Uncle Vernon had told him how bad the orphanage was; that the children were hung with barbed wire by their toes from the ceiling if they were bad. Just imagine what they would do to a squib like him!

 

He gave an uncomfortable shudder. He’d rather run away and be a criminal, like Aunt Petunia had said all runaways became in the end. Surely that was better than losing your toes?

 

A throat cleared in the doorway, where Atticus had appeared together with another man. This one was much taller and had short brown hair and normal, unoriginal features. It was not a face that would be easy to remember. He hoped he wouldn’t have to.

 

Dudley flew to his feet. “You’re done? When will Auntie come and get me?”

 

Atticus held up his hands in front of him to quiet down the demanding teenager. He looked tense, as if he was waiting for something bad to happen.

 

“Now, Mr Dursley, I must ask you to calm down. I suggest you follow Mr Potter’s example”, said Atticus sternly. He sounded like Madame Taberna looked.

 

The tall man, who he guessed must be this Mr Potter that Atticus mentioned, looked between him and his cousin. He gave Dudley a pointed look, effectively making the boy sit down and cross his arms stubbornly. The tall man’s eye twitched a little; probably the effort of not rolling his eyes.

 

“Well?” said Dudley impatiently after a short silence. “Why are you here?”

 

Atticus took a deep breath, held it for an odd moment, and then started to explain, “When we found out you were safe, we immediately sent one of our men to discuss your future with Marge Dursley, now the temporary Head of Dursley House. Ms Dursley was devastated to hear about the fire and has taken on the role as Head of House graciously; however she informed us she would be too busy to take on any children in her household and asked us to apologize for her.”

 

“WHAT?” The scream was so loud he thought his eardrums would burst from the onslaught. Dudley was on his feet again, breathing heavily through his mouth and clenched hands shaking at his sides. “But she has to take me in! There’s no one else I can go to, she’s breaking the law by refusing me! This must be a mistake. Auntie Marge loves me. I’m her bestest nephew!”

 

That might’ve been because he was her only nephew, but he wasn’t about to interrupt.

 

“Quite right, though this law only works in case the underage wizard or witch has no other option of living arrangements”, Atticus said calmly.

 

Dudley snivelled and tilted his head back slightly so it looked as if he was looking down at the two men. “And are there?”

 

The supposed Mr Potter spoke in Atticus’ place. “As a matter of fact, there is one alternative. While our man was dealing with you Aunt, our Head of Department was contacted with an offer of taking you in.”

 

He stopped speaking, as if that was enough to say according to him. Dudley, however, did not think so. Neither did he appear to like the tall man in the least and ignored him by turning his attention to Atticus.

 

“Who was it, then? I want an answer now, before I go take care of things myself. It seems to be the only way to get things done around here.”

 

Atticus smiled at him and said softly, “Now, now, let’s sit down and handle this like men, shall we? It won’t take too long, I assure you.”

 

Dudley huffed, but didn’t argue. The two men sat down, Atticus in the sofa next to Dudley and Mr Potter on the chair closest to the exit. Atticus took no time in diving into business once more.

 

“Mr Dursley, we would like to know if you would be interested in accepting a room and tutoring at Chrestomanci Castle. Lord Malfoy was most insistent you agree as soon as possible.”

 

The room fell in complete silence once he was done speaking. Atticus sat waiting expectantly, Mr Potter the Tall looked bored, Dudley wasn’t really breathing, and he must’ve heard wrong, because did the ministry official across from him just say Chrestomanci Castle? Dudley was going there?

 

Mr Potter sighed and drawled, “Well, child? What will it be?”

 

Dudley gasped, “Yes! Do you think I’m stupid? Of course I will accept.” He was smiling widely when he realized he was probably acting a bit childishly and straightened, saying haughtily, “After all, it’s the least I deserve.”

 

“Very well”, said Atticus with a short nod. “Lord Malfoy informed us the arrangements for your journey are ready whenever you feel like leaving. Would you like to pay a visit to Diagon Alley before-”

 

“No, I want to go now. Just lead the way.” Dudley held his head up, showing off parts of his nose that were not very flattering. He stood from the couch and made his way to the door.

 

“Hold on, Mr Dursley”, called Atticus and stood as well. He turned to Dudley, which meant he had his back to the two other people in the room.

 

Dudley stopped in the doorway, turning around and tapping his foot in a narky manner. He raised both eyebrows; he obviously couldn’t raise just one at a time. It didn’t look particularly impressive.

 

“While we worked on your case, we took some time to look through your family records. Remember Madame Taberna said we would?” He waited for Dudley to nod. “Yes, well, it appears you are quite closely related to Mr Potter. He’ll accompany you to the castle, owing to the fact that you are his one living relative left.”

 

He looked at Mr Potter in the chair beside him calculatingly. The man was still very, very, tall and not at all as big around the waist as most of the Dursleys were. Well, all of them, now that Aunt Petunia was gone. Then again, perhaps they were related on her side. No part of Petunia Dursley’s family had ever come to Privet Drive as far as he was informed.

 

Still, Mr Potter looked nothing like either Uncle Vernon or Aunt Petunia in any aspect except for his normal looks. The Dursleys always were picky about being ‘normal’.

 

Dudley sneered, “Fine. Come on squib, I won’t stand here waiting for you all day.”

 

And he had no choice but to follow. Not that he’d complain. Finally, there was something happening in his life.

 

~//Nine\\~

 

To say he was confused was like saying Vernon Dursley was just a bit overweight. No, he was royally perplexed.

 

First, he and Dudley had been led by Atticus Cutcliffe and Mr Potter through even more corridors, all the way back to Madame Taberna’s office. They hadn’t met a soul on the way there and the chair behind the desk had no stern little lady sitting in it. She was elsewhere doing important thing, apparently.

 

Then had followed his first-ever floo travel through the fireplace to the right, as he’d remembered from earlier.

 

He had not liked it. Actually, he had quite right out Hated it with a capital H and sworn to himself never to get anywhere near a fireplace or floo powder in the next upcoming billion years.

 

He’d stumbled out, and fallen, on the dirty floor of an almost deserted tavern. Judging by the state of the floor, he could see why there weren’t many people visiting. It was a pity, though, because he could see what promises the small place had once Atticus had helped him up for the second time in one day.

 

The rest of their small party stepped out gracefully and Atticus explained to him and Dudley that the pub was called The Dying Dragon and was one of many taverns in the small wizarding community known as Bravenbeck. It was the closest town to Chrestomanci Castle, he said.

 

Without further notice, they exited the tavern, leaving behind a disappointed bartender who must’ve been hoping for customers.

 

Outside, the sun was shining. The warmth against his skin quickly took away his sulky mood from the floo travel and he momentarily closed his eyes to enjoy it. His enjoyment didn’t last long as the other three started walking off without him. He ran to catch up and found them around a corner standing by a carriage.

 

It looked exactly like Dudley had said it would. Painted in a soft blue and made in wood, there were elegant patterns and swirls carved into the sides and a black door and wheels. Two equally dark horses stood ready in front of it, high and bulging with muscles. They were a little intimidating, but he thought they were more intriguing than frightened. Most of all they were just big.

 

When he focused on his company, he saw Atticus was addressing a wild looking woman with black bushy hair and wide, almost crazed eyes. She looked like she’d just escaped from a mental hospital and took the first job she could get. The cylinder hat on her head, which looked very comical on her, told him that she most certainly was the coachman.

 

“Uh huh”, she grunted to whatever Atticus had said and took the paper he offered her. He guessed it was some sort of proof they were who they appeared to be and had permission to go with her. She skimmed over the content with her eyes, too quickly to really read any of the words, and said, “Seems real enough. Potter’s here as well?”

 

“Everyone that should be here are here”, confirmed Atticus. “I expect you are ready to take them?”

 

“Yes, yes, just put them in the back. Don’t see why it has to take so long.” The woman waved her hand in a wide, graceless gesture to show her agitation.

 

Atticus eyed her disapprovingly before sighing and taking back the paper from her waving hand and tucked it inside a pocket on his robe.

 

“That’s all settled, then”, he said in a loud voice as if to address them all. He turned to him, Dudley, and Mr Potter and smiled. “Have a nice stay, Mr Dursley, Mr Potter, and let’s hope the ride there doesn’t turn risky.” He glanced discretely up at the female coachman.

 

“Thank you”, said Dudley dismissively.

 

This time around, Mr Potter did roll his eyes and he and Atticus turned and disappeared around the corner the four of them had just come from.

 

Wait, why did Mr Potter leave with Atticus? He was supposed to come with Dudley to the castle!

 

But before he could call out for the two men to stop, Dudley had gripped his arm and was dragging him towards the carriage.

 

“Dudley, something is wrong. We must go get Atticus and-”

 

“Just shut up, squib, and get up on the carriage”, spat his cousin and released him in order to climb in through the black door and slam it shut behind him.

 

He didn’t understand at all. Didn’t Dudley want Mr Potter to come with him?

 

“What are you standing there and staring for, boy? He told you to get up”, called the coachman from her position on top of the wagon. He goggled at her for a moment, then gave up and admitted that maybe he truly was as stupid as Uncle Vernon had said, because his mind couldn’t comprehend what was going on. He climbed up the side of the blue carriage and sat down beside the woman.

 

She smelled faintly of hay and alcohol and was dressed in a black ripped dress with a tight fitting corset. It was a wonder she wasn’t choking.

 

Carefully, he edge closer to the side of the bench as they started going to get a little farther away from her. She didn’t seem to notice, or just didn’t care.

 

They traveled through the town silently. The Dying Dragon must’ve been in the outcast part of Bravenbeck, because it didn’t take long for them to leave the small wizarding community behind and continue on small country road flanked by poppy fields on both sides. The carriage rocked in a calming rhythm and he was soon drowsy because of that and the heat.

 

He closed his eyes and listened to the sound of horseshoes against gravel road and the occasional neighing of the two mares. He’d be asleep if it wasn’t for the uncomfortable bench he was sitting on.

 

About to attempt sleep anyway, he started when the wild looking woman spoke, “So, you’re a squib, are you? How does it feel?”

 

He glanced at her suspiciously. He didn’t know what it was, except for her appearance, of course, but he felt wary around her. It was different from how he’d felt when he’d been with the officials in the Ministry. This woman unsettled him somehow.

 

“I don’t know. How does it feel to be a coachman?” he asked somewhat rudely. He hadn’t meant to make it sound like that, really, but it had just come out that way.

 

“Coachman?!” shrieked the woman, offended, glaring at him like she was planning his murder. “Do I happen to look like a wizard to you? I’ll tell you that every part of this body is as female as it’ll ever get! I’m a coachwoman, young sir, and I don’t take well to insults like that.”

 

A faint blush spread across his cheeks. He felt terribly ashamed all of a sudden.

 

“I’m very sorry. I didn’t know coachwomen were a thing. Please don’t take offense, miss…?” he trailed off, hopeful that he’d succeeded in taking her mind off his clumsy comment.

 

She studied him from the corner of her eye and he waited nervously for her to decide if he was worth it or not. Apparently he was, because she snorted and looked away over the fields and said, “The name’s Bellatrix Lestrange. Call me Bella, though; I’m not too fond of my husband.”

 

He gave her a wavery smile, not sure himself if it was true or not.

 

“Okay. I’m me”, he introduced himself politely. He held out his hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

 

Bellatrix the Coachwoman gave him an odd look, but took his hand, only a little hesitantly, and gave it a quick shake.

 

“The pleasure’s all yours, squib.”

 

Although the last word was meant as an insult, he thought it didn’t sound quite as sour as it had before. Maybe it was just his imagination.

 

~//Nine\\~


Bellatrix didn’t say a word for the rest of the journey and that was just fine with him. For a good while, he even forgot that Dudley was sitting in the same carriage as he. He was a bit displeased when he remembered his cousin, but then he told himself that they were heading to Chrestomanci Castle and he felt giddiness bubbling in his chest again.

 

The carriage was rolling on a narrow road in an old forest by the time the sun started to set. He took the opportunity to admire the high trees and wild plants that he’d never seen in Aunt Petunia’s garden. Where that garden had been plain and boring and ‘perfect’, this forest was untamed and full of life. There were barely any flowers, but the greens and browns were colourful in their own ways.

 

Then the forest ended, just like that, and he looked around, at a loss. That had been very abrupt and he wanted to see more trees.

 

But then he saw the castle and all thoughts of trees and moss disappeared in a heartbeat.

 

He couldn’t believe his eyes.

Chapter Text

Chapter 3, Meeting Blondes

(5,500 words)

Muggle television princess castles were nothing to this. Nothing. He didn't know why they even tried.

Around the carriage was the biggest, most beautiful garden he'd ever seen. Filled with flowers in colours that were rarely seen in the Dursley household, he was taken aback by the magnificence. He could only dream of running around here, admiring every plant. He could bet most of them were magical. He'd never seen a magical plant before!

And the castle… how could he even begin to describe it?

"Woah", he breathed, awed. He had to tilt his head back to see the tops of the highest towers.

"I know", said Bellatrix, making him jump and look at her. She was holding her head straight forward, taking in the castle as well.

"Chrestomanci really lives in there?" he asked.

She scoffed. "No, it's called Chrestomanci Castle because Chrestomanci doesn't live in it. Of course he does, nutshell."

"Oh. Right, sorry."

The carriage rolled on the fancy grey single, the small stones making crushing sounds when the wheels went over them. He didn't take his eyes off the great white castle in front of him; it was like he was enchanted. The towers rose high up in the sky and hundreds of windows gleamed in the fading sunlight. It was so beautiful.

Bellatrix pulled up close to the main entrance - a high port made of dark wood and handles wrought in iron - and stopped the horses with a sharp pull on the reins.

The door to the carriage opened and Dudley stepped out, looking imperious with both hands on his broad hips and gazing up at the castle.

"It'll do", said the big blonde and started making his way up the front steps.

Bellatrix gave him a shove on the shoulder.

"What are you waiting for, squib? You know, they won't roll out the red carpet just because you sit here all day. Go follow the fat guy." And with that she forcefully pushed him off the bench. He let out a very manly shriek as he tumbled to the ground for the third time that day and glared after the carriage as Bellatrix hurriedly steered it away. Her insane cackle almost didn't reach his ears.

Standing and brushing off the stone dust from his second hand trousers, he grumbled quietly to himself about evil coachwomen and their equally evil, although pretty, carriages.

It was the sound of wood creaking faintly that brought his head up from his dirtied clothes. He looked to the entrance just in time to see Dudley standing still on the middle step and the two enormous doors swing open outwards by themselves, revealing a man behind them.

His hair was long, reaching the shoulder blades, and had the palest shade of blond possible. Expensive looking robes in royal blue flowed around the man's legs, but the front was open to show a silver waistcoat and well-fitting black slacks. In his hand he gripped a dark cane with a shiny silver handle.

The man held his back straight and stood tall before them, power seeming to flow off him in waves. This was what the word elegance had been made for.

"I see you have arrived, albeit a bit later than what was expected", said the man. His voice was deep; the words rolled off his tongue like they were in another language although he knew it was English. The man tilted his head slightly to the side and gave them a chilly smile. "Would you not like to come in?"

Dudley started at the question and shook his head visibly, as if getting rid of a bug on his nose. His cousin resumed to climbing the stairs and he made sure to follow closely behind. They came to a halt at the top step.

Up close, the man was just as aristocratic in his features as he'd pictured him. With pale blue eyes, thin lips, sharp gaze, and flawless skin, he was the most beautiful man he's laid his eyes upon. When the man then looked at him, for just a second, he felt the air escape his lungs.

Dudley bowed as low as his big belly would allow him.

"Lord Malfoy", he said and straightened with a look in his face that said he thought it was the other man's turn to bow now.

Lord Malfoy only arched a perfectly sculpted brow and let his eyes sweep over Dudley's grey track pants and sweat-stained red shirt, and somehow managed to express distaste without moving a muscle.

"Mr Dursley", he drawled. "I trust your journey was satisfactory?"

"It was acceptable", sniffed Dudley, clearly miffed that the man hadn't treated him with enough respect. "The seat was not very soft and I became bored quickly, but the view was nice most of the time."

"I'm sure it was", replied Lord Malfoy with a polite smile and gestured for them to step into the hallway. "Come now, your rooms are waiting. You must be tired after your trip."

Dudley nodded. "It has been a rather exhausting day."

The doors closed on their own accord as they entered the castle, and he was once again blown away by its magnificence. The hallway was the size of a chapel all by itself with impossibly high ceiling and enough space to hold a sizeable ball. The floor was black and white like a chessboard and above their heads hung an enormous golden chandelier. On the other side of the hall was a grand staircase which split in two in the middle and led up to the second floor.

He wondered how one did to get further up in the castle. There must've been many more floors that just the two he could see from in here, because the towers had been very high. Maybe it was magic? He almost sighed. If he had to use the floo network to get higher up, then so be it. He'd betray his newly made promise of never getting near a fireplace again if it meant he got another glimpse of the castle.

Then it hit him. He couldn't stay here, could he? If it hadn't been for the mistake back in Bravenbeck, then he wouldn't even have been in Chrestomanci Castle in the first place. It was supposed to be Mr Potter - the tall man with the boring face - that came here with Dudley as his close relative.

He had to tell Lord Malfoy. His heart fell quite a long way when he realized that he wouldn't get to see Chrestomanci now, but it wasn't the way it should be. He didn't belong here.

Dudley had already marched off towards the grand staircase when he stopped pondering and came back to the now. Lord Malfoy was still standing by him with cane in hand. The man must've given Dudley the instructions of how to get to his room while he wasn't listening.

Well, he guessed it didn't matter, anyway.

"I bid you a good night then", said Lord Malfoy with a nod and turned to leave.

"Wait! Lord Malfoy!" He rushed to lay a hand on the blonde's shoulder, making the man halt midstep and turn around.

"Yes?" he asked expectantly and gave the hand on his shoulder a meaning look.

He quickly withdrew it and turned his eyes to the marble floor, ashamed. Lord Malfoy was disgusted by being touched by a squib. To this man, he must be worse than Dudley.

All the more reason to make them send him back so he could be put in the orphanage, he thought sadly.

"I'm sorry to hold you, sir, but there has been a big mistake", he rushed, almost stumbling over several words. Great, now he sounded stupid as well.

"A mistake? Is something wrong?" Lord Malfoy sounded a little surprised, but he couldn't know for sure since he still had his gaze fixed on the floor.

He nodded. "Yes, I'm afraid I've been confused with Mr Potter. He was meant to come here with Dudley, but must've forgotten himself because he left again with Mr Cutcliffe back in Bravenbeck and Dudley dragged me onto the carriage before I could do anything. I think… I think maybe we have to go back and get him. I'm sorry; it's my fault."

There was a highly uncomfortable silence that felt gigantic in the large hall. He stared stubbornly at Lord Malfoy's well-polished shoes and waited for the man to scold him and hit him with his cane.

His eyes flickered to the stick in question and had to fight to repress a shudder. He could almost hear the sound of it hitting the scarred flesh of his back with sharp cracks.

Lord Malfoy kept standing there, silent, as if he was waiting for something as well. Hesitantly, he peered up at the aristocrat through his lashes to find the Lord studying him calculatingly.

"Sir?" His voice sounded small in the great space around them.

"Young man, would you mind telling me your name?" It was more a demand than a request, but the Lord made it sound like a question even though it was not.

What kind of a question was that? He knew that didn't have anything with the situation at hand to do. But Lord Malfoy seemed very serious, so he told himself it was best to do as the man said.

"My name is... I mean, sir, I am…" he trailed off and frowned. Why did he ask such a hard question? Oh, well. "I'm me, my Lord, but you can call me 'boy' if you like."

He didn't get an answer except for another raised eyebrow. Really, he wondered how Lord Malfoy managed that. He thought he'd like to learn; it looked impressive.

Lord Malfoy's cane-free hand came into view as the man raised it and snapped his fingers. Immediately, a pop echoed between the walls - not too unlike the crack of apparition - and a small creature appeared next to them.

"Lord Malfoy, how may Valence serve you?" it asked and bowed so low it looked as if it would fall on its head. The creature had long ears, like a rabbit, but it had no hair on its body and its skin was leathery and wrinkled. The white button up shirt and trousers hung loose around the thin arms and legs like adult sized clothes on a child. As if that didn't look absurd enough, there was a monocle in front of one of the eyes with a chain in gold attached to a shining button on the shirt's collar. Because of this, the two big eyes looked different in size as the glass in front of one magnified it significantly.

The only thing missing was a bowtie and Bellatrix's cylinder hat and the creature - Valence, was it? - would be the perfect picture of fancy.

"Fetch me the files of Harry Potter", said Lord Malfoy without bothering to look at the little thing and waved it away. Valence popped out of sight and he was once again alone with Lord Malfoy. It had been a bit better when the creature had been there and he wasn't the smallest one in the hall. Now, he felt tiny.

But he did feel terribly curious about Valence and before he realized he'd opened his mouth he had asked the question, "What was that?"

"A house elf, naturally." Yes, of course. Naturally. Lord Malfoy continued, "The elves in Chrestomanci Castle are better taught than those you will find in a normal wizarding household. We tend to have higher standards than the norm."

At the end of his short speech, Valence the House Elf popped back, holding a small bunch of papers in his spidery hands. It handed them to Lord Malfoy and bowed once more.

"That will be all", said the Lord and Valence disappeared, still bowing. While the man started flipping through the pages, he asked casually, "Tell me, what age would you say Mr Potter was?"

"In his mid-thirties, perhaps?" he said tentatively. It was hard for someone who had seen so few faces in his life to confidently say what age a person was by just looking at them.

Lord Malfoy hummed. "How curious", he said. "It says right here that Harry James potter, nephew to Petunia Dursley, was born on July 31, 1980, which should mean that today, Mr Potter is sixteen years old. Does this ring a bell?"

He stared at the man, wide eyed, yet still couldn't believe Lord Malfoy was standing there and telling him this.

"You mean… I'm Mr Potter?" he breathed, amazed.

"Indeed you are, unless you're using Polyjuice Potion. I, however, do believe you are the real Harry Potter." Lord Malfoy picked out one of the pages and held it up to he could see.

It was a picture of him - a magical one that moved - with his pale skin and round glasses and dark mop of unruly hair. The picture was in black and white; otherwise he would've been able to see his green eyes as well. The boy on the picture looked the exact age as the real him.

"Who took this?" he asked, speaking about the photograph. He couldn't for the life of him remember ever having his photo taken, much less so recently. Were there wizards or witches who crawled around and hid in bushes that took these pictures? Did all magical people have files with photos of themselves?

"An employee from the Ministry, most likely. Every born child of a magic family or with a magical core has their picture taken shortly after their birth. The picture updates itself as time goes by thanks to somewhat advanced spells", explained Lord Malfoy patiently and let him, Harry Potter, take the single sheet and study himself fascinatedly.

He stood there for a very long time, it felt like, and just tried to process the new information. Under the picture were three lonely words - Harry James Potter - though he felt they said infinitely more than a single name. They were him. He was this person; he had an identity and a name.

And that name was Harry.

His throat felt tight and his voice was a bit choked when he met Lord Malfoy's eyes straight on and said, "Thank you, sir."

Lord Malfoy gave a small nod. "It was nothing. Do not feel hesitant to come visit me in my office if you have further questions, Mr Po-"

"No, please call me Harry", he cut him off. He saw how the Lord's shoulders tensed at being interrupted, and Harry quickly explained, "I like Harry better."

The man relaxed again. Harry thought he might've seen a smile glint in those eyes, though Lord Malfoy's mouth didn't even twitch.

"Very well, Harry. If you wish, you may call me Lucius", he said mannerly and kindly ignored Harry's hitched breath. "And do keep the picture. You seem to have more use of it than it will have in my desk drawer."

Harry just nodded. He didn't know if he trusted his voice at the moment.

Lucius snapped his fingers and gave the rest of the papers to the house elf that appeared. The little creature popped away quickly and Lucius held out his hand towards the grand staircase in a graceful gesture.

"Would you like me to show the way to your room?" he asked smoothly. "Hogwarts students like Mr Dursley learn to follow directions in big castles after a while, but for someone inexperienced the halls may easily become a labyrinth."

Harry smiled at him - the first real smile he had given someone else for a long while - and nodded. "Thank you, I probably need some help."

And the two of them, one scrawny teenager dressed in rags and one elegant man in the finest of robes, walked off through the halls of Chrestomanci Castle.

~/Nine\\~

In the end, when it became apparent that Harry would never find his way on his own, Lucius pulled out his wand and conjured a map over every floor of the castle. Harry watched with wide eyes as the blonde man explained how he could simply say the number of the floor he was on and the map would adapt to show him every room on that level. Harry had wanted to jump the wizard and hug him tightly, but refrained himself when he thought that Lucius probably wouldn't appreciate a squib soiling his nice robes.

It hadn't taken as long as he'd anticipated for them to reach the door leading to his 'permanent bedroom', as Lucius had assured him it was. Harry had felt a wave of intense happiness, because he had never had a bedroom before, let alone a permanent one. And this was in a castle!

Lucius left him outside his room with the one request that Harry got to bed soon. The sun had set completely and breakfast would be served at half past seven the next morning in the dining room on the first floor. Harry wondered how many dining rooms there were in the whole castle if Lucius had to say what floor it was on. He decided to check on his map when he got the time.

"Good night, sir Lucius", called Harry after the retreating back and got a raised hand in response, though Lucius didn't turn around nor slowed his steps. Soon, he rounded a corner and was gone.

Harry, with his folded map and picture in one hand, excitedly turned to the bedroom door. He couldn't wait any longer and reached for the silver handle. With a push, the door swung open and he took his first step into his new room.

Harry found no other words to describe it than bloody fantastic, which was the exact thing he breathed when he looked around. His vision filled with shades of dark rich brown and spots of navy blue and indigo. On the opposite wall from the door stood a four poster queen-sized bed covered in a blue bedspread but with a brown, almost black, body and navy canopy and curtains.

Next to the magnificent bed, on the left side of the room, was a small nightstand and on the other side was another door.

The right wall was the only side with windows. They were high, stretching from the height of his knees and almost reaching the ceiling. He imagined they let through lots of light in the daytime. Harry could barely wait to see the view tomorrow.

Between the two windows stood a sizeable wardrobe in dark wood and ornaments carved into it. He saw the lion feet it had and felt delighted.

The left side of the room showed a single empty bookshelf and the by the wall of the entrance door was a desk accompanied by a cushioned chair.

All the walls were painted in a deep midnight blue, framed by brown baseboards and cornices.

Harry closed the door behind him after having stood there for Merlin knew how long and ran to the other door in the room to see what was behind it. It was a bathroom, decorated and painted in the same colours as the main bedroom. He ran a hand over the edge of the large tub. He felt like a king.

Leaving the bathroom to make himself prepared for bed, he was met by the sight of the empty bookshelf and suddenly remembered his history book; the one that had started all this and that he'd hidden under his shirt. Excitedly, he put away his map and picture and felt with his hands across his chest and stomach so that he could pull it out and put it on a shelf.

The smile that had adorned his face fell when all he felt was his own torso. Frantic, he pulled off his long-sleeved T-shirt and watched it sail to the floor, but heard no thud of his book hitting the wooden boards.

Harry stared at his shirt, eyes unfocused and breath ragged. His book… his book, that had saved him; it wasn't there.

A sob shook his body as he fell to his knees, surrounded by moonlight. Another one escaped him, and he pressed both hands against his mouth to stop them, but he couldn't control it. For the first time in years, Harry cried.

For somewhere along the way, he had lost his precious book.

~/Nine\\~

Harry came to the next morning with the odd observation that his cupboard was very bright. He could've forgotten to turn off the light the night before, but he was always careful to do so since he didn't sleep well unless it was completely dark.

The next thing he noticed was that his mattress was unusually soft and his sheets were thicker than he remembered them to be.

And the third thing he became aware of was that he wasn't in his cupboard, but in a bed, and at once the memories came rushing back to him. Harry smiled lazily at the canopy above his head and stretched out under the warm covers, pressing the side of his face down in the pillow. It was so soft!

With a big yawn and one last moment of enjoying the wonderful bed, Harry pushed the duvet away and climbed out of his warm nest. He purposely kept his eyes from straying to the bookshelf as he went into the bathroom to do his morning business and wash up. It wasn't until his was done doing this that he noticed the lack of toothpaste tubes and toothbrushes.

Looking through the cupboards, he found nothing he dared put in his mouth with the exception of a vial filled with what he thought was a potion to reduce headaches. He only recognized it because Aunt Petunia had given it to Uncle Vernon when the man had worked long days.

Sighing and admitting defeat, Harry rose from his crouching position under the sink and closed the cabinet. He put on his old shirt again and felt dirty since it wasn't washed, but knew he had nothing else to wear.

Harry stopped for a moment after dressing and took a few steps closer to the window. The sun was just above the horizon and it had to be early in the morning, but there was just enough light for him to admire the view.

The grounds outside Chrestomanci Castle were relatively flat, but to watch them was like watching a painting. Flat, yes, but only on the surface.

Harry stepped up on the low windowsill - he was only half the height of the entire window - and leaned against the side. The walls were surprisingly thick, so the windowsills were deep enough that he could sleep in them if he wished to.

Below him was the same garden he was seen yesterday from the carriage, but from up here he saw the big lake and the water that reflected the rising sun and he saw the forest that surrounded it all, and the cottage beyond the water and the strange round lawn on which there stood poles with rings at the top.

Harry left the window soon after and grabbed the map on his desk before leaving his room to start the search for the dining room on the first floor.

He imagined it could take a while to even find the right flight of stairs to get down in the first place. However, much to his own surprise, Harry found the grand staircase rather quickly and was soon on his way to the back of the castle. If he could have risked taking his eyes off the map, he would've admired the decorum and moving pictures on the walls, but didn't dare take the chance of getting lost.

It was only minutes later that he arrived in the dining room to the smell of food. Stepping over the threshold he was met by the sight of a long table filled with everything from scrambled eggs to Italian bruschettas. Two people sat on one end and another sat alone by the middle. Harry knew it was Dudley by the red shirt and many chins, but he didn't know the two young men sitting at the end.

Not really feeling like keeping his gobbling cousin company, Harry walked over to the other occupants of the table. He did so slowly, so they would have time to notice him and could tell him to leave if they didn't want him there.

He pulled out the chair opposite to the two boys and sat down.

One of them, the blonde with back slicked hair who looked a lot like Lucius, glanced up at him. He and the other boy, who had tanned skin and stylish chocolate brown hair and dark blue eyes, had their heads close together and were whispering energetically until he sat down.

Both of them looked at him for a moment as if he was an alien from outer space before they masked their features and straightened in their representative chairs. Harry sat quietly and politely waited for one of them to open the conversation. He had learned at the Dursleys that it was rude of squibs to speak before the wizard.

In the end, it was the Lucius replica that spoke, "Good morning."

Harry thought it sounded a bit chilly. Instead of answering in the same grumpy mood, he smiled and greeted, "Good morning."

He noted that both the boys had their plates full and cheerfully started picking out things to put on his own, but was careful to not take too much so he didn't seem greedy.

The boys watched him in silence as he finished up and started spreading butter over a piece of toast. He did his best not to feel tense under their suspicious eyes. Who knows, maybe they were trained to analyse a person before getting comfortable with them. He only hoped they wouldn't take too long.

Or maybe it was because he was a squib?

Harry stilled in his movements for a second, but continued quickly after as if nothing had happened. Of course they had every right to be uncomfortable in his company. He was, after all, nothing more than a squib.

"Are you Dursley's cousin?" asked the blonde suddenly, making Harry start and meet the boy's eyes. They were pale blue, just like Lucius'.

"Yes."

"Why don't you go sit over there with the wonderboy, then?" he sneered and jerked his head in Dudley's direction. Harry looked over at his cousin, who was in the middle of stuffing his mouth with bacon.

Harry wrinkled his nose. "No, thank you. But I'll over to the other end of the table if you don't want me here", he offered and made to stand.

The boy held up a hand, effectively halting him, and said, "There's no need. We were under the impression that you and Dursley were close. It appears we were wrong."

Harry nodded, understanding, and sat back down again. "It's okay. The only thing Dudley and I have in common is our blood; there's really nothing else."

"I see", said the boy and the silence returned, although it was much less tense this time around. The dark haired boy still hadn't spoken, but Harry guessed he was just a quiet person. Harry was also pretty quiet; in spite of the fact that Uncle Vernon had said many times that he spoke too often for a squib. He was determined not to think about Vernon Dursley anymore, though.

It hit him then that he knew the name of the blonde boy. All those times of watching the Dursleys eat and listening to their ranting had done him some good after all.

"You're Draco Malfoy", he said, out of the blue, in a tone that was just the slightest bit surprised.

Draco looked up at him as if he had just insulted him greatly.

"No", said Draco and sat back in his chair and raised his chin the slightest bit. "I am Draco Lucius Malfoy, son of Lord Lucius Abraxas Malfoy and future heir of the Most Noble and Ancient Houses of Malfoy and Black."*

"Oh…", said Harry, feeling a bit windblown. Deciding to be as sophisticated as possible, he shot back his chair, stood up and extended his right hand over the table. "I'm Harry."

It did not sound impressive at all next to Draco's introduction, but a good deal of pride seeped into his voice when he was able to give out his name.

The blonde teenager studied the hand in front of him sceptically and unmoving. The dark haired boy was doing the same.

Harry was sure Draco wouldn't accept his hand and was about to withdraw it when he felt dry skin against his palm. Draco took hold of his hand and gave it one steady shake, like Bellatrix had done, and let it go.

"It's good to meet you, Harry", he said. Harry smiled at him and turned to the quiet boy.

"I'd be delighted to make your acquaintance, Mr…?" Harry felt extremely pompous and fancy once the words had left his mouth. Not that anyone could blame him; he'd never been in a situation like this before.

Slowly, the boy shook hands with him, as if he was unsure what to make of the newcomer. Harry noted that his skin was rather cool.

"Zabini. Blaise Zabini", came a deep and baritone voice that startled Harry a little. It sounded very mature for someone so young, but it was nice as well.

He gave Blaise a smile too and sat back down.

"So", drawled Draco, much like his father. "What, besides Dursley, brings you to these finer parts of the breakfast table?"

Harry chose to be honest, "I've never met anyone my own age before except Dudley, so I was a bit curious. I thought maybe we could build up a companionship."

He got two arched eyebrows in response; one from each boy.

"A companionship based on what?" asked Draco.

"I don't know if we have a lot in common yet", said Harry hesitantly. "But Dudley isn't terribly fond of you, no offense, and he doesn't like me at all since I'm a squib. So that's one thing in common, at least."

"You're a squib?" asked Blaise abruptly, narrowing his eyes on Harry.

Harry sank down in his seat, feeling threatened by the sharp gaze. He didn't know if Blaise was just a simple squib hater or if it was the prospect that he just shook hands with one; either way the expression on his face wasn't friendly.

Draco scoffed, "I told you just last night that Dursley and his squib cousin were moving in. Aren't I important enough to listen to anymore? Merlin knows you only pay attention when it suits you." He shot Blaise a glare. "Anyway, it doesn't matter if he's a squib or not. Chrestomanci doesn't invite people into his castle if they're totally useless. I'm sure he can be profitable to know in the future."

He gave Harry a meaning look and Harry nodded eagerly. "Yes! I can read and write and cook and clean and loads of other stuff. Oh, and I can find my way everywhere in the castle thanks to my map, so if you're lost then you can just ask me for help." He beamed at them, pretty pleased with what he had to offer.

"What help will you be if we're lost and you're not there at the time?" he asked sceptically.

Harry frowned thoughtfully. He didn't know what to reply to that.

But it turned out he didn't have to, because Draco put a hand on Blaise's arm and got him quiet. He turned to Harry then, and there was a strange light in his eyes.

"You have a map?" he asked curiously.

Harry nodded and pulled it out from his pocket. He handed it over, still folded, to Draco and Blaise and clasped his hands in his lap, apprehensive to be judged.

Draco unfolded the parchment and looked down at the map. Blaise leaned over to get a peek as well.

The blonde frowned slightly. "This only shows the first floor", he noted.

"You have to tell it what floor you want to see and it will change. It's magical", explained Harry proudly. "Your father made it for me."

But Draco wasn't listening very closely anymore. He tried the map by saying what seemed to be all the levels of the castle and his eyes brightened for every result he got.

Blaise nodded appreciatively once Draco was done.

"Useful", he said.

"What did I tell you? I knew he would turn out to be worth it", mocked Draco and folded the map back to the small patch it was before. As he reached over the table and handed it back to Harry, he said, "Looks like we have a deal, Harry. A companionship it is."