Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Butterfly
If Slytherins—students who sorted into one of the four school houses—were that bad, why did they let them in the school? And if they weren’t all bad, why did Hagrid say they were? “Vol—, sorry— You-Know-Who was at Hogwarts?” Harry guessed. He also didn’t understand why he couldn’t say Voldemort’s name.
“Years and years ago,” said Hagrid.
Harry was going to ask who else had been sorted into this Slytherin house, but then they walked into the bookstore—Flourish and Blotts. Shelves were stacked to the ceiling with books as large as paving stones bound in leather and books the size of postage stamps covered in silk and some books with nothing in them. It was glorious.
Harry was drawn to a book called Curses and Counter-curses (Bewitch Your Friends and Befuddle Your Enemies with the Latest Revenges).
“That’s not proper reading,” Hagrid said, pulling him away. “Your school books will be over this way.”
“I was trying to find out how to curse Dudley.”
Hagrid cleared his throat and looked like he was trying hard—and failing—to hide a smile. “I’m not saying that’s not a good idea, but you’re not to use magic in the Muggle world except in very special circumstances,” said Hagrid. “And anyway, you couldn’t work any of them curses yet. You’ll need a lot more study before you get to that level.”
For a moment, Harry was distracted by the very pleasant idea of learning enough to protect himself from Dudley and his stupid friends. It was a pleasant dream. Hagrid muttered to himself as he bent over double to see the school books on the lower shelves, comparing Harry’s letter to the titles. A shop keeper came over. “Can I help you find anything?” he asked.
Hagrid didn’t answer—either because he didn’t hear or because he wasn’t terribly polite. In the bank he definitely hadn’t noticed that the goblins weren’t impressed by him. “We’re looking for the first year books,” Harry said.
The shopkeeper nodded. “Your friend is in the right place.” He glanced over at several other people who glared at Hagrid’s back, probably because he was blocking the whole shelf. Harry shifted from foot to foot, uncomfortable with the shopkeeper’s frustration.
“Do you have a book on famous witches and wizards and which houses they came from?” Harry blurted. It was better than continuing to endure the man’s unhappy glare.
“This way.” The man strode off, and Harry hurried after him. He turned a corner, and the shopkeeper shoved a book into his chest. It had a bright red cover and was as thick as a dictionary. “Anything else?”
Harry racked his brain. “Is there something that will keep my Muggle family from looking at my books?” he asked. He knew if Uncle Vernon saw them, he would tear them to pieces, and Harry didn’t want his money to go to waste because of his uncle’s temper. Or if not Uncle Vernon, then Dudley would find it and he had once taken one of Harry’s books into the bathroom and had peed on it. Harry didn’t want that to happen.
The shopkeeper really looked at Harry for the first time. “Do you have trouble with your Muggle relatives?”
The shopkeeper pulled a small notebook and a quill out of his pocket. “What’s your budget for a trunk?”
“Um, I don’t think I have one.”
The shopkeeper looked sharply at Dudley’s old clothes and the rope holding up the pants.
Harry blushed. “My muggle aunt and uncle don’t spend money on me, but my parents left me galleons for school shopping.”
“Get some casual robes so you don’t have to wear those around school,” the shopkeeper said, “Madam Malkin has them, and if you tell her to take your measurements and work up a full set of casual and weekend clothing, she can do that in no time. And when you go to Jeffries Journeys for a school trunk, give them this paper. They’ll help you find something with antiMuggle charms that will prevent them from noticing your trunk, and something with featherlight charms so you don’t have to drag it.”
Harry took the paper and clutched it. “Thank you.”
“My son would have been a little older than you if he’d survived the war. I like to think that someone would have helped him if I wasn’t here,” the man said. “Given that your family has galleons, I suppose your parents…”
Harry nodded. “They passed in the war, and my muggle family hadn’t told me anything about magic before I got the letter from Hogwarts.”
The shopkeeper’s eyes grew larger. “Nothing?”
Harry shook his head.
“Then you’ll need more than that. I imagine you don’t know how to use the floo or sharpen a quill or cut parchment?”
Harry shook his head.
“We have a set of books for muggle-borns this way. Let’s get you some more books and maybe by that time, your large friend will have moved on.” The shopkeeper pressed his lips together in an expression Harry knew well from Aunt Petunia. Harry followed silently while the shopkeeper collected a larger stack than the first year books Hagrid had brought to the counter.
“What’s this then?” Hagrid asked.
“The child grew up with muggles. You should have offered him these titles to help him learn what he needs before he starts school,” the shopkeeper said with a derisive look in Hagrid’s direction.
“The headmaster didn’t say nothing about—”
“Probably because he assumed you knew what you were doing when you clearly don’t,” the shopkeeper said with an Aunt Petunia worthy sniff before he combined the books he’d chosen with those Hagrid had picked up. “Give me your book, boy. No time for dallying with the school shopping crowd needing help.” The man reached for Harry’s large, red book, and he handed it over.
When the man was adding up the cost, Hagrid leaned close. “I bet he was Slytherin,” Hagrid said. Maybe he thought he was whispering, but he wasn’t.
The man looked up and said proudly, “I was. Eighteen galleons, six sickles, and a knut.”
“That’s more than I thought.” Hagrid looked worried.
“I can get more money from the bank if I need it,” Harry said, resting a hand on Hagrid’s arm. Maybe Hagrid didn’t like people from Slytherin because they weren’t friendly. He was a friendly sort, and Harry could understand why he would value that in others. But the shopkeeper had done more to help Harry in ten minutes than anyone so far. Harry liked Hagrid, but even he could see that Hagrid didn’t know the muggle world well enough to help Harry figure out what he needed. If Slytherin meant that someone valued being efficient over being kind, Harry wouldn’t mind that. He would have to read his book about which houses different witches and wizards came from and make up his own mind.
“I suppose.” Hagrid didn’t look sure.
“If that’s all, please move on. You take up as much room as three other customers and it’s difficult for anyone else to get their shopping done.”
Hagrid put a hand on Harry’s shoulder and guided him out of the bookstore. Harry dragged Hagrid back to Madam Malkin’s to ask for the casual clothes, which she promised would be ready in an hour, and then they visited the apothecary where Hagrid wouldn’t let him buy a gold cauldron, but at least he explained why. They bought a telescope and potion ingredients and had a very strange encounter when Harry bought his wand.
Harry didn’t know what to think of the fact that his wand’s core matched Voldemort’s. That seemed like the sort of thing he wouldn’t want people to know. Then Hagrid took him to Eeylops Owl Emporium, and Harry walked out with the most beautiful snowy owl in all the world. Harry couldn’t even get his thanks out and he stuttered as badly as Professor Quirrell as he tried to express his appreciation. He hadn’t ever had a birthday present before, not a proper one that wasn’t an old, unmatched sock or something broken.
Hagrid had wanted to buy a trunk from the pile of near the front door of Jeffries Journeys marked “Hogwart’s Special.” However, Harry pulled out the slip of paper the man from the bookstore had given him and walked over to a woman organizing colorful trunks with bright fittings in silver and gold and bronze.
“Excuse me,” Harry said. “The man in the bookstore said to give you this.” Harry held it out. He’d tried to read the note while Hagrid was buying his owl, but the words were all slanted and wobbly and seemed to fade in and out of focus so Harry couldn’t get his eyes to focus. It was like a secret code, although Harry didn’t know what was secret about buying a school trunk. Halfway through reading it, the woman lost interest in organizing her trunks and focused on Harry.
“So, what sort of trunk do you think you’ll need?” she asked.
Harry shrugged. “I don’t know much about magic, so I don’t know.”
“He just needs a Hogwarts trunk,” Hagrid said as he lifted a standard trunk as easily as Harry could pick up a piece of tissue.
“I think that will be a bit heavy for the boy,” she said with a sneer. When blond boy had sneered at Hagrid, Harry had been offended on his friend’s behalf. The boy had made that face because Hagrid was poor and worked a regular job, which were horrible reasons to sneer at someone, especially someone as nice as Hagrid. However, this woman had a point. Harry wouldn’t be able to carry a trunk like that.
“Can’t you just put a featherlight charm on one of these?” Hagrid asked hopefully.
“They’re too low-quality for the charm to hold,” she said sharply. “Come along. Let’s find you a proper trunk,” she said as she guided Harry farther into the store. Hagrid followed behind, looking even more out of place trying to squeeze between the stacks of trunks. Maybe that’s why Hagrid wanted to buy one of the standard trunks. He didn’t exactly fit in the store.
“You can wait up front. I’ll be fine,” Harry offered. He didn’t want Hagrid uncomfortable.
“No, that’s alright. I’ll just keep watch,” Hagrid said. Maybe he was worried about another mob, like the one in the Leaky Caldron. Of course, Harry wouldn’t have been mobbed if Hagrid hadn’t loudly proclaimed that he was escorting Harry Potter. Hagrid was wonderful, but the man in the bookstore had a point about him not being the best at escort duty.
“Do you have a safe place to study and lay your books out?” The woman waved her wand and stacks of trunks rearranged themselves.
“No,” Harry said. Dudley’s second bedroom had a desk, but if Harry left books out on it, they would be destroyed by the end of the day. Dozens of trunks flew away toward the back of the store.
“Are you a reader?”
“Um… yes?” Harry guessed. He liked to read. The library had always been a safe haven for him, but he wasn’t the best reader. Years of trying to keep his grades below Dudley’s meant that he didn’t always notice the sort of details teachers put on tests.
“Not that enthusiastic, so I assume a standard 250 book library will suffice.”
“Two hundred and fifty books? I could never read that many!” Harry exclaimed.
“You’re not bound for Ravenclaw, then. We have a Ravenclaw special with room for two thousand books,” the woman said. Harry couldn’t even imagine reading that many books. He wasn’t sure how he was going to read all the introductory books for muggleborns that he had bought what with all his chores. Harry glanced over at Hagrid and wondered if Hagrid would help with that. He had been nice enough to buy Harry an owl, and Harry’s aunt and uncle were afraid of him.
“Do you need cooking space in the trunk?”
“Cooking space? In a trunk?”
She gave him a smile. “Wizards can make a trunk much larger inside. I can sell you a trunk that has a whole apartment inside—one you can climb down into with a ladder.”
“Really?” Harry asked in wonder.
“Now here, he don’t need that,” Hagrid protested.
“Of course not. That’s the sort of trunk an adult gets so he isn’t trapped having to sleep in a muggle space.” She looked at Harry.
“I don’t need that,” Harry agreed. Maybe it would be nice, but he couldn’t imagine Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon being happy if they found he had crawled into a trunk to sleep. Harry knew better than to borrow trouble. “And I don’t need cooking facilities, either,” he said. The smell of cooking would attract Dudley.
She nodded. “Right then, I’ll just get you a cold storage. That way you can keep pumpkin juice and fruit cold. Maybe a preserving chamber for snacks. That will keep food at whatever temperature it is when you put the food in it, and will keep the food fresh for up to a year. The house elves won’t deliver to you in the dorms. So, what else? You are too young to have a potions compartment. Those can be dangerous.”
“I don’t want something dangerous,” Harry agreed.
She chuckled. “Then you aren’t a Gryffindor. Those students seek out any danger they can find.”
“Oi. I was in Gryffindor,” Hagrid protested.
The woman turned and studied Hagrid for a moment. “And you’re the groundskeeper, correct?” She asked. She waited until Hagrid had nodded before saying, “That’s my point. He’s in charge of thestrals and the Forbidden Forest where you’ll find everything from centaurs to werewolves.”
“It’s not that dangerous, and there hasn’t been a werewolf in ages,” Hagrid protested.
“Gryffindors,” she said in a tone that was almost fond. Apparently Hagrid’s house has a reputation, and one that made Harry a little leery. He’d learned early to avoid putting himself in dangerous situations, especially when walking home from school was dangerous enough with Piers and Dudley and the others Harry Hunting. She turned back to Harry. “What’s your favorite color?”
“I like all the colors,” Harry said, not sure how to answer that. Dudley sometimes got to pick things based on the color of it, but Harry never did.
“Then lets stick with something neutral, something that will fit in either in Hufflepuff or Slytherin, depending on where you sort.” She waved her wand and a gray trunk with a pattern almost like a snakeskin but more angular flew out of the middle of the pile and landed at their feet.
“His parents were both Gryffindors,” Hagrid said, his voice edging toward anger, “and Harry will be too.” Hagrid’s anger made Harry uncomfortable, and more than that, he wondered if Hagrid would stop liking him if he went into Hufflepuff or Slytherin. He already knew what Hagrid thought of the latter.
“What’s Hufflepuff like?”
“They’re a friendly lot,” she said. “Mind you, don’t get on the wrong side of them. That whole house sticks up for each other. Anger one Hufflepuff and you’ll have the entire house baying for your blood.”
That sounded nice, well at least if Harry was the one getting protected and not someone the whole house was after. Harry wouldn’t mind Hufflepuff.
“Of course, Slytherin does the same,” she continued, “but that house is more interested in making a name for themselves. They’re ambitious and quick to get defensive if they feel offended.”
Harry thought about the blond boy he’s met the first time he’d gone to Madam Malkin’s. He could see that.
“I think I want Hufflepuff,” Harry said. The woman smiled at him, but Hagrid just looked confused.
“So,” the woman said, “let’s go over this trunk. I has four compartments.” She pointed out for stones on the front. “This is the wardrobe. She pressed the first stone and then reached for the trunk latch. Instead of flipping open like a normal trunk, the lid lifted into the air higher and higher until it was a standard closet height, tall enough that Harry would have to stand on tiptoe to reach the rod. “Wave your hand right or left to cycle through clothing that isn’t showing or to reach the drawers,” she said as she demonstrated. After two waves of her hand, a tall chest of draws slid into view.
“Wow,” Harry breathed. He could put all his clothes in the trunk and wouldn’t fit even half the space.
She waved her hand toward the ground, and the top slid back down into place. “The second compartment is for supplies.” She tapped the second stone and opened the trunk. The lid lifted again, this time showing dozens of cubby holes. Some were tall and some tiny. She waved her hand to the side and bookshelves appeared and then racks waiting for test tubes and glass boxes. “Potion supplies fit here. You only want to take the supplies you need for the brew you’re going to do that day. That will minimize the chance that you’ll accidentally contaminate your supplies by carrying all of them. There is dedicated space for scales, abacus, runes stones, carving tools, telescopes, anything you might need for school.”
“Carving tools?” Harry didn’t know how carving was a school subject.
“When you take runes starting year three, you can learn how to make trunks like this, but it requires you to understand runes,” she quickly explained before closing the trunk again. “You have to carve them into objects, so you’ll need a variety of cutting tools for different materials. The third section is your food storage.” She tapped the third stone. “This is simple cold storage and stasis storage,” she explained, showing him how to reach the two sections by waving his hand, much like the sliding wardrobe. “And finally, this is your desk.” She tapped the fourth stone and opened the trunk. Harry leaned closer, but there was only a flat surface. Harry supposed he could use it as a desk if he sat cross-legged in front of the trunk, but it was a disappointment.
She grabbed a leather strap at the front of the flat area and pulled. And pulled. And pulled more. It was like watching a piece of paper unfold. A huge desk with divots for ink wells and a wide work surface appeared. A gray block fell out from under the main desk and rearranged itself into a proper chair with comfortable-looking gray cushions. Along the back of the desk sat slots for rolls of parchment and a wide shelf that would hold at least a dozen books. It was wonderful.
Harry smiled and stared in awe.
“I take it this is the trunk for you?” she asked.
“Yes, please,” Harry agreed.
“This is a deluxe model—one hundred and seven galleons, twelve sickles.”
“I’ll have to go back to the bank, but we can do that, can’t we?” Harry looked at Hagrid, desperate in his hope.
For a second, it seemed like Hagrid would say no, but then he sagged. “Aye,” he agreed, “we can do that.”
“Thank you!” Harry exclaimed. He turned to the woman. “And thank you, Miss…”
“Madam Journeys,” she said.
“Thank you,” Harry beamed. “It’s perfect. We’ll go get the money and be right back.”
“If you touch the trunk with your wand first, I’ll get all the charms set to you so only you can open it,” she offered. Harry took out his wand and followed her directions to touch the end of his wand to the lock and think about how the trunk was his. The trunk clicked loudly, and she sent him off to get the money.
Hagrid handled the cart ride even worse the second time, and he had grown much quieter. Harry hoped he hadn’t said something wrong. Maybe he was upset that Harry didn’t think his Hogwart’s house was the best. Aunt Petunia was like that. She was only nice to people when they said she had the nicest yard, even when she didn’t. Harry didn’t want to think that his first friend in the wizarding world would be like Aunt Petunia, but he wasn’t sure.
After picking up the money and then getting the extra robes and casual clothes from Madam Malkin’s, they picked up the trunk and Harry joyfully loaded all his school supplies into their proper areas. “Madam Journeys?” Harry asked.
“What house were you in?”
“Hufflepuff. We’re the best house, you know. Even today I can call on my school friends, and they’ll always help me out.”
“The same is true of Gryffindor,” Hagrid grumbled.
“You won’t find a Sirius Black or a James Potter in Hufflepuff,” she said derisively.
“James Potter?” Harry blurted.
“What a bully,” Madam Journeys said. “Of course, what happened to him was tragic, and he was never as bad as Sirius Black who turned out to follow You-Know-Who, but still. Gryffindor and Ravenclaw have quite the problem with bullying. Hufflepuff never has.” She smiled at Harry, obviously not realizing that she had upset him. “We take care of our own,” she said in a tone almost like she though he was a Hufflepuff already.
“James was a right proper wizard and a great man,” Hagrid protested. Harry noticed that Hagrid didn’t defend Sirius Black. So maybe not all the bad wizards came from Slytherin.
Madam Journeys rolled her eyes. “Of course he was,” she said in a tone that made it clear that she disagreed. “Off with you then,” she said.
Hagrid was still in a foul mood when he offered to buy Harry dinner, even though it was getting late. Harry knew he wouldn’t get any food out of Aunt Petunia after what happened on the island, so he quickly agreed. They sat in the pub eating, his owl in her cage on top of Harry’s wonderful new trunk, charmed to be featherlight and to have muggles never notice it. Harry loved it.
However, after seeing how many books the shopkeeper had recommended, he knew he needed time, and even magic wouldn’t make Aunt Petunia give him fewer chores. But Hagrid might. This morning, Harry might have simply asked for a favor or decided to handle Aunt Petunia on his own. However, he needed to handle this in a way that wouldn’t make Hagrid even more upset. “I am so excited about Hogwarts. Do you think the headmaster is in my book on famous wizards?” he asked.
Hagrid’s frown vanished. “Course he is. He’s a great man,” Hagrid said enthusiastically. “Greatest wizard of our age. Even You-Know-Who was smart enough to avoid tangling with the headmaster.”
Harry smiled. “I want to impress him.”
Hagrid gasped as though shocked. “Course he’s going to be impressed. You’re Harry Potter.” He said that loud enough to set off another round of whispers and stares from the other people eating. Harry was starting to think that Hagrid wasn’t terribly intelligent.
“But I sometimes slack off and don’t do the homework I should,” he said, which wasn’t exactly true. He’d be happy to do homework if it got him out of cooking for the family or sitting in the sun pulling weeds for hours. “Could you come home with me and tell my aunt and uncle that I need to spend at least three hours every afternoon working on my books? I know I could get caught up then.” Harry gave Hagrid a hopeful look.
“I don’t rightly know that’s a good idea after what I did to your cousin. I was planning on leaving you at the train station.”
“By myself?” Harry asked, slightly horrified. “With a trunk and a cage with an owl and this late? How would I get from the train station to the house?”
“The trunk is featherlight,” Hagrid said.
“But what if someone stops me? What if someone tries to take my owl away because muggles don’t keep owls as pets? What if I get lost?” Harry had been left to find his way through Surrey on his own lots, but he needed Hagrid if he was going to make an impression on his family.
“I suppose you’re right. Wouldn’t be proper,” Hagrid said after a second. Then he smiled. “If your cousin annoys me again, I might try for a pig nose.”
Harry didn’t think that was a good idea if Hagrid wasn’t supposed to be using the wand hidden in his umbrella, but he didn’t say anything. “If you’re at the house, can you tell Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia that I should be working for three hours every afternoon? That way I won’t forget and I won’t slack, and Headmaster Dumbledore will be impressed by how much I’ve caught up in a month.”
Hagrid was lost in thought for a moment before he slowly nodded. “Maybe that would be best. I know I had trouble doing my work in school, and it’d be helping you to have a word with your aunt and uncle.”
“Right then. But I don’t want to take those tiny muggle trains again. Now that you have a wand, I can show you how to use the Knight Bus. It’s a horrid way to travel, but if you’re going somewhere in the muggle world without a floo, it’s the best way if you can’t apparate.”
Floo. There was that word again. Harry hoped that his aunt and uncle assumed that Hagrid’s suggestion was an order because Harry had a lot of catching up to do, and he couldn’t do it while pulling weeds all day. There had to be some benefits to being a wizard, and tricking his aunt and uncle would be a great way to start.
They acted half terrified and half furious. If Harry came down to dinner, they would pretend that his chair was empty, which was awkward when no one would pass him the potatoes. But at the same time, it was the best summer he’d had in a long time. The isolation was depressing, but he had discovered that Madam Journeys had slipped a number of treats into his trunk, maybe when he was at the bank. His cold food storage had spicy pumpkin juice and orange juice and fruit. His stasis storage had meat hand pies and pasties and other treats that were as warm as if they had just come out of the oven. And in one of the storage drawers he had found wizarding games meant for young children.
He was particularly fond of pong-bonk. A red ball would zip through the air leaving a light trail in a specific path. If Harry used his wand or even the broken side of an old hanger to trace the path exactly, the ball flashed a rainbow of colors. If he added in an extra swish or twitch, the ball would rocket toward him and bonk him in the forehead. Another game had pictures of fantastical creatures. The cards would arrange themselves into a grid, and when Harry touched a card, he would have to call out the name of the creature and then summon something that could banish it. So if a mermaid appeared, he would have to call out “Mermaid. I summon a dragon to defeat you.”
The first time he’d tried that—assuming that a dragon could defeat anything—the light show that followed featured the mermaid swimming deeper into the water and sticking out her tongue first at the holographic dragon and then at Harry. Grindilows, hippocampus, or weetimorousbeasties were far more effective against merpeople. Dragons just hovered overhead and blew fire that evaporated a bit of water. It was fun to research the best creatures to send against an enemy. Of course, both games had packaging that said appropriate for witches and wizards three years and up, so he would have to hide these when he got to school. The others would probably think they were babyish.
Between the games and reading and petting his new owl, who he had named Hedwig, the last month of summer passed fast. No one even opened his door to discover his desk set up with his quill practice spread across the wide work surface or Hedwig swooping in and out of the open window as she pleased. Aunt Petunia didn’t even notice Hedwig bringing back dead mice, and every night, Harry ticked off another day on the calendar that came with his desk.
Harry had been prepared to take the Knight’s bus to King’s Cross to catch the train, but Uncle Vernon surprised him by agreeing to drop him off before they took Dudley to the doctor’s appointment to remove the pig tail. Harry still didn’t know why they didn’t ask Hagrid to remove it when he’d visited the house, but sometimes the Dursley’s didn’t make sense.
He’d tried to put his trunk in the boot of the car, but Uncle Vernon had called him a fool because he didn’t have anything to put in there. The notice-me-not charms were that good. It meant that Harry had to ride with the trunk in his lap, and even then, Dudley kept complaining that Harry was poking him with his elbows because he kept hitting the corner of it. They reached King’s Cross at half past ten. Uncle Vernon tried to pull away before Harry even had his trunk on the sidewalk. Then his family drove away without another look.
Sighing, Harry headed into the station. He found a big plastic number nine over one platform and a big plastic number ten over the one next to it, and a brick wall between. Harry took a deep breath. He was a little afraid of the next part, even if the muggle-born guide promised that the barrier would let him through because he was a wizard. Closing his eyes and tightening his fingers around his wand, he walked right into the brick wall, and then he was through.
A scarlet steam engine waited next to a platform packed with people. A sign overhead said Hogwarts Express, eleven o’clock. Harry looked behind him and saw a wrought-iron archway where the barrier had been, with the words Platform Nine and Three-Quarters on it. He had done it.
Smoke from the engine drifted over the heads of the chattering crowd, while cats of every color wound here and there between their legs. Owls hooted to one another in a disgruntled short of way over the babble and the scraping of heavy trunks. That made Harry happy that his own was featherlight.
And he wasn’t the only one. The blond boy was here, and Harry was glad that he had worn the clothes from Madam Malkins. He slipped his casual robe over his trousers and white button up shirt and he looked like every other first year student. Well, most others. There was a girl in jeans and her hair in braids and another with muggle trainers and wild, bushy hair. So some students had come from the muggle world.
But the blond boy wasn’t. His parents stood beside him, statuesque and dressed in fine robes with subtle embroidery. His father had a silver tipped cane, and he watched the crowd with wary eyes. The mother focused on the boy.
Harry drifted closer. Maybe the boy was a prat, but he was a familiar face. A few carriages had students hanging out of windows, calling to friends who were just appearing at the platform. In the far corner, a family flashed into existence, an older boy and his mother appearing mid-twirl with a mighty crack. Harry jumped.
“Oh, it’s you,” the boy said. “At least you’re dressed properly this time.”
“Draco,” his mother said reprovingly. “Introduce us to this young man.”
Draco turned red. “I’m not sure—“
“I’m Harry Potter, ma’am,” Harry offered. He had the feeling Draco had been rude when he hadn’t offered his name in Madam Malkin’s.
Draco’s father immediately turned his full attention toward Harry, his gaze like a hawk as he studied Harry so closely that Harry wanted to squirm or run away. However, he straightened his shoulders and reminded himself that everyone reacted weirdly to his name. At least Draco’s father wasn’t grabbing Harry’s hand and pumping it so fast that it made his shoulder ache.
“Oh.” Draco’s mother sounded startled. “How nice you meet you, Mr. Potter. I’m Narcissa Malfoy, Draco’s mother, and this is my husband, Lucius Malfoy.”
Mr. Malfoy inclined his head slightly, but his hand tightened on the head of his cane until his knuckles paled. “Mr. Potter,” he said smoothly.
“But then why were you dressed like that at Madam Malkin’s?” Draco asked.
“Draco!” His mother said, her voice as sharp as a whip, and Draco flinched. Aunt Petunia used that voice all the time, and Harry sympathized with Draco’s clear embarrassment. A boy with dark skin stood a few feet away, watching silently. And a girl with a button nose and round face stood near her parents and all three kept glancing over.
“He’s right,” Harry said, “I was dressed in my cousin’s clothes, and they were far too big and torn. My aunt and uncle don’t like wasting money on me, and I didn’t know I had money in the wizarding world because I didn’t know I was a wizard until Hagrid brought me my Hogwart’s letter.”
Mr. and Mrs. Malfoy exchanged a look that Harry couldn’t interpret.
“Do you mean to say you didn’t know anything about the magical world?” Mr. Malfoy asked.
Harry shook his head.
“In our world, answers should be verbal,” Mrs. Malfoy said gently. “People can use potions or spells to disguise their appearance, so anything that hides your voice is seen as rude because you’re refusing to confirm your identity,” she explained.
“Oh.” Harry hadn’t even considered that. “I’m sorry. No, sir. My aunt told me that my parents died in a car crash because my father was drunk. I didn’t know anything about magic at all.”
That seemed to leave Mr. Malfoy speechless and he exchanged another concerned look with Mrs. Malfoy.
“Really?” Draco blurted out. “But why wouldn’t you be with a wizarding family? Mother’s maiden name is Black, and your grandmother was a Black, so you’re second cousins with Mother. Why wouldn’t you have come to live with us?” Draco looked to his parents, unaware that Harry was suddenly so dizzy that the world was spinning around him. He stared at Narcissa Malfoy trying to wrap his mind around the idea that this beautiful woman was his cousin. His family. He had family—wizarding family.
“Are you alright, dear?” Mrs. Malfoy asked. “Lucius, conjure a chair, please.”
Mr. Malfoy took his wand out of his cane and gave it a lazy wave. A chair with curved legs and embroidered upholstery appeared, and Harry sat. “We’re cousins?” he asked.
Mr. and Mrs. Malfoy exchanged another long look before she answered. “Second cousins, which is rather distant. I take it you’ve been living with your mother’s family?”
Harry nodded before correcting himself. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Lucius,” she said, and he waved his wand again to summon a matching chair. Mrs. Malfoy sat on the edge of it. “You are more closely related to her, but I would be more than happy to renew our familial relationship.”
“But why would he live with those sorts?” Draco asked with disgust. Mr. Malfoy’s hand landed on Draco’s shoulder, but Harry wanted the same answer. He looked at Mrs. Malfoy.
She offered a small and sad smile. “At the end of the war, our family was investigated because the Dark Lord had imprisoned my husband and used his name and wealth. It was a difficult time, and no one would have trusted us with another child, particularly one who had been targeted by the Dark Lord himself. By the time our family was officially cleared of any wrong-doing and the Dark Lord’s schemes revealed in the Wizengamot, you were no doubt already placed with your family.”
“The Dark Lord? You mean Voldem—”
“Do not use his name,” Mr. Malfoy said sharply. Mrs. Malfoy shot him a look like Aunt Pentunia would when Uncle Vernon or Dudley used terrible table manners in front of guests.
“The Dark Lord put a taboo on his name,” Mrs. Malfoy explained before Harry could ask what he had done wrong.
“What does that mean?” Harry had thought he had read enough to understand the magical world, but he hadn’t. He still felt like he was swimming through dark waters with grindilows hiding in every corner.
“Whenever his name was used, he would hear it or those he charged with defending his ideals would hear it. It’s not clear how he cast the spell. But it is true that during the war, when people used his name, sometimes hunters would appear and kill those who dared.”
Cold fear washed through Harry. “But he’s gone.”
“Yes,” Mrs. Malfoy said, “but not everyone who supported him is. My family was targeted and my husband put under a spell that controlled him because my sister was a true follower. She was caught, but no doubt some escaped justice. Using his name is foolish.”
“Thank you for telling me,” Harry said. He couldn’t imagine being controlled by the Dark Lord the way poor Mr. Malfoy had been. Maybe that was why he watched the crowd with such suspicion. He glared at almost everyone who passed. And a taboo sounded horrible. Clearly there were rules him books never mentioned, probably because they assumed that everyone already understood them. Or because the book was too old. One of the muggle-born guides compared a portkey to a biplane. Harry had never even seen a biplane.
“If you have questions, feel free to owl me, dear,” Mrs. Malfoy said. “Send your owl to Narcissa at Malfoy Manner.
“Thank you, ma’am,” Harry said. He stood. “I should get on the train.”
“Indeed, you should. Draco, perhaps you could help Harry find a seat,” Mrs. Malfoy said. Draco looked from his parents to Harry. Afraid that Draco was getting forced into helping the way Aunt Petunia had set up Dudley’s play dates for him well into middle school, Harry quickly backed away.
“I can find a seat. I’m sure you need to talk.” Harry caught the handle on his trunk. The owl cage tilted to the side and Hedwig hooted unhappily at the sudden movement. “Maybe I’ll see you on the train, Draco.”
Draco went to follow, but his father pulled him close, and Harry took the opportunity to find a seat. He pulled his trunk after him up into the train. The first few carriages were now packed with students. He went into the first empty carriage near the back of the train and took Hedwig’s cage off the top of his trunk before he pushed his trunk up into the rack. He had to stand on the seat to get it up, but the featherweight charm made it possible. Harry had kept out his potions book because one of the muggle-born guides warned that it was one of the most difficult subjects, and he started rereading what he’d read in summer.
Outside the train window, an old woman with a vulture on her hat walked next to a boy with a round face. “Gran, I’ve lost my toad again.”
“Oh, Neville,” she said with a sigh.
A tall boy with red hair said, “Give us a look, Lee, go on.” Lee, a smiling boy with dreadlocks, held a box in his arms, lifting the lid enough to let a long, hairy spider leg poke out and all the kids around him shrieked and yelled.
The red-haired boy wandered back to a whole family of red-heads. Their mother took out a handkerchief. “Ron, you’ve got something on your nose.”
The boy in question tried to jerk out of her way, but she grabbed him and began rubbing the end of his nose.
“Mum—get off!” He pulled free.
“Ah, has ickle Ronnie got somefink on his nosie?” said a boy that matched the one who had been in the crowd around the spider. Twins. Harry tuned out as the mother threatened the twins if they kept playing pranks. They sounded like terrors. So they were in Gryffindor for sure, at least if the books Harry had read were more accurate than the muggle-born guild that used biplanes as an example of transportation muggles normally used.
Time was almost up, and there was a last-minute scramble onto the train. Most of the compartments had kids hanging out windows, screaming the names of siblings or waving to parents. Harry saw Mr. and Mrs. Malfoy in the crowd, standing close to each other with an island of space around them, even on the crowded platform. Harry couldn’t believe that she was his cousin, especially not when his other cousin was Dudley. Mrs. Malfoy and Dudley were almost exact opposites in every way.
The magical world still felt special and wonderous, but a tiny niggle of worry crept into Harry’s brain. Why didn’t he know he had cousins? Why didn’t his cousins know about him? It made sense that no one would give them Harry’s address while they were under investigation, but once they were cleared, why didn’t anyone tell Narcissa where to find him?
Harry wondered how different his life would have been if Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon knew someone was watching. And if the someone in question happened to be as intimidating as Mr. Malfoy, Harry suspected they would have been far more careful to treat Harry fairly. Harry had a fantasy of Mr. Malfoy showing up at the house and glaring Uncle Vernon into silence before lecturing him about proper behavior. It was a nice fantasy.
Harry shook his head and the boy sat.
The door opened again, showing the twin redheads. “Hey, Ron. Listen, we’re going down the middle of the train—Lee Jordan’s got a giant tarantula down there,” one twin said.
Ron sunk lower into his seat. “Right,” he muttered.
The twins exchanged a look. “See you later, then,” said the other twin.
“Bye,” said Ron, and the twins slid the compartment door shut.
“Brothers?” Harry guessed.
“Older brothers. Twins—Fred and George,” Ron agreed. Then his gaze focused on Harry’s forehead. “Blimey. Is that—” He pointed at Harry’s scar. Harry tried to press his hair over his forehead, but he knew it was a lost cause. “Are you Harry Potter?” Ron blurted.
“So that’s where You-Know-Who—?”
Harry noticed that some people used silly names and others called him the Dark Lord, but no one used Voldemort’s name—which made sense if he had a taboo on his own name. That seemed… well, unhinged. “Yes, but I can’t remember it.”
“Nothing?” said Ron eagerly.
“Well— I remember a lot of green light, but nothing else.”
“Wow,” said Ron. He stared at Harry for a few moments, then, as though he had suddenly realized what he was doing, he looked quickly out the window again.
“Are all your family wizards?” asked Harry.
“Er— yes, I think so,” said Ron. “I think Mum’s got a second cousin who’s an accountant, but we never talk about him.”
Harry hid his wince. So Ron’s family didn’t like it when family members were born without magic. The books had explained any number of prejudices, including ones against squibs. At least Harry thought that’s what Ron meant because if his mother’s second cousin was a wizarding accountant, that didn’t seem like a reason to stop talking to him.
“I heard you live with muggles,” Ron blurted. “What are they like?”
Harry wasn’t sure where Ron would have heard that. Harry had found his own entry in the book about famous wizards, and it hadn’t said anything about where he lived, and the Malfoy family had seemed surprised to learn he hadn’t been with wizards.
“My family is horrible, but not all muggles are.” Harry thought about the huge family who had come with Ron to the station. “I wish I had three wizard brothers.”
“Five,” Ron corrected him with a gloomy expression. “I’m the sixth in our family to go to Hogwarts. You could say I’ve got a lot to live up to. Bill and Charlie have already left—Bill was head boy and Charlie was captain of Quidditch. Now Percy’s a prefect. Fred and George mess around a lot, but they sill get really good marks and everyone thinks they’re really funny. Everyone expects me to do as well as the others, but if I do, it’s no big deal, because they did it first. You never get anything new, either, with five brothers. I’ve got Bill’s old robes, Charlies old wand, and Percy’s old rat.”
Ron reached inside his jacket and pulled out a fat gray rat, which was asleep.
“His name’s Scabbers and he’s useless, he hardly ever wakes up. Percy got an owl from my dad fro being made prefect, but they couldn’t aff— I mean, I got Scabbers instead.”
Ron’s ears went pink. He seemed to think he’d said too much, because he went back to staring out the window.
Harry didn’t think there was anything wrong with not being able to afford an owl. After all, he’d never had any money in his life until a month ago, and he told Ron so. “Until I went to Diagon Alley, I had to wear my cousins clothes because my aunt and uncle wouldn’t buy me anything. The pants were so big that I had to use a rope to keep them from falling off.
Ron’s eyes got large. “Really?”
Harry nodded and then remembered that wizarding rules required a verbal answer. “Really. And I never got a proper birthday present. Once I got an old sock of my uncle’s, one with a hole in the heel. Another time I got crayons that my cousin had left out in the sun that had melted to the box.” Harry didn’t say that he had used the crayons anyway, chipping them away from the cardboard and coloring with the tiny shards.
“You had it way worse than me,” Ron said, his voice almost awed. And then silence fell. The train left London to speed past fields full of cows and sheep. They were quiet for time, watching the fields and the lanes flick past.
The food cart came and left with Harry buying a pumpkin pasty and two chocolate frogs. He traded the pasty with Ron for a corned beef sandwich and then they split the chocolate. Overall, Harry was enjoying his first train ride. The fields had given way to woods and twisting rivers and dark green hills when there was a knock on the door of their compartment. The round-faced boy Harry had seen looking for his toad on the platform came in. He looked tearful.
“Sorry,” he said, “but have you seen a toad at all?”
When they shook their heads, he wailed, “I’ve lost him! He keeps getting away from me!”
“He’ll turn up,” said Harry.
“Yes. Well, if you see him…” With a sigh, he left.
“Don’t know why he’s so bothered,” said Ron. “If I’d brought a toad, I’d lose it as quick as I could. Mind you, I brought Scabbers, so I can’t talk.”
That seemed unkind. Harry felt bad for anyone who had lost his pet, but he didn’t want to criticize Ron.
Ron looked down at his own pet asleep in his lap. “He might have died and you wouldn’t know the difference,” said Ron in disgust. “I tried to turn him yellow yesterday to make him more interesting, but the spell didn’t work. I’ll show you. Look…”
He rummaged around in his trunk and pulled out a battered wand. It was chipped in places and something white was glinting at the end. “Unicorn hair’s nearly poking out. Anyway—” He had just raised his wand when the compartment door slid open again. The roadless boy was back, but this time he had a girl with him. She was already wearing her new Hogwarts robes.
“Has anyone seen a toad? Neville’s lost one,” she said. She had a bossy sort of voice, lists of bushy brown hair, and rather large front teeth.
“We’ve already told him we haven’t seen it,” Ron said, but the girl wasn’t listening. She was looking at the wand in his hand.
“Oh, are you doing magic? Let’s see it, then?” Harry couldn’t tell if she was challenging Ron or excited to see magic, but she sat right down next to Harry. Ron looked taken aback.
“Er—all right.” He cleared his throat. “Sunshine, daisies, butter mellow, turn this stupid, fat rat yellow.” He waved his wand, but nothing happened. Scabbers stayed gray and fast asleep.
“Are you sure that’s a real spell?” Said the girl. “Well, it’s not very good, is it? I’ve tried a few simple spells just for practice and it’s all worked for me. Nobody in my family’s magic at all. It was ever such a surprise when I got my letter, but I was ever so pleased, of course, I mean, it’s the very best school of witchcraft there is, I’ve heard—I’ve learned all our course books by heart, of course, I just hope it will be enough—I’m Hermione Granger, by the way, who are you?” She said all this very fast.
Harry focused on the part he didn’t understand. “How did you practice any spells? There’s a law against underage magic, and students can’t do magic outside school until they’ve passed at least three OWLs.”
“I know that,” she said.
Ron crossed his arms over his chest. “Yeah, how did you do magic if you’re from a muggle household?”
She rolled her eyes. “I had my parents bring me to Diagon Alley. There’s so much magic being done all the time that there’s no way for the Ministry to keep track of whether someone underage did something or not. And you’re being rude. I introduced myself and you didn’t.”
“I’m Ron Weasley,” Ron muttered.
“Harry Potter,” said Harry.
“Are you really?” said Hermione. “I know all about you, of course—I got a few extra books for background reading, and you’re in Modern Magical History and The Rise and Fall of the Dark Arts and Great wizarding Events of the Twentieth Century.”
Harry winced. He hadn’t read those, but he’d seen what other books had written about him, and he didn’t want anyone assuming he knew them based off those.
“You’re definitely going to end up in Ravenclaw, but don’t assume that every book about me is right,” Harry said. “I’ve only known about the wizarding world for a month, and I’ve already read books that made up facts that weren’t even close to accurate.”
“Why do you say I’ll be in Ravenclaw. Dumbledore was in Gryffindor. That’s the best house. That’s what I want,” Hermione said.
“Oh, bother,” Ron muttered.
“What house do you hope for?” she asked.
“Gryffindor,” said Ron, but he suddenly sounded unsure. “Mum and Dad were in it, too. I don’t know what they’ll say if I’m not. I don’t suppose Ravenclaw would be too bad, but imagine if they put me in Slytherin,” he said with a shudder.
“Merlin was in Slytherin, as was Octavus the First, Lady Iolanthe and Iwen the Strange. They were all great wizards,” Harry pointed out.
“Yeah, but You-Know-Who came from there,” Ron said.
“And Sirius Black came from Gryffindor and Barty Crouch Jr. came from Ravenclaw and Melekka Selwyn came from Hufflepuff,” Harry said. True, it was harder to find examples of Hufflepuff who had done something truly evil, but Slytherin seemed split between powerful wizards who had championed good and those who had fought for evil while Gryffindor seemed to have an equal number of members famous for brave or idiotic reasons. Dumbledore had defeated Grindelwald, but the house ghost had died trying to impress some woman with a spell he hadn’t practiced, accidentally giving her a tusk for a tooth. And with the exception of Hufflepuff, all the houses had their own share of horrible witches and wizards.
“So what house do you want to go into?” Ron asked.
“Hufflepuff,” Harry said without pausing. “Although Slytherin would be okay. But I wouldn’t fit in Ravenclaw and I don’t think I want to be in a house as boisterous as Gryffindor. I’m pretty quiet.”
“But you’re Harry Potter,” Ron said, blinking owlishly at Harry. “Both your parents are in Gryffindor. We could go into Gryffindor together, and I’d have your back.”
“I’m going into Gryffindor, too,” Hermione said in a hurt tone. Ron did not look in her direction.
“I just want something quieter,” Harry said. “Do you know how sorting works? Do we get to pick our house?” Harry asked. The other two stared at him blankly, so apparently it wasn’t just his books that skipped that step. The others were still staring at Harry like he had turned into some strange new creature when the compartment door slid open yet again.
Draco came in flanked by two thickset boys who had expressions that would have endeared them to Dudley. They looked like bodyguards. “Hello. There you are. This is Vincent Crabbe and Gregory Goyle,” Draco introduced the boys.
“Malfoy,” Ron said, his voice verging on a snicker. Draco looked at him.
“Think I’m funny, do you? No need to ask who you are. My father told me all the Weasley’s have red hair, freckles, and more children than they can afford.”
Harry shot to his feet. “Hey, that’s rude,” he said.
Draco turned pink.
Ron smirked. “Yeah, that’s rude. Run back to Daddy and the Dark Lord. This compartment’s full.”
Harry whirled around to confront Ron. “That’s even ruder. He shouldn’t make fun of you for being poor, but you can’t make fun of someone because their father was imprisoned by You-Know-Who.”
“Imprisoned?” Ron’s voice rose.
“I read about the Malfoys. Imperious Curse is not exactly like being imprisoned,” Hermione said, “its more like the caster can use you like a puppet, making you do things you don’t want to.”
Harry threw his hands in the air. “That’s even worse. His father survived that, and now you’re making fun of him.” Draco crossed his arms over his chest and got a smug expression, which did not help.
“His father lied about that. His whole family is dark. They wanted their lord to win the war and kill all the muggles,” Ron said.
“That’s ridiculous. How do you even kill that many people?” Draco said.
“See? See?” Ron was almost shouting. “You notice he’s not protesting that killing muggles is evil. My dad said that Lucius Malfoy was never bewitched. He says Malfoy’s father didn’t need an excuse to go over to the dark side.”
“Are you calling me evil? You’d better be careful or your father will be getting a protest letter from mine for slandering my family name,” Draco warned. “Be careful Harry. There are some wrong sorts on this train.”
“Yeah, like any Malfoy,” Ron shot back.
“Hey, Narcissa Malfoy is my cousin,” Harry said. He turned his back to Draco and stared down at Ron. Maybe Ron had been nice to him, and he liked Ron, but he wasn’t going to let people start name calling like that. Yeah, Draco was a nob, but Ron was totally over the line.
“What? No, she isn’t. She’s a dark witch.”
“My grandmother was a Black, the same as Narcissa before she got married,” Harry said. He assumed the Malfoys wouldn’t have lied about that. And maybe he was a little more suspicious after Ron’s outburst, but he wouldn’t judge the Malfoys based on what someone else said. Hermione watched like it was a tennis match, her head going from Ron to Harry and back.
“But you’re a light wizard.”
“What’s a light wizard?” Hermione asked.
“No clue,” Harry said.
“Someone who fights with Dumbledore, against You-Know-Who,” Ron explained.
“I’m pretty sure no one in this compartment is fighting with anyone,” Harry said. “We’re all eleven.”
Harry interrupted Ron. “I can choose my own friends. I like both of you, but if neither of you can be nice, I will find another compartment.” Harry turned to the two boys. His first instinct was to avoid them because they reminded him of Dudley, but that’s wasn’t fair. “Gregory and Vincent?” he asked. They looked at each other before nodding. “Nice to meet you. I’m Harry Potter.”
“Nice to meet you,” Gregory said and then Vincent repeated the exact same words.
“I certainly don’t want to be a in a compartment with a Weasley, and I won’t put you in a difficult position, Harry, so we’re going. I hope to see you at the Slytherin table. You would be very welcome,” Draco gave a half bow before he retreated, taking his friends with him.
When Harry turned back around, Ron was staring at him, his face etched with confusion. “Why were you nice to him?”
“Because he was nice to me first.”
“But he’s a Malfoy. They’re only nice when they want something. And you’re the Boy-Who-Lived, so you have to be extra careful to not get trapped by people who would use you.”
“Why do you assume they would use me? Narcissa Malfoy is my cousin. Maybe they just value family.”
Ron snorted. “You don’t know much about that family if that’s what you think.”
Harry thought back to how the three of them—Lucius, Narcissa, and Draco had stood close on the platform. He suspected they valued family a lot. But most of the other parents and kids had avoided them, so maybe they had been less than innocent in the previous war. That was possible. But now that Ron had pointed out that other people might want the Boy-Who-Lived instead of Harry, he wondered if Hermione or even Ron were doing that. Now Harry wondered whether any of these kids would treat him like Harry. That made him even more determined to fight to be in Hufflepuff where he could have loyal friends at his back, not people who wanted him for his name.
Then again, that was a stereotype too. Maybe Hufflepuffs weren’t noticeably more loyal. Suddenly the magical world seemed tarnished by the idea that everyone might be out to use him.
Hermione cleared her throat. “You’d better hurry up and put your robes on. If we’re following the timetable, we’ll get there soon.” She studied Ron for a second. “You’ve got dirt on your nose, by the way. Did you know?”
Ron glared at her as she left. It was getting dark now. Mountains and forest swept past under a deep purple sky. The train was slowing. Harry pulled off his casual robe and pulled down his trunk to get a long school robe while Ron exchanged his jacket for a school robe that was just a little too short, showing his shoes and a bit of socks. An announcement warned that they were stopping in five minutes, and Harry followed the instructions to leave the luggage and follow the first year students to a dock where Hagrid stood with a lantern, calling for first years to load onto boats.
Not wanting another fight, Harry slipped away from Ron and introduced himself to two girls named Susan Bones and Hannah Abbott. They sat with a boy named Roger Malone as the boat slid across the water and Harry got his first view of Hogwarts. The vast castle had turrets and towers and windows that sparkled against the starry sky and Harry was in love.
“Hmmm. Difficult. Very difficult,” the hat said with a small voice in his ear. “Plenty of courage, I see. Not a bad mind, either. There’s talent, oh my goodness, yes. You don’t have to be a bookworm to enjoy Ravenclaw, you man. There are plenty of Claws who could care less about grades and indulge their own thirst for knowledge no matter what the professors want. And you have a nice thirst to prove yourself, now that’s interesting… So where shall I put you?”
“Hufflepuff, please,” Harry thought loudly.
“Hufflepuff? I can see that you know the value of hard work, but you are hardly the sort of young man to give his trust easily. That’s the only house I’m not comfortable sending you to. They wouldn’t understand why you need to test them or hold yourself apart until they earn your trust. By the time the Puffs leave school, they would get it, but you would hurt the first years, and they are children. They would make life very difficult for you because of that.”
Harry hadn’t considered that. “I could try to give my trust. I know Hufflepuffs are less likely to take advantage of my fame than anyone else.”
“But you also know that stereotypes aren’t entirely accurate. Some of the Hufflepuffs might want to use you.”
Harry’s stomach lurched.
“You could be great, you know. It’s all here in your head, and Slytherin would teach you how to trade favors in a way that you wouldn’t feel taken advantage of. They could put you on the path to greatness, no doubt about that.” Before Harry could answer, the hat said, “better be SLYTHERIN!” The hat shouted the last word to the whole hall.
Harry took off the hate and walked shakily toward the Slytherin table where Draco had already slid over to make room. Several of the Slytherins were clapping politely, but most of the rest of the hall was dead silent. After a few seconds, the whispers started and grew and grew like a wave gathering strength as it hurdled toward the shore.
At the High Table, Hagrid looked stunned. In the center of the table, in a large gold chair, sat Albus Dumbledore. Harry recognized him from his famous wizards book. His long beard shone as brightly as the ghost, and he stared at Harry even though McGonagall had called the next name. Harry stared back, wondering if something was wrong, but after a long few seconds, Dumbledore finally looked away. Professor Quirrell was there—the stuttering man from the Leaky Cauldron—looking very peculiar in a large purple turban. He sat next to a dour man with black robes and straight black hair and a very unhappy expression. His gaze kept sliding over to the Slytherin table, but Harry couldn’t tell if he was angry at Harry or one of the other students or just the table as a whole.
Ron sorted into Gryffindor, and when Harry watched him head over to the red table, he realized Hermione was already over there with the boy who’d been looking for his toad. The sorting ended when Blaise Zabini sorted into Slytherin. Then McGonagall rolled up the scroll and took the Sorting hat away.
The rest of the opening feast passed in a flurry of introductions. Gregory had to be told at least one every three minutes to close his mouth when he chewed and Blaise flirted with everyone. Harry had thought flirting was something teenagers did, but Blaise smiled and complimented and even fluttered his eyes at a muscular girl named Millicent. And the longer Harry listened to Draco brag about his father and his father’s wealth and influence, the less Harry liked him. Maybe he was doomed to have horrible cousins. If magic was real, magical curses had to be.
The feast got worse when the Bloody Baron, their house ghost, settled in on the other side of Draco, bringing a chill to the room along with his gaunt face and robes stained with silver blood. Draco gave Harry a “save me” expression, but Harry had no idea how to make a ghost go away. If Gregory’s table manners couldn’t do it, nothing could.
Then Harry was looking toward the Head Table when the dour looking teacher with the hook nose caught Harry’s gaze. A sharp, burning pain short across the scar on Harry’s forehead. Harry clapped a hand over it. “Ouch!”
“You okay, Potter?” Blaise asked.
“My head hurts.” But the pain had gone as quickly as it had come.
“What’s wrong with Professor Snape?” Gregory asked, and the others looked toward the head table.
“Looks cranky,” Vincent said with a full mouth, and a half-dozen students loudly told him off.
Draco leaned close. “He doesn’t like teaching the first years. Potions are dangerous, and he feels like some students don’t take it seriously. He always puts us with his Gryffindor class because he knows we don’t need as much supervision. But the Gryffindors have a reputation for not caring about class at all. And in potions, that can lead to dreadful accidents. Just prepare for class and he’s brilliant. Youngest Potion Master ever,” he said in a strangely proud voice.
The feast finally ended with Dumbledore making an ominous warning about death waiting in the third-floor corridor on the right-hand side. None of this was soothing Harry’s upset stomach.
“I bet some experiment went wrong,” Pansy Parkinson said. “The Menace Twins have to experiment somewhere, and I bet they had a secret lab and some disaster left poison all over the walls.”
“Menace Twins?” Harry wondered if they were ghosts.
Draco jerked his head toward the red-headed twins at the Gryffindor table. “They are famous for pulling practical jokes and experimenting with their own potions and spells. Professor Snape says it’s horribly dangerous and Professor Dumbledore should put his foot down, but Gryffindors can get away with anything.”
Millicent spoke up. “They made everyone’s hair turn Gryffindor red last year. A friend wrote all about it. Apparently some Slytherins wouldn’t come out of their rooms for two days. My father said that anyone who ran a spell shop would be a fool if they didn’t hire those two.”
“Anyone who hires them is a fool because they’ll never take a job seriously,” Tracey Davis said with a dismissive sniff. Harry had definitely landed at the arrogant table.
After a terrible version of the school song, the headmaster dismissed them all with a cheerful, “Bedtime. Off you trot!” A student with a badge with a large P walked down the length of the table. “Time to go. Stay together. We’re going to show you to the dungeons.”
“Dungeons?” Harry asked with alarm.
“That’s where our dorm is,” Draco explained. “Be glad. Gryffindor and Ravenclaw have the towers, so they get much less space and the light must be terrible when they’re trying to sleep in on a Sunday morning. Father says we have a wonderful view of the lake. We can see the merpeople and giant squid and all the fish. He says the light coming through the water in the morning is so relaxing that he considered installing an underwater room in the manor.”
Harry wondered how many times Draco could use the word “father” in one sentence. Harry didn’t know if he was aggravated or jealous of the close relationship Draco clearly shared with Mr. Malfoy. The prefect led them down two flights of stairs and through stone tunnels guarded by suits of armor before they stopped in front of a blank stretch of wall and said, “Ashwinder.”
The wall opened just like Diagon Alley.
“Don’t tell anyone the password, don’t write it down, and don’t invite people from other houses into our common room,” the prefect warned as the first years passed into a room full of dark woods and huge fireplaces. The main fireplace was surrounded by carved snakes, and snake paintings and sculptures and carvings decorated the room. Tapestries with fantastical beasts and bookshelves with heavy tomes lined the walls. Clusters of chairs and sofas marked different sitting areas, but they were all done in shades of green. Harry felt like he’d stepped into a museum, and he tucked his hands under his armpits for fear that he would break something ancient and priceless.
“I’m Gemma Farley,” the girl with the P badge introduced herself. “Welcome to Slytherin. This is the home of the ambitious.” Draco stood a little taller, but the older students had all chosen seats. Some draped themselves artfully over the ends of settees and others sat primly on the edge of chairs with curved, carved legs. Most kept sneaking little glances of Harry. Only the first years stood in the middle of the common room, listening to Gemma.
“As a prefect, it’s my job to help you with classes, but you need to learn some problem-solving skills for yourself. You are the future leaders, so my first question will always be, ‘What have you done to solve the problem for yourself.’ Now, not every problem can be solved by a first-year, so do not hesitate to ask me once you’ve tried to solve it for yourself. Our head of house, Professor Snape, is invested in your success, but he is also responsible for teaching, marking papers, evaluating student potions, and providing all the potions for the hospital wing. He is busy enough without first years knocking on his door, so you do not bother him unless you have come to me or one of the other prefects first. Now I want to introduce your head of house.”
She stepped to the side, and Professor Snape seemed to appear out of the shadows, stepping forward into the flickering light of a sconce. “Thank you, Miss Farley,” he said, his voice low and dangerous. The hairs stood up on Harry’s arms.
Professor Snape studied the first years—six boys and four girls. Harry felt very exposed in such a small group. Maybe it was his imagination, but he felt as if Professor Snape spent a long time staring just at him. Harry fidgeted and fought an urge to check to see if he had spilled food on his robes.
“You will not bring shame to this house,” he warned. “If you have a detention from another teacher, I will determine whether house prejudice or your own failings led to the punishment, and if I decide you bear responsibility, I will add my own punishment. Do not assume you can hide misbehavior from me. Years of Slytherins before you have tried and they have all failed.” Snape sent his gaze across the entire room and the older students all stiffened. A few who had been sprawled sat up.
“Other houses will assume you are scheming simply because they do not understand the nature of ambition or because they associate Slytherin with the Dark Lord. Do not rise to their taunts or dignify them with a response. We learn to be strong by avoiding such childish tactics. Tantrums or childish words will not lead others to respect you. That said, if other houses take their bullying beyond words, inform a prefect immediately. If they believe it merits my attention, I have my own ways of making students from other houses regret targeting my snakes.”
“I expect you to learn to be leaders. Apply yourselves to your studies. If you cannot impress instructors in class, then take advantage of the resources available to you and impress the Ministry with your OWLs and NEWTs. First and second year students, go to your dorms. Miss Farley will escort the first year girls to their dorms. First year boys follow Mr. Finton. Older students, remain behind.” This time Harry knew Professor Snape was looking at him. A student who had to be sixth or seventh year stood, and Harry and the other boys hurried after him.
“Thank heavens you joined us, Potter,” Blaise said. “Six is the magic number where the castle will split the dorm. If you weren’t here, all five of us would be in one room with one bathroom.” He shivered as if that would be a true horror.
“If you want to take advantage of my presence, I guess that’s a good reason,” Harry said. Blaise grinned at him. “I have a question.”
“Ask away,” Blaise said. He was so cheerful that Harry suspected he might be flirting, but Harry wasn’t sure.
“Why do you call me Potter instead of Harry?”
Four of the six first years stopped at looked at Harry as if he’d just said something particularly stupid. Gregory and Vincent didn’t. They continued down the corridor after the prefect.
“That’s your name,” Blaise said slowly. “And calling someone by their first name without getting permission is dreadfully rude.”
Harry’s face burned with shame. He looked at Draco.
“That’s fine,” Draco hurried to say. “Mother pointed out that you’re cousins with her, and you called each other family, so first names is fine.”
Theo Nott gave Draco an incredulous look. He even lowered his book to do it.
“But I did that with Gregory and Vincent.” Harry winced. “Crabbe and Goyle,” he corrected himself.
Draco snorted. “Like they’re going to notice anyone else’s manners when they don’t have any themselves. Besides, they both took it as a compliment. If you go back to last names now, they’ll definitely notice and definitely be unhappy. But you may have to remind them to use your first name if you really want them to. Either way, they’ll be fine with you using their first names.”
“That doesn’t sound—” Harry wasn’t sure what he was going to say. Draco shouldn’t speak for them, and if they continued to call him Potter when he used their first names, that felt horribly awkward. “Well, everyone here is welcome to call me Harry,” he said.
Blaise got a secretive smile and Theo looked even more horrified.
Draco cleared his throat. “An exchange of first names is usually done individually after someone has done something to assist you or indicate that they’re willing to consider working with you. So after I introduced you to my parents and you and Mother discussed your family relationship, exchanging an offer to use first names would be appropriate.”
“Right.” Harry winced. “I’m stuffing this all up. I’m so sorry, and when I do dumb stuff like this, please feel free to tell me.”
“You’ll be fine,” Zabini said with a wide smile. “Right now, I like you more than most of the human race, so you’re doing something right.”
“Get up here,” the prefect called, and all of them hurried down the long corridor with doors on either side. “Three here and three across the hall,” he said, pointing to the names next to each door. On the right was “Nott, Potter, Zabini” and on the left “Crabbe, Goyle, Malfoy.”
“But—” Draco said.
The prefect cut him off. “No switching.” He turned and strode back in the direction of the common room.
“Well.” Blaise clapped his hands. “This is us.” He opened the door. Three four-poster beds hung with dark, rich velvet curtains dominated the space. Each of them had a trunk next to their bed, but Blaise also had a desk. The room was spacious enough that Harry would be able to fold out his trunk-desk, so that didn’t mind the lack of a personal desk. At the foot of each bed was a small carved bench held up with wooden snakes on the corners and Harry and Blaise’s beds were up against a dark window. Maybe it was Harry’s imagination, but he thought he saw quick flashes of bright fish dart past.
“I’m exhausted,” Blaise said as he opened his trunk. Like Harry’s, the top rose to show a full wardrobe.
Nott grunted, but he opened his own wardrobe. Nott vanished into the attached bathroom, and Harry quickly changed into his pajamas. He’d never worn them before. He hadn’t wanted the Dursleys to see he had such nice ones, but now he loved the silky feeling across his skin. Unfortunately, he was too tired to enjoy them much. He fell into bed and was asleep almost at once.
Maybe he had eaten too much because he slid into a strange dream. He was wearing professor Quirrell’s turban, only it was the same green as his bed drapes. The turban kept talking to him, asking why he was in Slytherin and what ambitions he had. It kept whispering about destiny, but every time Harry tried to hear what the turban was saying, its voice grew softer. Harry tried to pull the turban off so he could have a proper conversation with it, but it tightened painfully—and there were Draco and Ron, each accusing the other of being from a bad family.
Then both disappeared into the shadows and the darkness turned into Professor Snape who laughed, his voice high and cold. there was a burst of green light and Harry woke, sweating and shaking. At first he thought someone was standing next to his bed, but he realized he had not closed his trunk and the tall wardrobe section stood open.
Harry rolled over and fell asleep again, and when he woke the next day, eh didn’t remember the dream at all.
Harry looked at their school bags. “Crap,” he said.
Zabini looked over, his eyebrows raised in surprise.
“I forgot to buy a school bag,” Harry explained. “I guess I’ll be carrying my books.”
“And inkwells, and quills, and potions ingredients?” Zabini asked. “That will be an interesting juggling act, not that I don’t have faith in your ability to do it.” Nott barely glanced up before returning to his book.
Harry shrugged and then mentally kicked himself. He had to stop using non-verbal answers. Everyone was going to think he was impossibly rude. “I’ll figure something out. I wonder if one of the older students has one I could buy. I bet lots of students get new ones but forget to throw out the old since there’s so much room in a trunk.”
“Possibly,” Zabini said, “however, as I have an extra bag, that seems like a lot of unnecessary effort.” He went to his trunk and opened a storage compartment that looked even larger than Harry’s. Magic was amazing. He pulled out a green leather satchel with a snake embossed on the front.
“That’s too beautiful. I couldn’t,” Harry protested.
Zabini waved him away. “It was a gift from a distant relative who wanted me to sort Slytherin. I’m proud of my house, but I don’t feel a need to advertise my sorting or dress myself using snakes. Take it. I won’t use it.”
“If you’re sure—” Harry took the beautiful bag, noticing how light it was. It definitely had charms on it.
Harry smiled. “In that case, I hope you will call me Harry.”
Zabini laughed. “We’ll make a proper Slytherin out of you yet. Well done. And you must call me Blaise.”
“Perfect!” Harry was proud that he had done something right. He opened the bag to find it had compartments for rolls of parchment and inkwells and blotter squares and books and potions and even one flap that when he pulled on it, revealed a padded storage area for several caldrons and a telescope, all in a bag small enough to go over his shoulder. Brilliant. “What do you think the professor wanted to talk to older students about last night?” Harry asked.
Blaise had never gone back to his letter and now he sprawled across the bed. “You.”
“The war left a lot of wounds, and I imagine some older students might resent how the war ended.”
“Resent me, you mean,” Harry said. When he’d researched the houses, that had never occurred to him.
“Perhaps,” Blaise agreed. “So many families claimed that the Dark Lord had used the Imperious curse that everyone knows that at least some of them are lying. If the children of those liars are smart, they will back their parents’ lies by aligning with you. After all, they should insist that you are the savior who freed their family from such a horrible curse. But sometimes people aren’t logical. If they heard their parents curse you in private, they may be foolish enough to bring that frustration to school. It would be stupid, but people can be.” Blaise interlocked his fingers and tucked them under his head.
Harry noticed that Nott had stopped reading. His gaze was on the page, but his eyes didn’t glide over the words at the impossible speed that meant he was actually paying attention to the book. Harry had the feeling that Nott’s father was one who might have backed the Dark Lord and complained about Harry in private.
“I was fifteen months old. I was just learning to say a few words,” Harry said. A childlike call of pa’foo crossed his mind, although he had no idea what that meant. “I couldn’t have defeated a Dark Lord. I couldn’t have won a fight with a diricawl at that age.”
“You have a point.”
Nott spoke to Harry for the first time. “Then what do you think happened?”
Harry stopped himself from shrugging. “I’m not sure. I bet my parents did something. I read there are charms and protective runes, so they must have set some sort of trap.”
“But one powerful enough to stop the Dark Lord?” Nott didn’t hide his disbelief.
“They were both sacrificed that night,” Blaise said. “If they’d used blood magic, their deaths could have fueled a ritual.”
“Blood magic?” Nott had gone dangerous still.
“What’s that?” Harry asked.
Nott and Blaise stared at each other until Blaise finally sighed and answered. “The UK has pretty strict laws about using blood during magical rituals or in potions. Italy is better about only banning dangerous spells and rituals and allowing helpful blood magic, but the UK practically banned the whole field. However, if someone used blood magic and then died on that same spot, their life force would have been pulled into their spell. Actually, I think that’s why the UK banned the magic in the first place. Once the spell is in place, some practitioners are tempted to sacrifice someone else to make their own spell stronger.”
“Which is why light wizards like the Potters never would have used it,” Nott said.
“They weren’t sacrificing someone else,” Blaise argued, “and sacrificing themselves intentionally to win against the Dark Lord is particularly Gryffindorish. They do value others’ lives over their own.”
Something about that answer bothered Nott, and he slammed his book shut and hurried out of the room.
“You are going to make the year interesting, Harry,” Blaise said as he got up and grabbed his own bag. Harry put the last of his texts in the bag and blessed the featherlight charms as he followed. Harry definitely needed to keep in mind that not everyone was thankful for the way his family had ended the war.
Harry was halfway to the common room when Draco called out. “Harry, wait up. How was your first night?”
“I slept great, and your father is right about the light coming through the windows. It’s beautiful.”
Draco preened. “You did join the best house.”
Harry laughed. For a moment, Draco seemed unsure, like he thought Harry might be laughing at him, but then he smiled and led the way to the common room.
“Are Vincent and Gregory coming?”
“They already left for breakfast the moment a prefect was awake to show them to the Great Hall. Those two would walk over lava if there was a buffet on the other side.”
Harry frowned. “I thought they were your friends.”
“Their fathers are friends with my father. That means I am their acquaintance, and I have promised my father that I will try to make sure they get acceptable grades. I suspect they have promised their fathers that they will assist me in any way they can. Exchanging favors in our situation is necessary, so their assistance and loyalty is how they make sure that any tutoring I do does not create an imbalance in our relationship.”
“That sounds exhausting to keep track of,” Harry said.
“Exchanging favors is a cultural norm that spans the globe. In the wizarding world, when two or more families want to form a lasting alliance, the goal is for each family to owe the other so many favors that no one can sort out who has the advantage and the two families settle into a permanent alliance based on both families essentially throwing up their hands and refusing to try to sort it out anymore. The Malfoys, Crabbes, and Goyles are currently trying to reach that goal, so right now we are all trying to do each other as many favors as possible. If our families were not on this path, we would want to horde favors against one another so we could call those favors in when it was most advantageous later.”
“Exhausting,” Harry repeated.
“You’ll catch the hang of it,” Draco promised.
“He’s already improving,” Blaise said. “I offered him a bag I no longer wanted, he returned the favor with an offer to exchange first names. We both came out ahead.”
“Well done,” Draco said.
Blaise pursed his lips. “Yes, and then Theo joined us for a conversation about how the Potters might have used blood magic to defeat the Dark Lord because a fifteen month old child could not. How did Harry put it? At fifteen months, he could not have defeated a diricawl. Theo did seem out of sorts.”
“Oh for Salazar’s sake. What is wrong with him?” Draco threw his hands up and then practically dashed off to the corner of the common room where Theo sat with his book.
“What’s up with Draco?” Harry asked.
“Don’t worry about it,” Blaise said without explaining anything. Magic might be wonderful, but wizards were confusing. And that extended beyond the other first years. Most of the older students carefully watched Harry, most out of the corner of their eyes. And then when they left the dormitory, the whispers started.
“By the kid with dark skin.”
“Is he the one in the glasses?”
“Did you see the scar?”
“Do you think he remembers?”
Students lining up for classes stood on tiptoe to get a look at him or doubled back to pass him in the corridors again, staring. Harry wished they wouldn’t because he was trying to concentrate on finding his way to classes. The moving staircases did not help, neither did the ghosts who would would glide through doors or startle you or slide through you, leaving you feeling like you’d been dropped in ice water.
The classes themselves were fine. Professor Flitwick had embarrassed Harry by falling off his stack of books, toppling out of sight right after calling Harry’s name on the roll. Professor McGonagall was strict. Professor Quirrell stuttered so badly that Harry had trouble understanding the lecture. By Friday, the whispered had settled, but still, groups tended to either explode into mutters or fall silent when Harry came to close.
Harry was listening to his classmates talk about double potions. “I hear the Gryffindors don’t even prepare for class. They treat potions like charms… if you don’t get it right, nothing happens,” Parkinson was saying. Harry hadn’t found a way to exchange first names with the girls, and Draco had warned him that exchanging first names too quickly might lead some girls to make assumptions, so Harry had gotten used to thinking of them as Davis and Parkinson and Greengrass and Bulstrode.
“They don’t take anything seriously,” Draco added. Vincent grunted, which might have been agreement.
“Now, now,” Blaise said, “surely you’re not maligning the entire house. The chaos twins do seem to take pranks seriously.” Most of the other first years glared at him, but that seemed to amuse Blaise. He was very odd.
Just then, the mail arrived. Hedwig hadn’t brought Harry anything so far. She sometimes flew in to nibble his ear and have a bit of toast before going off to sleep in the owlery with the other school owls. This morning, however, she fluttered down between the. Marmalade and the sugar bowl and dropped a not onto Harry’s plate. Harry tore it open at once. It said, in a very untidy scrawl:
Draco read the letter over Harry’s shoulder, an act so rude that all the girls stared at him in horror. Harry would never say it, but Draco lacked most of the qualities that made Slytherin house famous. He wasn’t careful or subtle or anything. Harry figured he either had so much ambition that it overrode every other thought on sorting day or he had mentally yelled at the hat to put him in Slytherin, Draco could get pretty loud when he wanted something.
“Why would that servant want you to visit?” Draco asked confused. That caught Blaise’s attention.
“Servant? What servant?”
“He’s the groundskeeper, and he knew my parents,” Harry explained. He handed the note over to Blaise who looked terribly curious, but who would never push in when he could subtly manipulate Harry to share information instead. Harry didn’t value his secrets as much as others did, so he didn’t mind. And in return, Blaise seemed to feel obligated to explain the wizarding world. And that made Draco even more desperate to explain things and point out that his mother and Harry were cousins.
Apparently Draco was too distant to claim any kinship even if he wanted too. Blaise said that if second cousins first removed could claim kinship, then the pureblood families would run out of non-kin to marry. That seemed dangerously inbred, but true. Harry had learned that he was related to at least half of the school one way or another. Draco was closest to him with a mother who could claim kinship, but the books in the common room library helped him trace his family to the Flints, Bulstrodes, Blacks, Selwyns, Longbottoms, Weasleys, Abbotts, Bones, Hopkirks, McMillians, and Prewitts.
“Who is ‘us’?” Blaise asked.
Blaise put the note on the table and pointed to the word. “He said, ‘Send us an answer.’ Who is us?”
“Maybe he lives with someone,” Harry said.
“More importantly,” Bulstrode said, “how did he send a note using your owl? And why? Why didn’t he use his own owl or a school owl?”
“He bought Hedwig. He probably decided to give her something to do since I don’t have anyone to write.”
“That’s rude,” Bulstrode insisted. Harry didn’t protest because Hagrid didn’t pay attention to most social rules, so Harry couldn’t disagree. But still, Hagrid was nice.
“I’m going to visit him.” He grabbed a quill out of his bag and wrote, “Yes, please. See you later,” on the back of the note, and sent Hedwig off again. Blaise shook his head slowly, and Draco looked scandalized. Harry didn’t care. He headed off for potions, breaking away from the Slytherin students when he saw Ron.
Ron still made his hatred for most Slytherins clear, but he was nice to Harry. Sometimes Harry had to remind Ron that he was one of the snakes when his friend started insulting the whole house, and every time, Ron would look surprised. It was like he still couldn’t believe Harry had sorted into Slytherin.
“Are you looking forward to potions?” Harry teased.
Ron gave him a vicious glare. “He’s a right git. I’ve heard all about Snape.”
“Professor Snape,” Granger corrected him. She often followed a few steps behind them when they had shared classes.
Ron rolled his eyes. “You should be fine. I hear he favors Slytherin students.”
Harry was almost sure that was the first time Ron had ever referred to Slytherins without sneering. “Either that or he’s our head of house and he has terrified all of us into doing our book work ahead of time. I’ve read the first three chapters of the potion text, taken notes on the ingredients mentioned and memorized the safety rules.”
“Swot,” Ron said.
“That’s not very nice,” Granger added. “I told you yesterday that you should prepare. The books say potions is the most dangerous class first years take.”
“Nah,” Ron said dismissively. “That’s transfiguration. You heard McGonagall talk about how dangerous that is. Imagine if you accidentally transfigured your own lungs.” He gave a full body shiver.
Harry didn’t say anything as he slipped into the potions room. It was cold and creepy with pickled animals floating in glass jars all around the walls. Professors expected them to sit by house, so Harry slipped into the empty seat by Draco. Blaise and Theo were behind them, and Vincent and Gregory in front. Harry hoped he and Draco could help them avoid any melting caldrons.
Snape, like Flitwick, started the class by taking the roll call, and like Flitwick, he paused at Harry’s name.
“Ah, yes,” he said softly, “Harry Potter. Our new—celebrity.” The entire Slytherin half of class grew still, but a few Gryffindor’s sniggered. Snape glared at them with cold, dark eyes that made Harry think of empty tunnels and starless, midnight skies. The Gryffindors grew quiet and Snape launched into an impressive speech about the power of potions. The entire class was silent and even motionless as he swept about the class talking about the beauty of a softly simmering cauldron and the delicate power of potions that would creep through human veins.
A shiver went up Harry’s spine, and he wasn’t the only one effected because even once Snape fell silent, the students were statues. Most of Slytherins sat stiffly, their hands folded in their laps and their gazes locked on the professor. Hermione Granger was on the edge of her seat and looked desperate to prove herself.
“Potter!” said Professor Snape suddenly. “What would I get if I added powered root of asphodel to an infusion of wormwood?”
Harry froze. That was not in the first three chapters, but the rules of politeness Blaise and Draco had pounded into him rushed to the front of his mind. “I apologize, Professor Snape, because I clearly missed something in my reading. I don’t remember the answer, sir.” Harry met Professor Snape’s gaze, so he couldn’t miss when Snape’s lips curled into a sneer.
“Tut, tut—fame clearly isn’t everything.”
“Let’s try again. Potter, where would you look if I told you to find me a bezoar?”
Granger started waving the hand she had thrust into the air earlier.
Relief washed through Harry. “Most potion labs keep them in a lined drawer on the right side of the potion storage near where most poisons are kept, sir. The stone comes the stomach of a goat and if someone in the lab shows signs of poisoning, giving them a beazor will absorb the poison, either saving the victim’s life or slowing the poison until healers can arrive.” Snape’s expression had such disbelief and loathing that Harry wanted to keep rambling. He wanted to prove that he wasn’t one of the dunderheads Professor Snape complained about in his opening speech, but he forced himself to sit still, even when he started to get a mild headache that made his eyeballs itch.
“Adequate,” the professor finally said, his expression now blank.
“Weasley, what is the difference between monkshood and wolfsbane?”
Ron froze like a deer caught in the lights of a car about to slam into it, but Granger lifted her hand as high into the air as it would go. And then she stood, her hand stretching toward the dungeon ceiling.
“Um… I don’t know,” Ron said. He turned to Granger. “What is the difference?” he loudly whispered.
Granger opened her mouth, but the professor snapped, “Sit down.” She fell into her seat, her expression stricken. A few Slytherins chuckled. That was mean-spirited.
Snape’s voice grew cold and dangerous. “For your information, Weasley, monkshood and wolfsbane are the same plant, which also goes by the name of aconite.”
He turned back to Harry. “And asphodel and wormwood make a sleeping potion so powerful it is known as the Draught of Living Death.”
“Thank you, sir,” Harry whispered. He wasn’t sure if that was the polite response, but given the way Professor Snape was staring at him, Harry felt like he should say something.
“Well? Why aren’t you all copying that down?” Professor Snape demanded.
There was a sudden rummaging for quills and parchment. Over the noise, Snape said, “And a point will be taken from Gryffindor for your attempt to cheat, Weasley.”
Harry shot Ron an apologetic look, but when the professor turned back around, Harry focused on the cauldron he was sharing with Draco. They worked on a simple potion to cure boils and the professor swept around in his long black cloak, watching them weigh dried nettles and crush snake fangs, criticizing almost everyone except Harry and Draco, who he seemed to avoid altogether. That clearly bothered Draco who kept giving Professor Snape looks that bordered on hurt.
Longbottom somehow managed to melt Finnigan’s caldron into a twisted blob, and their potion was seeping across the stone floor, burning holes in people’s shoes. Within seconds, the whole class was standing on their stools while Longbottom, who had been drenched in the potion when the cauldron collapsed, moaned in pain as angry red boils sprang up all over his arms and legs.
“Idiot boy!” snarled Professor Snape, clearing the spilled potion away with one wave of his wand. “I suppose you added the porcupine quills before taking the cauldron off the fire?”
Harry winced. A margin note in the text had been particularly vivid in its description of how porcupine quills reacted to excess heat, particularly in the presence of snake fang powder. Harry had been bad about ignoring margin notes, but when the first years had reviewed for today’s brew, all of them—even Vincent and Gregory—had told him the most important information was in the margins.
Of course, despite that, Draco had needed to hiss at them to stop when the two of them tried to make the same mistake, even after reviewing the safety warnings.
Neville whimpered as boils started to pop up all over his nose.
“Take him up to the hospital wing,” Professor Snape spat at Finnigan. Then he rounded on Ron who has been working next to Neville. “You, Weasley, why didn’t you tell him not to add the quills? That’s another point you’ve lost for Gryffindor.”
Ron’s face turned almost as red as his hair, and Harry sympathized. Maybe Longbottom should lose a point for not reviewing the safety protocols, but Ron shouldn’t. Sure, he was even less likely to have read the material than Longbottom, but Ron hadn’t melted his cauldron, or anyone else’s either. Not that Harry actually thought Longbottom should lose a point. The boils seemed like punishment enough.
Strangely, Professor Snape then turned to glare at Harry, even though he hadn’t been near the disaster. “Focus on the potion,” Draco whispered. “Lose focus and you’ll be the next one to melt a cauldron, and I will not endure that humiliation.”
Harry sighed and did as Draco asked. He was such a prat. Longbottom was in real pain, Professor Snape was treating the Gryffindors horribly, and Draco thought his own feelings were the only thing that mattered. Harry had been looking forward to potions, but it seemed like the class was going to be a disaster.
While the other Slytherins headed to their dormitory, Harry fell in next to Ron. “Tough luck,” he said.
Ron shrugged. “Snape’s always taking points off Fred and George. I’ll survive.” Granger was behind them, but this time she didn’t correct Ron when he left off Snape’s title. “You gave an impressive answer. I never thought the Boy-Who-Lived would be a swot.” He gave Harry a shoulder bump to make it clear he was only teasing. Harry understood Ron in a way he still didn’t his dorm mates.
“Listen, tell Longbottom that the safety rules aren’t in the regular text. They’re out to the side. And even if you don’t read anything else, read the margin notes so you don’t blow anything up,” Harry warned.
Ron rolled his eyes. “Gryffindors could memorize the whole chapter and Snape would still take points. He only cares about his slimy snakes. So unfair. But what can you expect from a Slytherin? So, what are you up to this afternoon?”
Harry decided to ignore the insults aimed at his house. “Hagrid invited me to visit him.”
“The groundskeeper?” Ron asked.
“I’m going to visit this afternoon.”
“Can I come and meet him with you?”
Harry smiled. “Sure. I want to do my charms essay after lunch, so maybe we can meet around three near the front entrance.”
“Brilliant,” Ron said. “I’ve got to drop my books off before lunch. The only thing I hate about Gryffindor is all the stairs.” They split up, and Harry headed back to the dorms.
Theo was in the common room, but Harry didn’t like studying in the open where everyone could stare. He only did it when the first years worked together to review essays or prepare for potions. Instead he headed up to his room and pulled his desk compartment out. Theo had one as well, but Blaise didn’t, which explained why the house elves had added a desk next to his bed. He was there working when Harry came in.
“Sympathizing with your Gryffindor friend?” Blaise sounded amused.
“I don’t understand him,” Harry complained. “He’s nice to me and he asked to come along to Hagrid’s place, but he keeps insulting Slytherin right in front of me. It’s like no matter how many times I remind him, he can’t remember that I’m Slytherin.”
Blaise turned his chair. “Your parents were friends with the Weasleys, weren’t they?”
“I’m not sure. They both fought against the Dark Lord, so maybe.”
“It could be there’s some inherited debt. Your parents may own the Weasleys or the Weasleys might owe you parents. They were in a war, so there might even be a lift debt involved. That could make it hard for Weasley to turn his back on you, even if he hates your house.”
“You mean like the Malfoys with the Crabbes and Goyles?”
“Maybe,” Blaise said. “Maybe not. They don’t seem to hold with traditional values or rules, so maybe they don’t trade favors.”
Harry thought about how the Weasleys didn’t even talk to their one accountant cousin because he couldn’t use magic, and he thought they were probably more pureblood than they wanted to admit. At the very least, there were certain rules they followed. It was all so confusing.
At five to three, Harry met Ron and they left the castle and made their way across the grounds. Hagrid lived in a small wooden house on the edge of the forbidden forest. A crossbow and a pair of galoshes were outside the front door.
When Harry knocked they heard a frantic scrabbling from inside and several booming barks. Then Hagrid’s voice rang out, saying, “Back, Fang—back.”
Hagrid’s big, hairy face appeared in the crack as he pulled the door open.
“Hang on,” he said. “Back, Fang.”
He let them in, struggling to keep a hold on the collar of an enormous black boarhound.
There was only one room inside. Hams and pheasants were hanging from the ceiling, a copper kettle was boiling on the open fire, and in the corner stood a massive bed with a patchwork quilt over it.
“Make yourself at home,” said Hagrid in his thick accent. He let go of Fang, who bounded straight at Ron and started licking his ears. Like Hagrid, Fang was clearly not as fierce as he looked.
“This is Ron,” Harry told Hagrid, who was pouring boiling water into a large teapot and putting rock cakes onto a plate.
“Another Weasley, eh?” said Hagrid, glancing at Ron’s freckles. “I spent half me life chasing your twin brothers away from the forest. I’m glad to see your sticking with your parents’ sort, even if you ended up in the dungeons,” Hagrid said. Well that supported Blaise’s theory that the Potters and Weasleys had some sort of alliance. But Harry didn’t care so much about houses and alliances. Ron was nice to him, and he liked hanging out with the other boy. Blaise and Draco would both be scandalized.
Hagrid served rock cakes that were shapeless lumps with raisins that almost broke their teeth, but Harry and Ron pretended to be enjoying them as they told Hagrid all about their first lessons. Harry carefully edited out any stories of Blaise or Draco or any Slytherins. He felt outnumbered in the small hut and he didn’t want to have to defend his house again.
Fang rested his head on Harry’s knee and drooled all over his robes. When Ron started to complain about how Professor Snape was horrible to Gryffindors and favored the Slytherins, Harry protested. “Professor Snape seems to really hate me, too.”
“Rubbish!” said Hagrid. “Why should he?” Harry couldn’t help but notice that Hagrid didn’t quite meet his eyes when he said that. Hagrid quickly changed the subject to one of Ron’s older brothers—one that worked with dragons. The conversation was interesting, but Harry was distracted by a piece of paper lying on the table under the tea cozy. It was a cutting from the Daily Prophet describing a break-in at Gringotts bank on the same day Harry had visited with Hagrid.
“Hagrid! This happened on my birthday!” Harry held up the article. “It might’ve been happening while we were there!”
There was no doubt about it, Hagrid definitely didn’t meet Harry’s eyes this time. He grunted and offered him another rock cake. Harry read the story again. The vault that was searched had in fact been emptied earlier that same day. Hagrid had emptied vault seven hundred and thirteen, if you could call it emptying, taking out that grubby little package. Had that been what the thieves were looking for?
As Harry and Ron walked back to the castle for dinner, their pockets weighed down with rock cakes they’d been too polite to refuse, Harry thought that none of the lessons he’d had so far had given him as much to think about as tea with Hagrid. Had Hagrid collected that package just in time? Where was it now? And did Hagrid know something about Snape that he didn’t want to tell Harry?
“You won’t be the only one starting from scratch. I bet a bunch of Gryffindors have never been on a broom,” Draco said, and then he was off describing all his brilliant adventures flying around his enormous estate with his private tutors. It made Harry feel even worse, even though Draco probably intended the story to comfort Harry.
“If you make a total fool out of yourself, I’ll obliviate everyone,” Blaise offered when Draco took a breath.
“It’s a joke, Potter,” Nott snapped. “It’s illegal to wipe people’s memories without a license from the Ministry and a mile of paperwork.” Sadly, Nott snapping was an improvement. Harry still didn’t know what he had done wrong, but he suspected Nott’s family didn’t appreciate the way the war had ended. Harry couldn’t exactly apologize for surviving a killing curse, so he and Nott would just have to deal with each other for seven years.
As they were passing the Gryffindor table, Draco shot forward and snatched something out of Longbottom’s hand.
Ron jumped to his feet, and Harry rushed to get between them. Before anyone could say a word, Professor McGonagall was there. She could spot trouble quicker than any teacher in the school.
“What’s going on?” She crossed her arms.
“Malfoy’s got my Remeberall, Professor,” Longbottom said.
Draco scowled, either at having been tattled on or because he hated Gryffindors as much as they hated him. He quickly dropped the Rememberall back on the table. “Just looking,” he said before he strode away.
“Sorry about that,” Harry offered before followed the others to the Slytherin table. He took his seat next to Draco and asked, “What did you do that for?”
“That’s a baby’s toy. What’s he doing with a stupid ball that doesn’t even tell you what you’ve forgotten? It’s embarrassing for a pureblood to go around with something like that.” Draco did take his blood status seriously. Given that Harry had a muggle-born mum, he felt like he should take offense, but he didn’t want to have yet another person in his house who didn’t like him. He also made a note to hide his pong-bonk game and the animal cards better. Harry didn’t want Draco to target him.
The Slytherins were already out on the pitch by a quarter after three. It was a clear, breezy day, and the grass rippled under their feet as they stood on a smooth, flat lawn on the opposite side of the grounds to the forbidden forest, whose trees were swaying darkly in the distance. Fifteen minutes later, the Gryffindors came tumbling across the sloping lawn, laughing and yelling and in high spirits. Sometimes Harry wondered what it would be like to get swept up in the sort of joy the Gryffindors radiated all the time, but he had never been boisterous himself. Maybe he would have clung to Longbottom and the two of them could have become the shadows on the edge of the Gryffindor crowd.
Even now, Longbottom walked behind the others, his whole body curled in toward himself. Granger was another outcast. She walked in front, her eyes carefully not looking around as though she hoped to prove that she didn’t care that no one walked with her. In Slytherin, even when students didn’t get along—like Harry and Nott—they didn’t exclude each other publicly. They waited until they were inside their common room so any humiliation was private.
Their teacher, Madam Hooch, arrived. She had short, gray hair, and yellow eyes like a hawk. “Well, what are you all waiting for?” She barked. “Everyone stand by a broomstick. Come on, hurry up.”
Harry moved to a broomstick and looked down at the old thing. Some of the twigs stuck out at odd angles, and Harry had trouble believing it could even hold his weight.
“Stick out your right hand over your broom,” called Madam Hooch at the front, “and say, ‘Up!’”
“UP!” Everyone shouted.
Harry’s broom jumped into his hand at once, but it was one of the few that did. Hermione Granger’s had simply rolled over on the ground, and Neville’s hadn’t moved at all. Perhaps brooms, like horses, could tell when you were afraid, thought Harry; there was a quaver in Neville’s voice that said only too clearly that he wanted to keep his feet on the ground.
“Not like that,” she said, grabbing Draco’s hand and pulling it forward.
Draco turned pink, and the moment she walked away, he leaned closer to Harry. “The eastern hold-style offers more maneuverability,” he said. Harry didn’t know whether Draco was telling the truth. Draco was awfully sensitive about being told he was wrong.
“Now, when I blow my whistle, you kick off from the ground, hard,” said Madam Hooch. “Keep your brooms steady, rise a few feet, and then come straight back down by leaning forward slightly. On my whistle—three—two—”
But Longbottom pushed off hard before the whistle had touched Madam Hooch’s lips.
“Come back, boy!” She shouted, but Longbottom was rising straight up like a cork shot out of a bottle — twelve feet — twenty feet. Harry saw his scared white face look down at the ground falling away, saw him gasp, slip sideways off the broom and —
WHAM — a thud and a nasty crack and Neville lay facedown on the grass in a heap. His broomstick was still rising higher and higher, and started to drift lazily toward the forbidden forest and out of sight.
Harry took a step forward, horrified for Longbottom. He had the worst luck. Madam Hooch was bending over Longbottom, her face as white as his.
“Broken wrist,” she muttered. “Come on boy—it’s all right, up you get.” She turned to the rest of the class. “None of you is to move while I take this boy to the hospital wing! You leave those brooms where they are or you’ll be out of Hogwarts before you can say ‘Quidditch.’ Come on, dear.”
Neville, his face tear-streaked, clutching his wrist, hobbled off with Madam Hooch, who had her arm around him.
No sooner were they out of earshot than Draco burst into laughter. “Did you see his face, the great lump?”
“Knock it off, Draco,” Harry said. The other Slytherins had been laughing with Draco, but now they petered off. Slytherins weren’t supposed to fight outside the common room, and all the first years watched Harry and Draco with the sort of suspicion one might consider a viper as they broke that rule. Blaise shook his head at Harry, silently begging him to back down.
“Why should I?” Draco asked. “He’s a crybaby.”
“Shut up, Malfoy,” snapped one of the Gryffindor girls.
The Slytherin rule seemed to be that girls fought with girls and boys with boys, so Pansy took this as an invitation to jump in. “Ooh, sticking up for Longbottom? Never thought you’d like fat little crybabies, Parvati.” For a second that seem to distract the class with the traditional Gryffindor versus Slytherin feud. Then Draco had to be an even bigger nob.
“Look!” Draco said, darting forward and snatching something out of the grass. “It’s that stupid thing Longbottom’s gran sent him.” The Rememberall glittered in the sun as he held it up.
“Draco, enough,” Harry said quietly. He was breaking the oldest of the Slytherin rules, but Longbottom didn’t deserve this—not after the terrible week he’d suffered.
Draco clenched his jaw for a second before he squared off against Harry. “Stay out of this. It’s between me and Longbottom.”
“Longbottom isn’t here,” Harry pointed out.
The tips of Draco’s ears turned pink. “Fine, then it’s between me and Gryffindor. I think I’ll leave this somewhere for Longbottom or one of his Gryffindor friends to find—how about up a tree?”
“Give it here,” Harry said, holding out his hand. He expected Draco to give him the ball, but he hadn’t taken into consideration how much more of a prat Draco was in front of an audience. In private he might admit to an error, but when the whole group of first years was around one table in the common room, he would rather die his hair Gryffindor red than admit he had made a mistake. And now he had Gryffindors watching him.
Draco leapt onto his broomstick and took off. He hadn’t been lying, he could fly well. Hovering level with the topmost branches of an oak, he called, “Who’s going to play Seeker and try to catch it?”
Harry grabbed his broom.
Blaise caught his arm. “Not now,” he said as he looked toward the Gryffindors and their fury. If Harry did this, he would be helping one of them—the house that looked down on all snakes as evil. But Harry didn’t like bullying, even if he wasn’t the victim. Harry pulled away.
Blood was pounding in his ears. He mounted the broom and kicked hard against the ground and up, up he soared; air rushed through his hair, and his robes whipped out behind him — and in a rush of fierce joy he realized he’d found something he could do without being taught — this was easy, this was wonderful. He pulled his broomstick up a little to take it even higher, and heard screams and gasps of girls back on the ground and an admiring whoop from Ron.
“You’ve made your point. Let’s go back down,” Harry said.
Draco’s expression hovered somewhere between offended and hurt. “Are you siding with Longbottom?”
“No, but what you’re doing isn’t right. That’s his Rememberall.”
“What are you? Some sort of crusader for pathetic Gryffindors? First you practically adopt that useless blood-traitor Weasley and now you’re sticking up for Longbottom? You’re acting like a Gryffindor.” Draco spat the last word out as thought it was the worst insult he could imagine.
“You’re the one who isn’t thinking about consequences, who isn’t being subtle, and who has broken all the rules in full view of the castle because you think you’re untouchable. That sounds pretty Gryffindorish to me,” Harry shot back.
Draco lost most of the color out of face. “Oh yeah? Well then, catch it if you can!” Draco shouted, and he threw the glass ball high into the air and streaked back toward the ground.
Harry saw, as though in slow motion, the ball rise up in the air and then start to fall. He leaned forward and pointed his broom handle down — next second he was gathering speed in a steep dive, racing the ball — wind whistled in his ears, mingled with the screams of people watching — he stretched out his hand — a foot from the ground he caught it, just in time to pull his broom straight, and he toppled gently onto the grass with the Remembrall clutched safely in his fist.
“Potter! Malfoy!” McGonagall was running toward them, fury carved into her face. “What are you doing in the air without an adult to supervise? Do you have any idea how dangerous that is, all so you can show off for your friends. I am ashamed of both of you!” Her eyes flashed furiously. “You might have broken your neck. Ten points from Slytherin. Each!”
Harry winced, and even Draco seemed to lose the rest of the color out of his face.
“It wasn’t Harry’s fault, Professor,” one of the Gryffindor girls said.
“Be quiet, Miss Patil—”
Ron stepped forward. “Harry was protecting Neville. Draco stole his Rememberall, and Harry kept it from getting smashed. He shouldn’t get punished.”
McGonagall whirled around to face Ron. “And is a Rememberall worth a human life? If he had broken his neck, would you still think that stunt was justified?”
“It was an awesome dive,” one of the Slytherins said.
McGonagall’s eyes narrowed. “If he is a good flyer, he can try out for Quiddich next year. This is a flying lesson, not an invitation for thoughtless stunts. I swear. That was a fifty-foot dive if it was an inch. Do you know how much damage the human body would take at that speed? From that height? Utterly irresponsible.” She turned to Draco. “And you, leading that insanity. I saw you take off first. Consider yourself lucky that you aren’t both in detention until Halloween.”
Harry ducked his head. Professor Snape was going to kill both of them. They probably would be in detention until Halloween if not longer.
“All of you, back to the castle,” Professor McGonagall ordered. The Gryffindors scrambled to obey, and the Slytherins followed, most of them casting unhappy looks at Harry and Draco.
“This is your fault,” Draco said loudly. He was definitely trying to get the rest of the house on his side.
“You were the first one in the air.”
“Because you were being disloyal,” Draco snarled with much more venom than he usually had in his voice. He was genuinely angry. “You were supposed to be on my side.” And with that, he transitioned into looking hurt.
“Stealing the Rememberall was wrong. You didn’t need to do that, and you didn’t gain anything from it. Why would you want to?”
Draco threw his arms up in the air, nearly hitting Vincent, who carefully didn’t make eye contact with anyone. But if Harry couldn’t make up with Draco, both Vincent and Gregory would side with Draco, as would Nott, which would be most of the first years. Millicent would be on his side, and so would Blaise, but that would make for an uncomfortable dormitory if he couldn’t sort something out.
“Look Draco, I’ve been the one picked on before. My aunt and uncle hate magic. Loathe it. And that means they loathed me. They encouraged my cousin to pick on me all the time and I couldn’t fight back or they’d punish me. I’m not okay with seeing anyone get picked on when they can’t defend themselves.”
“So what? You’re going to defend the whole world?” Draco demanded.
“Have I ever stopped you from picking on Ron or pointing out how annoying Granger can be? They can take care of themselves. But Longbottom wasn’t there, and he’s been to the hospital wing twice this week. Give him a break. He can’t fight back.”
Draco stared at Harry like he had grown a second head.
“Yeah, Draco,” Nott said in a snide tone, “you should be nice to people who can’t defend themselves. You should go apologize to Longbottom.” He gave Harry a cruel smile. He was intentionally winding Draco up.
“I don’t have to be nice,” Draco said, spitting the word at Harry. “You’re ridiculous. You’re not Longbottom, and if he wants to defend himself, he can. He grew up in the wizarding world, so he’s probably even better prepared to defend himself than you are.” Draco sneered. “I bet you can’t even throw a knock back jinx.”
Draco might be right because Harry had only read about the wand movement and incantation. Professor Quirrell was a terrible teacher and didn’t give them time to work on defensive magic. However, Harry knew that appearances were everything in Slytherin. “I can hold my own. You don’t want to fight me, Draco.”
Clearly Harry had misjudged because Draco’s expressions turned almost hateful. “I’ll take you on tonight. Common room dueling space before curfew. Crabbe is my second. Who’s yours?”
“I am,” Blaise said before Harry could ask what was happening. Then Draco and the rest of the Slytherins headed to the castle, Millicent and Greengrass offering him sympathetic looks before following. Harry didn’t blame them. Slytherin wasn’t just obsessed with blood purity—they had a fair amount of sexism as well. The girls couldn’t get involved in this sort of open fighting.
Harry waited until the rest were out of earshot before asking, “What is going on?”
“He challenged you to a duel.”
“What is that, and what do you mean, you’re my second?”
Blaise gave him a pitying look. “The problem in the wizarding world is that lots of people have insane amounts of power. I’ve seen muggle television. In Italy, we don’t keep our community as isolated from current events as here in the UK. But if wizards had fights the way muggles do, we’d all kill each other inside a year. Because everyone is so powerful, there are rules about how conflicts have to be handled.”
“Exactly,” Blaise said. “We’re first years, so no one expects it to be serious, but if Draco wins, he gets to crow about it, and he doesn’t keep trying to get revenge, which could get dangerous if we were older.”
“And I’m just supposed to put up with him bragging? And how is that fair? He’s known about the wizarding world his whole life and we both know he had a training wand and learned dueling moves at home.”
“Probably,” Blaise admitted, “but if you lose, you have to put up with Draco because he will have earned the right to brag. If you want to stop his mouth, you have to win the duel. Either that or you have to learn to not get on the wrong side of someone with more magical talent than you have.”
“It just feels barbaric,” Harry said stubbornly. “And what does it mean that you’re my second?”
“A second has a lot of different jobs.” Blaise started walking toward the castle. “Before the duel, seconds are the only ones who can negotiate for a non-violent solution. So I could go to Crabbe and ask what favor Draco might want in order to call it off or Crabbe could come to me and tell me that Draco demands that you apologize in front of the entire house in order to make up for the fact that you embarrassed him in front of Gryffindor. A lot of times, you can tell whether people want to fight by looking at who they choose as a second. If someone chooses a second known for being calm or being good at negotiations, that means they don’t really want to fight.”
Harry’s stomach sank. Draco had chosen Vincent, who loved fighting and reading about fights and describing fights he’d witnessed when his father trained with the family. Vincent loved few things more than fighting. “You’re not going to have much to do.”
“Probably not. If you had done something that had endangered Draco or his family or actually cost one their life, as your second I would be tasked with taking you body back to your family if you lost or possible I would have to step in to continue the fight. But on this type of duel, I think it’s fair to say that I’m more moral support. That said, we could find an empty classroom and practice a few spells first. If you can do a jelly-legs jinx and a knockback jinx and duck whatever Draco throws at you, you have a chance of winning. If nothing else, I can keep you from looking embarrassingly foolish in front of the house.”
Harry groaned. “They’re all going to watch, aren’t they?”
“For a chance to see the Boy-Who-Lived knocked on his ass? Oh heavens, yes. They definitely are.”
“That is not supportive.”
“I’m supporting you through being honest. Let’s go practice some spells,” Blaise said without an ounce of sympathy.
With a sigh, Harry followed. Blaise did help him cast the two jinxes, but he didn’t know any shielding spells, and they weren’t in the Grade One book, either. Harry was going to have to duck. A lot. With his stomach in knots, he led Blaise back to the common room. As soon as the bricks opened, Harry saw the whole house sitting around trying to look uninterested. However, every seat was full, so clearly they knew what was happening.
A minute after Harry came in, Draco and Vincent appeared in the arch that led to the dormitory. “Right, let’s do this,” Draco said. He strode through the room, his chin high and his nose in the air as he headed for the dueling space near the back of the common room. Someone had dragged the chairs that had migrated into the space back out, and now furniture was stacked to the side.
“Harry,” Blaise whispered.
Harry straightened his shoulders. “Yes, let’s,” he agreed. Vincent looked over at him in surprise. Harry ignored him and everyone else as he followed Draco into the dueling space. Draco didn’t have his wand out, so Harry put his hand in his pocket and held his wand without drawing it. The other students filled in the wide arch, pushing to get a better view.
Draco preened under the attention. “I challenged you because you interfered with my plans and sided with Gryffindors against me, your housemate.” He sounded so pompous.
Harry stood straighter. “I refuse to believe you had any specific plan, and it was impolite for you to target Mr. Longbottom who was not present to defend himself.” Harry could have said a lot more about how Draco was a bully and he had no manners and how it was his fault their house had lost twenty whole points, but he didn’t want a long-term feud, so he swallowed all those words.
Draco took out his wand and waited for Harry to do the same before they bowed to each other. Harry hadn’t even stood before Draco yelled, “Flipendo!”
Since he couldn’t block it, Harry dodged to the right and yelled, “Locomotor Wibbly,” which was the strangest thing ever to yell when he was angry. It felt like the sort of made up phrase preschoolers would invent, but Draco yelped and threw himself to the side to avoid it. Harry followed up with a quick “Flipendo,” and Draco slid back several steps, but he didn’t fall over.
The whispers from the crowd grew louder. After the first spell hit, the person who called the duel had a right to end the match, and Harry lowered his wand an inch, silently begging Draco to stop this. However, Draco was red-faced and angry. “Expelliarmus!” Draco yelled, and Harry dodged. He didn’t even know what the spell would do if it hit, but he didn’t have time to worry because Draco yelled, “Rictusempra!”
Harry ducked and shot back “Flipendo,” and this time Draco fell back on his butt, his hair flopping forward into his eyes. In a flash, he was on his feet again.
Harry prepared to dodge as Draco yelled “Serpensortia!” and slashed his wand through the air. This time the spell didn’t come anywhere near Harry, but a flash of light ended with a snake flying through the air and landing near Harry’s feet.
“What happened? Where am I? I will bite all of you! I will die with your blood in my mouth!” The snake threatened. It spread its hood, and Harry realized Draco had summoned a cobra. Before someone could get hurt, Harry spoke to it. He’d always had good luck getting snakes to listen to him.
“Don’t bite anyone,” he said. “The one who brought you here is wrong, and I will make him send you home.”
“A speaker?” The snake reared back and looked at Harry, weaving from side to side in distress, but he folded his hood. “Are you a speaker?”
The carved snakes on the walls started to writhe, and Harry hear a whispering chorus of “A speaker. A speaker has returned. Who can see the speaker? I want to see the speaker.”
“I can speak to snakes,” Harry said. “Please don’t bite anyone. Most people here are children, and you don’t want to waste your venom on such worthless prey. You coudn’t even swallow us.”
The cobra reared back. “I would never bite a speaker!” The stone snakes added their own whispers. All the snakes seemed horrified at the idea.
“Thank you,” Harry said. He realized he was in the middle of a duel, and he quickly looked at Draco, but Draco stood with his mouth open and his wand hanging at his side. Harry glanced toward Blaise, hoping he could quietly give Harry some advice, and that’s when he noticed everyone staring at him. Even the seventh years who normally had indifferent masks firmly in place looked stunned.
“Um…” Harry stopped.
“Speaker, can I come closer?” The cobra asked.
Harry knelt down. “Of course you can. I’m sorry. I’m sure the floor is too cold for you.”
“It was warmer back home,” the snake agreed as it slithered up Harry’s arm. Harry felt nervous having the cobra so close, but he wasn’t about to insult it. After he’d vanished the glass in the zoo, Harry had sought out a few grass snakes, and he’d discovered snakes were fairly easy to offend. “I would like to go home. I was in the middle of tracking a nice, big rat, and this interrupted my hunt.”
“Draco, can you send him home? It’s too cold for him here and he was in the middle of hunting when you summoned him.”
Draco blinked, his mouth still open.
“Is that a cobra?” A girl asked. Harry couldn’t even see who because everyone was crowding into the open arch now. Harry wondered if the duel was over and who won. He didn’t feel like he’d won, but Draco wasn’t a gracious winner, and Harry had expected more bragging if he was victorious.
“I’ll vanish it,” a seven year boy said. He pulled his wand and stepped forward.
“Hold on.” Harry turned so the snake was hidden on his far side. “When you vanish things, you make them not exist. I just want the snake to go back to where it was before. He didn’t ask to have his hunt interrupted. Draco can send him home, right?” Harry looked over, and Draco finally closed his mouth and swallowed.
That was the first time Harry had seen Draco struggle for words.
“I’m getting Professor Snape,” Gemma said before she darted away. Great. Now Professor Snape would have a new reason to hate Harry.
Blaise inched into the room. “Harry, are you talking to the snake?”
“Well, yeah. Isn’t that a wizard thing to do?”
A half dozen students broke out in hysterical laughter.
“Some wizards have the gift,” Blaise said slowly. “In India, you might find a dozen people in the whole country, but every parselmouth I know in the UK is descended from Salazar Slytherin.”
Harry blinked. “Like the founder of our house?”
Blaise burst out with a short burst of laughter. “Yes, definitely like the founder of our house. If you’re the only parselmouth alive right now, you might even be his heir.”
“I can’t be the only one.” Harry looked around, but the whole house stared at him, some with horror and others wonder, and a few had managed to reassemble their emotionless masks.
“You are now that you killed the last one. The Dark Lord was a parselmouth,” someone called from the back of the crowd.
Harry rolled his eyes. “I don’t know why you guys think a fifteen-month-old had any shot against the Dark Lord. He was crazy powerful and I hadn’t learned to use a toilet. I’m sure my parents cast some spell or used some ritual, but stop assuming I had anything to do with it other than being in the same house when it happened,” Harry said for the millionth time. The younger students who had heard Harry’s rant before didn’t react, but his words made the older students all exchange long looks. The the crowd of students parted like the Red Sea and Professor Snape swept in, his robes billowing around him.
“What in the name of Salazar is going on here?” he demanded. He froze when he spotted Harry.
“I’m sorry we bothered you, sir,” Harry said in his most regretful tone, and he did regret that Gemma had gone to get the professor. Harry had wanted to avoid the man as long as possible. “Draco and I were settling a disagreement when Draco summoned this snake, and no one knows how to send him home.”
“You idiot,” Professor Snape whispered. “You utter dunderhead. That is a cobra.”
“Yes, sir,” Harry said, “and the spell pulled him away from his hunt. He would like to return to it. Can you reverse the spell?”
Professor Snape stared at him.
“Potter is a parselmouth,” someone called.
Professor Snape blinked, looked toward Draco as if expecting him to contradict the claim, and then turned back to Harry.
“Potter, follow me.”
“Sir, the snake?” Harry asked. Snape slashed his wand through the air and the snake vanished with a pop. “Thank you, sir.” Professor Snape didn’t slow as he strode toward the exit, and Harry realized that he’d been ordered to follow. He rushed to catch up. As the common room door closed, Slytherin exploded with conversation behind him.
However, after five minutes of Professor Snape just staring at him, Harry’s control was fraying. If he was going to be punished, he would rather get it over with.
“Potter,” the professor said, drawing Harry’s name out until it had five or six syllables, “what exactly happened?”
“Before or after the duel started?”
Professor Snape pinched the bridge of his nose. “Look me in the eye when we are speaking,” he said.
Harry looked up immediately. “Yes, sir. I apologize. Draco and I were having a duel, mostly dodging spells because we don’t know how to shield yet.”
“Yes, yes, get to the part with the snake.”
“I knocked him back, and he called out a spell that had serpent in the incantation. I’m not sure what it was. I can ask him.”
“I am perfectly aware of the spell and the incantation, Mr. Potter. I am more interested in the claim that you spoke to the snake.
“I talked to the snake and asked him not to bite anyone. And then the stone snakes in the walls started whispering about wanting to see the speaker, and then I asked Draco to send the snake back where he came from because we had interrupted his hunt, and then you came.”
Professor Snape scowled. “Are you in the habit of speaking to snakes?”
“I talked to a boa constrictor in the zoo, but he didn’t talk back, at least not much. He thanked me after I accidentally vanished the glass on the exhibit, allowing him to escape. But after I got my Hogwarts letter, I would look for garden snakes when I was weeding and talk to them.”
Professor Snape blinked slowly. Then he pulled out his wand and waved it. Even without the incantation, Harry recognized the wand movement and light. Sure enough, a bright green snake with black markings landed on the desk.
“What? I will bite you and watch you die!” it threatened.
“Hello,” Harry said.
The snake froze before it started to wiggle in excitement. “A speaker. I’ve found a speaker.” The snake glided across the desk toward Harry. When Harry held out his hand, Professor Snape made a noise like a dying cat. “I will keep you, speaker,” the snake said.
“I don’t think you can. My nest-guard summoned you so I can show him how I speak,” Harry said. Nest-guard. That was an odd translation for professor, but Harry couldn’t choose what words to use. Speaking to snakes wasn’t like in second grade when the teacher had decided they all should learn Gallic phrases. He thought about what he said, and the words came out of his mouth. So nest-guard was clearly the most accurate phrase to describe Professor Snape.
“Where is your nest guard? I can guard a nest better than any two-footer or four-footer. Is that your nest guard? Tell him that I have decided to keep you. I will fight him for you,” the snake demanded.
“Sir, the snake said that he is going to keep me because he wants a speaker,” Harry said.
Professor Snape’s eyebrows went up. “Does he?”
“Snakes are very territorial, and I guess he decided I am his new territory. He thinks that if he kills you, then the position of nest guard will be open and he can stay with me.” Harry hadn’t even finished before Professor Snape made the snake vanish with another wave of his wand.
“Thank you, sir. That’s amazingly impressive; you didn’t even have to use an incantation. How many years would someone like me who doesn’t have a strong background in magic have to work to learn to do that?”
For a time, Professor Snape stared at him with onyx eyes. Then he said wearily, “Potter, we need to discuss this ability of yours.”
“How many people know you can do this?”
“I suppose everyone in Slytherin, now. I thought speaking to snakes was something wizards did.”
“No, it certainly is not. I had no idea it ran in the Potter line, but you have to understand that most people in the UK believe that speaking to snakes is a sign that a wizard is dark.”
“Like the Dark Lord?”
“Exactly like the Dark Lord, who was also a parselmouth. If the rest of the school learns of this, your sorting to Slytherin will be almost irrelevant compared to how much they will hate you for possessing this talent.”
Fear washed through Harry. He had a hard time dealing with Nott’s cold hatred. He had no idea what he would do if the whole school treated him like he was evil. It would be like the Dursley’s all over again. “What should I do, sir?” Harry asked.
Once more, Professor Snape stared at him for an uncomfortably long time. “Slytherin will keep your secrets, Mr. Potter. As long as you do not tell anyone outside the house, your secret will remain yours to keep.”
Harry thought about Ron, who had already told Harry at least three secrets he’d promised other people that he would keep: the hidden passage his brothers had found, Finnegan’s birthmark, and his father’s secret stash of magically altered muggle items. Ron was Harry’s best friend, but he wasn’t good with secrets. “I won’t tell anyone else, not even my friends in other houses,” Harry said firmly. “Thank you for the advice, sir.”
“We still need to discuss how you’re going to handle those who watched your thoughtless display of such dangerous magic.”
Harry shrank in his seat. Clearly he was still not Professor Snape’s favorite person. “I apologize, but I don’t understand what you mean by handling the other students, sir.”
“Of course you don’t,” Professor Snape sighed. “There has been some confusion among your housemates. You have denied that you were involved in the defeat of the Dark Lord.”
“Yes, sir,” Harry said when Professor Snape was silent too long.
Professor Snape’s eyebrows went up. “They report that you have not condemned the Dark Lord or his followers.”
That felt as if students were spying on him and reporting to their head of house. Harry wasn’t sure how he felt about that. “I don’t approve of murder and torture.”
“I had assumed so, Mr. Potter. Are you being intentionally dim?”
“Sir, I assume people had reasons for joining him. Nott is clever and he loves reading and he’s absolutely brill, but he clearly hates me because of whatever happened that night, so I assume his family supported the Dark Lord and he would join if the Dark Lord were still around. I don’t think Nott would join if the only reason were the ability to murder muggleborns. But no one will tell me why people joined. So I have condemned murder and I’ve made it very clear that I think blood prejudice is pretty stupid since everyone says Dumbledore is the most powerful wizard alive and he’s a half-blood and Glanfeld the Golden was a muggleborn…” Harry trailed off. He’d lost his point somewhere in all those words.
“You are unaware of the political goals that might have inspired wizards to join the dark cause,” Professor Snape summarized, “so you can’t condemn what you do not understand.”
“Yes, sir. You said it better than I could, but that’s it.”
Professor Snape rubbed his forehead. Maybe he had a headache, too. When he spoke, he sounded exhausted. “Go back to your dorm, Potter.”
“Yes, sir. Good night, sir.” Harry slipped out of the chair and quietly escaped Professor Snape’s office. Harry still wasn’t sure why speaking to snakes would make someone evil. He wondered if he could find other speakers in his wizard book. Maybe they all hid their skills because of prejudice. The wizarding world was just so strange.
When Harry opened the common room door, the room fell silent. Harry stood next to the entrance, trapped in the gazes of what seemed like every student in Slytherin.
Snake whispers started. “Is that him? Is that the speaker? Is that him?” Harry glanced toward the carved snakes around the fireplace that had started to squirm and writhe. An alarmed student stepped away and tripped on a rug. Harry bolted for his room. As soon as he was in the corridor that led to his dormitory, everyone in the common room started talking again.
In his room, Harry found not just Nott and Blaise, but Draco, Vincent and Gregory. Everyone seemed to have settled on Blaise and his beds, while Nott hid behind a book as big as a dictionary.
“Harry!” Draco bolted to his feet. “Why didn’t you tell me you could talk to snakes?”
Harry closed the door behind him. “Because I thought everyone could. I thought it was a wizard thing.”
“Told you,” Blaise said smugly.
“But— Seriously? How could you not know how amazing that is?” Draco beamed with joy. “I mean, you can talk to snakes! Can you talk to dragons?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never seen one,” Harry said.
“I’m going to ask my father if we can take you to the dragon reserve. They have to let you try. I mean, how great would it be if you could understand them?”
“Whoa, wait,” Harry moved closer. “Professor Snape said we can’t tell anyone because if people know I’m a… what did you call it?”
“Parselmouth,” Blaise offered.
“If people know I’m a parselmouth, they’re going to think I’m evil. I’m not sure, but I think Professor Snape was suggesting that some might assume that I’m going to be the next Dark Lord.”
“Of course we’re not going to tell anyone who isn’t Slytherin,” Draco assured him. “Both my parents were in Slytherin and they have the highest respect for parselmouths. They’ll keep your secret.”
“Draco, I don’t want other people to know.”
“They’ll be fine. They’ll be so excited. I can’t believe how much I envy you. Talking to snakes. Merlin. That would be awesome.” Draco rushed out of the room, probably to write his parents, and Harry knew he had zero chance of stopping him. At least Draco didn’t seem angry with him anymore.
“Sorry about that,” Vincent said. “He’s just really excited.” He scooted over so Harry had room to sit on his own bed.
“It’s fine. I know how he is. I’m just glad he’s not angry about Longbottom anymore.”
Gregory scratched his elbow. “Why did you fight Draco for something like that?”
Harry considered his answer. He knew what his dorm mates were like—Gregory and Vincent especially. They wanted simple answers, and ones that fit into how they saw the world. “The way I see it, if I’m really clever, I’m not going to challenge anyone who isn’t there. That way, people trust that I’m not talking behind their back or doing things to hurt them from the shadows. And if people trust me, then they are more likely to be my allies,” he explained. “It’s like Ron. He cares about fairness, and he knows most Slytherins don’t. So if I defend someone who can’t defend himself, I earn the chance to get both Ron and Longbottom as allies and all the Gryffindors are less likely to scheme against me. The muggles have a saying. You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. If you want to influence others, you have to make it sweet for them to cooperate.”
“So Draco interfered with your long-term plans to develop influence?” Vincent asked.
“Sort of,” Harry agreed. “I also like Ron and I feel sorry for Longbottom because some of what happened to him wasn’t his fault. Madam Hooch is not very good at keeping students safe. So I didn’t want something else to go wrong for him when he was having a bad week.”
“And maybe one day he’ll return the favor,” Blaise said.
Vincent and Gregory looked at each other before they excused themselves to go back to their room.
“That was quite a way to end a duel,” Blaise said with some amusement. “I knew you were interesting enough to make friends with.”
Harry opened his trunk and dug out his pajamas. He was too tired to do anything other than crawl into bed and go to sleep. As he was pulling on his night shirt, he looked up to find Nott studying him with a confused expression.
“Don’t be like that, Ron,” Harry said, even though he silently agreed.
“What?” Ron asked, honestly confused.
Harry sighed. “Draco takes things too far sometimes, but he’s not a prat.” Or at least Harry didn’t want to go along with someone calling him that because he didn’t want to borrow more trouble.
Harry ignored Ron for the moment. “Are you feeling better, Longbottom? Is your arm okay?”
Longbottom smiled. “I am feeling better, thank you. You should call me Neville.”
“Call me Harry. That was a wicked fall.”
Neville blushed. “Gran never let me on a broom. She said I was clumsy enough on the ground. But I hear you were incredible. Ron said you’d never even been on a broom and you flew like a professional seeker.”
Harry shrugged. “Flying feels natural to me. Everything else is so hard, and if I have to write one more essay, I might set fire to something and blame accidental magic, but flying is…” Harry let his words trail off, not sure how to explain the freedom he felt while flying.
“I’m sorry you got in trouble over me. I hope Draco isn’t making you miserable in the dorms.” Neville shrank in on himself.
“Draco’s fine. He runs hot and cold, so as long as you can avoid him for twenty four hours, he’ll forget whatever he was upset at. Now Nott—he can hold a grudge.”
“Another Death Eater,” Ron said grandly.
Harry winced when at least half the Slytherin table stiffened. Normally the others didn’t much care what Harry did or who he talked to or what those people said, but ever since he’d revealed that he was a parselmouth, it seemed like every Slytherin student had some sort of Harry-radar they used to keep track of his every move. They had definitely heard that.
“Ron,” Harry said, exasperation making his voice sharper than he’d meant, “I’ve told you to stop it. We’re eleven. No one is on either side, and the war ended ten years ago. So even if we wanted to take a side, we’re a decade too late.”
“You don’t get what it was like back then.”
“Neither do you. You’re too young to remember anything, so all you’re doing is repeating stories you’ve heard somewhere else. It’s not nice to accuse people of… I don’t even know what you’re accusing Nott of. I know you don’t think he’s out setting fire to muggle homes. And it’s definitely not brave to call him names behind his back.”
Ron’s face turned red. “Nott and most of the slimy snakes sided with You-Know-Who. That’s a fact.”
“Why would they?” That was the one question Harry wished someone would answer. Sure, plenty of the older Slytherins didn’t like him, but they weren’t pure evil and Harry had trouble seeing them joining a war for the pleasure of murdering people. He figured that any families who had sided with the Dark Lord wanted something, and they thought murder was the best way to get it, which did make them evil, but not pure evil. Slytherins tended to scheme to get what they wanted, and Harry could see how they might decide violence was an acceptable price to pay for whatever they had hoped to achieve.
“Because they hate all muggleborns and blood traitors, and even half-bloods, so you’d better watch your back,” Ron warned.
“Do you know how many powerful Slytherins from history were half-bloods?” Harry asked. “Lorrion the Swift, Deccacadrian, Roimland, Malinda the Clever… and I’m sure there are lots more I can’t remember in my book. And those are just the ones great enough to get written about.”
“Deccacadrian tried to turn Northern Finland into a wasteland where only dragons lived by killing everyone,” Granger said, wrinkling her nose.
“Yeah, so he was totally evil, but he was a Slytherin half-blood, which proves they exist. There are lots of half-bloods in the house now, and if you think all Slytherins are evil, I’m going to remind you that Merlin was a Slytherin and if you do something brave enough to earn an Order of Merlin, it comes with a green ribbon to symbolize his house,” Harry said.
Granger frowned. “He has a point.”
Ron looked from Granger to Harry and back, his anger bubbling under the surface. “Neither of you even knew about our world a year ago. You can’t understand what’s really going on.” He turned to leave, paused to snatch food from the table, and then stormed off.
“Draco isn’t the only prat,” Granger said softly.
Neville looked intensely uncomfortable, and Harry offered him an apologetic smile. “I should go get some breakfast. Have a good day.”
“You too,” Granger said even though he hadn’t been speaking to her.
“Bye,” Neville offered.
Harry settled in at the Slytherin table next to Vincent. Surprisingly, Draco wasn’t at breakfast yet, and Harry gave Vincent an inquiring look.
After he finished chewing, Vincent said, “He was up half the night looking stuff up.”
Harry assumed the something in question was parselmouth. He filled his own plate and settled in to eat when he saw Nott studying him. “Good morning,” Harry said when Nott maintained eye contact. Usually he was nose first in a book.
Nott narrowed his eyes. “Why did you defend me against Weasley?”
“Because he was wrong.”
“I don’t need you to defend me.”
“Um, okay,” Harry said, not sure why Nott was getting so aggravated, “but Ron’s trying to attack the entire house and I’m not about to let him do that.”
Nott grabbed his book and abandoned the table. Harry stared at the empty space Nott had abandoned and wondered if wizards would ever start to make sense. Draco hurried into the room, claiming the space Nott had abandoned.
“What have I missed?” he asked.
“Why do you assume you’ve missed something?” Harry asked.
Draco gave him a pitying look before gesturing to the rest of the table. “Maybe because everyone is watching you out of the corners of their eyes. So, what happened?”
Parkinson answered. “Potter stood up for the entire house when Weasley went off on another Slytherins-evil speech.”
“That happens every day,” Draco said as he served himself breakfast.
“Yeah, but not everyone realized he stands up for Slytherin,” Parkinson said as she shredded a roll.
“Slytherin is my house, why wouldn’t I stand up for my house?” Harry knew what she meant. People assumed that being the Boy-Who-Lived meant he was some champion of all things Gryffindor. Harry didn’t know whether it was the fact that his parents were Gryffindor or everyone was busy reading the stupid children’s books with a fictional Harry Potter fighting dragons, but it did seem like everyone assumed he should hate his fellow snakes.
“Ignore them,” Draco said, “but you have got to get your Astronomy grade up. Do you want to have a study group tonight?”
Harry sighed. Draco was probably right. He never seemed to get his telescope pointed in the right direction and he missed about as many stars as he identified. “Yeah, we can do that.” Harry wondered if he could set fire to a telescope. It wouldn’t be as easy as “accidentally” setting fire to an essay, but it might be worth it.
Or at least every class except Defense Against Dark Arts, where Professor Quirrell continued to stutter his way through painful lessons. Luckily, Slytherin students had regular dueling practice with older students teaching the younger ones how to handle a wand and Professor Snape coaching the seventh years. Of course, the weirdness continued with two-thirds of the older students vying to teach him a new jinx or dueling charm, and the other one-third retreating to shadowed corners to watch whenever he was in common areas.
But he was learning to navigate the political waters.
On Halloween morning, they woke to the delicious smell of baking pumpkins wafting through the corridors. Even better, Professor Flitwick announced in Charms that he thought they were ready to start making objects fly, something they had all been dying to try since they’d seen him make Neville’s toad zoom around the classroom. Professor Flitwick put the class into pairs to practice. Draco hurried to partner with Harry, which forced Gregory and Vincent to work together and led to Blaise glaring at the back of Draco’s head while partnering with Nott.
Ron groaned when he was set to work with Granger. It was hard to tell whether Ron or Granger was angrier about this. Harry assumed Ron had said something unkind because she tended to glare at him whenever they were in the same room.
“Now, don’t forget that nice wrist movement we’ve been practicing!” squeaked Professor Flitwick, perched on top of his pile of books as usual. “Swish and flick, remember, swish and flick. And saying the magic words properly is very important, too—never forget Wizard Baruffio, who said ‘s’ instead of ‘f’ and found himself on the floor with a buffalo on his chest.
“Enough already,” Draco whispered. All the Slytherins complained about how slow the class went. They’d been raised on games like pong-bonk and could swish or flick or snap or wave with ease. Harry regretted that the game was seen as something for toddlers because he could see muggle-borns benefiting from it, and it was dead fun to play, not that he would when dorm mates might walk in, but the game had saved his sanity in summer with his relatives ignoring him.
The smell of burnt feather drifted through the air, and the Gryffindors tittered and all looked toward Finnegan, who had turned a brilliant shade of red. Without comment, Professor Flitwick vanished the charred feather, and the students soon settled down again.
It was very difficult to get the wand movement and the pronunciation correct while focusing on the magical intent to lift the feather. “Wingardium Leviosa!” Ron shouted louder than most of the other students, his long arms waving like a windmill.
“You’re saying it wrong,” Granger snapped. “It’s Wing-gar-drum Levi-o-sa, make the ‘gar’ nice and long.”
“You do it then, if you’re so clever,” Ron snarled. He was so angry he didn’t even notice the disappointed look Professor Flitwick sent his way.
Granger rolled up the sleeves of her robe, flicked her wand, and said, “Wingardium Leviosa!” Her feather rose off the desk and hovered about four feet above their heads.
“Oh, well done!” Professor Flitwick cried as he clapped. “Everyone see here, Miss Granger’s done it!”
“Great,” Draco muttered. “The mudblood has to be the center of attention.”
Harry planted his elbow in Draco’s ribs. This is why he preferred to sit with Blaise. He didn’t know if Blaise had the same rude beliefs about blood purity, but he didn’t make thoughtless comments that insulted Harry’s mother. Because of Draco’s complaint, Harry didn’t hear what was said between Ron and Granger, but they were glaring at each other. Since he couldn’t do anything to help his friend, Harry went back to levitating his own feather.
When they were walking out of class, Ron slipped between Draco and Harry. “It’s no wonder no one can stand her,” he said to Harry as they pushed their way through the crowded corridor, “she’s a nightmare, honestly.”
Someone knocked into Harry as they hurried past him. It was Granger. Harry caught a glimpse of her face—and was startled to see she was in tears.
“I think she heard you.”
“So?” said Ron, but he looked a bit uncomfortable. “She must’ve noticed she’s got no friends.”
“Charming,” Blaise said as he caught Harry by the arm. “Come on. We need to get to class. Leave the Gryffindors and their thoughtless cruelty to sort themselves.” Blaise’s glare made it perfectly clear what he thought of Ron. Maybe Ron complained that all Slytherins were evil, but Slytherins complained that Gryffindors had no loyalty or sense of decorum. They used Sirius Black and Ron Weasley as evidence to support their claims.
Even though they passed the Gryffindors in the corridor twice, Harry didn’t see Granger with the other first years. When evening came and the other Slytherins were off on a well-worn tirade about muggle traditions and holidays eroding their culture, Harry slipped away to join Ron on his way to the Great Hall for the Halloween feast. They walked behind Patil and one of her friends talking about how Granger had been crying in the girls’ bathroom all day and she wanted to be left along.
Ron looked still more awkward at this, muttering, “Not the first time she’s hidden in that particular bathroom,” but a moment later they had entered the Great Hall, where the Halloween decorations put Granger out of their minds. A thousand live bats fluttered from the walls and ceiling while a thousand more swooped over the tables in low black clouds, making the candles in the pumpkins stutter.
“Wow,” Harry whispered.
“Brill,” Ron agreed. “I thought the twins might be lying about this, but it’s incredible. I wish you could eat with us and not with the snakes.”
Harry sighed. “I am one of the snakes,” he said. He wondered if Ron would still want to invite him if he knew about Harry being a parselmouth.
“Not really,” Ron said, which seemed to be his answer any time something fell outside his assumptions. If a Ravenclaw didn’t get good grades, they weren’t really Ravenclaw. When Neville was nervous about getting back on a broom after his accident, Ron has whispered that he suspected Neville wasn’t really a Gryffindor. However, Harry found it all tiring.
“I am really a snake, and I need to head to my table. See you later?”
The spot between Blaise and Draco was open, and Harry slipped into his normal seat. The feast appeared suddenly on the golden plates, as it had at the start-of-term banquet. Harry was just helping himself to a baked potato when Professor Quirrell came sprinting into the hall, his turban askew and terror on his face.
Everyone stared as he reached Professor Dumbledore’s chair, slumped against the table, and gasped, “Troll — in the dungeons — thought you ought to know.” He then sank to the floor in a dead faint.
There was an uproar. It took several purple firecrackers exploding from the end of Professor Dumbledore’s wand to bring silence. “Prefects,” he shouted, “lead your Houses back to the dormitories immediately.”
Gemma stood. “First years to me. We’re using side passages that are too small for the troll, so we’ll need to walk single file. Seventh years lead us, sixth years guard the rear.” Maybe she was only a fifth year student, but even the older students understood the wisdom in her words and Slytherin house hurried to arrange itself. As students jostled, and Draco started spouting off random facts about trolls at a speed that even Granger would envy, Harry realized that Granger didn’t know about the troll. She was still in the bathroom. And Slytherin prefects wouldn’t do anything about a first year Gryffindor student.
Harry had to get the Gryffindor prefect or Ron or even one of the Gryffindor girls who might know where the bathroom was. With no time for a proper plan, Harry raced after the Gryffindors.
“Harry!” Blaise called, and then footsteps chased after him. The Gryffindors had their dorm in a tower, and Harry raced up the stairs and tried to grab a Gryffindor that might listen to him, but the rowdy students clumped together and laughed like this was a grand adventure. They debated how a troll got in the castle, and when Harry had tried to pull on a seventh-year’s robe to get him to listen, the boy had nearly pushed Harry down the stairs.
He was saved because not only Blaise but also Draco, Vincent, and Gregory had followed. Neither Blaise or Draco had the size or strength to keep Harry from falling, but he stumbled into Gregory who didn’t even flinch. He just caught him, and then followed when Harry shoved this way through the students to try and find someone who would listen.
“Ron!” Harry yelled. He saw a red head pause and then turn. “Ron! Granger’s in the bathroom! She doesn’t know! Which bathroom is she in? Where is your prefect?”
Ron started waded against the current of students, bobbing and weaving as he navigated around the clumps of older-years. “Blimey, Percy is up front with all the other prefects, leading everyone,” Ron said when he reached the small cluster of Slytherin students. Ron gave the others a suspicious look, but then he focused on Harry. “We have to go get her.”
“There’s a troll!” Draco said loudly. “Did everyone else miss the part where a troll is wandering around the castle?”
Harry put a hand on Draco’s shoulder. “If it comes near us, we’ll find a hiding place,” he promised. Ever since the stone snakes and snake painting in the common room had learned that he was a parselmouth, they’d shared all kinds of secrets about hidden passages and secret rooms and parselmouth passwords Harry could use to navigate through Hogwarts. They were most common in the dungeons, but Harry knew a few good hiding places on each floor.
“Troll!” Draco said in a shrill voice.
“Of course the slimy snake wants her to get killed.”
Draco narrowed his eyes. “You’re the one who drove her to the bathroom because you have no loyalty for your own house. Harry stupidly left the safety of Slytherin, but you don’t see us abandoning him, do you? What did McGonagall tell us before sorting? Our houses were our family, only apparently you think family should be publicly humiliated if they annoy you. If someone has a lack of morals, I would say it’s you.”
“Enough,” Harry said. “The troll is in the dungeons along with all the professors. We need to grab her and then we may all need to hide in the Gryffindor dormitory.”
“No, we go to neutral ground,” Blaise said. “Ravenclaw. But let’s go find Granger because we are making a target of ourselves out here.”
“We have to get to the bathroom first,” Ron said. “I know which one she’s hiding in.” He pushed past Draco and Vincent and hurried back down the way they’d come.
“This is stupid,” Draco whispered.
“If we let her die, we’ll lose credibility,” Harry countered. Draco made a face. They all hurried down a deserted side corridor after Ron. They had just turned a corner when they heard quick footsteps behind them.
“It’s the troll!” Draco hissed as he pulled Harry into an alcove. Ron and Blaise ended up behind a strong griffin and Vincent and Gregory exchanged looks before they ran for the end of the corridor. Harry was surprised to see Professor Snape cross the corridor and disappear from view.
For a half second, Harry basked in the relief that it hadn’t been a troll, and then he realized the very assistance they wanted was hurrying away. “Professor Snape!” Harry yelled. He broke free from Draco and dashed after the man. He realized the junction and found Professor Snape standing on the first step of a stair that led to the third floor.
“Potter!” The professor sounded furious, and then Draco rushed up to stand next to Harry.
“Uncle Severus, the Granger girl is crying in the bathroom and we couldn’t find a Gryffindor prefect and Harry is determined to warn her, and then we were going to hide in Ravenclaw, but there’s a troll and I would very much rather have adult supervision.”
Harry mouthed the words “Uncle Severus” at Blaise who had followed shortly behind Draco, but Blaise’s face was carefully blank. “Where are Vincent and Gregory?” Harry asked, panic in his voice as he realized he didn’t see his friends.
Gregory stuck his head out from behind the corner. “We’re here, and we have Weasley, but he’s scared to come out. He thinks Professor Snape might take off a hundred points.”
“Or cut him up for potion ingredients,” Vincent added as he appeared behind Gregory.
Professor Snape glanced up toward the third floor before reversing direction to swoop past Harry, Draco and Blaise. “I might, Mr. Crabbe,” he said in a cold tone. “Where is Granger?”
They all followed the professor into the corridor where Ron was definitely trying to hide behind Vincent. Ron kept clearing his throat, but he finally said, “She hides in the second floor bathroom by the landscape with all the windmills with the storm in the background.”
“And you didn’t think to tell your prefect?” He glared down his hook nose at Ron, who seemed to be shrinking by the second.
“Articulate and chivalrous,” Professor Snape said in a tone cold enough to generate ice. “Stay close. The troll should not be near, but we must be quick.” He headed down the next corridor, all of them trailing after Snape until he stopped and pulled out his wand.
Harry sniffed and a foul stench reached his nostrils, a mixture of old socks and the kind of public toilet no one seemed to clean.
And then they heard it—a low grunting, and the shuffling footfalls of gigantic feet. Ron pointed toward the end of a passage to the left, but Snape whispered in a furious tone, “Be still, fool.” With one arm, he ushered them all to the side of the corridor where the shadows from an arched alcove hid them. Then the creature emerged into a patch of moonlight that streamed in through a slot window.
It was a horrible sight. Twelve feet tall, its skin was a dull, granite gray, its great lumpy body like a boulder with its small bald head perched on top like a coconut. It had short legs thick as tree trunks with flat, horny feet. The smell coming from it was incredible. It was holding a huge wooden club, which dragged along the floor because its arms were so long.
The troll stopped next to a doorway and peered inside. It waggled its long ears, making up its tiny mind, then slouched slowly into the room.
“Of course it would choose the girls’ bathroom,” Professor Snape growled. That was when Harry realized that the troll was now in the bathroom with Granger. Harry’s heart stopped. A half second later, a high, petrified scream echoed down the castle halls.
“Oh, no,” Ron said, as pale as the Bloody Baron.
“Stay here!” Professor Snape ordered before he dashed toward the bathroom, his movements elegant and dangerous all at once. Harry was reminded of the times he’d seen Professor Snape duel the seventh year students. After the space of three heartbeats, Ron ran after the professor.
“Ron!” Harry called as loudly as he dared, and then he ran after him.
“Granger, run,” Professor Snape shouted. Colored splotches of spellfire lit the hallway as the professor threw offensive spells so fast that he wasn’t even making proper wand movements. He just willed the magic to flow from his wand in the most impressive display of wordless magic that Harry had ever seen. Unfortunately, Granger was shrinking against the far wall, looking as if she was about to faint. Despite Professor Snape’s attack, the troll was still advancing on her, knocking sinks off the walls as it went.
Harry saw the problem immediately. Any spell powerful enough to even slow a troll would kill Granger, and as long as she was pinned to the wall through her own fear, she was in Professor Snape’s line of fire. Harry grabbed a broken tap and threw it as hard as he could against the wall. The tile broke, clattering to the ground, and the troll turned toward the unfamiliar sound. It lumbered around, blinking stupidly, to see what had made the noise. Its mean little eyes focused on Professor Snape, and it hesitated, then lifted its club.
Taking advantage of the monster’s distraction, Ron darted forward, coming dangerously close to the troll’s leg before he reached Granger. Luckily, the troll was distracted by Professor Snape, and it advanced on him. Knowing that he was only in the professor’s way, Harry retreated, his own wand ready to help if he could, but if Professor Snape couldn’t handle the troll, Harry wasn’t sure he could do much. Professor Snape slowly backed away, still throwing spells, and the troll followed. It had to duck to get out of the bathroom, but now it was determined to reach Professor Snape. It lifted its club, and a bright pink spell caught the wood with a halo of light before the club dissolved into a shower of little carnations that littered the ground at the troll’s feet.
Ron’s face appeared at the bathroom door behind the troll, and Harry yelled, “Come on, run, run!” Ron pulled Granger out the door, but she was still moving stiffly, her mouth open with terror. She seemed to instinctively try to flatten herself against the wall, but that meant she was still in Professor Snape’s line of fire.
A particularly bright spell made the troll roar and shake its head as it clawed at its face, and Harry darted forward, past the troll and to Ron’s side. Each of them grabbed one of Granger’s arms and they dragged her down the hall. As soon as Granger wasn’t looking at the troll, fear seemed to lose its power over her and all three of them were dashing for the end of the corridor, throwing themselves around the corner before collapsing to the stone floor.
Behind them, the spell flre had transitioned from whooshes and humming to the bright, sharp whistles and heavy thumps of more serious spells. Harry was the first to look around the corner, worried about his other friends and Professor Snape. “All clear,” he told the others before he headed back to the gory scene of the battle.
The professor stood in the middle of the corridor, his hair hanging in front of his eyes and his shoulders heaving with exertion, but the troll lay at his feet. A blood pool slowly spread, and the other Slytherins were behind Professor Snape, staring at him in awe. A moment later, Professor McGonagall raced down the corridor, and Professor Snape whirled around, his wand held high. She slid to a stop and raised her hands.
“Severus. It’s me.”
Slowly, Professor Snape lowered his wand and then slipped it away into his sleeve. “Minerva, my apologies.”
Quirrell came around the corner, took one look at the dead troll and Professor Snape’s expression and let out a faint whimper and sat quickly down on the ground, clutching his heart. Professor Snape spared the man one contemptuous look. Harry had never seen Professor McGonagall look so confused. And worried. Her face was pale, and she still clutched her own wand.
“What on earth are all of you doing here?” she asked. Professor Snape looked at Harry, and Harry looked at Ron, and he slowly turned more and more red. “Why aren’t you in your dormitory?” She asked Ron.
Professor Snape gave Harry a swift, piercing look. Harry stepped forward. He had led this charge, and it would be against every rule of decorum for him to stay silent now that he’d been caught. The first rule of Slytherin was to not get caught. The second was to take your own consequences if you were. “Ron and I overheard some girls saying that Granger was upset and in one of the girls’ bathrooms. When the headmaster ordered everyone to their dormitories, I realized that she wouldn’t know about the troll. I tried to catch the Gryffindor prefects, but they were at the front of the crowd and I couldn’t push through. And I didn’t know what bathroom she might be in, so I yelled for Ron. We were on our way here when we saw Professor Snape and asked for help, and he battled the troll.” Harry looked at Professor Snape in awe. The man lifted a single eyebrow at him.
“If they hadn’t found me, I’d be dead now,” Granger said quietly. Harry wondered if she was trying to acknowledge a life debt. The wording wasn’t right, and he didn’t feel the tangle of magic the other Slytherins described happening when something so momentous took place. “The troll found me in the bathroom before the others came.
Professor McGonagall blinked. “I say. Severus, I always knew you were quite the dueler, but I’m not sure even Filius could have managed this. However, let’s get the children away from the blood. Mr. Weasley, Mr. Potter, five points each for defending another student.”
“There is more than one Slytherin here,” Professor Snape said as he crossed his arms over his chest. Professor McGonagall looked at the other four.
“They were helping me find Ron and Granger, but if you were going to give us detention for not going to our dormitory, I didn’t want them to get in trouble with me,” Harry explained. That wasn’t exactly true. It was more like Slytherin house as a whole had decided that he had to have some sort of honor guard ever since they’d figured out he was a parselmouth, but it was close enough.
“Oh.” She blinked, apparently even more surprised by this turn of events than the existence of a troll inside the wards. “Five points each for you as well, Messers Goyle, Crabbe, Malfoy and Zabini. All of you, off to your dorms. Professor Dumbledore will be informed of this. Go on.”
“I will speak with you five in a few minutes. Remain in the common room,” Professor Snape said. Harry winced. Maybe McGonagall thought they were heroes for coming after Granger, but Harry knew Professor Snape was going to have a different opinion. After giving Ron a thumbs-up, Harry followed his dorm mates, and for one second, he wished he had sorted Gryffindor where the house sponsor didn’t make a big deal out of a few adventures. Harry had heard all sorts of stories about what the Weasley twins had done and McGonagall hadn’t given them more than a couple of hours of detention.
“We risked our lives,” Draco said as they walked to the dorms. “We should have gotten more than twenty five points.”
“Professor Snape is going to kill us for putting our lives in danger,” Gregory said without even acknowledging the irony in his comment.
“Gryffindor owes us after we saved one of their own,” Blaise mused. “There for a second, I thought Granger was going to acknowledge a life debt.”
“I doubt she knows what that is,” Harry said.
The other four stared at him in horror.
Harry rolled his eyes. “I keep pointing out that I don’t know things the rest of you take for granted. I didn’t know that Halloween wasn’t a wizarding holiday.” Harry was wise enough to avoid mentioning which holiday they should be celebrating. Most of Slytherin would be up until midnight so they could have a private ceremony, but apparently even saying the name could get a wizard labeled “dark” and could make the professors suspicious. “You guys have been great about teaching me wizarding culture with things like Quiddich and life debts and family alliances; however, who is teaching the other muggle-raised students?”
“We could just stop allowing them into our schools,” Draco muttered.
“As someone who wouldn’t exist if my muggle-born mother hadn’t been allowed in Hogwarts, I’m going to call that a terrible plan,” Harry said, the same way he had the last dozen times Draco had made a similar comment. “Besides, it’s just as easy to teach new people about the culture they’re joining.”
Draco huffed, but Harry liked to think he was making inroads with Gregory, Vincent and Blaise. Either that or they were too polite to tell him they disagreed. Harry liked to hold onto hope that he was changing a few minds.
But Harry didn’t care. They had shared a trauma, and as two muggle-raised students, they understood each other in a way that those raised in the wizarding world sometimes didn’t. They worked together to learn warming charms when most of Slytherin and even Ron had known to get cloaks with sewn-in warming charms. It was little things like that that reminded Harry that he wasn’t fully a part of this new world. Like Hermione, he had so much more to learn.
However, as the weather turned cold and the mountains around the school became icy gray and the lake like chilled steel, warming charms were a good start. Every morning the ground was covered in frost and Hagrid had to defrost broomsticks on the Quidditch field before flying class.
Ron had developed a new obsession. He believed the headmaster had put the third floor off limits because whatever had been at Gringotts before the break-in had been moved to Hogwarts. And Ron with an obsession was a force that not even the Dark Lord could have stopped.
Harry watched bewitched snowballs bounce off the back of Quirrell’s turban while students played in the several feet of snow that had fallen overnight. “Think about it,” Ron said, “Something was removed from Gringotts and then Dumbledore puts that corridor off limits, and I know a secret.”
Harry and Blaise exchanged a look while Hermione shielded her book with one hand to protect it from any stray snowballs as they sat on the castle stairs. Harry and Blaise had talked about Ron’s habit of mishandling any secrets that crossed his path, but this was the first time Blaise had seen it in person.
“Oh?” Blaise asked, his voice utterly empty of emotion. That should have been a warning, but Ron tended to ignore the sorts of subtle hints Slytherins gave each other in order to warn each other away from topics that might cause conflict. Maybe that’s why Gryffindors were always yelling at each other—because they were untrained in more subtle signals.
“I went with my brothers, and there’s a door up there, and if you unlock it, there’s a Cerberus guarding a trap door.”
Blaise’s eyebrows went up.
Hermione finally looked up from her book. “Those are XXXXX rated creatures. The headmaster wouldn’t have one in the school.”
“He does,” Ron said.
Hermione slammed her book shut. “When are you going to stop believing your brothers when they tell you these tales?”
Ron crossed his arms over his chest. “I saw it myself. What’s more, we went down to talk to Hagrid because we figured he would be the one in charge of that kind of creature, and he said we shouldn’t be meddling in things that don’t concern us.”
“Valid advice,” Blaise said softly, which was ironic because Blaise was a bigger snoop than anyone else in Slytherin, maybe in the whole castle. He loved knowing everyone’s business.
“Exactly,” said Hermione, who was more likely to actually believe that.
“Don’t you want to know what it’s guarding?” Ron demanded. “Hagrid let it slip that whatever’s going on at the castle is between Professor Dumbledore and Nicolas Flamel, so we’re trying to figure out who Flamel is. We’ve been through all the known Wizengamot members and the directory of Ministry employees and nothing. Have you heard of him?”
“It sounds familiar,” Harry admitted, “but I have too much homework to chase down a name.”
“Hermione?” Ron asked in a pleading tone.
“Not a chance. We have tests coming up. I have to focus on my academics.” She opened her book again, and Ron gave a huge sigh. He didn’t even ask Blaise. The events of Halloween had forced him to admit that not all Slytherins were evil, but he still wouldn’t stoop to asking one for a favor—not unless the Slytherin in question was Harry, who Ron still insisted didn’t count as a real Slytherin. “Besides,” Hermione continued, “if the headmaster has hidden something, I’m sure he has adequate protection around it.”
“Maybe not,” Ron said in a dramatic voice. “The night the troll got in, Snape was on the second floor, heading for the third floor staircase. What if he’s trying to steal it?”
“Professor Snape?” Blaise sounded amused, and Ron shot him a viscous look.
“Why do we let him hang out with us?” Ron demanded.
“Because he’s my friend and if you don’t like that, you can sit somewhere else,” Harry said firmly. Ron may not like Harry’s other friends, but Harry wasn’t going to let him push Blaise or Draco or anyone else away.
“Fine,” Ron said with a huff. “But think about it. The headmaster had called all the professors to the dungeons, so why was Snape headed the opposite direction? And maybe he let the troll in to distract the other professors so he could break into the third floor. Did you think about that?”
“If Professor Snape decided to steal something, he would not make a plan so pathetic that a first year Gryffindor could unravel his plot,” Blaise said, not even bothering to hide his disgust.
“Fred and George are third years,” Ron protested. The two of them stared at each other until they were interrupted by a new voice.
“There you are,” Draco called as he came down the castle stairs, Gregory and Vincent flanking him like a pair of gargoyles. “I just got an owl from Father. He’s sending you an invitation to the Malfoy ball. Mother suggests you come home with me for the holiday so she has time to help you with dress robes and dance etiquette so you can have a proper introduction to society. You just need to get permission from your magical guardian.” Draco stopped near them, and looked at the stone steps with unvarnished horror. He was probably thinking of the dirt he might get on himself, so he leaned against the retaining wall and looked down on them.
Harry rested his elbows on the step above his butt. Dress robes and etiquette sounded horrible, but he knew from the conversations in Slytherin that he would have to deal with that sort of thing eventually, but something else caught his attention. “What’s a magical guardian?”
Every person on the stairs except Hermione looked at him with horror.
“What’s a— Are you serious?” Draco demanded. “I know you didn’t get a great foundation on the realities of magical life, but someone must have taught you something. Who helped you get your trunk?”
“Hagrid, and the woman at the trunk shop.”
“Blimey,” Ron whispered, sounding slightly ill.
“As much as I am loathe to agree with a Weasley, I second that,” Draco said. “Where did you learn to trim a quill or use an owl?”
“I bought books at Flourish and Blotts. There was a man there who was very helpful. Well, he was a little short-tempered, but still, he helped me find all the books I needed, and now that I think about it, the woman in the trunk shop helped me because he sent her a note about me needing help.”
“Who has your Gringott’s key?” Blaise asked
Harry frowned. “Hagrid, I think.”
“You don’t know?” Gregory blurted, his voice loud enough that several of the students playing in the snow turned to look at them.
“No?” Harry asked, suddenly wishing that he had asked.
“This will not stand. I’m going to owl my father right now.” Draco turned to the castle entrance before stopping again. “But if we can’t figure it out soon, how are you going to come home with me?”
“I may not be able to this year, but maybe next year I could get a note from my muggle aunt letting me visit you.” Harry could suggest that the school disapproved of students boarding over the breaks and tell her that either he had to come home to Surrey or he needed a permission slip to go home with another student. Harry knew she would do anything to keep him out of the house and away from her beloved Christmas traditions. “Do you think Professor Snape could tell us what sort of permission slip Aunt Petunia would have to sign?”
“But I want you to visit this year. No one stays at the castle unless their parents don’t want them at home.”
“Oy!” Ron protested.
Instead of apologizing to Ron, who would also be staying because his parents were going overseas to visit their older son, Draco sniffed and vanished back into the castle.
“I can’t believe you like that prat,” Ron complained as soon as Draco was gone.
Hermione gave him an unimpressed look. “He’s not the only one lacking in manners. I seem to remember you calling him a baby Death Eater not long after we got off Hogwarts Express.”
“I’m not wrong,” Ron said.
Harry punched him in the leg.
“Hey! That’s abuse.” Ron scooped up a fistful of snow and slammed it down onto Harry’s head.
“Watch the book!” Hermione complained loudly and Blaise shot to his feet, but Ron was grinning, and the other students seemed to take that as an invitation to include the group in the massive snowball fight. Soon, Harry was too busy trying to defend himself against the assault to worry about magical guardians or Gringott’s keys.
It was still shaping up to be the best holiday Harry ever had. Ron smuggled him into the Gryffindor common room, which was much smaller and much, much brighter than his own. Like Slytherin, it was almost empty so they could use the good armchairs by the fire. They sat by the hour eating anything they could spear on a toasting fork—bread, English muffins, marshmallows—and plotting ways to smuggle Harry out of the Dursley’s house this summer, even if most of them wouldn’t work.
Ron also started teaching Harry wizard chess. This was exactly like muggle chess except that the figures were alive, which made it a lot like directing troops in battle. Ron’s set was very old and battered, like everything else he owned, it had once belonged to someone else in his family — in this case, his grandfather. However, old chessmen weren’t a drawback at all. Ron knew them so well he never had trouble getting them to do what he wanted.
Harry played with chessmen Finnigan had lent Ron, and they didn’t trust Harry at all. He wasn’t a very good player yet and they kept shouting different bits of advice at him, which was confusing. “Don’t send me there, can’t you see his knight? Send him, we can afford to lose him.”
Considering that Harry had been afraid he would spend the holiday reading and playing pong-bonk by himself, Christmas was turning out far better than he’d expected. Blaise had introduced him to owl-ordering gifts, so he’d send out little token gifts of chocolates or fancy quills or colored ink to all the first year Slytherins except Nott. Giving a gift to someone who had made it clear they didn’t want to exchange gifts was rude. But he’d also picked special gifts for the people he felt closest to. He’d gotten Blaise a cashmere scarf and Draco a book on magical snakes since he was still obsessed with Harry’s parselmouth abilities. He’d bought Hermione a book on magic theory and Ron a tiny figure of a Quidditch keeper blocking balls from sailing through three tiny hoops. He was proud of having friends to send gifts to. A tiny part of him that was still six years old and remembering his cousin unwrapping presents while he’d been forced to watch, was giddy with anticipation at getting his own presents.
When Harry woke early in the morning on Christmas, the first thing he saw was a pile of packages at the foot of his bed. “Merry Christmas to me,” Harry said to the empty dorm room. He wished Ron or Blaise or Hermione were here, but seeing how many people had remembered him made him feel such joy. He didn’t even care what they’d gotten him. He just loved seeing the pile and knowing that people had thought of him while they made their own Christmas lists.
And from the pile, it was clear that Harry had to buy more presents. He wondered how much money he had available in Gringotts. He understood that gifts had to be reciprocal if one wanted to maintain an alliance or friendship, but he didn’t know what budget he had.
Harry picked up the top parcel. It was wrapped in thick brown paper and scrawled across it was To Harry, From Hagrid. Inside was a roughly cut wooden flute. Hagrid had obviously whittled it himself. Harry blew it—it sounded a bit like an owl. For a few minutes, he practiced getting different notes and amused himself with a simple tune. It was a wonderful gift, and the fact that Hagrid had crafted it himself made it more special.
A second, very small parcel contained a note.
We received your message and enclose your Christmas present. From Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia. Taped to the note was a fifty-pence piece. That was better than he usually got, but his Christmas note to them had asked about his magical guardian, and he would rather have information. Still, he set the coin aside.
Harry next chose a book-shaped parcel. The attached card said it came from Nott, which Harry had not anticipated. He opened it and found a thick tome—which was not surprising given this was from Nott—but the topic was. It was a discussion of illegal magic and the process various spells, charms, potions, and curses had gone through to get labeled illegal. Interesting. Harry set it aside and wondered what he should get Nott in return. He didn’t dare buy a book because the boy had probably read everything ever published in the wizarding world. Harry wondered if he could get someone to shop in the muggle world for him. He bet Nott didn’t know about muggle technology.
Maybe if Nott knew how far advanced muggles were he would stop assuming that wizards were vastly superior. Maybe he could find something on technological advances of the twentieth century.
Blaise got him a beautiful winter cloak in forest green with fur trim and warming charms, which matched a fur-trimmed glove, hat and scarf set from Draco. Hermione had bought him a book on runes. He had mentioned being fascinated with the runes used to make his trunk, and she had started a campaign to get him to take the elective with her third year. Ron kept insisting it was too much work and creating anything useful would require a mastery. He wanted Harry to take divination. He was rather insistent, in fact.
Harry picked up a lumpy parcel wrapped in Gryffindor red. He tore it open to find a thick, hand-knitted sweater in emerald green and a large box of homemade fudge from Ron’s mother. A few smaller packages had the same sort of small trinkets he’d gotten the others. Parkinson gave him gold-toned ink that shimmered when he wrote his name. Gregory had gotten him a virtual feast of chocolate and Vincent had gotten him an equally large pile of fruit candies. Millicent had bought a white quill and Greengrass’s package included a bottle of Relax-a-curl potion.
Then the presents got more elaborate. Gregory’s father had sent him a journal with a silver snake embossed on the leather cover. Blaise’s mother sent a silver medallion necklace with a sowilo rune in the shape of a lightning bolt.
Millicent’s father had sent a card, but inside was an invitation for him to visit during summer so he could meet the young man who had exchanged first names with his daughter. That frightened Harry a little. He liked Millicent, and he respected her sharp wit and the way she could swing a bat during the little bit of Quidditch practice they did during flying lessons, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to meet her father.
Then he opened a lightweight parcel wrapped in simple, white paper. Something fluid and silvery gray went slithering to the floor where it lay in gleaming folds. Harry ran his hands over the fabric, marveling at the cool feel as it slipped between his fingers. It was like water was woven into the material. Harry picked it up, and gasped when his knees seemed to vanish. He’d read about these. It was an invisibility cloak.
He stood and put the cloak around his shoulders before dashing to the mirror. Sure enough, his reflection looked back at him, just his head suspended in midair, his body completely invisible. He pulled the cloak over his head and his reflection vanished completely.
He thought it might be from Draco’s parents—they seemed like the sort to spend far too much money on a gift in order to impress someone, and Harry did understand that his parselmouth ability and potential connection to their house’s founder was special to Slytherins, but then he spotted the note that had fluttered to the ground.
Your father left this in my possession before he died. It is time it was returned to you. Use it well. A Very Merry Christmas to you.
There was no signature, which did not sound like Lucius Malfoy based on how his son described him. But why would Harry’s father, who had been hiding from the Dark Lord, give up such a valuable resource? A cold chill went through Harry. Maybe he had been listening to his Slytherin friends too long, but this sort of gift… it felt like someone was pulling strings. Blaise and Draco agreed that exchanges had to start with small items and then slowly increase in value as each side decided how much to invest in an alliance. Giving too much all at once was a dangerous sign.
Harry felt very strange.
Before he could say anything, a chime rang to tell everyone in the dorms—which was currently three students—that Professor Snape was calling a house meeting. Harry stuffed his cloak under his pillow and vowed to come back for it after he’d had time to think. Instead he grabbed Nott’s gift as headed for the common room.
Professor Snape stood by the fireplace, watching with onyx eyes as Harry came into the room. He was the last one as Vilix and Deborah were already waiting. “Happy Holidays,” Professor Snape said. “As is my tradition, I provide gifts to any Slytherins who stay over the holiday. He pulled out three vials of shimmering potion. “These will provide the drinker with luck for one day.”
“Felix Felicis? Deborah gasped.
“Nothing so strong. That can result in giddiness and poor judgment. This is a modified recipe that will influence your luck without manipulating your mental state or the circumstances. I wanted to wish you all a good holiday.” Professor Snape gave each of them a small vial. “The feast will start in two hours, and you are—of course—welcome to entertain yourself until then.” Professor Snape stared at the book in Harry’s hand for a long time before he turned and strode out as dramatically as ever.
“Awesome,” Vilix said. Both of them left, and Harry settled into the armchair near the fire to talk to the snakes and read his book.
The carved snakes exploded into movement. “The speaker. It’s the speaker. Good day, speaker. Good hunting, speaker. How can I help you stalk your enemies?” All of them spoke at once, and Harry laughed at their enthusiasm.
“I don’t know that I have enemies to stalk,” Harry said.
One of the larger snakes pushed the others to one side, the grain of the wood shimmering like scales across his body. “Everyone has enemies, hatchling.”
“I have people whose nest I avoid and who avoid my territory,” Harry agreed, thinking of Nott and some of the older Slytherins, “but I don’t have anyone I would bite.”
The snake’s long silence felt judgmental.
“But I am confused.”
“About what, speaker?” The snake asked. The smaller snakes all writhed and crowded closer. it was hard to remember that these were magical enchantments—like the Sorting Hat—and not real snakes. Any advice they gave came from Salazar Slytherin or whichever of his descendants might have cast the spells.
“Someone sent me something very valuable.”
“They want something, hatchling.”
“They didn’t put their name on it,” Harry said, “and the note said that it belonged to my father and they were returning it.”
“They might have stolen it, and now that you are of an age to demand an accounting from the goblin bank, they might fear being found in possession of it,” one snake warned.
“The object could be cursed or poisoned,” said another.
“They could be acting out of guilt or because they know how other humans would react to one who steals from a hatching with no nest,” said a third.
“I don’t think poisoned or cursed objects can enter the castle,” Harry said.
“Just as trolls cannot,” the largest snake said. He had a point.
“I can ask Professor Snape to check the cloak,” Harry said. He was uncomfortable doing that because the professor clearly didn’t like him, but the man was his head of house. And he knew that Professor Snape would protect him. The incident with the troll proved that, no matter what strange ideas Ron got in his head about Professor Snape being evil.
“Medea used a poisoned cloak to kill her husband’s new wife,” a small snake said in a trilling voice.
“And their children,” another added.
“It’s a cloak to make prey with eyes not see one who stalks.” That was a very long translation for invisible, but Harry wasn’t surprised that the term didn’t exist in snake language. This information seemed to excite all the snakes.
“Someone hopes you will be a great hunter. They must have an enemy they want you to hunt.”
“No. Someone is laying a trap. They give you a cloak that will protect you from those that hunt with eyes, but they plan to send those who hunt with scent after you.” A dozen different snakes offered their own possibilities, and at least Harry felt like he had some theories. He would have Professor Snape check it for spells and then be very careful about when he used the cloak in case it was a trap. Maybe he shouldn’t use it at all, at least not this year. That would be long enough to confuse anyone hoping to trick him.
When Deborah came into the common room and gave Harry an odd look for having an intense conversation with carved snakes, Harry smiled at her and then headed to the Christmas feast.
Harry had never in all his life had such a Christmas. The hall looked spectacular. Festoons of holly and mistletoe hung all around the walls, and no less than twelve towering Christmas trees stood around the room, some sparkling with tiny icicles, some glittering with hundreds of candles.
And the feast was without compare. A hundred fat, roast turkeys; mountains of roast and boiled potatoes; platters of sausages; tureens of buttered peas; silver boats of thick, rich gravy and cranberry sauce — and stacks of wizard crackers every few feet along the table. These fantastic party favors were nothing like the feeble muggle ones the Dursleys usually bought, with their little plastic toys and their flimsy paper hats inside. Harry pulled a wizard cracker with Ron and it didn’t just bang, it went off with a blast like a cannon and engulfed them all in a cloud of blue smoke, while from the inside exploded a rear admiral’s hat and several live, white mice. Up at the High Table, Dumbledore had swapped his pointed wizard’s hat for a flowered bonnet, and was chuckling merrily at a joke Professor Flitwick had just read him.
Harry would be horrified at the amount of food that would go to waste with so few students left at Hogwarts, but he knew from his own charmed stasis compartment that the elves would be able to keep the uneaten food fresh for months. And oh what food the elves had prepared.
Flaming Christmas puddings followed the turkey. The prefect Weasley brother nearly broke his teeth on a silver sickle embedded in his slice. Harry watched Hagrid getting redder and redder in the face as he called for more wine, finally kissing Professor McGonagall on the cheek, who, to Harry’s amazement, giggled and blushed, her top hat lopsided.
When Harry finally left the table, he was laden down with a stack of things out of the crackers, including a pack of non-explodable, luminous balloons, a Grow-Your-Own-Warts kit, and his own new wizard chess set. Harry and the Weasleys spent a happy afternoon having a furious snowball fight on the grounds. Harry hadn’t spent much time with the twins in the past, and their reputation in the Slytherin common room made his nervous, but they turned out to be funny and kind and wickedly brutal with snowballs. They charmed the snow to chase Harry and Ron around until Harry figured out that if he ran right at one of the twins and ducked at the last second they would get hit with their own weapons.
Harry was sorry when it was time to head back to his own dormitory. He ate a meal of turkey sandwiches, crumpets, trifle, and Christmas cake with the Weasleys and then wandered back to the dungeons.
It had been Harry’s best Christmas day ever. Yet the mystery of the cloak had been nagging at the back of his mind all day. When he got to his room, he pulled it out. This had been his father’s. His father’s. He let the material flow over his hands, smoother than silk, light as air.
Use it well, the note had said. Use it. Why would someone want him to use it? Looking down at his legs, he saw only moonlight and shadows. It was a very funny feeling.
Use it well.
Suddenly Harry felt wide awake. The whole of Hogwarts was open to him in this cloak. Excitement flooded through him as he stood there in the dark and silence. He could go anywhere in this, anywhere, and Filch would never know.
Harry blinked. Why would he worry about Filch? The man was bad-tempered and foul, but he only bothered students who were out past curfew or who were caught throwing spells in the corridors. Any Slytherin who did those things had far more serious concerns than Mr. Filch.
Yet Harry had such a visceral desire to use the cloak, and to use it alone. At least the first time. With the snakes’ warnings in mind, Harry grabbed his dressing gown and didn’t even bother putting it on before he ran for Professor Snape’s office.
He stood outside the door, shifting from foot to foot with his dressing gown in one hand and the invisibility cloak in the other, shivering in his pajamas. Harry’s self control was almost gone by the time Professor Snape answered the door, his teacher robes buttoned all the way up and his hair mussed.
“Here,” Harry said, thrusting the invisibility cloak at him. Professor Snape took it, and immediately, Harry could breathe. The sense of urgency— the near-panicked need to explore—faded like smoke in a stiff wind.
“Potter? To what do I owe the displeasure at this time of night?”
Harry took a deep breath. “I apologize, sir. I wasn’t going to disturb you until morning, but when I picked up the cloak, I had such thoughts. I wanted to explore. I wanted to do it alone, but there wasn’t anyone in the room with me, so why was I even thinking about how I needed to be alone? And the snakes in the common room had told me stories about cursed cloaks, and I got scared, and now I’m feeling really stupid. I’m sorry, sir. I’ll go back to my room.” Harry reached out to take the cloak back.
“Get in here, Potter,” Professor Snape said without letting go of the cloak. Harry slunk into the office and pulled his dressing gown on. He was still cold until Professor Snape cast a warming charm. “Start from the beginning, Potter,” the professor said in an exhausted voice.
So Harry did. He described opening the present and the conversation with the carved snakes and his sudden urges when he’d touched the cloak before bed. Professor Snape pinched the bridge of his nose.
“I’m probably being silly,” Harry finished softly.
“Potter, you are many things, few of which I like. However, you are not silly. What you are describing sounds like a compulsion charm.”
“So, someone set a trap?”
“Perhaps,” Professor Snape said vaguely.
“So, the cloak wasn’t my father’s.” Harry felt an inexplicable sense of loss. He’d wanted to have some connection to his parents, and the cloak had given him an illusion of that. He’d felt the cool fabric and imagined his father doing the same thing.
“I suspect your father had an invisibility cloak,” Professor Snape said. “If not this one, then one very much like it. That would actually explain many mysteries from his days in school.” If Professor Snape didn’t like Harry, he must have loathed Harry’s father if Harry was reading the professor’s expression right. “I will lock this up tonight and return it to you once I have tested it for compulsions and curses. Good night, Mr. Potter.”
“Good night, Professor Snape, and thank you.” Harry opened the door before Professor Snape called his name.
“If I give this back and then find out you have circumvented school rules using this cloak, I will make you regret ever stepping foot on Hogwart’s campus.”
“Oh, no, sir,” Harry agreed. “That’s why I knew there was something wrong. I wouldn’t break the rules like that. You’d be furious.” For some reason, Professor Snape had an even odder expression on his face after that, and Harry hurried back to bed.
“Good morning, Professor Dumbledore,” Harry said.
The headmaster looked over his half-moon glasses at Harry. “My boy, how are you this bright morning?” The man’s robes featured a galaxy that slowly circled in a starry night.
“I’m doing well. How are you, sir?”
“Quite well. Quite well. Do you miss your dorm mates?”
“Yes, sir,” Harry said. Even Nott who rarely talked to him was a steady presence in the room, the steady rub of paper against paper as he turned the pages was a sort of comfort.
“Excellent,” the headmaster said, his voice distant. “Did you get any good presents?”
“Many,” Harry agreed. “And did you get good presents, sir?”
The headmaster leaned close and looked Harry in the eye. “Everyone I know insists on gifting me books. Another Christmas has come and gone and I didn’t get a single pair of socks. I would like a thick, woolen pair. My parents used to gift me a pair every Christmas.”
“I’m sorry, sir.” Harry wondered if the headmaster wanted Harry to get him socks. Harry didn't know why he would purchase a Christmas gift for his headmaster, but he couldn’t imagine any other reason why the headmaster would tell him such a detail.
Headmaster Dumbledore stood with a chuckle. “Well, that is my burden to bear. Run off to breakfast. I need to have a word with Professor Snape.”
“Yes, sir,” Harry said, confused again because he had already been going to breakfast when Professor Dumbledore stopped him. Where else would he go, and why would Professor Dumbledore need to tell him to go there? Harry was halfway through an excellent breakfast when the Weasleys showed up. Percy hurried to the end of the table with the one other prefect who’d stayed, but Fred, George and Ron sat near Harry.
After the others had filled their plates and started to eat, Harry recounted the strange interaction with the headmaster. The twins looked at each other before focusing back on Harry. “Dumbledore knows more than he will ever admit,” Fred said, or maybe it was George. Harry was almost sure they kept switching names.
“Did you get something good for Christmas?” George asked. “Something he might know about?”
“Nott gave me a book on the Wizengamot and the legal process for banning magic.”
“Ugh,” Ron said, “I swear, Slytherins are not just evil, but boring evil. Who wants a book like that?”
“I think it’s interesting,” Harry said. “And I feel bad because I didn’t get Nott anything, but I’m hoping someone has a way to order from the muggle world.” That was a problem for later. “I also got an invisibility cloak, but the note attached said it wasn’t a gift because the cloak belonged to my father and the sender was returning it.”
“Impossible,” Fred said. Before Harry could ask why, George spoke. “Invisibility cloaks lose their ability to distort light over a few years. If your father owned it, it wouldn’t work anymore.”
Harry felt the same sort of despair he’d felt the previous night when he’d thought the cloak hadn’t belonged to his father.
“Unless it has some special family magic,” Fred added quickly. “After all, who knows the limits of what’s possible. So, what have you two little trouble-makers planned for today?”
“Let’s play chess,” Ron said, which seemed to be his default for any free time. It wasn’t as much fun for Harry who lost every game. But the only wizarding game Harry liked to play was pong bonk, and he had a feeling the twins would be Slytherinish in their willingness to use Harry’s fondness for a baby’s game to blackmail him. Ron wouldn’t. However, Ron would blurt it out at the worst possible time, and then everyone would laugh at him.
“How about exploding snap?” Harry suggested. It wasn’t his favorite, but it was better than chess.
Professor Snape swept into the room, but instead of going to the head of the table, he walked straight to Harry. “With me, Mr. Potter.”
“Yes, sir.” Harry scrambled to get away from the table and all the Weasley’s made sympathetic faces at him. Harry ran to catch up as the professor climbed a set of stairs. Clearly they weren’t going to return to the dungeon and talk about the cloak. “Where are we going, sir?” Harry knew asking questions sometimes put Professor Snape in a worse mood, but he was curious.
“To your appointment—one you should have informed me of yourself,” Professor Snape said, taking a moment to stare down his long, hooked nose at Harry. Harry gulped. He wasn’t sure what appointment he was supposed to attend, but he didn’t want to say that to the professor and then get a lecture about how Harry was too irresponsible to even remember his appointments.
Professor Snape stopped at a gargoyle and said, “Licorice wands.” The gargoyle slid aside, revealing a staircase set into a narrow passage. Harry followed Professor Snape into an office full of trinkets that rocked and swiveled and spun. There were books of every shape and color, and portraits of dignified looking men staring down at them. Professor Snape took a pinch of power from the fireplace mantle and said, “The Leaky Cauldron” before he caught Harry’s shoulder and propelled him right into the fire.
Floo, Harry’s mind helpfully supplied, and he technically knew what he needed to do, but that academic knowledge didn’t help when he was spinning and reeling through the universe before being spat out on the floor of the Leaky Cauldron in a cloud of black soot.
Harry was still coughing when Professor Snape stepped out of the floo without a wrinkle or stumble or speck of soot on him. He stared at Harry for a long minute before he flicked his wand and Harry was clean again.
“Thank you, Professor Snape.”
The professor didn’t answer. He strode to the back of the pub and tapped out the pattern to open the bricks. He didn’t even look behind to see if Harry was following as he hurried down the alley. Shoppers cleared the sidewalk, some darting into random stores to get out of Professor Snape’s way. Harry wondered if those were the professor’s previous students or if even adults felt the weight of Professor’s Snape’s glare when the man was unhappy.
Professor Snape stopped outside Oculus Oasis, a shop with a huge pair of glasses hanging above the door. “What are you waiting for?” Professor Snape demanded.
“Is this where I have an appointment?”
“Did you not make an appointment?” Professor Snape’s hand went to his sleeve and for a second Harry thought he was going to pull his wand. Harry even looked down the alley to see if a troll was headed their way, but before he could take a good look, the door of the shop came open.
“Harry!” Draco threw himself at Harry and both of them nearly tumbled into the street. Professor Snape caught Draco by the arm and saved them both. “You’re here. We’ve been waiting forever.”
From Draco, that could mean anything from an hour to five minutes. “What are you doing here? And why are you waiting?” Harry asked.
Draco took a step back. “This is your gift from Mother and Father, of course. Surely you didn’t think they’d forgotten you.”
“No, of course not,” Harry said despite the fact that parents had no obligation to give gifts to the friends of their children, and those friends should never return gifts in kind. That last requirement meant that Harry was hoping Mr. and Mrs. Malfoy would skip any lavish gifts, but apparently not.
“Of course not. But I told father how you’re getting lower grades than you should in Astronomy because you can’t even properly see through the telescope and when we study, you have to hold the book up close to see the margin notes, and so we got you an appointment, and Mother and Father are going to get you any glasses you want or even potions that will fix your eyes. That way you wouldn’t have to wear glasses at all.” Draco was so enthusiastic that Harry found himself smiling. This is why he forgave Draco every horrible thing he said. When Draco was happy, he radiated such pure joy that Harry couldn’t stay angry.
“We can’t have your class work suffering,” Mr. Malfoy said. He was standing next to Professor Snape, who looked more dour than ever.
“No, sir,” Harry agreed, still uncomfortable with how intense Mr. Malfoy seemed. “And thank you, sir.”
“Anything for a young Slytherin,” Mr. Malfoy said with a smile. “Narcissa is waiting inside.”
Draco grabbed Harry’s hand and dragged him into the shop. Inside, thousands of pairs of glasses lined every wall, and some even had wings and flew around the shop. A gold-rimmed pair tried to slip onto Draco’s face, and he batted it away without breaking stride. “Mother, tell Harry how he can have potions and then his eyes will be fixed forever.”
Mrs. Malfoy—Narcissa—smiled at Harry. “Happy Yule, Harry. How have you enjoyed Hogwarts so far?” She smiled at Harry before giving Draco a long look punctuated with a single raised eyebrow. Draco’s ears turned pink at the silent scolding.
“I’m loving it, but there is a lot of work,” Harry said.
“Wait until fifth year,” Draco added. “Everyone talks about how hard fifth year is.”
“You’ll be more than prepared,” Narcissa said. “Now Harry, we are getting you an eye exam, and then you can either get glasses or potions, but if you take potions, it will change the color of your eyes and you will be precluded from some professions like Quidditch.”
“Oh yeah,” Draco said, “and you’re a brilliant quidditch player. You shouldn’t get potions.”
“Draco,” Narcissa said sharply. “Let him choose his own present.”
The pink on Draco’s ears grew more pronounced.
“He’s right,” Harry said with a smile in Draco’s direction. “I don’t know if I would want that, but I don’t want to do something now and regret it later.”
Mr. Malfoy and Professor Snape had followed them into the shop, and Mr. Malfoy said with a chuckle, “What a wise young man.” Professor Snape looked like he had bitten a lemon.
A shopkeeper came out of the back of the store. He had white hair that stuck up in spikes and a pair of red glasses with glittering stones and fancy runes carved into the thick frames. “Is our patient here?”
Narcissa put a hand on Harry’s shoulder. “Right here. We need an exam and then two pairs of glasses and one pair of Quidditch goggles.”
“You don’t need to get that much,” Harry said. He didn’t know what that would cost, but he knew that one pair was so much money that Uncle Vernon had turned red when a teacher had written a note saying the Dursley’s had to buy him a pair.
“Nonsense,” Mr. Malfoy said. “It’s Yule. This is the time of year to spoil young people. Besides, if you are anything like Draco, you’ll manage to lose at least one pair during the year.” He exchanged amused looks with the shopkeeper. Harry didn’t want to challenge Mr. Malfoy, but he’d had his black glasses for years and he’d never once misplaced them for even a second.
“Right then, when was your last exam?” The shop keeper touched one of the runes on his glasses and a light shone from the rims as he bent closer to Harry.
“Um, never, sir.”
“Yes, yes. I know you were muggle raised, and muggles don’t have proper examinations, but when did you last go to one of the muggle vision healers-who-don’t-heal?” The man peered into Harry’s eyes for several seconds before snatching the glasses off Harry’s face so face that Harry jumped in fear, and Professor Snape took a quick step forward. Harry might have retreated to the professor’s side, only the shopkeeper dropped Harry’s glasses to the floor and caught him by both arms.
“Um, never. I’ve never been to an eye doctor.” Harry blinked as the bright lights from the shopkeeper's red glasses nearly blinded him.
“Potter,” the professor said slowly, “where did you get your glasses if you’ve never been to an optometrist?”
“Aunt Petunia picked them up in a charity bin. The school said I needed glasses, and she said those were good enough.”
“Good enough? GOOD ENOUGH?” The shopkeeper let go of Harry only to throw his hands in the air. “Those glasses are worse than wearing nothing. They are the glasses of an eighty year old man with presbyopia. Those glasses are a travesty. Where is this woman who felt that they were good enough?” Without getting an answer, the man charged away, the little door to his back room clattering shut behind him.
Harry held his breath, not sure what to say. The shopkeepers in Diagon Alley seemed very excitable. After a few seconds, the man slammed the door open and dropped a huge bubble over Harry’s head. The bubble had rainbows that slid across the surface like an oil puddle after a hard rain. It was pretty.
“Look straight at me, boy. Don’t look away.” The man bent over and stared into Harry’s eyes. Terrified to even blink, Harry stared back. “Right then, that’s sorted.” He stood up and waved his wand. Over half the frames vanished and the hundreds that were left all took flight with tiny wings. They flew toward Harry like a flock of demented birds, but at the last second, the started circling.
“What color do you want the frames?”
“Um…” Harry wondered why everyone was so obsessed with choosing things by color.
“Please don’t say black. Your glasses are an abomination,” Draco said. Narcissa sighed heavily.
“Silver?” Harry said. Most of the glasses seemed disappointed. They slowed down or sank lower to the ground. The black frames must have taken offense to Draco’s words because they had all landed on the floor and they lay in a tangled heap. Harry wondered if he should choose a black frame just to cheer them up.
“Rectangular is best with your face shape,” the man said, and a dozen frames pushed in closer, each shoving and jostling the others to get onto Harry’s face. A pair with thin rims settled on his nose, and the man waved his wand and a mirror floated over. Harry looked at his reflection. He looked so different without the thick, dark frames with their cello taped arms and broken bridge.
“Glare-proof, break-proof, self-adjusting prescription up to three points, and self-darkening in the sun.”
“They’re nice,” Harry said.
“But not perfect.” With a flick of his wand, the man banished the pair to the wall and another pair settled on Harry’s face. These were fancier with runes carved on the arms and curlicues on the edges.
“No,” Harry said. They too were banished. The next pair was too thick and the pair after that pinched his ears, but the fifth pair were perfect. Harry looked at himself from every direction, and for the first time, he liked what he saw. “I love them.”
“You look quite smart in those,” Mr. Malfoy said, and Narcissa just smiled.
“The one pair is enough, honest. I wouldn’t even know what to get for a second pair.”
“Then I’ll pick for you, is that alright?” Narcissa asked.
Harry would rather refuse a second pair, but he didn’t want to be rude. “Thank you.”
Within seconds, Harry was wearing oval lenses with a gold frame that only went underneath the lenses so it looked like he had on half-moon glasses. The gold had a snakeskin texture and tiny green gems decorated the hinge where the frame met the arms. They were fancier than anything Harry owned.
He titled his head one way and then the other as he looked at the snakeskin pattern rippling across the metal.
“Mother has perfect taste,” Draco said proudly.
Harry smiled at Narcissa. “She does. Thank you so much.” He looked at Mr. Malfoy. “Both of you are wonderful. I can’t believe how much better I can see now. Draco, you have gray eyes!”
“Of course I do.” Draco stood a little taller. “Wait, you couldn’t see that before?”
Harry shook his head. “No.”
“But you snatched Longbottom’s Rememberall right out of the air.” Draco sounded almost indignant that Harry had been able to do that with his old glasses.
“I’ve always been good with seeing movement, but details were difficult,” Harry admitted. “Not anymore. This is wonderful. He looked around, and now the frames weren’t just frames, but jeweled frames and black frames and red frames and gold ones. They were square and round and shaped like oversized commas. They were all different sizes, and he could see how each was distinct. He could see the faint shading on Mr. Malfoy’s chin where he would have a beard if he didn’t shave. He could see the silver latch at the top of Professor Snape’s cloak. He could see everything.
“That explains your Astronomy grade.”
“Indeed,” Narcissa said quietly. “Now, Harry, you are the grandson of a Black, and we Blacks have always taken Astrology very seriously. Every Black should know which planets and which stars are in ascension at any given time.” She left it there, but Harry knew from his conversations with Blaise that she was talking about rituals. Most rituals were banned in the UK, and some were actually evil, but the Black family had a long tradition of ritual magic, which required a detailed understanding of the stars.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “Now that I can see, I’ll catch up.”
Draco linked arms with Harry. “I’ll make sure you do.”
“If your vision was that poor, I’m surprised the beginning of the year health check didn’t catch it,” Mr. Malfoy said.
“My what?” Harry was admiring himself in the mirror with his gold-framed snake glasses, so it took a second for him to realize the adults had gone silent. He looked up at them.
Professor Snape took a step forward so fast that Harry almost retreated. The professor was more than a little intimidating. “Didn’t you get a letter telling you to come to St. Mungo’s a week before your first visit to Diagon Alley?” Professor Snape had the same sort of fury in his voice that he had when a Gryffindor melted a caldron.
“Um, Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon might have gotten something, but they would have thrown it away. They hate magic, which probably explains why they always called me a freak. They knew I was magic even when I didn’t.”
Professor Snape and Mr. Malfoy exchanged looks, but before Harry could ask anything, Narcissa was guiding them over to a display of sports goggles. “Let’s find you something comfortable. I hear from Draco that you are a natural at Quidditch. He is convinced that with you as the seeker and him as chaser, the Slytherin team will be unbeatable next year.” With that, Draco started enthusiastically listing Quidditch stats for all the school teams, with the undeniable conclusion that Draco and Harry were about to lead a six-year run of unblemished Slytherin wins. Draco was cute when he got that excited.
“I’m the one who has to drink potions,” Harry said as he looked around. He was still fascinated by how much he could see now. Narcissa’s robes had the most beautiful tiny dragons stitched into the hems and Mr. Malfoy’s cane had a perfect replica of a snake head, down to the scales around its eyes. Nearly everyone had some sort of decoration on their clothing, and Harry realized that if he wore his sowlio necklace, others would be able to see it. No wonder people stared at him if they could see his scar so clearly.
“I’m so sorry our present ended with this,” Draco apologized.
“If Harry is exposed to Dragonpox, this will be a far better present than his glasses,” Narcissa said. “Besides, this is not part of our present. Severus is paying for this out of the school fund.”
“I can pay,” Harry blurted. He didn’t want Professor Snape to have to.
“The school should have ensured you had received your inoculations. If you failed to present paperwork from St. Mungo, Madam Pomfray should have called you to the hospital wing to administer them herself. Since we are no longer at the beginning of the year and her inoculation potions have expired, it is natural for the school to bear this cost.” Professor Snape still sounded angry.
Harry ducked his head and tried to inch away from the professor. Narcissa gave him a sympathetic look and shifted so she was between him and Professor Snape. She was definitely his favorite cousin.
Mr. Malfoy went up to the desk, and within two minutes, a half dozen employees were scrambling to usher them into a room and take Harry’s temperature and offer the Malfoys seats. Professor Snape moved to a corner of the examination room and stood with his arms crossed, radiating displeasure.
The door opened, and a young man with a lime green robe and funny little hat came into the room. “I understand someone missed the required vaccinations before going to school. Who would that be?”
“That would be me,” Harry said. The moment the healer spotted Harry’s scar, he froze and then his eyes got huge. Harry braced himself for the inevitable reaction, but then the healer glanced over toward Mr. Malfoy and cleared his throat.
“When was the last time you visited a healer?”
“Muggle… what do you call them? They’re like healers only with less education and they focus more on day-to-day care of patients.”
“Nurses,” Professor Snape offered. Either he had been raised with muggles or he had done really well on his NEWTS for muggle studies. Harry supposed either was possible.
Harry said, “I’ve never seen a nurse, not even the school nurse. At school, guardians have to sign papers saying what a nurse is allowed to do and which medications they can give out, but my aunt and uncle didn’t send the paper back.”
“Never? No health care at all?” The healer sounded vaguely horrified. But then he seemed to shake off his emotions. “Okay, let’s do a quick scan to make sure you’re not going to react to any of these potions, and then we can get you taken care of. Lay back and I’m going to cast diagnostic charms to check for general health, core health, and potential reactions.”
Feeling weird doing this with an audience, Harry settled onto the table. The healer waved his wand in a complex pattern going from Harry’s head all the way down to his feet. He then repeated in reverse. The longer he worked, the more concerned he looked.
“Is something wrong?” Harry asked.
“Maybe we can discuss this with your guardians… your magical guardians,” the healer added as if he had just remembered that the Dursleys were the ones who had never taken Harry to get a checkup in the past.
“I am his head of house, and Mrs. Malfoy is his cousin, his closest relative in the magical community.”
The healer gave Harry an unsure look.
“I would rather you tell me what’s wrong in front of them.”
Draco swallowed and slipped his arm around his mother’s waist, and she rested her hand on Draco’s shoulder. He was practically projecting his fear, and that was making Harry more nervous. However, he would rather have the healer tell them what was wrong than he would have to explain it to Draco later.
“It looks like you have some blockages on your core.”
“Natural or external?” Mr. Malfoy demanded, his voice as coldly furious as Professor Snape at his worst.
“One looks like a children’s charm—something a parent might put on a particularly precocious child to minimize accidental magic. Did you have a lot of outbursts of magic when you were young?” The healer asked Harry.
“I turned my teacher’s hair blue and I shrunk clothing I hated until it was too small for me to wear and once when I was running away from my cousin, I disappeared from the ground and reappeared on the roof of the school.” Harry didn’t know if that qualified as precocious because all the students talked about having accidental magic. At least Harry hadn’t set anything on fire. It seemed like most kids did that at least once. Ron talked about setting sandwiches on fire multiple times before his mother stopped trying to feed him liver.
The healer cleared his throat. “Holy Salazar. You did that with a blocked core? That would count as precocious. Merlin. Accidental apparation. Okay, so that explains the block, but it should have been removed years ago. Leaving blocks on as children grow can lead to magical constriction and even core damage.”
“Is his case that serious?” Professor Snape demanded in a tone that suggested that if he didn’t like the answer, the healer might face the same end as the troll.
“I don’t think so, but there is some constriction and abrasion. Luckily, his core has not started its adolescent expansion yet or he might have faced long-term consequences. I’ll have to call an expert in to clear it since it is already adhered to the core. I want to minimize the damage.”
“What other blockages do you see?” Mr. Malfoy asked.
“I’m not sure. It looks like an ability is blocked. Again, some parents do that to prevent accidents. With the loss of his parents, it could be that no one remembered to remove them. This is why children must have regular checkups. I’m also a little concerned about nutrition.” The healer pinned Harry with an unhappy look. “Young man, you appear to have a long-term problem with eating healthy. I don’t see the elevated blood sugars I see with an all-candy diet, but you are definitely not eating full balanced meals.”
Harry blushed. He didn’t have the option most of the time. He never exactly went hungry at the Dursleys, but he had to eat whatever was left over. It wasn’t like at school where he could choose his dinner.
“Potter,” Professor Snape said sharply. “Are you a picky eater?”
Harry thought about the week when Aunt Petunia was determined to get Dudley to eat his greens, and Dudley refused. Because she didn’t want food to go to waste, Harry had a whole week of nothing but peas and brussel sprouts and green beans. When Harry had been particularly freakish, he had to go to his cupboard with a couple of slices of bread and a plastic cup of water. Lots of times Uncle Vernon said meat was too expensive, so Harry had to eat the potatoes and veg while the others got steak. Balanced meals weren’t really an option, and thinking about it gave Harry a headache.
Maybe headaches were contagious because Professor Snape was pinching the bridge of his nose.
“I try to eat what’s in front of me,” Harry said quietly, which was the truth. Mr. Malfoy looked at Harry and then Snape before ordering the healer to get the core specialist.
Once the healer left, Harry sat up and Draco moved closer. “Salazar, you always land in trouble, don’t you?”
“I try not to,” Harry said, which wasn’t the same as denying it. The core specialist came in and repeated the diagnostics before making Harry drink something that tasted like mildew. A few more wand waves, and pain flooded through Harry’s chest. He cried out, and Narcissa caught his hand in hers and mumbled soothing words that Harry couldn’t understand as his body tried to turn inside out. He gasped for air, as the healer explained to the adults that the blocks had done more damage than the initial scan revealed.
“Am I going to lose my magic?” Harry asked as the pain finally receded. Hogwarts was the first home he’d ever had, and the idea of losing Hogwarts, of losing his magic, terrified him like nothing else.
“Merlin!” Draco almost shouted. Harry jumped.
“Draco, control yourself,” Narcissa said.
“We can all see. Calm yourself,” she said without letting go of Harry’s hand. “Healer Jenkins, has there been any long-term damage?”
“Not at all,” the healer said after a few more waves of his wand. “In the short term, control might be difficult, but I would say you caught the problem in the nick of time.” Despite the healer’s words, all the Malfoys and Professor Snape stared at Harry with huge eyes.
“What? What’s wrong?” Harry asked.
“That does explain why you look so much like your father. I suppose it’s natural for you to pattern yourself after a parent,” Narcissa said.
Harry frowned. “What?”
Mr. Malfoy leaned closer. “Fascinating.”
Harry was starting to panic when Professor Snape picked up a piece of paper and transfigured it with a wave of his wand into an ornate silver mirror. He handed it to Harry. When Harry looked, he first focused on his beautiful half-moon gold glasses, but a half second later, he registered his pure white hair. “What happened? His hair rippled and turned violently orange.
The healer chuckled. “It appears the ability that was being suppressed was that of metamorph. As Mrs. Malfoy pointed out, young metamorphmagi often pattern themselves after their parents. From the scan I did, I suspect you are only a minor metamorphmagus, Mr. Potter, which means you can change features such as skin tone, hair color or texture, or minor facial structures, but you cannot change gender, make yourself taller or shorter, or perform major alternations such as giving yourself a duck bill like young Nymphadora Tonks can.”
“Nymphadora Tonks?” Harry asked.
“My niece,” Narcissa said, her voice devoid of emotion. “The trait comes from the Black lineage.” She cleared her throat. “I haven’t spoken with my sister for years, but perhaps it is time for me to reach out. Andi’s daughter is the only other metamorphmagus in the country, and she would be the best one to teach you how to get a handle on this.”
Harry ran his hands through his hair, which was starting to fade to a more subtle shade of orange and the curls were going flat. “I suppose if I was going to live with muggles, someone had to stop me from doing this,” he said softly, but even if he understood the logic behind locking this trait, he felt like something had been stolen from him. And if he understood the healers right, if he hadn’t come in, he might have lost the ability altogether as the block did more damage.
“It’s funny that I look like my father since I don’t remember him, but I must have settled on this face when I was very young.” Harry wondered what he really looked like.
“Surely you’ve seen pictures,” Draco said.
Harry shook his head. “I never have. I don’t know anything about my mother other than I share her eye color, and I guess I know what my father looks like because everyone says I look like him, but I’ve never seen him.” Harry’s hair deepened to something like a dark auburn with just a touch of orange.
Narcissa rested her hand on Harry’s shoulder. “All three of us went to school with your parents. Give me a moment.” She closed her eyes for a moment before pulling out her wand. She gave it a twirl. “Memora revelare.” A mist came from her wand and settled to the ground where it swirled and gathered and rose until two people stood in the room with them. A man with round, metal frames and a round face smiled at someone in the distance, and a beautiful woman with auburn hair and delicate features stood by his side, a mischievous look on her face.
Harry sucked in a breath. “Is this them?” Tears gathered in his eyes.
“It is,” Narcissa said softly. She sat next to him on the bed and put an arm around his shoulders. These were his parents. They looked happy. Harry rubbed the back of his hand across his nose and sniffed. He half expected Draco to make fun of him because Slytherins valued self-control, but instead Draco took the mirror away and held Harry’s hand. As much as Harry loved his new glasses, this was the real gift. He was seeing his parents for the first time. A tear left a cooling trail over his cheek.
“Your hair looks like hers now,” Draco said. Harry didn’t answer. He was afraid that if he said anything, he would start bawling like a baby. The magical core specialist left after another scan and the first healer returned with an entire tray of potions, but Harry was so exhausted that he drank what he was offered and went where he was told without engaging the world. Part of him knew he was being horribly rude when the Malfoys left and Harry couldn’t summon more than a couple of words for them. Before they parted ways, Narcissa gave him a hug, and Harry held on much longer than decorum allowed.
Professor Snape had to guide Harry back to the Leaky Cauldron with a hand on Harry’s shoulder. When they landed back in Professor Dumbledore’s office, Harry said softly, “She was beautiful.” Because people told him he looked like James Potter, Harry had a rough idea of what his father looked like, but his mother’s beauty had caught him off guard.
“Yes,” Professor Snape agreed, “she was.” Then he hurried down the stairs and away from Harry, leaving Harry to collect himself in the privacy of Headmaster Dumbledore’s office.
Today his hair looked almost like it used to—only a little longer. Harry rushed up to him as they walked to Defense Against the Dark Arts. “I found it!” Ron said excitedly. He thrust a Chocolate Frog card into Harry’s hand.
It was one of Dumbledore, his eyes twinkling as he looked over his half-moon glasses. The caption read “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.”
Ron was practically bouncing at Harry’s side. “Nicolas Flamel. He’s an alchemist. And do you know what he is famous for creating?” Ron had a manic gleam in his eye and most of Slytherin was watching with concern. A person just didn’t show emotion like this, particularly when he was surrounded by people who didn’t like him, and Ron had abandoned most of Gryffindor. Only Neville had stayed stubbornly by his side as the three of them were surrounded by Slytherins.
“What?” Harry asked.
Ron leaned close. “The Philosopher’s stone. It can turn any metal into gold and create the Elixir of Life that makes people live forever. That’s why Snape’s after it. Anyone would want it!”
“Professor Snape is not after the stone. Yeah he’s rude, but he helped me with my eye doctor and my vaccinations and he’s not horrible to students in class if they make sure they have studied the potions and all the safety stuff first.” Harry knew that last part was only partially true. Professor Snape tended to be mean, even to Gryffindors like Hermione, but he couldn’t say that the professor kept Harry’s secrets, and that’s why Harry trusted him.
“He’s a greasy git, and if you can’t see it, you’re not all that smart,” Ron snapped.
“Ron!” Neville said in a horrified voice. “That isn’t nice.”
“Clearly Harry doesn’t care if people are nice or not. He’s friends with Malfoy who cursed Seamus for absolutely no reason. Seamus had to hop up all the stairs to Gryffindor because of that Leg-Locker Curse.” Ron walked faster, pushing past the Slytherins in front of him.
“Merlin,” Neville said softly.
Draco scoffed. “Finnegan should know the counter to something as easy as that.”
Harry sighed. After he found out what Draco had done, Harry had taught Finnegan not only the counter for that curse but a couple of nasty hexes Harry had learned in the dueling room of Slytherin. Just because a third year Gryffindor had embarrassed Draco by cursing him didn’t mean Draco should have targeted Finnegan. However, Harry wasn’t going to publicly criticize a member of his house, especially not one who had done so much for him.
But he also wasn’t going to condemn all of Gryffindor because one third-year had been horrible. He hated that Gryffindors got so wild right before they were scheduled to play Quidditch. Sometimes Harry wondered if the sport shouldn’t be banned because it seemed like half the bullying at school started with Quidditch. Even in Slytherin, he and Draco would have more social credit if they were on the team.
It was just a game.
Neville frowned at Draco before moving closer to Harry. He didn’t approve of the Slytherin unity rule, but he understood why Slytherins had to present a united front, so he didn’t challenge either Draco or Harry. He was good like that.
When they got to class, they all groaned at the assignment on the board. They were supposed to copy down different ways of treating werewolf bites. Harry often sat next to Ron in this class, but today he sat beside Blaise despite the hopeful look on Draco’s face when Harry crossed into the Slytherin side. Refusing to sit with Draco after he’d done something rude was the only way Harry could guide his friend away from being a complete git. Surprisingly, Neville took up the third seat at their table.
“If I got bit by a werewolf, I’m not sure I would want to treat it,” Blaise said in a somber tone.
“Werewolves are only out of control one day a month. It’s not that bad,” Harry disagreed.
“But the prejudice against them lasts the whole month,” Neville said.
“Exactly.” Blaise said. “Werewolves can’t have custody of children, even their own unless their child also has lycanthropy. They are restricted in what jobs they can take or where they can live. They aren’t even allowed at Hogwarts.”
Harry stopped writing. “How many children have lycanthropy? I thought it was something adults got when they fought werewolves during the full moon.”
“Greyback likes to turn children,” Blaise said. “He thinks the parents will fight for more lenient laws if their children are infected.”
Harry’s hair turned bright orange.
“P-p-problem, Mr. P-p-potter?” Professor Quirrell asked. He came over, the stench of garlic strong enough to give Harry an immediate headache.
“No, sir,” Harry said. “We’re just talking about how the laws treat werewolves unfairly.”
“It’s not fair, but we can’t have werewolves just walking around Diagon Alley,” one of the Gryffindor girls said.
“Why not?” Harry asked. Both Gryffindors and Slytherins looked at him with horror. “They are only infectious one day a month. The other twenty-nine or thirty days they’re no different than the rest of us.”
“That’s not true,” Draco said. “Father says that werewolves have heightened senses even when they’re not transformed. They can tell what emotion you’re feeling from your scent.”
“Wizards can develop legilimency,” Blaise countered. “That’s even more invasive.”
“Legilimency? What’s that?” Harry asked. Most of Slytherin froze, so clearly it was something else the Ministry had banned.
Surprisingly Quirrell answered. “It’s a m-mind art, Mr. P-p-potter. It is a s-s-spell that allows a wizard to see into the m-mind of another.”
“Mind reading?” Harry asked, so horrified that his hair turned white. He looked around, but none of the Slytherins would meet his gaze, none except Blaise.
“You can learn to protect yourself from a legilimens,” Neville said.
“Yeah, but no one can protect themselves from a werewolf,” Dean Thomas said. “That’s why they’re dark creatures. Dark magic is magic that can’t be reversed, like the Cruciatus curse.” He looked at Neville who had gone stiff. Harry knew about Neville’s parents. Their nerves were so damaged by the torture that they had lost the ability to function above the level of a one or two year old. Harry felt horrible, especially since it was Harry’s cousin—Narcissa’s sister—who had attacked the Longbottoms, but he couldn’t let Thomas make a blanket statement like that.
“If I levitate you over a cliff and drop you, that can’t be reversed, but levitating charms aren’t dark.”
“But they have an actual use.”
“If a werewolf or a wizard is attacking me, I have a use for curses that some people call dark,” Harry countered.
“An interesting idea, P-p-potter,” Quirrell said. “But beyond the s-scope of this class.”
“Yes, sir.” Harry ducked his head. He knew he wasn’t supposed to talk about dark magic or the Dark Lord outside the Slytherin dorms, but sometimes he got so frustrated having two lives—one inside the dorms where people told him the messy truth and respected him for being a parselmouth and a metamorphmagus and one where he had to hide himself.
Of course, he couldn’t hide his changing hair, and more than one Gryffindor or Ravenclaw had commented on how that was a Black family trait, and the Blacks had been supporters of the Dark Lord. He was so grateful to Professor Snape for his advice to hide Harry’s parselmouth ability. And he was grateful he was in a house that knew how to keep his secret.
“Not the place, Harry,” Blaise whispered.
Harry sunk lower in his chair. “I know, I know.”
Surprisingly it was Neville who said, “But you’re not wrong.”
Blaise, Harry, and Neville got out of the classroom later than everyone else because Neville had knocked over his ink pot and all of them had stained parchments. By the time they left, the corridors were empty as the whole school was at lunch. They were still in the hallway when Professor Snape approached Professor Quirrell at the bottom of the stairs. Blaise pulled Neville to the side of the corridor where the shadows gathered, and Harry followed.
The professor looked furious, and no one wanted to get in Professor Snape’s face when he was angry. Maybe the other houses thought Professor Snape favored Slytherin, but Slytherins just learned to avoid their Head of House’s foul moods.
“If you want to t-t-talk, we can t-t-talk here, Severus,” Quirrell said.
“I would prefer to keep this private,” said Snape, his voice icy.
“There are no s-s-students around.”
Harry sunk farther back into the shadows, and Blaise’s eyes grew huge. If they could retreat without being seen, they would because this wasn’t a simple case of Professor Snape being in a bad mood. Harry didn’t want to know the professor’s secrets. Even Blaise looked mildly alarmed, and Neville looked on the verge of hyperventilating.
“We wouldn’t want students to know about the Philosopher’s stone, so privacy is paramount.”
Quirrell mumbled something, but Professor Snape was quick to interrupt him. “Have you found out how to get past that beast of Hagrid’s yet?”
“B-b-but Severus, I—”
“You don’t want me as your enemy, Quirrell,” said Professor Snape, taking a step toward him.
“I-I don’t know what you—”
“You know perfectly well what I mean. Do you think you can outsmart Albus Dumbledore with your little bit of hocus-pocus? I’m waiting.”
Harry had sunk so far back into the shadows that he couldn’t see the teachers—only hear them.
“B-but I d-d-don’t —”
“Very well,” Professor Snape cut in. “We’ll have another chat soon, when you’ve had time to think things over and decide where your loyalties lie.” Footsteps retreated, and from the speed of them, Harry assumed Professor Snape was angry. A few seconds later, Quirrell walked away. Harry waited, holding his breath.
Blaise was the first to abandon the shadows. He crept forward and looked toward the stairs. “All clear,” he whispered.
“Merlin,” Neville said. “Is Professor Quirrell trying to steal the stone?”
“It sounds like Professor Snape already knows about it, and that he’s told the headmaster,” Blaise said. “That seems like an excellent reason to stay out of their conflict.”
“I agree,” Harry said.
After a second, Neville nodded. Harry was very grateful that one of the few reasonable Gryffindors had been with them. Harry couldn’t imagine what Ron would have made of the conversation.
“Let’s get to lunch,” Harry said when they’d all been staring at each other far too long.
“Um,” Neville said, “maybe we should wait. Your hair is a little white.”
“Bugger.” Sometimes Harry hated being a metamorphmagus. He definitely needed to practice meditation and emotional control more. And from the look Blaise was giving him, Blaise agreed. But for now, Harry could only breathe slowly and focus on his hair.
“It looks like Ron was right, at least about the Philosopher’s stone being hidden on the third floor,” Neville said. After a pause, he added, “I don’t think I want to tell him that.”
“Wise man,” Blaise said as he settled on the steps. He knew how long it took Harry to get control of his hair after a shock.
Ron had forgiven Harry and had started giving him daily updates on whether Fluffy, the three-headed dog—was still inside growling. He, Seamus, and Hermione or his older brothers–the twins–and their friend Lee had made a habit of going to the door and pressing their ear against the keyhole to check. Ron kept trying to get Harry to join them, and he still insisted that Professor Snape was the one after the stone.
Harry was almost relieved when Hermione started to draw up study schedules and color-coded notes, nagging Ron to do the same. She started to nag Harry, but he was in Slytherin where academic failure was not an option. He already had separate study notes to revise each of his subjects.
Ron, though, thought they were both insane. “The exams are ages away,” he complained.
“Ten weeks,” Hermione snapped. “That’s not ages. That’s like a second to Nicolas Flamel.”
“But we’re not six hundred years old,” Ron reminded her. “Anyway, what are you studying for, you already know it all.”
“What am I studying for? Are you crazy? You realize we need to pass these exams to get into the second year? They’re very important. I should have started a month ago. I don’t know what’s gotten into me.”
Unfortunately, the teachers seemed to be thinking along the same lines as Hermione. They piled so much homework on them that the Easter holidays weren’t nearly as much fun as the Christmas ones. It was hard to relax when Hermione constantly chased him down in the hallways to recite the twelve uses of dragon’s blood or practice wand movements. Blaise and Draco and even Neville had started avoiding Harry in the halls because he was her favorite victim. Ron was quite rude about how much he wanted to avoid studying.
But Harry spent most of his free time before curfew in the library with her, trying to get through all their extra work, and his free time after curfew in the common room with a dozen Slytherin first years who were all panicking about disappointing their parents. Even Blaise. Despite his terror about the looming invitation to visit the Bulstrodes, Harry had taken to hiding behind Millicent since nothing bothered her.
Sometimes Hermione did manage to drag Ron into the library for an hour or two, and today was that day. They were studying quietly when Ron burst out, “I’ll never remember this!” He threw down his quill and looked longing out the library window. It was the first really fine day they’d had in months. The sky was a clear forget-me-not blue, and there was a feeling in the air of summer coming.
Harry, who was looking up “Dittany” in One Thousand Magical Herbs and Fungi, didn’t look up until he heard Ron say, “Hagrid! What are you doing in the library?”
Hagrid shuffled into view, hiding something behind his back. He looked very out of place in his moleskin overcoat.
“Jus’ looking,” he said in a shifty voice that got their interest at once. “And what’re you lot up to?” He looked suddenly suspicious. “You’re not still looking for Nicolas Flamel, are yeh?”
“Oh, we found out who he was ages ago,” said Ron impressively. As the only person at the table who hadn’t been part of that quest, Harry sank in his seat.. “And we know what that dog’s guarding, it’s a Philosopher’s St—”
“Shhhhhh!” Hagrid looked around quickly to see if anyone was listening, which made a Slytherin sixth year in the far corner shift in her seat. She was definitely listening now. “Don’t go shoutin’ about it,” Hagrid said. “What’s the matter with yeh?”
Ron turned red.
“We’re sorry,” Harry offered, but Ron gave him an incredulous look.
“We wanted to ask what’s guarding the Stone apart from Fluffy,” Ron started, but Hagrid cut him off.
“SHHHHH! Listen—come an’ see me later. I’m not promising I’ll tell you anything, mind, but don’t go rabbitin’ about it in here. Students aren’t supposed to know. They’ll think I’ve told yeh—”
“If anyone asks, we’ll tell them the truth,” Harry said. Of course the truth is that Hagrid had provided most of the clues that had led the others to figuring out the treasure.
“Good lad,” Hagrid said. Then he shuffled off.
“What was he hiding behind his back?” said Hermione thoughtfully. “Maybe something about another creature for the third floor.”
Harry groaned. If they were going to go on about the Stone, he was going to go back to the common room where Draco was having the world’s slowest mental breakdown as he contemplated the failure his life would be if he disappointed his father. He was having a hard time with the fact that Hermione was ahead of him in most classes, and Harry was having a hard time with the horrible things Draco said when his jealousy was at its worst. However, that would be better than another round of his Gryffindor friends scheming to protect the Stone from Professor Snape.
“I’m going to see what section he was in,” said Ron, who’d had enough of working. He came back a minute later with a pile of books in his arms and slammed them down on the table.
“Dragons!” he whispered. “Hagrid was looking up stuff about dragons! Look at these: Dragon Species of Great Britain and Ireland; From Egg to Inferno, a Dragon Keeper’s Guide.” Ron ran a hand over the book covers. “Do you think…”
“Where could he have found a dragon?” Hermione asked. Then she winced. “It’s Hagrid. If it’s a dangerous animal, he would find a way.”
“But it’s against our laws,” said Ron. “Dragon breeding was outlawed by the Warlocks’ convention of 1709. Everyone knows that. It’s hard to stop muggles from noticing us if we’re keeping dragons in the back garden—anyway, you can’t tame dragons. It’s dangerous. You should see the burns Charlie’s got off wild ones in Romania.”
“But there aren’t wild dragons in Britain?” asked Harry, slightly concerned. Draco was obsessed with dragons, but the books he kept lending Harry in the hopes that Harry would agree to visit a dragon preserve over summer with the Malfoys made Harry question the wisdom of being in the same country with one. He had the feeling that even if he could talk to a dragon, they wouldn’t listen to him.
“Of course there are,” said Ron. “Common Welsh Green and Hebridean Blacks. The Ministry of Magic has a job hushing them up, I can tell you. Our kind have to keep putting spells on muggles who’ve spotted them to make them forget.”
“So what on earth’s Hagrid up to?” said Hermione.
Harry was curious about that himself, which is why a few hours later he went with them to Hagrid’s house. The other two wanted to ask about the Philosopher’s stone, but Harry had a Slytherin urge to uncover what could be sensitive information—like the existence of a young dragon at Hogwarts. He considered getting Draco, but Draco hated Ron and he was intensely jealous of Hermione, so that wouldn’t be the best combination.
Besides, Draco tended to say horribly rude things to Hagrid, not that Hgrid noticed.
When the three of them knocked on the door of the gamekeeper’s hut an hour later, they were surprised to see that all the curtains were closed. Hagrid called, “Who is it?” before he let them in, and then shut the door quickly behind them.
It was stifling hot inside. Even though it was a warm day, there was a blazing fire in the grate. Hagrid made them tea and offered them weasel sandwiches, which they refused. Harry’s stomach roiled at the thought, but he kept a pleasant expression while he scratched Fang’s ear.
“So—yeh wanted to ask me something?”
Ron looked at Harry, who firmly ignored him. Sometimes Harry wondered why Ron was so determined to drag him into this quest for the Philosopher’s stone, but Harry didn’t care. Professors Dumbledore and Snape had Quirrell in hand, and Harry couldn’t do better than those two.
Ron cleared his throat. “Yeah, I mean, we were wondering what else is guarding the Philosopher’s Stone. Other than Fluffy, of course. We know about him.”
Hagrid frowned at him.
“I can’t say,” he said. “Number one, I don’t know myself. Number two, yeh know too much already, so I wouldn’t tell yeh if I could. That Stone’s here fer a good reason. It was almost stolen outta Gringotts—I suppose yeh’ e worked that out and all? Beats me how yeh even know about Fluffy.”
“Oh, come on, Hagrid, you might not want to tell us, but you do know. You know everything that goes on around here,” said Hermione in a warm, flattering voice. Sometimes Harry was surprised she wasn’t in Slytherin with him, but his house was pretty unkind to muggleborns.
Hagrid’s beard twitched and they could tell he was smiling. Hermione continued. “We only wondered who had done the guarding, really. We wondered who Dumbledore had trusted enough to help him, apart from you, of course.”
Hagrid’s chest swelled at these last words. “Well, I don’t suppose it could hurt to tell yeh that… let’s see… he borrowed Fluffy from me… then some o’ the teachers did enchantments… Professor Sprout—Professor Flitwick—Professor McGonagall—” he ticked them off on his fingers, “Professor Quirrell —and Dumbledore himself did something, of course. Hang on, I’ve forgotten someone. Oh yeah, Professor Snape.”
Ron gave Harry a triumphant look. “Snape is helping protect it? Oh, it’ll definitely be safe then,” he said sarcastically.
Hagrid frowned. “Yer not still on about that, are yeh? Look, Snape helped protect the stone. He’s not about to steal it.”
Harry could see Ron’s doubt etched on his face. Ron thought Professor Snape had helped protect the Stone only so he could find out how the other teachers had guarded it. Ron was probably planning to storm the dungeons and challenge the professor.
“You’re the only one who knows how to get past Fluffy, aren’t you, Hagrid?” Harry asked, hoping to reassure Ron before he did something that got him expelled. “You wouldn’t tell anyone, would you? Not even one of the teachers?”
“Not a soul knows except me and Dumbledore,” said Hagrid proudly.
Harry shot Ron a sharp look. The Stone was safe. Even if Professor Snape switched sides and tried to help Quirrell steal it, he couldn’t. “Hagrid, can we have a window open? I’m boiling.”
“Can’t, Harry, sorry,” said Hagrid. Harry noticed him glance at the fire. Harry looked at it, too.
“Hagrid—what’s that?” But Harry already knew what it was. In the very heart of the fire, underneath the kettle, was a huge, black egg.
“Ah,” said Hagrid, fiddling nervously with his beard, “That’s—er…”
“Where did you get it, Hagrid?” Ron crouched over the fire to get a closer look at the egg. “It must’ve cost you a fortune.”
“Won it,” said Hagrid. “Last night. I was down in the village having a few drinks and got into a game o’ cards with a stranger. Think he was quite glad to get rid of it, to be honest.”
“But what are you going to do with it when it’s hatched? said Hermione. Harry had the same question. He knew Gryffindors had a reputation for not considering consequences, but dragons were huge, and both Hagrid’s house and the forest were flammable.
“Well, I’ve been doing some readin’,” said Hagrid, pulling a large book from under his pillow. “Got this outta the library—Dragon Breeding for Pleasure and Profit—it’s a bit outta date, of course, but it’s all in here. Keep the egg in the fire because their mothers breathe on ‘em, see, and when it hatches, feed it on a bucket o’ brandy mixed with chicken blood every half hour. And see here—how to recognize different eggs—what I got there’s a Norwegian Ridgeback. They’re rare, them.” He looked very pleased with himself, but Hermione didn’t.
“Hagrid, you live in a wooden house,” she said.
But Hagrid wasn’t listening. He was humming merrily as he stoked the fire.
Harry was starting to worry that most of Hogwarts lacked any kind of common sense. It was one thing for first years to treat potions class carelessly or for a flying teacher to be remarkably bad with flying safety, but this was a whole new level of insanity. And all three of them worried about what might happen to Hagrid if anyone found out he was hiding an illegal dragon in his hut.
Harry and Nott had warmed to each other a little since they had exchanged books at Christmas—with Harry’s being late. However, Harry suspected that if Nott found out about the dragon, he would turn Hagrid in for trafficking in dragons, which would lead to Hagrid going to the wizarding prison. That was a terrible place where dementors wandered the corridors and sucked every bit of happiness out of a person. Hagrid was made of happiness, so that would be especially terrible for him.
Or maybe Nott would blackmail Hagrid and make him fetch rare or expensive potion ingredients out of the dark forest. That was a Slytherin sort of scheme. Harry loved his house, but they weren’t the nicest people. Harry considered going to Professor Snape. The man was his head of house, but the professor had made it clear he didn’t have much respect for Hagrid and his temper had grown so short that even the Slytherin prefects were avoiding him.
And then there was the fact that Harry wasn’t the professor’s favorite person.
Talking to Hagrid was right out. He didn’t want to hear anything against his plan. Harry had worked up the nerve to stay after Transfiguration one day hoping that Gryffindor loyalty would mean that Professor McGonagall would be more likely to help Hagrid. However, she had shooed Harry away with a distracted wave of her hand without even listening to what he needed.
The best Harry could do was to keep this from any of his Slytherin dorm mates, even Blaise and Millicent who were less likely to take advantage of the information than anyone else. They were more hoarders of intel. Then at breakfast, Ron had hurried over and thrust a note in Harry’s hand. Harry recognized the scribbly handwriting even though it only had two words: It’s hatching.
Draco tried to lean closer to see it, but Ron snatched the paper back. “Back off, Death Eater.”
“Ron!” Harry snapped, but the damage was done, Draco puffed up like an angry clabbert.
“That’s rich coming from a blood traitor who can’t afford robes that cover his ankles.” Draco looked down to where Ron’s robes ended sooner than his legs. “And what do you call that color? Washed-too-often gray?” Most of the Slytherins tittered at this insult, probably because it was so true.
“At least my aunt is not in Azkaban for being a crazy, sadistic murderer,” Ron snapped.
“Hey!” Harry stood. “Bellatrix is my cousin, and Sirius Black is my godfather. We don’t get to pick the family we’re born with, so if you think that’s a reason to insult someone, maybe you don’t want to be around me.”
Ron’s eyes sparked with fury, and Harry thought that maybe this was where he lost his friend. “He started it,” Ron said, pointing at Draco, which was a horrible insult. In a culture where wands were weapons and some wizards could do wandless magic, pointing anything at another person was an insult that could lead to duels—real ones where people sometimes died. Draco shot to his feet and stood next to Harry.
“You started it by calling him a Death Eater, which is horrible after what his father went through.”
“Yeah!” Draco said. His anger was making Ron more angry, but luckily Gregory and Vince decided to stay seated, either because they could see Draco was being as much of a prat as Ron or because they didn’t want to interrupt breakfast. Either was possible.
Ron threw his hands up, Hagrid’s note now crumpled in his fist. “How can you still believe that? Malfoy’s father is a Death Eater for real. He hates muggles and muggle burns. He would make all of us take Dark magic classes if he could.”
Harry wasn’t stupid, and he suspected the last bit was true and that Mr. Malfoy had at least some sympathies for a few of the Dark Lord’s goals. However, he wasn’t a racist. “Would someone who hated muggleborns and half bloods have taken me for new glasses because he was afraid my old ones were interfering with my grades? Would a Death Eater care about my vaccinations? If Narcissa wanted a world with only purebloods, would she have made up with her sister—who married a muggleborn—just so I would get help with my metamorphmagus powers?” Harry felt the tingle in his scalp that meant his hair was turning color.
“They’re manipulating you!” Ron cried. “That’s what Slytherins do!”
“I’m Slytherin!” Harry shouted. Most of the table was watching them now. Ever since the older years had noticed that Harry would fight for their house’s honor, far fewer of them glared at him in the common room, but there were still a number of shocked faces. Maybe they just hadn’t expected Harry to lose his temper. But Harry was so angry his magic was whipping against his ribs and raging to be released.
“Not really, not like them,” Ron argued for the thousandth time. Hermione got up and started walking over as fast as she could.
“He is like us, and you’re trying to drag him into some stupid Gryffindor plan. He’s not a brash and idiotic Gryffindor.”
“Hey!” Hermione protested loudly. “Take that back.”
“I will not,” Draco spat. “Gryffindors are stupid. Look at your ghost. He was dumb enough to use a spell he didn’t understand, and it got him killed.”
“Well, your ghost betrayed someone he claimed to love,” said Hermione.
“Detention!” Professor McGonagall shouted as she strode down the space between the tables. “And twenty points each from each of you for making such a spectacle of yourselves. Really, I expected more of you.” Her glare seemed to focus on Hermione and Harry longer than Ron and Draco. As the gems removed themselves from the Gryffindor and Slytherin counters, the Gryffindor table descended into shouts that made Ron and Hermione wince.
Harry knew he and Draco would face their house’s annoyance later, but they would understand that a point loss would be better than allowing Ron to defame not only Slytherin but the Malfoy name. People respected the Malfoys. McGonagall practically dragged Ron and Hermione away from the Slytherin table, and Harry realized that Hagrid’s note meant that he had to take action.
He’d been hoping to avoid the teachers because he didn’t want to see Hagrid get in trouble. Professor Snape would definitely make Hagrid pay for putting students at risk like that, and Professor McGonagall had refused to listen.
It was time for him to send an anonymous note to the headmaster. Harry knew Professor Dumbledore was horribly prejudiced against Slytherins, but he trusted Hagrid so much that he had sent Hagrid to show Harry around Diagon Alley. That had to mean something.
Mind made up, Harry sat and picked at his breakfast. What a mess. When he glanced at the front table, Professors Snape and Quirrell were both watching him with sharp gazes. One looked furious and the other like he was on the verge of passing out.
That left all four of them waiting. But Ron didn’t seem to mind. He pulled away from the rest of them, spending his time with Thomas and Finnegan and vanishing into the Gryffindor common room as soon as the last class was over. Harry regretted losing his friend, but he wouldn’t have done anything different.
Neville seemed to pick up the slack, spending more time with Harry than ever as they all studied for finals, and Hermione clung to Harry and his small group of Slytherin friends with such determination that Harry suspected that Ron was making life difficult for her in the tower. Maybe Ron was targeting Neville, too. On the good side, Harry had been right that Hagrid and the headmaster had an alliance. Ministry officials had shown up to capture the “wild” dragon that had shown up at Hagrid’s hut. Watching multiple ministry officials struggle with, and at one point get set on fire by, a baby dragon, Harry decided he never wanted to be around the adult versions.
In the corridors, Ron went out of his way to point at Harry and loudly proclaim that he was a slimy snake. Once, he had even called Harry a Death Eater in training, but Professor Flitwick had caught him and assigned him so many lines that Ron had gone pale. Then he’d taken thirty points away from Gryffindor. That had stopped the worst of Ron’s insults. At the beginning of the year, teachers had awarded points one or two at a time and punishments were rarely more than five points. But as the end of the year approached, all the professors turned vicious.
They were days away from finals when notes were delivered to Harry, Draco, Hermione and Ron at the breakfast table.
Your detention will take place at eleven o’clock tonight and last until the task is complete or dawn, whichever comes first. Meet Mr. Filch in the entrance hall.
“Wonderful. Does the woman not care that we have finals and children should not be awake all night?” Draco muttered. Harry looked over, expecting Hermione to be furious that this was a whole night of studying lost, but she was staring at her breakfast plate. Neville was patting her on the back.
At eleven o’clock that night, Harry and Draco said good-bye to Gregory and Vincent, both of whom had apologized for not getting detention with them, and went down to the entrance hall. Filch was already there—and so was Ron. Harry didn’t make eye contact with his former friend, and Hermione kept looking sadly from one to the other.
“Follow me,” said Filch, lighting a lamp and leading them outside. “I bet you’ll think twice about disrupting school again, won’t you, eh?” he said, leering at them. “Oh yes… hard work and pain are the best teachers if you ask me… It’s just a pity they let the old punishments die out… hang you by your wrists from the ceiling for a few days, I’ve got the chains still in my office, keep ‘em well oiled in case they’re ever needed.”
Harry and Draco exchanged horrified looks. Years and years and centuries again, wixen had dangled adult criminals like that because the nerve damage made using a wand more difficult for the rest of their lives. Magic wouldn’t flow out of the core properly. Harry couldn’t believe Filch would even threaten them with that sort of punishment.
“Right, off we go,” said Filch, “and don’t think about running off, now. It’ll be worse for you if you do.”
They marched off across the dark grounds. Harry wondered what their punishment was going to be. It must be something really horrible, or Filch wouldn’t be sounding so delighted.
The moon was bright, but clouds scudding across it kept throwing them into darkness. Ahead, Harry could see the lighted windows of Hagrid’s hut. Then they heard a distant shout.
“Is that you, Filch? Hurry up, I want to get started.”
Harry froze. They were going to be working with Hagrid. Everyone had seen the big groundskeeper crying when Ministry people had come to collect the baby dragon Hagrid had “found” in the Forbidden Forest, and Harry was afraid that he would find out that Harry had been the one to send the headmaster the note. Harry knew Hagrid would never forgive him.
But even as Hagrid had cried about them being nice to “Norbert,” the small dragon had set one dragon wrangler on fire and singed the edge of the forest closest to Hagrid’s hut.
Ron, however, looked relieved.
“I suppose you lot think you’ll be enjoying yourself with that oaf? Well, think again. It’s into the forest you’re going and I’m much mistaken if you’ll all come out in one piece.”
Draco stopped dead in his tracks, and Hermione squeaked. “The forest?” Draco repeated, and he didn’t sound as cool or as arrogant as usual. “We can’t go in there at night—there’s all sorts of things in there—werewolves, I heard.”
Hermione grabbed Harry’s arm, and even Ron lost some of the color out of his face.
“That’s your problem, isn’t it? said Filch, his voice cracking with glee. “Should’ve thought of them werewolves before you got in trouble, shouldn’t you?”
Hagrid came striding toward them out of the dark, Fang at his heel. He was carrrying his large crossbow, and a quiver of arrows hung over his shoulder. “About time,”he said. “I been waitin’ fer half an hour already. All right, Harry, Ron, Hermione?” Draco huffed at being left out.
“I shouldn’t be too friendly to them, Hagrid,” said Filch coldly, “they’re here to be punished, after all.”
“That’s why yer late, is it?” Hagrid said, frowning at Filch. “Been lecturin’ them, eh? It’s not your place to do that. Yeh’s done yer bit. I’ll take over from here.”
“I’ll be back at dawn,” said Filch, “for what’s left of them,” he added nastily, and he turned and started back toward the castle, his lamp bobbing away in the darkness.
Draco turned to Hagrid. “I’m not going in that forest,” he said with a note of panic in his voice. Harry told himself that Hagrid wouldn’t do anything to put students at risk, but after seeing how Hagrid had insisted that “Norbert” had been perfectly safe even as the dragon set fire to a Ministry worker, he didn’t trust Hagrid’s definition of risk.
“Yeh are if yeh want to stay at Hogwarts,” said Hagrid fiercely. “You’ve done wrong and now yeh’ve got to pay fer it.”
“But this is servant stuff, it’s not for students to do. I thought we’d be copying lines or something. If my father knew I was doing this he’d—”
“—tell yer that’s how it is at Hogwarts,” Hagrid growled. “Copyin’ lines! What good’s that to anyone? Yeh’ll do somethin’ useful or yeh’ll get out. If yeh think yer father’s rather you were expelled, then get back off to the castle and pack. Go on!”
Harry wished Draco hadn’t started with his ridiculous complaints because now Hagrid was annoyed and Harry wouldn’t be able to get him to listen to their legitimate concerns about safety. Honestly, Harry understood why Ron didn’t like Draco, even if he was an utter prat for calling him a Death Eater. Harry suspected that the Malfoys weren’t the best parents because Draco was as annoying as Dudley.
“Right then,” said Hagrid, “Now listen carefully, ‘cause it’s dangerous what we’re gonna do tonight, and I don’t want no one taking risks. Follow me over here a moment.”
He led them to the very edge of the forest. Holding his lamp up high, he pointed down a narrow, winding earth track that disappeared into the thick black trees. A light breeze lifted their hair as they looked into the forest.
“Look there,” said Hagrid, “see that stuff shinin’ on the ground? Silvery stuff? That’s unicorn blood. There’s a unicorn in there been hurt badly by somethin’. This is the second time in a week. I found one dead last Wednesday. We’re gonna try ta find the poor thing. We might have to put it out of its misery.”
“And what if whatever hurt the unicorn finds us first?” Draco asked, which seemed like a perfectly reasonable question to Harry. Even Hermione who was very proud of her Gryffindor house seemed rather concerned. Only Ron was unbothered as he sneered at Draco.
“There’s nothing that lives in the forest that’ll hurt yeh if yer with me or Fang,” said Hagrid. “And keep to the path. Right now, we’re gonna split up into two parties an’ follow the trail in different directions. There’s blood all over the place, and it must’ve been staggerin’ around since last night at least.”
“Um, Hagrid,” Harry said, “could a werewolf be killing the unicorns?”
“Not fast enough,” said Hagrid. “It’s not easy to catch a unicorn. They’re powerful magic creatures. I never knew one to be hurt before.”
Hermione spoke up. “Doesn’t that mean that we’re going in there with a predator that’s faster than any creature you know?” Draco’s eyes got even larger.
Ron scoffed. “We’re Gryffindors, “Mione,” he said with a nasty glare toward Harry and Draco in their green ties.
Hagrid ignored them. “Harry and Draco will go with—”
“I want Fang,” said Draco quickly, looking at Fang’s long teeth.
“All right, but I warn yeh, he’s a coward,” said Hagrid. “So, me, Ron, an’ Hermione’ll go one way and Draco, Harry, and Fang’ll go the other. Now, if any of us finds the unicorn, we’ll send up green sparks, right? Get yer wands out an’ practice now—that’s it—an’ if anyone gets in trouble, send up red sparks, an’ we’ll all come and find yeh.”
“But you said the creature was faster than a werewolf,” Harry said. “What if it’s faster than we are with our wands?”
“I was wrong,” Ron said, “you are just like the other Slytherins.”
Harry ignored the insult. Being afraid of something fast enough to catch a unicorn and vicious enough to kill one seemed reasonable. If anything, Ron’s lack of fear proved Draco right about reckless Gryffindors.
“I didn’t expect yeh to be like this,” Hagrid said to Harry in a disappointed voice.
“Like what?” Harry asked.
Hagrid’s gaze slid over to Draco before he cleared his throat. “Yeh’ll be safe,” he promised. “Jus’ keep your wands out as yeh walk.” Harry looked at the earth path that provided a narrow opening into the dark and silent forest. It didn’t feel safe. Ron started toward the path, but the rest of them hung back.
“Let’s go.” Hagrid led them into the forest a little way until they reached a fork in the path. “Harry, Malfoy, Fang, you take the right. The rest of us’ll take the left.” Hagrid had no more than said those words when Hagrid shouted, “GET BEHIND THAT TREE!” He seized Harry and Hermione, who were closest to him, and hoisted them off the path and behind a towering oak. Draco screamed, and threw himself behind a bush and Ron stood in the middle of the path until Hagrid caught him by the back of the shirt and yanked him into the shadow of the tree.
Then he pulled out an arrow and fitted it into his crossbow, raising it, ready to fire. They listened. Something was slithering over dead leaves nearby: it sounded like a cloak trailing along the ground. Hagrid was squinting up the dark path, but after a few seconds, the sound faded away.
“I knew it,” he murmured. “There’s somethin’ in here that shouldn’t be.”
“I don’t think this is a good idea,” Harry said.
Draco sat up, his cloak covered in bits of dried leaves and his hair a mess. “I know this is a horrible idea!” he shrieked. Fang went over and tried to lick Draco’s cheek, and Draco shoved him away.
“Coward,” said Ron.
“Moron,” said Draco.
“That’s enough or yeh’ll both have more detentions,” Hagrid said, which made them close their mouths, even if they continued to glare. Suddenly something moved up ahead.
“Who’s there? Hagrid called. “Show yerself! I’m armed!”
Onto the path came—was it a man or a horse? That was Harry’s first thought, even though he knew all about centaurs from his card game. But playing a game with a tiny centaur made of light was far different than seeing one standing in the moonlight, bare chested with a bow and quiver slung over one shoulder. He had a chestnut body and a long, reddish tail, and Hermione sucked in a startled breath.
“Oh, it’s you, Ronan,” said Hagrid in relief. “How are yeh?” He walked forward and shook the centaur’s hand.
“Good evening to you, Hagrid,” said Ronan. He had a deep, sorrowful voice. “Were you going to shoot me?”
“Can’t be too careful, Ronan,” said Hagrid, patting his crossbow. “There’s somethin’ bad loose in this forest. This is Harry Potter and Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger.” After a second, he added, “And Draco Malfoy. Students up at the school. Everyone, this is Ronan. He’s a centaur.”
“We’d noticed,” said Hermione faintly.
“Good evening,” said Ronan. “Students, are you? And do you learn much, up at the school?
“Erm—” Harry said, not sure what a centaur would consider learning, much less learning much.
“A bit,” said Hermione timidly. Draco had frozen in the middle of trying to sort himself out, and now he stood with his wand pointed at himself, a cleaning charm only half-said.
“A bit. Well that’s something,” Ronan sighed. He flung back his head and stared at the sky. ‘Mars is bright tonight.”
“Yeah,” said Hagrid, glancing up, too. “Listen, I’m glad we’ve run inter yeh, Ronan, ‘cause there’s a unicorn been hurt—you seen anything?”
Ronan didn’t answer immediately. He stared unblinkingly upward, then sighed again.
“Always the innocent are the first victims,” he said. “So it has been for ages past, so it is now.”
“Yeah,” said Hagrid, “but have yeh seen anything, Ronan? Anything unusual?”
“Mars is bright tonight,” Ronan repeated, while Hagrid watched him impatiently. “Unusually bright.”
“Yeah, but I was meaning anything unusual a bit nearer home,” said Hagrid. “So yeh haven't noticed anythin’ strange?
Yet again, Ronan took a while to answer. At last, he said, “The forest hides many secrets.”
A movement in the trees behind Ronan made Hagrid raise his bow again, but it was only a second centaur, black-haired and -bodied and wilder-looking than Ronan.”
“Hullo, Bane,” said Hagrid. “All right?”
“Good evening, Hagrid, I hope you are well?”
“Well enough. Look, I’ve jus’ been asking Ronan, you seen anythin’ odd in here lately? There’s a unicorn been injured—would yeh know anythin’ about it?”
Ban walked over to stand next to Ronan. He looked skyward. “Mars is bright tonight,” he said simply.
“We’ve heard,” said Hagrid grumpily. “We’ll, if either of you do see anything, let me know, won’t yeh?”
Before Hagrid could say anything else, a third centaur with astonishingly blue eyes like pale sapphires stepped onto the path. His gaze found Harry and lingered there.
“Hullo, Firenze,” Hagrid said. “Do you have somethin’ to say about Mars tonight?”
“It is unusually bright,” Firenze said without looking away from Harry. “You are the Potter boy.”
“Yes, sir,” said Harry.
“The forest whispers your name. The stars watch. It would be best if you left this place.”
“Firenze,” said Bane, “we are sworn not to set ourselves against the heavens. Have we not read what is to come in the movements of the planets?”
Ronan pawed the ground nervously. “I’m sure Firenze speaks out of a desire for the best,” he said in his gloomy voice.
Bane kicked his back legs in anger. Hagrid caught Harry and pulled him backward toward the edge of the forest. The others quickly followed—even Ron who, up until this moment, had tried to act as if this was all some grand adventure. “For the best! What is that to do with us? Centaurs are concerned with what has been foretold! It is not our business to speak to human foals or offer advice.”
Firenze reared onto his hind legs in anger. “Have you not seen what comes for the unicorns?” Firenze bellowed at Bane. “Do you not understand why they were killed? Or have the planets not let you in on that secret? I set myself against what is lurking in this forest, Bane, yes, with humans alongside me if I must.”
And Firenze whisked around and plunged into the trees, leaving the other two centaurs stamping their feet. They each leapt into the darkness, disappearing into the forest.
“I vote we return to the castle,” Harry said.
Hagrid shook his head. “Yeh broke the rules, and there are consequences. Dumbledore himself approved the detention, and yeh’ll serve it. But keep your wands at the ready and throw up red sparks if yeh run into trouble.” With that, Hagrid gathered up Hermione and Ron and headed down the left hand path, leaving Harry and Draco with Fang.
“I don’t like this,” Draco said.
“Me, either.” Harry was fairly sure that having a centaur tell him to get out of the forest meant he should leave. “We could go back to the castle.”
Draco chewed on his lower lip. “What if the oaf is right and we get kicked out?”
“The centaurs were talking about Mars and about something dangerous being in the forest. Is being expelled worse than being dead?”
“I’m going to Professor Snape,” Harry said. The professor always defended his snakes, even if his temper had been dangerously short lately. It made Harry suspect that Professor Snape knew about the danger in the forest and about the dead unicorns.
“Yeah, alright,” Draco agreed. They hurried back to the castle, Fang following them as far as the castle stairs before he wandered away. They had to dodge around Filch, and Harry regretted his promise to Professor Snape that he would leave the invisibility cloak in the bottom of his trunk, but they finally reached the dungeons.
When Professor Snape answered his office door, he looked murderously angry, and as the story of the forest and the centaurs and something lurking while Mars was bright all tumbled out of their mouths, the professor grew even more angry until his expression was like a thundercloud.
“Go to bed,” he snapped before he charged down the corridor. Harry and Draco exchanged concerned looks before they scrambled to obey.
Blaise stirred when Harry opened his wardrobe to get his pajamas out. “Back already?”
“We’re supposed to be out with Hagrid looking for something that’s killing unicorns, but the centaurs told us we shouldn’t be there, and then Hagrid told Draco and I to explore the forest on our own with Fang, so we came back and told Professor Snape.”
Blaise sat up. “You’re kidding.”
“Nope.” Harry sat on the edge of his bed. “Why would someone kill unicorns?” Harry thought of the silvery blood splattered on the ground. “Why would they want unicorn blood?”
“Unicorn blood? Nothing uses unicorn blood, or at least nothing good uses it,” Blaise said.
From his bed, Nott said without sitting up, “It can extend life. You’ll suffer a cursed life and be damned to never enjoy another happy thought, but you’ll survive.”
Harry thought about Quirrell who looked more gaunt and pale with each day. He thought he knew who was out there. “I think I would rather die,” Harry said. Neither of the other boys answered him, and Harry crawled between the sheets and went to sleep.
At breakfast, the headmaster would stare at Harry with such intensity that Draco would put an elbow in Harry’s side and remind him to eat.
Draco joined Harry’s friend group after that night. He didn’t talk about his father as much and when Neville or Hermione joined the group to study in the library, he went out of his way to control his temper. And with Draco had come Gregory and Vincent. Blaise had become Harry’s best friend now that something had permanently fractured between him and Ron, and Harry was so grateful that Hermione had chosen Harry and his increasingly Slytherin friend group.
Even Nott came with them to the library from time to time. All of them wondered what Fluffy was guarding and why someone needed unicorn blood, but all of them focused on their classes.
When the exams came, it was sweltering hot, especially in the large classroom where they did their written papers. They had been given special, new quills for the exams, which had been bewitched with an Anti-Cheating spell.
They had practical exams as well. Professor Flitwick called them one by one into his class to see if they could make a pineapple tap-dance across a desk. Professor McGonagall watched them turn a mouse into a snuffbox—points were given for how pretty the snuffbox was, but taken away if it had whiskers. Professor Snape made them all nervous, breathing down their necks while they tried to remember how to make a Forgetfulness potion.
Harry did the best he could, trying to ignore a headache that had been slowly growing worse since that night. Neville thought Harry had a bad case of exam nerves because Harry complained about not sleeping, but Blaise had told everyone that Harry kept being woken by nightmares that he couldn’t remember once either Blaise or Nott had shaken him awake.
For Slytherins, their last class was Herbology, which took place at the same time the Gryffindors were suffering through questions about batty old wizards who’d invented self-stirring cauldrons in History of Magic. Harry was almost sure that was the only test he’d failed, but Draco promised that everyone failed History of Magic, but it didn’t matter as long as a person did well on their OWLs by reading about history outside class.
Herbology was a relief after all the written tests. Harry buried his fingers in the dirt and lost himself to the pleasure of doing something so simple as transplanting a geranium, even if it had fangs.
The whole group—Harry, Blaise, Draco, Neville, Hermione, Gregory and Vincent—met on the lawn after their last test.
“That was far easier than I thought it would be,” said Hermione as they sat in the shade of a tree near the lake. “I needn’t have learned about the 1637 Werewolf Code of Conduct or the uprising of Elfric the Eager.”
Hermione liked to go through their exam papers afterward.
“That’s the sort of stuff that will be on OWLs, so it’s best to learn it now, even if Binns never gives a proper test,” Draco said.
“I don’t know why we don’t have a proper history teacher,” Harry said. It scared him that he would have to take a major test after five years of useless teaching.
“Dumbledore,” Gregory said. Any time something went wrong, that was Gregory’s answer, but this time, he had a point. The headmaster should hire someone better. The Weasley twins waved at the group, so they didn’t share their little brother’s attitude, but then they went back to tickling the tentacles of the giant squid, which was basking in the warm shallows. A tentacle rose out of the water before drenching both twins with a huge splash.
“In a week, we’ll know how we did.” Of all of them, Blaise seemed the least concerned. He looked at Harry who was rubbing his forehead. “Go to Madam Pomfrey,” he said.
Hermione closed her book. “Do you still have that headache?”
“I’m not ill,” said Harry. He wanted to say that he felt like the pain was a warning, but that sounded foolish. Draco might have been better since having the life scared out of him in the forbidden forest, but if Harry went around talking about his forehead being a portent, he would get teased mercilessly.
Still, Harry couldn’t shake off a lurking feeling that there was something he needed to do, something important. When he tried to explain that part, Hermione said, “That’s just the exams. I woke up last night and was halfway through my Transfiguration notes before I remembered we’d done that one.”
Harry was quite sure the unsettled feeling didn’t have anything to do with schoolwork, though. He watched an owl flutter toward the school across the bright blue sky, a note clamped in its mouth. On the far side of the lawn, a number of seven years practiced their apparition with an instructor from the Ministry. Draco and Blaise talked wistfully of all the places they’d travel once they could apparate on their own.
“That cloud looks like a dragon,” Vincent said as he pointed up to the sky.
“Maybe it’s Norbert,” Hermione said in a voice that was almost sarcastic.
“I wonder who let a dragon loose in the forbidden forest. Maybe they turned something else loose, and that’s what’s killing unicorns,” Draco mused.
Harry and Hermione looked at each other, but neither said anything. Just then, Ron came rushing out of the castle, and it looked like he was headed toward them, but he went to his brothers who were still wading in the shallows, joined by another third year Gryffindor—their friend with the giant tarantula.
He kept his voice low, but they could still hear certain words. Snape. Dumbledore. Fluffy. Stone. Really, if Ron wanted to keep a secret, he needed to learn to either cast privacy charms or speak softer. However, after a rushed conversation, both Weasley twins and their friend followed Ron back up to the castle at a run.
“They’re going to get themselves in all kinds of trouble,” Blaise said. Draco snickered, not even hiding his hatred for all things Weasley. Most of them just continued to enjoy the warm day and cool shade.
“Do you want to play with the squid?” Vincent asked. At first, none of them seemed to have enough energy, but then Gregory got up and dragged Draco to his feet and soon all of them were wading in the lake, their shoes abandoned on shore as they tickled the tentacles and screamed with laughter when the squid retaliated by splashing all of them.
At dinner, the Weasleys were all acting strangely, huddled together and casting suspicious looks at the rest of the room, but Harry was done with Ron, so he ignored it and focused on Blaise’s description of Italian beaches and all the reasons Harry should visit him over summer. At least until Millicent reminded Harry that her father wanted to meet him. Most of the table stared at Harry with wide eyes until he’d shouted at them.
Then Millicent had punched Parkinson in the arm for assuming that she wanted anyone courting her when she was still eleven.
The next day they got back their grades on the practical finals, and Harry proudly showed Blaise a report full of “Outstadings” and “Exceeds Expectations” for his wand work. Harry had never been so proud of his grades. Where Dudley would have called him a swot, Blaise congratulated him. Then they’d walked together to the end-of-year feast.
The Great Hall was decked out in the Slytherin colors of green and silver to celebrate Slytherin’s winning the House Cup for the seventh year in a row. Harry looked about with pride. He had lost points for his house, but he had also worked hard to earn them. He had even helped tutor Gregory and Vincent because the house lost points for any student who scored a Dreadful or Troll on their finals.
A huge banner showing the Slytherin serpent covered the wall behind the High Table. Everyone was talking, but more than one student was casting an unhappy look toward the Slytherin table. After seven years of Slytherin wins, the rest of the school was suffering from jealousy. Harry slipped into his seat between Draco and Blaise and Hermione hurried over to him.
“Did you hear about Ron?” she asked.
“He’s in the hospital wing—him and his two older brothers. They were in the 3rd floor corridor last night when someone stole—” she looked around before leaning close, “you know what.”
“Philosopher’s Stone,” Blaise said. When Hermione stared at him in shock, Draco rolled his eyes.
“Of course we know, but the rest of us had the good sense to avoid a prize guarded by Dumbledore’s protections. The Weasleys would have been wise to do the same. But what do you expect from a Gryffindor?”
Hermione glared at him. “I’m a Gryffindor.”
Draco gave her an unimpressed look.
“What happened to them?” Harry asked, eager to change the subject.
“No one knows. The headmaster was out yesterday, but according to Percy, he came back in the middle of the night and escorted Percy to the hospital wing to visit the others. But no one is talking.” She looked toward the Head Table. “I heard Professor Quirrell is missing. Maybe he took the Stone and fled.”
“It’s more likely the curse got him,” Gregory said.
Surprisingly, Nott joined the conversation. “Or he left before the feast to avoid the curse. Teachers who turn in their resignation before the end of the year can avoid the curse.”
“The Dark Lord’s curse,” Nott said.
“The Dark Lord cursed a school? Why?” Harry would expect someone like Voldemort to aim higher—maybe curse the Ministry or Gringotts or something, not Hogwarts.
Nott studied Harry and Hermione for a second before explaining. “The Dark Lord wanted to return forbidden subjects to Hogwarts. He applied for a job teaching Defense Against the Dark Arts, but the story goes that Dumbledore chased him out at wand point, calling the Dark Lord evil.”
“But he is evil,” said Hermione.
“Back then he was a twenty-something year old man trying to make political and educational changes in the country,” Nott explained. “I wouldn’t expect you to understand.”
Proving how much he had changed, Draco spoke up, heading off a conflict. “The story goes that the Dark Lord cursed the position and offered to break the curse whenever Dumbledore either hired him or reversed his decision to censor the library.”
“Censor the library?” Hermione demanded, and Draco got a suspiciously innocent look on his face. He knew how to get Hermione worked up. Just then Dumbledore arrived and Hermione hurried back to the Gryffindor table. Snape followed the headmaster, looking like he would happily murder the first person who spoke to him. The other professors were already seated, but as Hermione had said, there was no sign of Quirrell.
“Another year gone,” Dumbledore said, but his cheer sounded forced. “And what a year it has been. Hopefully, your heads are all a little fuller than they were… you have the whole summer ahead to get them nice and empty before next year starts. Congratulations to Slytherin for winning the House Cup with four hundred and seventy-two points.” The other three houses offered a spattering of quick applause, but a storm of cheering and stamping broke out at the Slytherin table. Once again proving that he was far less subtle than any Slytherin had a right to be, Draco took his goblet and banged it on the table.
“Yes, yes,” Dumbledore said. “Better luck next time to our runner up, Ravenclaw with four hundred and twenty-six points.”
Harry leaned closer to Blaise. “Is he saying he doesn’t want us to win again?”
“With that, it is time to fill your bellies.” Dumbledore fell into his chair and stared morosely at his plate. Harry didn’t worry too much about it because that night in the Slytherin common room, everyone celebrated. Gemma taught Harry a new hex and Nott brought out the book of twentieth century technological advances Harry had given him for Christmas, entertaining the other Slytherins with stories of nuclear bombs and the internet. Everyone was smiling. Not one Slytherin hid in the shadows and watched Harry with poorly hidden resentment.
Harry had almost forgotten that the exam results for their written exams were still to come, but come they did. Draco took top marks in Potions, of course, but Harry surprised himself with top scores in Astronomy and Defense Against Dark Arts. Hermione, of course, ended with the best grades of the first years, overall. But even Gregory had passed without a single Dreadful or Troll, and his Poor in History of Magic and the written exam for Transfiguration was offset by all his other scores.
It turned out to be a wonderful end to Harry’s first year. Suddenly their trunks were packed. Nott muttered as he tried to fit too many books into his trunk and Gregory spent an entire morning searching for his ties, which he tended to pull off and drop the moment he reached the common room. The prefects handed out notes to all the students, warning them not to use magic over the holidays, but Blaise laughed because Italy had different rules and Nott explained that no one who lived in a wizarding house had to pay attention to the Ministry because the Wizarding Familial Code of 1294 gave wizarding parents the right to teach in their own home however they saw fit as long as their children’s magic didn’t pose a risk to the wider magical community.
Unfortunately, Harry lived in a muggle area, so that exception didn’t apply to him.
Hagrid took them down to the fleet of boats that sailed across the lake and then they were boarding the Hogwarts Express, laughing and talking as the countryside became greener and tidier. They ate Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans as they sped past muggle towns. Hermione had claimed a seat beside Draco, criticizing his snobbery with the same enthusiasm she had once applied to Ron’s table manners, and she didn’t get upset when Draco retaliated by pointing out her ignorance of wizarding culture. Neville had been more hesitant, but with Harry’s encouragement, he and his toad had settled in next to Gregory, who was also pretty shy and insecure.
When the train pulled into platform nine and three-quarters at King’s Cross station, Harry ached at the thought of going all summer without his friends. Sure, he could visit them. He’d sent away to Gringotts for more money so he could hire the Knight bus, but that wasn’t the same as living at school with them. And the Knight bus couldn’t take him to Italy. Harry would miss Blaise like mad.
It took quite a while for them all to get off the platform. A wizened old guard was up by the ticket barrier, letting them go through the gate in twos and threes so they didn’t attract attention by all bursting out of a solid wall at once and alarming the muggles; however, many of the Slytherins headed for the public floos or apparation points with their parents.
Mr. and Mrs. Malfoy had promised to host a birthday party for Harry and had gifted him with supplies for writing to his friends over summer before they had flooed away, leaving Harry with Hermione. Harry had sent Hedwig ahead and had slipped her cage into one of the large cubbies in his trunk, and now he opened his trunk again and put the elegant parchment and thick, quality ink into a drawer.
“You can visit any time,” Hermione said as she pressed a piece of parchment with her address and phone number into his hand. “I’ll owl you regularly, and if you don’t write back, I’ll worry.”
Draco never should have told her about Harry’s lack of vaccines and bargain bin glasses because now she acted like it was her job to protect him from his aunt and uncle.
“I’ll be fine,” he promised her as he added her address to the drawer before closing his trunk again. People jostled them as they moved forward toward the gateway back to the muggle world. Some of the other students called:
“See you, Potter!”
“Owl if you need anything.”
Harry and Hermione passed through the gateway together. Ron had already crossed the barrier, and he was with his family. His little sister pointed and called out, “There he is, Mum, there he is, look! It’s Harry Potter!”
Mrs. Weasley smiled and even took a step forward, but Ron scowled at them. Harry walked faster, pulling his feather-light trunk behind him, and Hermione followed.
“Ready, are you?” It was Uncle Vernon, still purple-faced, still mustached, still looking furious at the nerve of Harry to show up and ruin his perfectly normal family. Behind him stood Aunt Petunia and Dudley, looking terrified at the very sight of Harry. “Hurry up boy, we haven’t got all day.’ He walked away.
Harry hung back, clinging to one last moment in the magical world.
“See you over summer, then,” he said to Hermione.
“Hope you have—er—a good holiday,” said Hermione, looking uncertainly after Uncle Vernon, shocked anyone could be so unpleasant.
“Oh, I will,” said Harry as a Slytherin grin spread over his face. “They don’t know we’re not allowed to use magic at home. I’m going to have a lot of fun this summer.”
“No.” Severus began his report on students who were in difficult situations. “Ms. Littleford has gone to the Wilkes’ for the summer. Her parents still will not accept her decision.”
“So sad. It’s hard for parents, sometimes. They want to believe they know best.” Albus nodded as if he had any experience raising children.
“Speaking of, I would like to address the issue of Ms. Littleford’s dormitory. All her year mates have agreed that they want her to share their dorm. I believe it’s time to allow it. Her single room is too isolating.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea. What if one of the girls gets pregnant? What will the parents say?”
“Given that everyone in the dorm would be female, I assume they would say that the girl in question had followed the time-honored tradition of sneaking around after curfew to pursue her assignations.”
Albus shook his head as if Severus was being unreasonable. “You and I both know Ms. Littleford is biologically male and can impregnate those girls. I just wish she would have waited until she left school to insist she had to change genders.”
Severus gritted his teeth. He was unlikely to get any further concessions out of Albus, but at least he wasn’t insisting that Ms. Littleford go back to the boy’s dorms and accept the inevitability of male pronouns. Severus had to take his wins where he could. Ceding that he had lost this battle, he moved to a new one. “I am still concerned about Potter’s living conditions.’
“He is well cared for,” Albus lied, although Severus wasn’t sure if he was lying to himself as well as to Severus.
“Given his lack of vaccinations, suitable glasses or basic medical care, I have trouble believing that.”
The twinkle in Albus’s eye dimmed. “I do wish you would have stepped in when Malfoy started manipulating the boy. Even the best child can have his head turned by a wealthy family promising patronage.” The look he gave Severus included both disgust and a warning. Severus had been turned by patronage and the Dark Lord’s offer to pay for him to pursue masteries. However, that was different from a child expecting basic medical care.
“Given that you had ordered me to take Potter to his eye exam, I had no reason to refuse Lucius access once we were in Diagon Alley. Potter had already renewed a family tie with Narcissa, so I had no authority in the situation.” Severus did understand Albus’s concerns because Lucius was so obvious in his plotting that he might as well rub his hands together and cackle like a villain each time he saw Harry. Severus wanted to snatch Harry away and hide him from the man. However, Severus had to play the part of the spy or Harry’s life was in even more danger.
“But you didn’t have to allow them to escort Harry to St. Mungos.”
Severus crossed his arms over his chest. “I couldn’t stop him, not without looking like I had chosen Harry Potter, the Boy Who Lived over my fellow Death Eaters. I assume you didn’t want me to damage my cover in order to prevent a few uncomfortable truths from coming to light.”
“There is nothing as dramatic as me hiding the truth. I am simply concerned.”
“Then be concerned that you are too busy to provide the oversight required of a magical guardian. Lucius is searching for the paperwork surrounding Potter’s placement with his muggle relatives, and when he finds it, he is going to have a lot of questions you do not want to answer, starting with how you managed to forget to remove childhood blocks before allowing him to attend class. You could have magically castrated him.”
“I’m sure it’s not all that serious,” Albus said with an infuriating lack of concern for his own failings. “The boy’s magic was still strong or I would have noticed and found the problem.”
“It is serious, and the wizarding public will have you flogged if they find out that you allowed Potter to believe his parents were drunks who died in a muggle car accident.
“It is important that he grow up with a sense of normalcy.”
“And would the wizarding public believe it normal for Harry Potter to grow up without knowing his parents’ names?”
Albus pressed his lips together, and Severus knew he was on thin ice.
“Headmaster, you are too busy. Allowing the childhood blocks to stay, forgetting to take Potter for vaccinations—these are errors in judgment that will undermine your authority if they come to light. You need to sign off on someone else taking magical responsibility for him. That will hopefully make it impossible for someone like Lucius to attach your name to this mess.”
“Do I assume you would like guardianship of Lily’s son?” asked Albus. Over the years, Severus had noticed that Albus put so much faith in his wizarding skills that he often ignored more mundane ones. For example, Albus feared legilimency and practiced such strict occlumency that Severus never caught so much as a stray thought. However, he utterly dismissed the muggle practice of observing body language and micro-expressions.
Albus’s eyebrows flicked lower for a half-second, suggesting fear or anger. He blinked quickly, signaling distress and his hand tensed as though he were ready for a fight. Albus didn’t want Severus to take guardianship. More than that, he didn’t want Severus to even entertain the idea. Severus was starting to worry that the Dark Lord might not be the only threat to Harry’s life. He wasn’t yet sure why he felt that way, but he would meditate on his observations this summer. Perhaps he was seeing the edge of some plot Albus was hatching.
“Do you think I want to be saddled with James Potter’s son?” Severus demanded with mock anger, noting the way Albus relaxed immediately. “I have trouble enough with him in my house. Did you know he and Draco actually dueled after Potter took offense to something Draco had said about the Weasley boy or Granger—I can’t remember which.”
“He is loyal to his friends, that’s a good trait.” Albus was in a far more cheerful mood now. “I am only sorry that young Ron could not temper his immaturity this year. I had hoped he would provide reliable support as Harry tried to adjust to the wizarding world. And Molly would be a wonderful mother figure for an orphaned boy. It bothers me that Harry has turned to Slytherins instead. We both know the dangers inherent in relationships with those like Draco whose parents have unacceptable alliances.”
“I’ve told you—Narcissa has raised Draco as far from those influences as possible.”
“And young Nott?”
“His father’s loyalties, and his, are with the Dark Lord, but Nott is staying far away from Potter.” At least, if one discounted the fact that they had exchanged Yule gifts in an attempt to politically influence each other. And neither was subtle, but then most eleven-year-olds were not. Zabini was a rare exception. “However, to return to our earlier subject, either Septima or Bathsheda would be good choices. They are well-respected, they are not already burdened with other tasks for the school, and they have nieces and nephews and are, therefore, more aware of issues such as vaccinations.”
“You see danger where none exists,” Albus said, but now that Severus had distanced himself from Harry, he seemed amused rather than annoyed by Severus’s concerns.
Severus wished he could push harder for answers, but he knew that would not serve him. It appeared he had lost his second battle of the day. He rarely won against Albus, so he should not be surprised, but Severus was concerned about Harry in particular. When slipping into the boy’s mind at winter break, Severus had seen clear evidence of abuse. Severus just wished he knew whether Albus was ignorant to that fact or complicit.
“Is there any word on Quirrell?” Severus asked.
“None. I am concerned.”
“I doubt we will ever hear from him again now that he has the stone.”
“Oh, I expect we will hear from either Quirinus or his master sooner than you think,” Albus said as he tapped his chin thoughtfully.
“His master? I was unaware he was acting as an agent for someone else.” Severus felt suddenly uneasy.
“He was hosting Voldemort.” Those four words were so simple and stated so directly that Severus failed to grasp their meaning for several long seconds, and when he did, he collapsed into one of the visitor’s chairs.
“The Dark Lord? Here? At Hogwarts?” The man had taught Harry. Severus felt ill. And Albus had set Severus the task of confronting Quirrell. Severus had threatened and insulted the Dark Lord. Severus’s vision grew dark and he clutched the arms of his chair to avoid toppling out of it.
“Tom is a wraith—a shade of a ghost clinging to life, and I suspect Quirinus offered himself as host in order to help Tom to a new body,” said Albus. “That would explain his determination to claim the Philosopher’s Stone.”
And when the Dark Lord regained a body, he was going to torture Severus to death for the insults Severus had heaped upon Quirrell’s head. If Severus was going to be of any use as a spy, he couldn’t avoid his former master, but Albus had just ensured that Severus suffered unimaginable tortures.
Albus sighed as if the situation was mildly inconvenient.
“You knew the Dark Lord was in Hogwarts, and you protected the stone with defenses that three third years and their first-year little brother could bypass?” Severus demanded.
“I had assumed Harry would be with them. I did encourage Ron to include Harry in their adventures. Lily’s magic protects him, and I suspect that if Tom were to touch him, the power of Lily’s love and her sacrifice would destroy Tom, perhaps for good. That said, if no student went down that corridor, the stone would have been perfectly safe. It was our misfortune that Mr. Jordan and the Weasleys attempted to protect the stone, but did so without Harry.”
Misfortune. Severus could hardly breathe as he considered the insanity of Albus’s plot. He had counted on an eleven year old to carry enough magic from a decade-old spell in order to defeat the Dark Lord. It defied logic.
“We shall just have to wait and watch,” Albus said without a hint of concern.
Without a word, Severus walked out of the office and down the stairs before he leaned against the wall, the strength gone from his legs. The Dark Lord was back, and Severus’s vow demanded that he put his own life between Harry and any danger. Worse, Severus felt as if he were on a mist-darkened battlefield and he could not identify his enemies. He needed information.
But first he needed to make sure Harry was safe.
“Brinkie,” he called.
An elf popped in. “I’s is here, Master Potions. How is I helping?”
“Did you put the book I gave you with Harry Potter’s homework?” Nymphadora Tonks’ tutoring sessions had given Severus the idea of introducing the boy to occlumency. After all, the meditation Harry practiced to get control of his hair color was very similar to the exercises that formed the foundation for the mind art. Given that the boy was academically-minded, Severus hoped that slipping a beginner’s occlumency book in with his homework would be enough to encourage him to protect his thoughts.
Merlin knew Severus had slipped into Harry’s unprotected mind often enough.
“Yes, Master Potions. I’s be putting the book next to the book of spells that Harry Potter loves. He’ll sees it.” Brinkie wagged his ears with pride at a job well done.
“Did you get meals for the summer loaded into Potter’s trunk?”
“Yes, Master Potions. We’s is saving food from all many months. We’s is making sure Harry Potter is having balanced meals every day during summer.”
Severus nodded. That was one concern off his plate. “Do not allow yourself to be seen, but check on Harry Potter every day. If he is injured or hungry or ill or missing, inform me immediately.”
“Yes, Master Potions. I’s be doing that. Harry Potter will be safe. I’s make sure of it.”
Brinkie popped away, and Severus realized that as of this moment, a house elf was his only ally. Every other person in his life had some ulterior motive when it came to Harry. As the boy’s Head of House, and as the person who had taken an Unbreakable Vow, Severus could not trust anyone else to protect the boy.
Whatever else came, Severus owed Lily that much.
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