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The sky was turning purple and the train was passing through a deeply forested, steep-sided valley when a voice echoed through the carriages: “We will be reaching Hogsmeade Station in five minutes’ time. Please leave your luggage on the train. It will be taken to the school separately.”

Al dropped his book as his stomach suddenly twisted into knots. Rosie looked at him worriedly. “I haven’t changed yet!” Al explained quickly, and she seemed to believe him.

“I’ll excuse myself, then,” Scorpius said promptly, and exited the carriage at top speed. He’d spent literally the entire time they were in the compartment together reading or inspecting the countryside: Al had tried to ask him about his favourite classes at about four o’clock, but he’d only got vague answers about not having been to any yet.

Rosie marked her page, put her book away, put her notepaper away, put her quill back in its case, stretched, and left the compartment at her leisure while Al tried to hurry her up. The train had pulled into the station by the time Al had managed to get his robes on and cram what was left of his sweets into his trunk.

Once he’d joined Rosie on the platform, they saw Al’s godfather Hagrid looming over the crowds, swinging a lantern and shouting “Firs’-years! Firs’-years over here! Firs’-years- All right there, Al? Rosie?” He clapped them both hard on the back, almost knocking Al down. “Any more firs’-years? Firs’-years, follow me!”

The first-years followed Hagrid down a steep, narrow, dark path as the rest of the students headed for the brightly lit road. If it hadn’t been for the Thestrals, Al would have thought the others were better-off.

“How far is it, Hagrid?” Rosie asked, hanging onto his coat to keep from falling over. Hagrid grabbed her hand, and then Al’s, and said, “Tha’s a surprise. Yer both comin’ ter tea with me on Friday, aren’ yeh?”

“Of course, Hagrid,” Rosie said.

“I’m really looking forward to it,” Al added.

“Ough’ ter be lookin’ forward ter Hogwarts!” Hagrid boomed. “…Don’ fret, Al, nothin’ ter worry about.”

Al forced himself to smile.

“Yer goin’ ter have fun,” Hagrid promised, beaming. “An’…there!”

The trees on either side opened up to leave them standing on the shore of the lake, the Hogwarts castle on a promontory across the water, every window shining like a star. Rosie’s mouth dropped open. Al gasped - they’d both seen the castle before, when his dad and Rosie’s had sent them all to stay with Hagrid, but the view was still stunning.

“Beautiful, isn’ she?” Hagrid asked proudly, and pointed to a flotilla of tiny boats, rocking slightly in the shallow water. “Right - no more’n four to a boat!”

Al would have preferred to go in a boat with Hagrid, but Hagrid had to have his own boat to avoid it sinking. Luckily Scorpius had already got into a boat by himself, so Al gave Rosie a hand in and climbed in after her.

“Everyone in?” Hagrid shouted. “Right then - FORWARD!”

The boats shuddered as they ground over the shingle, and then the beach seemed to fall away under their keels and all the boats glided off the bank at once. Al kept his eyes on the castle as the boats glided across the glassy water and tried not to think words like ‘drowning’ or ‘capsized’ or ‘giant squid.’ As the ships neared the cliff Al wondered if they were going to crash into it, but the boats passed safely through a curtain of ivy in the cliff face and into a dark, narrow passage that seemed to be taking them right underneath the castle, until they beached on a tiny, torch-lit shingle harbour. Hagrid climbed out of his own boat first and came to give Al and Rosie a hand. Scorpius climbed out by himself.

“Tha’ blond kid,” Hagrid said quietly to Al. At least, quietly for Hagrid, which meant that the people in the castle couldn’t hear him. He was looking at Scorpius. “Does he look like a Malfoy to yeh?”

“I think that’s probably because I am a Malfoy,” Score said. “Professor.” The ‘Professor’ had been just a split second too early to be insulting. Al glanced back and forth between them, confused. It made sense that Score would be annoyed by Hagrid getting suspicious about his family, but Al didn’t know why Hagrid would do that.

“Wha’ were yeh in a boat with a Malfoy fer, Al? Not smart, tha’ was. Up the stairs, now, don’ dawdle,” and before Al could ask him about it, Hagrid led them off the beach and up a narrow, winding passage in the rock which came out in the centre of the Hogwarts lawns, in the shadow of the castle itself. Al got separated from Hagrid on the stairs, and found himself walking across the lawns next to Scorpius.

“Are you all right?” Al asked him.

“I’m fine,” Scorpius said. He didn’t sound angry. Maybe Al had been wrong? “Thank you for asking.” Scorpius smiled pleasantly. It was very unsettling, so Al made a hasty retreat.

“Everyone still here?” Hagrid asked, once they’d all gathered around him at the top of the stone steps outside the front door. Al tried to get through the crowd towards him, but there were too many other children.

“Right, then!” Hagrid knocked three times on the castle door.

Al gulped. The doors swung open at once, revealing a tiny, wizened old man in deep blue robes.

“The firs’-years, Professor Flitwick,” Hagrid said. Al would have to give up on asking Hagrid what was wrong with the Malfoys for now, then, but he resolved to do it later.

“Excellent, Hagrid!” Flitwick said, and waved the first-years inside. “I’ll take them from here. I’ll see you later at the high table!”

“Why is that man so short?” Lew whispered, just behind Al.

“An elephant sat on him,” Faith whispered back.

Hagrid nodded and clumped across the entrance hall to the Great Hall, swinging the massive doors open with one hand, and vanished inside. Flitwick trotted across the entrance hall in the other direction, gesturing for the first-years to follow him, and led them into a tiny empty chamber.

“Welcome to Hogwarts!” Professor Flitwick announced, flinging his arms wide. “The start-of-term banquet will begin soon, but first, the Sorting!” He clapped his hands and beamed at them. “The Sorting ceremony is very important because, as our Headmistress says, your house will be like your family within Hogwarts; you will eat with your house, sleep with your house-”

Someone laughed. Al thought it might have been Faith. Flitwick continued unconcernedly.

“-and spend your free time in your house common room - or the library!” He beamed like a Searchlight Charm. “The four houses are Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw - that’s mine! - and Slytherin.”

A faint murmur ran around the chamber, but Al couldn’t make out any words.

“Each house has its own noble history and its own outstanding students,” Flitwick continued.

There was more muttering. This time, Al caught the words You-Know-Who and bit his lip. That was just another reason to be in Slytherin. His dad would never be scared of mumbling first-years.

“While you are here, you will earn points for your house by working hard and helping other students, and lose points for breaking Hogwarts rules,” Flitwick told them, suddenly much more serious. “At the end of the school year, the house with the most points is awarded the House Cup, a great honour. But even if your house doesn’t win the Cup, we’re sure you will be a great credit to them.”

He smiled reassuringly. Not many of the first-years looked reassured.

“The Sorting Ceremony will take place in a few minutes, in front of your new schoolmates. I will come back to get you when everything is ready. Please be patient!” Professor Flitwick pattered out of the room.

“How do we get Sorted?” Lew asked.

“You have to fight a troll,” Faith said promptly. “If you run up and kick it in the shins, you’re in Gryffindor. If you cast a spell on it, you’re in Ravenclaw. If you try to give it a hug, you’re in Hufflepuff.”

“If you run away, you’re in Slytherin,” someone put in.

“That’s true, Slytherin wouldn’t take anyone thick enough to try and fight a troll,” Faith agreed, with a laugh. Al turned around. Lew didn’t seem worried at all. Al sort of envied him for that. Rosie had folded her arms and was glowering at Faith.

“Are you quite certain that’s what happens?” Lew asked mildly. Al was just going to tell him about the Sorting Hat when Rosie did it for him.

“Of course it isn’t! You just have to put on a magical hat and then it tells you which house you should be in.”

Lew just looked at her.

“It’s completely safe,” Al told him. “No-one’s ever died during their Sorting.”

“A few people have died immediately after their Sorting,” Faith chimed in brightly. Al wished she’d stop that, because she was making him feel ill.

Then Professor Flitwick re-entered the room. “Everything’s ready now! Form a line behind me, please, and don’t worry!”

Al tensed, and Rosie put a hand on his shoulder and steered him into line, then pushed him across the entrance hall while muttering soothing things into his ear, none of which Al could make out because he was too busy trying not to throw up. His stomach felt like it was full of snakes, which was appropriate but very uncomfortable.

“Don’t worry, it’ll be fine, you’ll get into Gryffindor,” Rosie whispered to him, which actually wasn’t that helpful because he’d never wanted to be in Gryffindor. He really, really hadn’t wanted to spend six years with James pouring buckets of water over his head every morning. James only didn’t do that at home because Dad would be disappointed - Rosie shepherded him into the Great Hall.

Al was certain that he could feel the other students’ stares boring into him, so he kept his eyes on his boots and tried not to think about the Sorting. He tried to think about happy things, like sunshine and flowers and puppies, but Al didn’t actually like flowers or puppies very much so it didn’t work. Kittens? His dad had promised he didn’t care if Al was in Slytherin, and Lily probably wouldn’t care, but Al’s mum was going to have a fit and James would die of laughter.

That would fix Al’s problem with James teasing him.

Al heard the thump as Flitwick put the stool down in front of them and placed the Sorting Hat atop it. For a few seconds there was complete silence, and then the hat started to sing:

No doubt youve heard some morbid tales

Of how the Sortings done

But have no fear, the answers here,

Ill sort you, everyone.

We dont want you unhappy

You wont learn if youre sour

No need to grouse, Ill find your house

If its within my power

If you want inspiration

From heroes of the past

Expelliarmus! Stupefy!

Brave Gryffindors a blast.

Or if determined on success

And having lots of mates

Then join the team, youll have a scream

Keen Hufflepuff awaits.

If puffed up with ambition,

No need for shock or shame,

Dont fear to try, aim for the sky

Proud Slytherins the name!

If free from misconceptions,

And you like to read a lot

Then know no fear, be of good cheer,

Wise Ravenclaws the spot!

But now Ive run on far too long,

And you all want your tea

So dont be fearful, try me on -

Ill know where you should be!

The students all clapped as the Hat finished.

“When I call your name, you must put on the hat and sit on the stool to be sorted,” Professor Flitwick explained. “Bates, Johanna!”

Johanna Bates stumbled forward. Al was still looking at his shoes, but he could hear her footsteps and the squeak as the stool skidded back a few inches.

“HUFFLEPUFF!” the hat shouted, much louder than the song had been. The Hufflepuffs cheered.

“The table on the right, Miss Bates,” Flitwick said. “Borden, Genesis?”

Genesis Borden - that was a really weird name to give a boy, Al thought - went to Gryffindor. Al glanced quickly over at the Gryffindor table on the far left, and caught sight of James yelling and banging his fists on the table. Kathleen Briggs went to Gryffindor as well, after quite a long time - twenty-seven seconds. Rosie had been counting in a whisper. The first two had been Sorted much faster - maybe some people just took more time? What if Al ended up sitting there for hours and hours and held up the whole feast and they expelled him?

“Cook, Katrina!” Cook, Katrina took a long time to be Sorted as well, at least a minute, but finally -

“SLYTHERIN!”

And then there was so much noise Al thought he would be deafened, as if everyone in Gryffindor, Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw were all booing at once. He looked up automatically. Katrina Cook had stood up and taken the hat off, and was staring around the room. She looked frightened. Al’s hands tightened into fists.

Silencio!” Professor McGonagall barked. The booing cut out. The Headmistress was on her feet, wand drawn. “I will not have the Sorting Ceremony interrupted by such a disgraceful display! If it happens again, I will take fifty points from each house!”

Silence reigned. Professor McGonagall looked over the tables, inspecting each one for signs of guilt, then ended the spell and sat back down. “Professor Flitwick, if you would continue the Sorting.”

Professor Flitwick cleared his throat. “D’Engagne, Mirabel!”

Rosie slipped her hand into Al’s and murmured, “Albus, don’t panic. So long as you don’t throw up into the hat, you’ll be fine. You’ll be in Gryff-”

“I’m not worrying,” Al whispered back. He wasn’t worried at all. He just felt incredibly ill for a reason totally unconnected to worry.

“Albus, you’re white as a-”

“Granger-Weasley, Rose!”

“Oh! Oh, that’s me!” Rosie hurriedly pulled her robes straight and tried to tidy her hair. “Albus, do I look-”

Faith, who was standing on her other side, shoved her forward. Rosie stumbled over to the stool, sat down on it, and pulled the Hat down over her eyes. Al counted. It took two seconds to put her in Ravenclaw.

Before she left for the Ravenclaw table, Rosie glanced back at Al, as if she was wondering if she should stay with him until he was called up. He forced a smile and waved. She seemed convinced.

Faith was the next person he knew to be Sorted. She swaggered up - if she was anywhere near as nervous as Al was, she didn’t show it - and flopped down on the stool with the hat tipped forward over her eyes. Perhaps ten seconds passed.

“SLYTHERIN!”

A mutter ran around the room, but nobody booed. Faith grinned cockily and wandered off to the Slytherin table, where Katrina Cook moved up to make room for her.

That was good, Al decided, twisting his fingers together. He was completely certain now. He knew where he ought to be. He just hoped that his dad would be as all right with it as he had said he would be. Also, that P would suddenly switch places to halfway through the alphabet. Keene was Sorted, then Kinder, Lassiter, Lloyd, Maidenway-

“Malfoy, Scorpius!”

“…do many wizards have names like that?” Lew asked. Scorpius marched up, sat down on the stool, and clapped the hat onto his head. It shouted “SLYTHERIN!” before it even had time to slide over his eyes.

Lew had moved up to stand by Al and asked him, “What’s your surname?”

“Potter,” Al whispered back.

“Oh. You’re ahead of me, then,” Lew said, as Felicia Ollivander left for Ravenclaw.

“Potter, Albus!” Al almost fell over.

“A lot of wizards have very odd names,” Lew observed placidly.

“Potter, Albus,” Flitwick repeated, and looked at him inquisitively. Lew nudged him. Al trudged forward, trying not to think about how James was going to have kittens and then a fit, and probably try to blow him up. Flitwick placed the Hat on his head, and then Al found himself staring at the inside of a hat.

For about half a second.

“SLYTHERIN!”

Oh. That had been much easier than Al had been expecting. Some of the Gryffindors had started to applaud when the Hat had first called out, but it died away quickly.

“What,” James said, very loudly and clearly in the sudden silence. Al stood up, gave the hat to Professor Flitwick, and hurriedly scampered off to the Slytherin table before James could make a sudden crazed and vengeful leap.

What,” James said again, even louder and infinitely more annoyed. Behind Al, people had started to talk. It sounded like a wasps’ nest. Slytherin House as a whole was staring at Al suspiciously and in an unfriendly way.

“Hi! Good to see you!” Faith greeted him. “That didn’t take long, did it?”

Except for Faith, who hadn’t seemed to notice anything was off, and Katrina Cook, who was eating a chocolate bar and sniffling into a handkerchief.

“Er,” Al said. “Hello?"

“Faith, did you meet this one?” Katrina Cook asked timidly, mopping her eyes with the handkerchief.

“Yes. Yes, I did,” Faith said. “He ran up, made my cat attack him, interrupted me rudely, made a funny face, cross-examined me for a bit, and then I decided he was being boring and left. That was about it. Oh, he’s making the funny face again, look!”

“He looks like he’s going to throw up,” said a prefect girl on the other side of the table. “Or cry, or wet himself. Possibly all three simultaneously.”

“That’d be amazing to watch, I hope he does,” Faith said, and put an empty tureen in front of him.

“Um, I’m not going to be sick,” Al said, as the prefect girl pulled a flask out of her robes and poured it into a goblet.

“Good, then we can start the interrogation,” the prefect girl said. “Why are you here, Potter? Tell us or die!” She handed him the goblet and made encouraging drinking motions. Al looked at it. Apple juice?

“A minimum of interrogations this year, please, Lia,” someone said. Al looked down the table, but couldn’t see who it had been.

“Yes sir,” Lia agreed instantly. “Potter, drink your Firewhiskey.”

“What?” Al squawked.

“Your Firewhiskey. Drink it,” Lia commanded. “And that was the last I had on me, Potter, so you’d better appreciate it.” She leant forward, elbows on the table, and glared at him.

“...I’d really rather not,” Al said. His dad didn’t want them drinking Firewhiskey. The Auror Guidebook was very clear on the risks of drinking while on duty, and besides Dad had caught James trying to give Lily some once and shouted at him until he’d gone hoarse.

“Trust me, I’m a prefect,” Lia assured him.

“You’re a Slytherin prefect,” Al pointed out, because judging by the joking about killing people she would think that was funny.

“True. Trust me slightly less,” Lia commanded, with a grin. Al was pleased to be proven right, but then she added “I did say that was my last, Potter. Stop being a bastard ingrate and drink up.” She glared ominously, so Al took one experimental sip. He nearly choked and immediately decided to change the topic.

“I’m not sure exactly why I’m here, anyway,” he said, which was technically true. He’d been expecting to have to ask the hat for Slytherin.

“Well, are you a) cunning, b) resourceful, c) ambitious, or d) evil?” Faith asked. “Those are the usual reasons.”

“Could you find the most evil Hufflepuff, and offer to do a trade?” Katrina Cook asked hopefully from the other side, wiping her eyes with a handkerchief. “Or does magic not work like that?”

“HUFFLEPUFF!” the hat shouted from behind them. Faith cheered.

“…Wrong house, Harper,” said another Slytherin. Al couldn’t keep them all straight.

“No, that was a boy I know,” Faith explained. “Al, Lew’s in Hufflepuff now. I thought he would be, because I interrogated him subtly on the train and it turned out he was morally opposed to cheating.”

The Hufflepuff table was right next to the Slytherins, so Al twisted around and smiled at Lew as he sat down. Something else was bugging him, though.

“Um,” Al said. “You said Katrina Cook was a Muggleborn? I thought Slytherin only accepted purebloods.” James had told him that they only accepted purebloods.

“We do only accept purebloods,” the prefect girl told him. “All our Muggleborn students are secretly purebloods through various thrilling tales of conspiracy, switches at birth, and baby pirating.”

“Which is the kind way of saying, we take what we can get,” another Slytherin drawled. “Look down the table, Potter.” Al looked. The table was half empty. The Slytherins could only fill it up half-way. How could they only have -

“Our numbers are slightly below average,” the prefect girl agreed. “Four this year, that’s not bad. Our Head of House was Sorted right after the war - she was the only one that year, and we didn’t get another one until she was a fourth-year. I’m Lia Rookwood, by the way.”

“Who are you, then?” Al asked the prefect boy.

“Grimalkin, fifth-year prefect. Usually Grim, since that's a bit of a mouthful."

"Right," Faith said. "Hey, Scorpius. Do you have a nickname or something? Something people can call you when they want to pretend your name isn’t Scorpius?”

“Score,” Scorpius said, staring at a stack of plates. “Usually.”

“I’m Kitty, usually,” Katrina said.

“Er. Al?” Al offered.

“Yaxley, George just got called up,” Lia reported. “That’s probably the end of the Sorting, thanks be to God.”

“RAVENCLAW!” the hat shouted.

“And Yaxley’s buggered off - and Flitwick’s rolling the list up - yeah, that’s everyone,” Grimalkin said. “Hurrah, food!”

Professor McGonagall pushed back her chair.

“I will not keep you from your food for very long,” she said. “Firstly, first-years should note that the forest in the school grounds, habitually referred to as ‘The Forbidden Forest’, is still out-of-bounds to all students, and that magic in the school corridors is not permitted. Secondly, I am pleased to announce that following Professor Vector’s retirement, Professor Longbottom is the new Head of Gryffindor House.”

The Gryffindors erupted into cheering. Neville hadn’t told Al that! Al leant back to see; Neville - Professor Longbottom, he was supposed to call him - was staring intently downwards at his empty cup. His face had gone bright pink.

Thirdly,” Professor McGonagall continued, “as many of you will know, the Triwizard Tournament will be taking place at Hogwarts this year.” Al had known that. He’d just been a little distracted.

“What’s the Triwizard Tournament?” Kitty whispered.

“The Triwizard Tournament is a contest between the three great magical schools of Europe,” McGonagall explained. “Three champions, one each from Hogwarts, Durmstrang and Beauxbatons, compete in three trials to ascertain which is the most skilled. The delegations from Durmstrang and Beauxbatons will be arriving on the 27th of October, and the champions will be chosen shortly after their arrival. The Triwizard Tournament is generally considered to be an excellent way of strengthening the ties between our schools and enabling friendships between young witches and wizards of different nationalities; I am therefore sure that you will welcome our foreign friends to Hogwarts, and treat them well while they are here. I regret to tell you, however-”

The corners of her mouth turned sharply downwards.

“-that owing to the difficulties involved in hosting the Tournament, and the extra work that will be required from the teachers-” Her voice almost cracked. “The Quidditch Cup will not be held this year.”

The booing shook the hall, even though everyone should have known that would happen. Al’s mum had told him and James, at least. Al almost cheered - he’d never liked Quidditch - before remembering that might not go over well. Lia was booing and thumping her fists on the table.

“Silence!” Professor McGonagall barked. “I realise that this is upsetting for everyone-” It was probably very upsetting for her. Al knew Professor McGonagall was Quidditch-mad from the sheer number of letters she and his mum wrote to each other about fainting wonkily or something. “-but that is no excuse for this behaviour and it will not be tolerated!” She glared sternly at the entire student body, which obligingly shut up. Professor McGonagall seemed slightly mollified. “I hope that despite this unfortunate news, you will all be able to enjoy your dinner.” She sat down.

Al looked at the table. It was suddenly filled with food - roast beef, Yorkshire puddings, towers of roast and boiled and mashed potatoes, mint humbugs - actually the mint humbugs were a bit strange. Al piled his plate high with sausages and mashed potatoes, drenched it in gravy, and started eating.

“Mrf foof Ffcore, eaff iff!” Faith ordered, wolfing down a Cornish pasty.

“I don’t feel very hungry,” Score said. He was pushing a single roast parsnip around his plate and frowning at it as if it had wronged him in some way. Was what Hagrid had said still bothering him, or was it something else?

“Suiff yourseff,” Faith said, spraying tiny bits of pastry everywhere, and started demolishing a huge pile of roast potatoes. Katrina was putting jam on her peas. That must be a Muggle thing.

Then a paper plane landed point-first in Al’s mashed potatoes. Al watched it apprehensively. It was probably from James, in which case it was going to explode. He picked it out of his food with his knife and fork, set it down in about the middle of the table, and prodded it with his wand.

Nothing happened. So whatever it was would happen when it was read.

Al unfolded the letter with his cutlery, leant back further away from it, and then looked at the writing.

AL YOU NIT

WHAT DID YOU GO AND DO THAT FOR?

THE PARENTS ARE GOING TO BE REALLY MAD AT YOU WHEN I TELL THEM

Al winced. He was sure his dad wouldn’t be mad - his mum might be, though. Al couldn’t be certain, because he didn’t know her as well as he knew his dad. James was probably trying to sneak out to the Owlery to write to them right -

“James Potter, sit down!” Professor McGonagall barked.

-now. Al sighed. Another paper plane landed in the gravy boat. Al salvaged it hurriedly and unfolded it, again with his cutlery.

YOU HAVE BROUGHT SHAME UPON OUR FAMILY

SHAME, AL

I WILL NEVER SPEAK TO YOU AGAIN NOW

That would be nice if James could follow through on it, but - Al couldn’t really be bringing shame upon his family, could he? His dad had said he wouldn’t think any less of Al, but - a sudden terrible thought struck him - if his dad’s colleagues at the Ministry did, would that make his dad look bad? Al twisted his fingers together, took deep breaths and tried not to panic.

Another paper plane landed in the parsnips.

THAT WASN’T EVEN HALF A SECOND

I MEAN IF THE HAT HAD AT LEAST HAD TO THINK ABOUT IT

YOU STUPID NIT AL

Another paper plane almost landed in the casserole dish. Almost, because Lia Rookwood grabbed it out of the air.

“That’s my letter!” Al protested.

Lia unfolded it, raised an eyebrow, and said “Your parents are going to murder you. It’s nice that you got a warning. Many murderers don’t have that sense of courtesy.”

Al made a noise a bit like a wounded hippopotamus.

“And your brother can’t believe what an idiot you are,” she added, and handed it to Grimalkin so he could read it too.

Al sighed and tried to talk to the Slytherins. Score was exactly as vague as he had been on the train. Faith and Kitty were easiest to talk to, even if most of what Faith said was unintelligible and she kept making enthusiastic hand gestures that flung forkfuls of mashed potato everywhere. The feast passed quickly, and when they had all eaten as much as they wanted, Professor McGonagall bid them all good night and one of the older prefects, a tall thin boy with dark hair and hooded dark eyes, led Al and the Slytherins out of the Great Hall down a flight of stairs and into the dungeons.

“You should try to memorise the route now,” he added to them over his shoulder. His voice sounded familiar - Al thought he might have been the one who‘d ordered Lia not to interrogate people. “It’ll save you trouble in the long run.”

“And it will reduce your chances of getting lost and starving to death by up to forty-three percent!” Lia put in cheerfully. Eventually they all stopped in front of a plain stone wall and the prefect at the front said to it, “I fancy a biscuit.”

The wall slid open.

“Avery!” Lia wailed. “What did you do that for?”

“It’s the common room. I wanted to be inside it,” Avery said coolly, stalked in and collapsed into a carved wooden chair by the fire.

“Grimalkin and me were going to pretend we’d forgotten where the common room was,” Lia grumbled, and herded the first-years inside.

The Slytherin common room was long and low-ceilinged, lit with hanging lamps that gave off a murky green light, and stuffed with green leather sofas and carved wooden chairs. Most of the Slytherins left for their dormitories, by a spiral staircase at the end of the common room.

“First-years, a word,” Avery announced from his chair. Lia and Grimalkin stood on either side and grinned identical evil grins.

“We’re not in the mood for the first-year threatening speech, so we’re going to bed,” the other three prefects explained, and headed for the stairs. None of the remaining three seemed particularly surprised by this.

“First, introductions,” the prefect who seemed to be in charge said, steepling his fingers. “I am Benjamin Avery, seventh-year Prefect and Slytherin Quidditch Team Captain-”

“At the same time?” Al asked. Weren’t people only allowed one position?

“We’ve only got one boy in seventh year,” Lia explained. “We tried to convince Oddpick to take a Gender-Switching Potion, but she wouldn’t and Avery said we couldn’t just sneak it into her food.”

“Quiet, Lia,” Avery ordered. “The other seventh-year prefect is Mary Wright. The sixth-year prefects are Zachary Nutcombe and Ingrid Warrington. I wouldn’t recommend using Nutcombe for any purpose other than ‘test subject’; Warrington and Wright are both passable in an emergency. The fifth-year prefects-” he indicated Lia and Grimalkin - “are Aurelia Rookwood and William Grimalkin. If you have a problem, you first take it to the fifth-year prefects, and then when they can’t stop mocking you for long enough to help, consult me.”

“Alternatively, you could save yourself time and just ask Avery straight away,” Lia put in. Avery gave her a look and she hid behind his chair.

“Secondly, the Slytherin passwords are changed by the prefects. Occasionally, when we find it hard to reach a decision, we put it to a general vote.”

“We are under no obligation to tell you when we change the passwords, or to what,” Lia drawled, popping up from behind the chair like a jack-in-the-box.

“Avery probably will anyway. He’s a bit soft,” Grimalkin added. Lia glared at him. Avery ignored them both.

“Now, to more serious matters,” Avery said slowly. “You may attempt to kill as many of your housemates as you like within the common room or, during the holidays, in the privacy of your own homes.”

Al was fairly sure he was joking. It was very hard to tell, though.

“However, as far as the rest of the school is concerned, we will not tolerate anything less than the appearance of total unity, and anyone who disobeys that rule will be thrown to the lions.”

“Or the sharks, or the wolves, or the giant spiders, or any other carnivorous animal we feel like,” Lia completed happily. “Piranhas are fun!”

“That is all. Go to bed,” Avery commanded. “Boys’ dormitories are downstairs, girls’ dormitories are upstairs. Boys should not step onto the girls’ staircase, as the consequences are-”

“Hilarious!” Lia put in.

“-usually fatal,” Avery finished.

Al gulped, and was very careful not to go near the first step up as he and Score went down to their dormitory.

Their room had windows looking out over the lake, which surprised Al for a moment until he realised they must be enchanted, like at the Ministry. There were two four-poster beds with green curtains and green bedspreads, and dark, ancient-looking wooden tables by each one. Al found the one that had his trunk at the foot, changed hurriedly behind the curtains, and crawled into bed.

Al had expected to lie awake for hours, fretting and wondering what he was going to do and when a prefect would come in and decide it would be funny to set him on fire. In reality, he fell asleep within seconds.

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