Al was still sleepy when he and the Slytherins trailed up to the Great Hall for breakfast the next day, late, so they arrived just as the owl post swept in through the windows in a flurry of feathers. Lia and Grimalkin started handing out class schedules. Avery was busy trying to coax Score into eating some cornflakes. Two owls dropped their letters into Al’s bowl, one a Ministry owl and the letter in his dad’s handwriting. Al opened that one first, hurriedly, praying it wouldn’t turn out to be a cleverly disguised Howler.
Al, I just got a letter from your brother saying you’d been Sorted into Slytherin so I wrote to see if it was true. I told you it didn’t matter to me or your mum which house you were in because we know you’re going to do well. (I don’t think being Sorted into Slytherin magically turns people into Dark Lords.) I hope you aren’t worrying.
If there’s anything I can do
Please write back soon.
It was like a huge weight being taken off his shoulders. Al breathed a great sigh of relief, folded the letter up and tucked it into his robes before opening the second. That one was written on Daily Prophet notepaper, which meant it must be from his mother.
Al, James and Hagrid are telling us you’ve been sorted into Slytherin. We’re not angry, but don’t open anything Uncle George mails you because he’ll just be trying to blow up the Slytherin table. Please write back soon. Love Mum.
Al hoped Hagrid wasn’t too upset; still, even if he was, Hagrid was Al’s godfather and Al didn’t think it would be hard to talk him around. He’d have to go down to his house after the lessons were finished.
The Ministry Owl was waiting for a reply right then, though. Al turned the letter from his mum over, reached for his quill, and realised it was in his trunk in the Slytherin dormitory.
“Er…does anyone have a quill?”
Kitty, who was sitting on his right, offered him a Muggle pen. Al thanked her and took it.
“You look happier today,” Kitty commented, pushing a kipper around her plate with her fork.
“What? Oh, I guess - uh. How are you?” She wasn’t sniffling any more, at least.
“Oh, I’m fine. These kippers are lovely!” Kitty said.
“No, I mean - because yesterday, everyone was-”
“Oh, the booing?” Kitty asked. “I was upset, but Avery explained that as soon as I got here. It was only a few people on each table, using Echo Charms or something. He said someone does it every year and it’s best to ignore them.” She twisted a few strands of hair around one finger. “I suppose it’ll be all right in the end. It’d be a bit of a waste of time worrying, wouldn't it?" She smiled very brightly.
“I guess so," Al agreed, and went back to his letter, hiding the paper with his arms so no-one would see what he was writing.
Sorry Mum and Dad, but James was right.
I kind of wanted to be in Slytherin, though, because of what you said about it being all right, and I have a plan. You said that there were good Slytherins, so I thought it wasn’t fair how people talked about them, and I should try to fix it. So obviously I had to be in Slytherin to do that.
Al thought his dad should be proud of that. He tried to think of something else good to say.
Besides, I met two people I liked to the train - Faith Harper and Scorpius Malfoy - and they were both sorted into Slytherin, and I didn’t want to be in Gryffindor or in a house by myself. The dormitories are nice and most of the Slytherins are friendly. Today I have
Al checked his schedule.
double Potions with the Gryffindors, History of Magic, Herbology with the Ravenclaws and double Charms. So I will see Professor Longbottom and Rosie in class. The prefects are a bit strange but none of them have tried to kill me or anything.
A paper plane crash-landed in Faith’s orange juice, and she fished it out and handed it to Al without looking away from her schedule. She was scowling.
AL WAS THAT OWL FROM MUM AND DAD
ARE THEY MAD? THEY SHOULD BE
I AM STILL NEVER TALKING TO YOU AGAIN
Al got up on his knees on the bench and looked over at the Gryffindor table, where he could see his brother, head sunk in his hands, brooding over his toast. After a few seconds James looked up to make sure Al was watching him.
Al decided James probably wasn’t that upset.
* * *
Potions was in the dungeons, in a chilly stone room with ten cauldrons set up in rows. Al was a little apprehensive about it to start with, considering that firstly they were sharing the class with the Gryffindors, and that secondly the Potions teacher was the Slytherin Head of House and James usually described her as a ‘cruel, vicious harpy, swooping down to devour the souls of hapless young students!” which suggested that she might not be very nice.
However, when Professor Hunt arrived five minutes later, munching a piece of toast, she turned out to be a fair-haired, friendly-looking woman in pastel-coloured robes, which wasn’t very frightening. After she’d taken the register, she wrote out instructions for an acne-curing potion on the board, showed the students where the ingredients were kept, and paired the class off. All the Slytherins were put with a Gryffindor. Al was paired with a girl named Messalina Sheppard, who had put her hair into five hundred tiny braids all the way down to her waist. Al hoped she’d done that with magic rather than by hand.
Most of the Gryffindors were glaring at them. Al tried to ignore that.
“Do you know much about Potions?” Al asked, trying to be friendly. Messalina, returning from the store-cupboard with three Purgaris beans and an ounce of foul-smelling Bubotuber pus, shook her head.
“I read Magical Draughts and Potions and it didn’t seem too complicated, so I probably missed something,” Al said. Messalina scowled and measured out armadillo bile as Professor Hunt passed by, glanced at their potion, and said with a smile, “Very good, Potter, Sheppard. Keep it up.”
Just in front of them, the Gryffindor boy Kitty had been paired with - Genesis Borden? - suddenly turned to her and said in a very hostile tone “I’m Muggleborn, you know.”
“Me too!” Kitty said. “Do you think quills are weird as well? I brought fifty biros with me so I’d never have to use one.”
Probably-Genesis-Borden looked a bit shocked. Al grinned, added the dandelion roots and nettles to his cauldron and stirred it counter-clockwise fifteen times, like it said on the board. Not much seemed to be happening. Messalina was boiling the Bubotuber pus and armadillo bile together. That didn’t seem to be doing much either. Kitty and Probably-Genesis-Borden had stopped work altogether and were negotiating a biro swap.
“Wait. Is that supposed to be happening?” Messalina asked. Al looked. Her copper flask was belching brown, soupy fog.
“I don’t know,” Al said, and called across the room, “Professor, is that supposed to be happening?”
Professor Hunt nodded to them from across the room and smiled happily. That was reassuring, Al thought, as he sliced a dozen porcupine quills into tiny pieces.
Messalina slammed her beaker down suddenly and demanded, “Do you even care that you’ve broken your brother’s heart?” Al’s hand slipped and cut an inch-deep gash into the table.
“…I don’t think I have,” Al said, trying to sound as calm as possible. “He gets very melodramatic sometimes. Mostly when he wants attention.” He picked the flask up with his pair of metal tongs. “Can you hold out that gauze for me?”
“He said your parents were going to plunge into despair and melancholy and commit ritual suicide,” Messalina told him sulkily.
“When they wrote to me this morning they said they were fine,” Al said, thought about it and added, “And also that if James started getting dramatic I should ignore him until he stopped doing it.”
Messalina just made a noise like ‘hmf’ and glowered.
“That’s good,” Professor Hunt said suddenly, making them both jump. She didn’t notice their reactions, though, because she’d already moved on to Kitty and Probably-Genesis-Borden, who had stopped chatting and gone back to their potion as soon as the teacher had arrived. Professor Hunt watched them for a few seconds, took Kitty’s biro out of her hand, and left for the store cupboard.
“Did she just steal my pen?” Kitty said blankly.
“I think so,” Al said, frowning. Professor Hunt was head of Slytherin. Having a kleptomaniac for their head of house would make Al’s plan more difficult.
“That’s crazy,” Messalina announced decisively. Professor Hunt returned from the store cupboard carrying a quill and inkpot, placed them on the table next to Kitty, and turned to move on.
“Professor?” Kitty asked timidly. “Can I have my biro back? They’re just easier to write with than quills, so-”
Professor Hunt looked at Kitty blankly and said “In this class you will use a quill.” Then she moved on without a single backwards look. Kitty made a small miserable noise.
“Our prefects told us she was a cow,” Messalina said, a little smugly.
“You have to use a quill in the exams,” Al pointed out to Kitty. “Maybe she just wants you to get some practise and she’s not very good with people?” Lots of Aurors weren’t good with people and nobody minded, at least so long as they didn’t go crazy and start gibbering and setting fire to the office like Auror Philpott did two years ago.
After another fifteen minutes, the potion was finished and had turned clear as glass. Professor Hunt was pacing around the room again, patiently checking everyone’s work. Faith and the Gryffindor boy she had been working with hadn’t done well at all. Professor Hunt prodded the burnt black mess at the bottom their cauldron with her wand. It went ‘glop’.
“Harper, Lassiter,” Professor Hunt said slowly, scooping up a tiny quantity in a little spoon and staring at it, “In future please follow the instructions on the board. Five points each from Slytherin and Gryffindor.” Faith kicked the table leg.
On the bright side, Professor Hunt declared Al and Messalina’s potion the best in the class and awarded them fifteen points each before returning to the blackboard. The list of instructions was already erasing itself. Professor Hunt picked up the blackboard pointer and turned slowly to face the class.
One very complicated hour later, Al and the Slytherins were climbing out of the dungeons with headaches and a six-inch essay to do on the uses of Dirigible Plums, which was odd because no-one had so much as mentioned them during the lesson. Faith was looking over her schedule and frowning.
"Um. Faith," Kitty said. "Losing house points... that's bad, right?" She chewed anxiously at the skin around her thumbnail.
“I know, I know, I’ll make it up in Charms, I swear,” Faith said, packing her schedule back into her bag.
“...the next lessons are History of Magic and Herbology,” Score pointed out.
“I know,” Faith said, in a very James-like voice of despair.
History of Magic turned out to be the most boring lesson Al had ever sat through, including Health and Safety Hour at his Muggle primary school. Professor Binns came in through the blackboard, which made Kitty shriek, and started to lecture in a thin, reedy voice about goblin uprising in the seventeenth century.
Al and the Slytherins stared at him for a few minutes, then three of them realised they should have started taking notes and dived for their bags. Faith sat and stared at him blankly, head tilted to one side, mouth hanging open, forehead creased in bemusement. Score leant over and placed a scroll underneath her right hand and a quill in it. This had no apparent effect. Score thumped her on the arm.
Faith and Score had a brief conversation in gesture and mime, which ended in him shoving his desk closer to hers and putting his notes where she could see them. Al struggled to pick names and dates out of the high-pitched monotone, while Kitty had clearly given up and was just reading the textbook.
Professor Binns didn’t seem to notice any of this.
Lunch wasn’t much better. At first, everything had been going perfectly normally. Al had been eating a sausage and looking through One Thousand Magical Herbs and Fungi. Score had been staring sourly at a chip, Lia was reading to the whole table from a book entitled Famous Slytherins, Kitty was covering her fried tomatoes with ketchup and Faith had gone over to the Hufflepuff table, where she was chattering at Lew.
Then Grimalkin had turned to Avery and said, “Do you think it’s odd that we haven’t seen His Bloodiness yet this year?”
“No,” said Avery, who was carefully constructing a chip butty.
Then Al felt a sudden sharp coldness, like someone dropping ice cubes down his robes, all along his left arm. He recoiled and looked up automatically. The Bloody Baron loomed over him.
Al cannoned sideways into Kitty, who shrieked and clutched at him. The Bloody Baron stared down at them, grim and gaunt, his robes stained with translucent blood and his eyes like black tunnels.
“He’s our house ghost, Cook. I sincerely doubt that he’s going to kill you,” Score said, not looking up from his chip.
“That’s true. We have no records of the Bloody Baron ever killing anyone,” Grimalkin said.
“He’s covered in blood!” Kitty wailed.
“Don’t leap to conclusions, Cook,” Lia ordered. “For all we know, he died from tripping over in a slaughterhouse.” She went back to her book.
Kitty buried her face in Al’s shoulder and said, “Tell me when he’s gone.” The Bloody Baron watched them for a few seconds, then shifted his gaze to Score, who defiantly ate his chip. Then he vanished.
“He can be invisible?” Al asked faintly. “So he could have been there for ages?”
“An amount of time, certainly,” Grim said. “Look on the bright side. He might have gone now!”
Kitty made a miserable noise but finally let go of her deathgrip on Al’s robes.
“I didn’t think ghosts would bother you so much,” Al said to her. It must be a Muggleborn thing.
“The ghosts are creepy,” Kitty explained miserably into Al’s shoulder. Al didn’t think the ghosts were as bad as the Thestrals. Thestrals might actually eat people.
“And then obviously there’s Voldemort,” Lia finished, snapping the book shut. “He’s not in there, though. It’s focused more on non-evil alumni.”
“None of us want to emulate Voldemort, though,” a third-year pointed out. “I think you forgot the purpose of the talk.”
“Well, I don’t,” said the third-year. “Everyone here who wants to be Voldemort when they grow up, raise your hand.”
“Why not?” Lia asked. “Powerful, intelligent, internationally feared, well-read - mind you, I can’t endorse him as a role model whole-heartedly because I have no idea what his dress sense was like, but in most respects he seems all right. I think everyone here should strive to be as much like Voldemort as possible, without the mass murder.” She glanced sideways at Avery, who was contemplating his chip butty and didn’t seem to be paying attention. Al and most of the Slytherins stared at her.
“Well, I have to discourage you from mass murder, don’t I? It’s in the prefect guidelines.” Lia looked at them like they were all a bit thick. Avery added some pepper to his chip butty and continued gazing at it meditatively. Faith bounded back to the Slytherin table, grinning like a lunatic.
“You look happy,” Al said. “What happened?”
“Talked to Lew,” Faith said, jerked a thumb back over her shoulder at him, and grabbed a Cornish pasty. Al looked over at the Hufflepuff table. One of their prefects was leaning over the table to speak to Lew and scowling. Lew was nodding. Al watched them with a vague sense of apprehension until Lew turned around and called, “Faith?”
“Are you going to the library after classes?”
Faith nodded and made affirmative noises through her Cornish pasty.
“I’ll meet you there, then,” Lew said, and went back to his soup. The prefect made a frustrated gesture and put her head in her hands. Al would have liked to have gone over and talked to him, but that was when they realised they had to leave to get down to Greenhouse One before Herbology. Al was looking forward to Herbology, mostly because he’d get to talk to Rosie.
Greenhouse One was locked when they got down there, though, and the Ravenclaws were all milling around outside. Al looked through the glass to see if Neville was inside, but all he could see was a long, sunlit room full of colourful plants - well, colourful plants and Neville’s Mimbulus Mimbletonia on the corner of his desk.
Rosie was standing exactly in the middle of the Ravenclaws. Al dashed over to her and opened his mouth to say Hi.
“Professor Longbottom’s coming,” Rosie said, pointing.
“Hello!” Neville – Professor Longbottom, Al corrected himself - greeted them, with a smile for Rosie and Al. Al waved. “We’re not going into the greenhouse today. If you’ll follow me?”
They all followed him over the lawns, towards the Forbidden Forest. Al was a bit worried about that, until Nev – Professor Longbottom stopped them all at the top of a small hill, looking down towards a willow tree in the hollow.
“Could everyone move until they can see the tree clearly?” Professor Neville asked, taking a rock out of his bag. He was eyeing the tree thoughtfully. It was the same sort of look Al’s dad had when he was thinking about range and blast radiuses.
Al took several steps backwards, but managed to stay next to Rosie anyway.
“Shouldn’t you go stand with the Slytherins? You want to make friends with your housemates, don’t you?” she whispered.
“Well, yeah, but I wanted to talk to-”
Rosie hissed at him, because Professor Neville had started talking.
“A lot of people think the only point to Herbology is to grow Potions ingredients. That’s not true. Herbology’s very interesting by itself, really – and it’s useful, because lots of magical plants can be dangerous when you don’t know what you’re dealing with. Like this one.”
He flung the rock at the willow tree, and it vanished through the slender hanging leaves. Then the tree exploded into motion, heavy boughs swinging like fists and the thin branches lashing about wildly. Kitty squeaked, and Faith flung an arm around her shoulders.
“We’re completely safe up here,” Professor Neville said reassuringly. “It’d be very stupid to go closer than this, though. A student here once lost an eye trying to get close enough to touch the trunk.”
Kitty made a noise that sounded sort of like 'eep'.
“Up here we’re completely safe, though,” Professor Neville said, much more loudly and with a worried glance in Kitty’s direction. Faith and Score looked like they were taking good care of her, though.
“Anyway...um...” Professor Neville seemed to lose his thread of thought for a second. “The Whomping Willow – that’s its name – is a good example of the reasons why magical modification of plants is illegal in England. We will be working with species that have been altered in the past, but trying to do it yourselves is against the law.”
Faith made a grumpy face.
“More to the point,” Professor Neville said, and opened his bag to show that it was full of stones. “Would anyone like to throw a rock at a tree?”
As they gathered around to pick a rock, Al tried to speak to Rosie but she just hissed at him.
“Albus, be quiet, I’m trying to work!” Work at what? Selecting a pebble? Al knew Rosie was a bit of a perfectionist, but he hadn’t thought she was that bad.
“Rosie, do you not want to talk to me or something?”
Rosie made an exasperated noise. “Albus, I’m not ignoring you. I just want to do well at this!” She threw a rock down at the Whomping Willow, which creaked and tried to knock the rock out of the air.
“All right,” Al said. “Do you want to meet up in the library after classes?” He picked a rock out of the bag at random and retreated.
“I already planned to study with my housemates,” Rosie answered. That was disappointing, but Al supposed she just wanted to get to know the other people in her house and if she had plans already, it would be bad manners to break them.
“…Do you want to go to the library tomorrow evening, then?” Al asked, tossing the rock up and down in his hand.
“Albus, shouldn’t you be trying to make friends with your housemates?” Rosie asked, watching the Whomping Willow. It seemed to have realised somehow where all the rocks were coming from, and was straining its branches towards them. “We can spend lots of time together over the holidays, so we should both focus on making friends with-” She trailed off, because Al was staring at her. “It’s just that – you remember, Professor Flitwick said that our houses would be like our families here, so-”
“I’m your first cousin. How are they more your family than me?” Al said, a little louder than he’d meant to. He remembered the Hufflepuff prefect. “Do you just not want to be friends with me any more?” Kitty and Faith looked up. So did some of the Ravenclaws.
“Of course not!” Rosie protested. “I mean - I just think we should be spending more time with our housemates, and you should be able to manage without me now anyway so-”
Rosie was probably right. She usually was. Al should get to know his housemates, and obviously if he was spending all his time with the Slytherins then he couldn’t hang out with - No. He walked away.
“Albus!” Rosie gasped. He glanced back. She was standing with one hand over her mouth, just staring at him. The Ravenclaw girl next to her leant over and whispered into her ear. Al plunked himself down on the grass next to Faith.
He should have seen that coming, really. Rosie liked to fit into a group.
For several seconds Faith just stared at Rosie, mouth open. Then she shook her head and called Rosie an extremely rude word. Kitty squeaked.
“What a cow. You’re better off without her, Potter.” She tossed a rock from hand to hand like she was considering bouncing it off Rosie’s skull.
“Um,” Kitty said. “It’s only the first day. Maybe she just doesn’t want to upset her housemates on her first day? And she’ll relax later?” She glanced up at Faith, saw her indignant expression, and hurriedly apologized.
“Malfoy, it’s your turn to be supportive,” Faith said to Score, and elbowed him in the ribs.
“I don’t know either party very well, so I would rather refrain from commenting,” Score said, apparently completely absorbed in his rock.
“This vague noncommittal rubbish is getting really dull, Malfoy,” Faith said. Al gave them all a weak smile.
After that, Herbology passed mostly in silence. Rosie glanced down to where Al was sitting a couple of times, but the boy on her right distracted her quickly each time. Al tried to concentrate on Professor Neville’s lecture on intelligence in plants, but it didn’t help much. The only bright spot was when Neville came around after taking the register, when they were out of rocks and the tree had settled down, and murmured to him “Don’t worry about Rosie. Ten points to Slytherin.” Unfortunately, immediately after that he deducted five points from Faith for getting careless and nearly braining a Ravenclaw with a stray rock, so it didn’t cheer him up very much.
Al trailed behind his housemates, lost in thought, as they headed back up to the castle. He hadn’t thought he would have to do it without Rosie. But…he hadn’t told her about his plan, had he? He knew she would only have tried to talk him out of it. Rosie liked to fit in, and she would have hated that he was doing anything out of the ordinary. That was why he hadn’t told her he didn’t want to be in Gryffindor.
Al bit his lip. He didn’t know if he even could convince Rosie to be friends with him again. And he wasn’t sure that he even wanted to.
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