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    Albus was amazed at how much extra time he had now that he did not have to go to Gryffindor Quidditch practice.  During the next week, he got all his homework done on time and got a decent amount of sleep.  Plus, he made fewer trips to the hospital wing, which he attributed to having more sleep.

    Classes were going well.  Albus was very glad they had moved onto more exciting creatures in Care of Magical Creatures.  They weren't up to hippogriffs or thestrals, but nifflers were certainly entertaining.  Despite the rather boring start, Care of Magical Creatures was quickly becoming one of Albus's favorite classes.  He seemed to have an affinity for the variety of animals they learned about; something Hagrid was quick to notice.

    Arithmancy was turning out to be kind of dry, but Albus was just happy he wasn't taking Divination.  Even John was beginning to get tired of making up fake predictions for Trelawney.  'What's the point?' he had shouted out angrily one night as they were working on homework.  Albus wasn't able to suppress his grin at that, which earned him a Divination book to the head when John saw Albus's smirk.

    Defense Against the Dark Arts continued to be the strangest class Albus had ever attended.  He was beginning to think he was enjoying it, but still wasn't sure.  He liked the class, but wasn't sure if he liked Balladanis himself.

    The professor continued to be a mystery to students of all years.  Hours were spent debating his background in the common room.  He seemed to take points away equally from each house, which either meant he was extremely fair or had never attended Hogwarts himself.  Quite a few students had asked their parents if they'd ever heard of Balladanis (namely, had they gone to school with him), but so far none of the parents had.

    Balladanis's teaching methods were certainly unique.  Albus could count on one hand the number of actual lectures he had had in that class.  Most all the lessons were practical, but not in the same way Harry had done them.  Harry's method had been very caring and all about trying.  Balladanis's methods were more harsh and focused on success.  He insisted that everyone succeed and refused to let anyone stop until they did, even if it meant coming in for extra help.

    The amount of students going in for extra help was increasing quickly.  Matt was no longer seen as weak or odd for having to go in for extra help.  Nearly half of Albus's class was spending extra time with Balladanis at least once a week.  The professor still hadn't let Matt stop going.

    "Stand up!"  Balladanis barked at Albus's class.

    These two words were frequently spoken by the professor.  Albus wondered why he didn't just do away with the desks all together instead of having to move them at the beginning of each class.

    "Get a move on!"  he shouted,  "Unless you think your books will attack you.  Books can only get you so far.  You need to practice!"

    The class spent nearly an hour practicing the spell to repel grindylows and once the bell rang, Balladanis announced that they'd be practicing on real grindylows in the next class.

    "Brickston!"  Balladanis announced,  "You'll be coming in for extra help tomorrow night.  You may come the same time Eckerton does."

    Albus didn't think John had done that bad with the spell.  It had taken him a while, but by the end of the class he had managed it.  Albus was beginning to think that by the end of the year, everyone would be going in for extra help.

    "He's certifiably insane,"  John muttered as they walked to potions after they left the Defense classroom.

    "Well, I'm kind of glad you're going in for help,"  Matt said,  "You can keep Amanda and I company."

    "That's nearly all of us going in for help,"  Rose commented,  "Just Al and Linda and I."

    Kaden had been going for help nearly as long as Matt had.  Amanda had started a few days ago.

    "Albus won't ever have to go,"  Matt said,  "He's too good at Defense."

    "I'm not that great at it,"  Albus muttered quietly.  Sure, he managed all the spells, but it's not like they were very advanced.

                        ******

    "What do you think Balladanis did before he taught here?"  Kaden mused late the next day.
   
    "Dunno,"  Albus shrugged.

    "I think he was an Auror,"  John said,  "I mean, he obviously hates the dark arts."

    "No,"  Albus shook his head,  "My dad would have mentioned that."

    "Maybe he was a foreign Auror,"  John suggested.

    "But he sounds British,"  Matt pointed out.

    "So do you, for the most part, but you're from Australia,"  John countered.

    "Really?  I always thought I sounded Australian."

    "You do a bit.  But your parents sound more Australian than you do.  Same with Amy,"  Albus told him.

    "Oh,"  Matt shrugged,  "So I guess he could be foreign."

    "Why did he come teach here, then?"  Albus asked.

    No one had an answer to that.  Albus was really curious to what the answer was, but it's not like he could actually ask the professor.  In fact, the idea of being alone with Balladanis kind of scared him.  He was really glad he didn't have to see the professor outside of class.

    The first Inter-School Dueling Tournament was scheduled to take place the next day.  The entire school was buzzing about it.  It was the first big competition between the three schools.  Albus didn't know a whole lot of people who were on the Hogwarts Dueling Team.  Just his cousin, Fred.  Despite this, he was still excited.  Albus absolutely loved dueling and wished he was old enough to be on the school team.

    The tournament was taking place in the Great Hall, since the dueling chamber was much too small to accommodate the entire school.  Albus walked with his friends into the room and saw that all the tables had disappeared.  They were replaced with raised stands, sort of like the Quidditch pitch.  Albus found seats towards the front and waited impatiently for the tournament to begin.

    The dueling area was a raised platform in front of the stands.  On the other side of it was a smaller set of stands, in which all the teachers were filing into.  The mysterious wizard who had been seen talking to Killigan, but never introduced, was sitting next to the Australian headmaster, but neither of them were talking.  Both wore identical looks of determination mingled with fascination.  A witch Albus didn't recognize was seated next to Roberts and the two of them were talking.  Albus assumed she was from New York.  The Auror who had been assigned to patrol Hogwarts that week was talking with Albus's Uncle Percy, who had came to represent the Ministry.  Neither Albus's dad nor his Uncle Ron were there, so Albus assumed they were busy with work.

    Once all the students, teachers, and various other spectators were seated, Professor Kendrick stood up and everyone quieted down.

    "Welcome, students, staff, and visitors to the first Dueling Tournament between Hogwarts, the Australian School of Sorcery, and the Adirondack Academy of Magic.  All three schools will duel this afternoon.  Each school's team has five students and each student will participate in two duels.  Whichever student wins the duel gets a point for their school.  The school with the most points will win.  But keep in mind that this is just the first of many tournaments that will take place during this year.  Now, here are the teams."  Kendrick gestured to a door on the side of the room.

    The door opened and Professor Longbottom led the Hogwarts team into the room.  The other two schools' teams followed and Albus didn't recognize either of their professors.  He hadn't really thought about the other teams' captains before.  He kind of figured they had them, but hadn't seen them before.  He guessed they just came to Hogwarts for practices.  They must have set up some kind of special floo connection with the school.

    The tournament commenced in much the same way the Junior Dueling Club had, except only one duel took place at a time.  The spells used were much more advanced, too.  The spell that Slytherin had used on Matt during the previous years paled in comparison to the ones being used by the older students.  Albus was absolutely fascinated.  He paid rapt attention and wished that he could learn such advanced spells.

    The tournament took nearly two hours, but Albus wasn't bored at all.  In fact, he was kind of disappointed when the last duel was over.

    Professor Kendrick tallied the points and then rose once again.  "Thank you everyone.  Each and every student performed well today.  However, this is a tournament and I must declare a winner.  And that winner is the Adirondack Academy of Magic.  Congratulations to them!"

    There was a small amount of loud applause from the New Yorkers who were in the audience, as well as some polite applause from everyone else.  Albus sighed and clapped politely along with most of his fellow students.

    "Well, it's only the first tournament,"  Matt said.

    "Yeah,"  Albus agreed,  "Plus there's Quidditch."

    "And we've got a brilliant Quidditch team!"  John grinned as he stood up,  "Now we've just got to hope that one of those other Chasers breaks something so Albus can play next week."

    "John!"  Rose scolded.

    "I'm only kidding,"  John shrugged,  "Sort of."

    "We could just give one of them the orange end of a puking pastille,"  Kaden suggested,  "And not give them the purple half."

    "Wouldn't work,"  John sighed,  "Madam Pomfrey recognizes those things now."

    "I know I probably won't get to play,"  Albus said as they left the room,  "You don't need to land yourselves in detention to get me a place on the team."

    "We know,"  Kaden said,  "We're just joking."

    Albus figured they were, but when it came to those two, one just never knew.

                        ******

    Albus stowed his broom in his dormitory late Tuesday evening following a particularly tiring Quidditch practice.  Wood's focus during this particular practice had been goal scoring, so Albus had worked hard the entire two hours.  At least the focus hadn't been on dodging Bludgers.  He yawned, grabbed his bag and headed out of the common room.  He walked slowly to the Marauder's Den, thinking he could squeeze a bit of homework in before bed.

    "Albus!"  someone shouted as Albus reached the suits of armor in front of the room.

    Albus turned around and saw Rose, red hair flying behind her, running down the corridor towards him.  "Rose?"

    "Albus!"  Rose panted,  "I saw you leave the common room."

    "Er, yeah,"  Albus shrugged.  He usually did his homework in the Marauder's Den since it was quieter and easier to concentrate.

    "I wanted to talk to you,"  Rose said.

    "Ok,"  Albus said as he located the paw prints on the opposite wall,  "We can talk in here."

    "Actually,"  Rose said,  "I kind of wanted to talk to you alone.  Are Matt, John, and Kaden in there?"

    "Probably,"  Albus replied.  What did Rose want to talk about that she didn't want their other friends to hear?  "I didn't see them in the common room."

    "Well, I'd rather talk to you alone, first,"  Rose shifted nervously from foot to foot.

    Albus looked at her strangely.  Rose rarely ever looked nervous, especially when she was talking to Albus.  What could she possibly have to tell him?

    "Er, all right,"  Albus said slowly,  "I guess we could find an empty classroom or something...."

    "Good,"  Rose nodded and took off down the corridor.  Albus ran after her and she found an empty classroom.  Albus followed her into it and shut the door behind him.  "What is it?"

    Rose paced around the room for a bit, wringing her hands together, before letting out a loud sigh and leaning up against one of the desks.  "It's about Linda."

    Albus blinked.  Linda?  He barely knew her.  What could Rose possibly have to say about Linda?  "Linda?"

    "Yes, Linda,"  Rose sighed,  "You know Amanda and I are sort of becoming friends with her.  Well, we are friends with her now.  She talks to us.  I think she misses Australia.  Anyway, I was sort of thinking it would be good if she started to make friends here.  You know, like you.  And maybe Matt, John, and Kaden."

    Albus still had no idea why Rose felt the need to talk to him alone about this.  She wanted Albus to befriend Linda.  How was he going to do that if Linda didn't say a word around him?  Not to mention the fact that Matt didn't seem to like her.

    "Er, why exactly didn't you want Matt, John, and Kaden to hear this?"  Albus asked,  "You can't really expect them to become friends with Linda unless you tell them you want them to."

    "I know that,"  Rose groaned,  "But the four of you are always holing up in the Marauder's Den, so I hardly see any of you anymore.  What I wanted to know was whether Linda could come into the Marauder's Den with us."

    Albus stared at his cousin.  So that was what she wanted to talk about.  "You want Linda to come into the Marauder's Den?"

    "Yes,"  Rose nodded,  "She's in the common room with Amanda.  Can she?  I'll go get them right now if you say yes."

    "Wait, wait,"  Albus shook his head,  "It's not up to me."

    "Yes it is!"  Rose replied,  "You found that map.  It's yours, so the room is yours."

    "No it's not,"  Albus said,  "It's Matt, John, and Kaden's, too.  All four of  us had to work to get that map to show up and to find the room.  If it weren't for them, it would still be a blank piece of parchment."

    "But-"

    "No, Rose,"  Albus said irritably,  "I can't just let you bring random people into the room without asking everyone."

    Albus and his friends hadn't really thought much about whether they'd let other people into the room, but Albus knew he couldn't do it without talking to them.  Letting Rose and Amanda in had been a given, since they helped with it, but Linda certainly hadn't helped.

    "I have to talk to Matt, John, and Kaden,"  Albus told her,  "I can talk to them now, if you want."

    "All right,"  Rose sighed and stood up.

    Neither of the cousins said a word to each other as they walked back to the Marauder's Den.  Albus was still rather bewildered by this whole thing.  First, he had never really talked to his friends about letting other people into the Marauder's Den.  He always assumed it would be their secret.  He wasn't entirely sure he wanted anyone else in it, no matter what his friends thought.  Second, it was rather out of character for Rose to be this spontaneous and demanding.  Whether this was due to the increased work load, the sudden competition in class brought on by Linda, or something else entirely, Albus didn't know.

    Albus took a deep breath as he opened the door to the room and glanced at Rose.  She was looking more nervous than before.  Albus walked into the room and paused.  John and Kaden were lounging on the floor, playing a rather rowdy game of chess (the two of them could turn any board game into something physical), while their neglected homework sat haphazardly on the table.  Matt was paying vague attention to the game while stretched out on the couch.  It didn't surprise Albus that he wasn't doing much, since the full moon was the next night.  John and Kaden looked up when they heard the door open.

    "Albus!"  Kaden shouted,  "How was practice?"

    "Rose!"  John grinned,  "I was beginning to think you'd forgotten about this place.  I don't think I've seen you here in over a month."

    "Hey, John, Kaden,"  Albus smiled,  "Practice was good.  What have you lot been up to?"

    "Beating Kaden at chess,"  John explained.

    "Hey, I beat you once!"  Kaden countered.

    "Only once,"  John repeated,  "I've won four games."

    "I'm surprised neither of you have detention tonight,"  Albus smirked.

    "They almost did,"  Matt announced,  "Professor Longbottom caught them sneaking into the girl's toilet-"

    "What were you doing in there?"  Albus raised his eyebrows.

    "We were going to put dung bombs in there,"  Kaden explained.

    "Anyway,"  Matt continued,  "Longbottom took pity on them since they're already doing so many detentions and only took away points."

    "Professor Longbottom is great,"  John grinned.

    "I wouldn't expect him to let you off again,"  Matt pointed out.

    "Want to play chess, Rose?"  John asked,  "I could use with some real competition."

    "Hey!"  Kaden crossed his arms across his chest,  "I'm real competition."

    Albus glanced at Rose.  "Er, Rose has something she wanted to ask us,"  Albus said quietly.

    Rose glared at Albus.  Clearly she wanted him to bring up the topic.  Albus gave her a quick shake of his head.  There was no way he was going to ask.  She was the one who wanted Linda there.

    "Well, what is it?"  John asked,  "If it's about homework, I'll have you know that I've already finished most of it."

    "It's not about homework,"  Rose sighed and sat down on the end of the couch that Matt wasn't occupying.

    Albus settled himself into an armchair opposite the couch and waited for his cousin to continue.

    Rose took a deep breath.  "You lot know Amanda and I have sort of become friends with Linda, right?"

    "Yeah,"  John said and Kaden nodded.

    "Well, since then Amanda and I have been spending more time in the common room with her.  But you lot still hang out here all the time...."  her voice trailed off.

    "Well, yeah, because this room is so much better than the common room,"  Kaden pointed out.

    "I know,"  Rose sighed,  "And I do miss being with all of you, but at the same time, Linda's my friend now, too."

    "So spend time with all of us,"  John said,  "I'm sure Linda would be fine by herself for a few hours a day so you can be here with us."

    Rose groaned.  "That wasn't what I had in mind.  What I want is for all of us to spend time together.  As in you lot can become friends with Linda, too.  She needs more friends."

    "She doesn't talk,"  Kaden said.

    "She does when she gets to know you,"  Rose explained.

    "So what you're saying,"  John began,  "Is that you want us to stop hanging out in this brilliant room and go back to the boring common room?"

    "No, of course not,"  Rose replied,  "I want all of us to hang out here.  Linda, too."

    The room was completely silent.  Albus watched his friends' reactions with great interest.  Both John and Kaden gaped at Rose and then turned to look at Albus.  They then turned their heads back to Rose, but didn't say anything.  Matt suddenly sat up, eyes wide open, and stared at Rose with an incredulous look on his face.

    Nobody said a word for what must have been nearly five minutes.  Albus kept looking from Rose to his friends and back.  Rose was looking nervously at everybody in turn and then sending pleading glances at Albus.  Albus was about to open his mouth, when Matt finally broke the stony silence.

    "No,"  he said.  It was hardly more than a whisper, but was very forceful.

    "We haven't let anyone else in,"  John pointed out,  "Why should Linda be the first?"

    Kaden turned to Albus.  "What do you think, Albus?"

    "Er-"  Albus began.

    "Why not?"  Rose demanded,  "She's mine and Amanda's friend."

    "But she's not our friend,"  John said.

    "But she could be!"  Rose insisted.

    "Then we'll become friends with her before we let her in the room!"  John replied,  "It's still our secret.  We haven't even told Teddy about it yet."

    Albus turned and looked at John.  He hadn't even thought about that.  John had a point.  They hadn't told Teddy about the room yet.  Or his dad.  Shouldn't they see it before other people did?

    "If anyone has the right to know about this room, it's Teddy and my dad,"  Albus said quietly.
   
    "Yes, but they aren't here,"  Rose pointed out,  "Come on, why won't you let her in?"

    "We don't know her,"  John said.

    "She's got no connections to it,"  Albus said.

    "I like keeping it a secret,"  Kaden said.

    "You could know her!"  Rose shouted,  "Then she would have connections to it.  And it would still be a secret."

    "Look, Rose,"  Matt said loudly,  "We're not going to let her in!  You can't convince us otherwise!"

    Albus, John, and Kaden turned to look at each other.  Albus had never heard Matt raise his voice like that, and certainly not with Rose.

    "And what's your reason why she can't?"  Rose asked icily.

    Matt glared at her.  "They're the same as Albus, John, and Kaden's!"

    "You just don't like her!"  Rose shouted.

    "So what if I don't?"  Matt asked hotly.

    "You don't even know her!  You haven't said one word to her the whole time she's been here!"

    "Neither has she!"  Matt yelled.

    "You lot are so stubborn!"  Rose huffed,  "I just don't get why you won't let her-"

    "Do you really want to know why?"  Matt raised his voice even louder,  "I honestly wouldn't think I'd have to tell you!  You're smart!  This is the one place in the castle that nobody else knows about!  It's the only place I can go and get some peace and quiet and not have to worry about anyone else barging in!  The only people who know about it already know what I am, so I can actually relax!  If you let Linda in here, it won't be like that anymore!  I like the quiet of this place.  And it was quiet before you came in here demanding that we let a witch we hardly know into it!"

    Matt leaned back against the arm of the couch and squeezed his eyes shut as he rubbed his temple.

    Albus stared in shock at John and Kaden.  Albus had never seen Matt shout at someone like that.  Sure, he got a bit short with people around the full moon, but had never had a full-blown row like this.

    "Well, maybe if you become friends with Linda, you'll tell her what you are,"  Rose said.  She looked quite taken aback that Matt had shouted at her like that.

    "Are you bloody insane?!"  Matt yelled, causing him to wince even more.  Albus had a feeling he was giving himself a headache.

    "You told us,"  Rose said.

    "That's different,"  Matt shook his head,  "You figured it out on your own."

    "What if we hadn't?"

    "I wouldn't have told you,"  Matt muttered,  "And Linda's going back to Australia after this year, so there really wouldn't be a point."

    "You know, since she's from Australia, she might already know,"  Rose pointed out,  "You did say that the entire country found out shortly before you moved."

    That was the wrong thing to say.  Albus knew she was going to say it just moments before she finished and he tried to shake his head to tell her to stop, but she either didn't notice or didn't want to stop.

    All the color drained from Matt's face and with it most of the anger.  He merely looked a little scared now.

    "You think I haven't thought about that?"  he asked quietly,  "Why do you think I wasn't thrilled about this whole tournament thing?  Why do you think I try to avoid anyone from Australia?  I mean, it was five years ago, so I really hope most people have forgotten about it, but all it would take was one of them to remember and soon the whole school would know."

    "I doubt Linda would tell anyone, if she did know,"  Rose said.

    "Yeah, because she doesn't talk,"  Kaden laughed.

    Leave it to Kaden to find humor in this situation, Albus thought.  He couldn't help but grin at his cousin's statement himself.

    "Could you at least think about it?"  Rose asked.

    "No,"  Matt raised his voice again,  "Don't you get it?  I don't want to risk anyone else finding out.  I don't want this to be a repeat of what happened in Australia.  I like it here.  I don't want to move again.  So I'm not going to change my mind.  I'm going to bed."

    Matt got up off the couch and walked slowly over to his bed and rammed the curtains shut behind him.

    Albus exchanged glances with John and Kaden, completely at a loss as to what to say.  Rose got up off the couch a moment later and left the room without another word.  Albus, John, and Kaden quietly began to work on their homework, but the remainder of the evening was very subdued.  Albus stared at his Herbology book, but couldn't possibly concentrate on it after the row his cousin and best friend had just had.


A/N:  Thanks to my beta, Dancer_of_Starlight as well as everyone who has read and reviewed this!

NaNoWriMo is now over and I managed to win, although not nearly as quickly as I did last year.  Big congratulations to Dancer_of_Starlight for winning as well, during her first year of the regular NaNo program!  Now it's back to fan fic for the time being.

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