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At ten o’clock, I dragged my old, sticker-covered trunk out of my room and into the kitchen, kneeling beside the fireplace. My stomach was churning around the toast I had forced myself to swallow, my shaking hands groping the hearth for the bag of Floo Powder. Finally, I was able to open the bag and pour a small pile of the stuff into my palm, casting a quick charm to light the logs in the fireplace.

I cast one last look around the kitchen, my heart already throbbing for home, as I tossed the handful of powder into the fire and yelled, “Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Headmaster Longbottom’s office!”

The fire had barely turned green before I leaped into it, the heat making my hair rustle as I was sucked down into the hearth. I was barely able to keep my grip on my trunk as I spun around, my eyes closed to keep the majority of the nausea at bay.

When I exploded out of the warm tunnel, I landed face-first on a hardwood floor, my head smacking against a hefty table leg so hard that I felt a welt rise. I groaned and pushed myself up, rising to my unsteady feet in order to look around.

The room was filled with tables bowing under the weight of so many gleaming inventions that my eyes hurt with the light they reflect. The walls were lined with many moving portraits, and close to the far wall was a paper-coated desk, behind which was Headmaster Longbottom.

“Sir,” I said, walking forward to shake his hand again.

He smiled and rose from his seat, saying, “Welcome to Hogwarts, my dear Elaina. How are you?”

“Fine, thank you.” I looked around again, trying to hide my curiosity best I could. Suddenly, all of my trepidation is gone, replaced with only eagerness. I wanted to run through the halls of the school, find every nook and cranny and hidden spot, and know every secret. I was experiencing what every Hogwarts first-year probably felt the first week of their school career, but the behavior was a little less cute on a sixteen-year-old girl.

“We may as well get down to business.” Headmaster Longbottom rubbed his hands together eagerly and turned to his desk, picking up a singed old hat that looked like it had been around the rough side of the tracks a few times too many. My eyebrows rose at the sight of it as he neared me, holding it out.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Didn’t your father tell you? It’s the Sorting Hat. We need to know what house you belong to.”

“But I thought you were just going to put me in a random dorm!” I exclaimed, crossing my arms.

“Oh no, no, no, no. We need to keep up the pretences of you being a Scottish homeschooled witch who wanted to come to Hogwarts for her last year.”

“Sir, it’s October. I’m hardly going to be able to fake it.”

“That’s why we decided that it would be best to tell the others that your mother died recently and you were trying to make sure everything was in order at home.”

I sighed and brushed my hair out of my eyes. “Fine,” I said. “Put the hat on me. It’s not like I’ll be spending a whole lot of time with my classmates anyway.”

“Eight hours a day, minimum,” Longbottom said. “You will be going to classes.”

“I know, but I won’t have to converse with them too much then.”

He laughed and dropped the hat on my head.

I could feel the hat rustling and a wave of consciousness brushed my brain, making me want to recoil. I, who had experienced the mind-probing ways of the Bubsur one too many times, immediately threw up mental shields, stopping all cognizant thought.

Something chuckled in my mind, sending a shiver up my spine. You’re a smart one, girl, a hoarse voice said. You’re prepared. I like that. But I must insist that you let me in so I can place you where you belong.

“Should the hat be talking to me?” I asked quietly, peeking at Headmaster Longbottom.

He laughed again. “Yes, it should. That’s how it decides what your appropriate house is."

I sighed and, slowly, lower the barriers that I had raised in my mind. I could feel the hat probing around, sorting through memories and thoughts and everything. After a moment, the hat purred, Slyness characteristics of a Slytherin, you know. But acceptance is from Hufflepuff, and intelligence is from Ravenclaw. Of course, bravery is from Gryffindor, and that is obviously present. I may as well put you in with all of the other oddballs.

“I don’t like the way that sounds,” I muttered.

A voice, matching the one in my mind but much more substantial, said, “Best we shove her in Gryffindor, Headmaster.”

Longbottom smiled and reached out, taking the hat from my head. “You always act as if that is a terrible thing, my friend,” he said, placing the hat on his desk.

“Isn’t Gryffindor the one with the tower? Overlooking the lake?”

Longbottom nodded.

“Then why didn’t you just put me there in the first place?” I asked, reaching down and heaving on my trunk. “That way I could watch the lake at night.”

“Like I said before, dear, you will be spending time with your new dorm mates. We don’t want there to be a conflict of attitudes.”

I rolled my eyes and followed the Headmaster as he walked through the sea of odd instruments and into the school beyond. The moment we stepped into the hallway, however, there was a flash of robes and a black-haired boy my age ran past, pure terror on his face. As he turned the corner, there was a screech of pure, horrific rage and another flash of robes, another boy with a pair of moose antlers sticking from his head sprinted after him, spewing curses and threats at the top of his lungs.

I stared after them as Headmaster Longbottom chuckled and gestured for me to walk in the opposite direction. “Aren’t you going to do something about that?” I asked hesitantly as we moved away from the still-audible screams of anger.

“Oh, no. That’s just James Potter and his friend, Oak Wood. They’re always at each other’s throats – so much so that I gave up writing letters home several years ago. I believe they’ve been in detention more times than you’ve been in danger.”

I couldn’t help but smile slightly, turning my head to look down the corridor as if I could still see them. “At least this will be entertaining,” I muttered, almost to myself.

Longbottom giggled again as he said, “Entertaining isn’t even the beginning of it.”

 

I sat on my new bed and stared around at the others around me, a bit taken aback. When Professor Longbottom had told me I would be bunking with other girls, I had expected cleaned floors, bedside tables covered with beauty supplies, and the smell of artificial flowery perfume. What I got was, well, more like my room back at home when I hadn’t cleaned it in a month. The floor was coated with a layer of worn clothes and old magazines that were everything from Quidditch guides to ‘Ten Tips to Impressing Your Man’. There were beauty supplies, but most of them were open or discarded in a hurry, and the only artificial smell in the room was of Febreeze Air Freshener that really wasn’t enough to cover the smell of mud and broomstick polish. There were posters and newspaper clippings all over the walls and a pile of shoes in the corner. Beds were nothing but heaps of tangles sheets, dressers were thrown open and overflowing with underwear and socks, and the bathroom was decorated with muddy splatters.

Oh, and the food. There were chocolates and candies and even one or two sandwiches scattered all over the place.

The only clean spot was my bed, which, rest assured, would soon be a disgusting mess. My trunk was resting against the footboard, closed and locked with every charm I knew.

Slowly, I pushed myself off of my mattress and tugged at the sleeves of the new, Gryffindor-crest-adorned robes. After a final look around at my new home, I flipped my hood up over my face and walked out of the room.

Down the spiral staircase, through the children-filled common room, out the talking portrait of a morbidly obese woman in a frilly pink dress. I systematically began my searching from the very top floor down, poking my head into every room I could, prying at portraits that looked suspiciously like passageways, uncovering a few interesting secrets. There was a tapestry that hid a broom closet, an image of scenery that led to a dark staircase that popped out beside the Hufflepuff common room entrance, and a narrow corridor behind a portrait of a girl dressed like a china doll that ended up near the Library. I got lost frequently enough, but every time I did I would find a window and get my directions straight, easily getting back on track.

By the time I had walked every corridor from the Gryffindor tower to the Potions dungeon, my stomach was growling so loudly that I had to clench the muscles in my abdomen to keep it quiet. I wandered to the Great Hall, following my nose and realizing that all I had eaten all day was a measly piece of toast. I could almost hear my father’s voice, growling a reprimand at me.

Ella! He would yell. You’re no good to me if you’re weak with hunger! Get your head in the game and your food in your stomach!

The minute I thought of that, a wave of nostalgia washed over me so powerfully that I almost lost my appetite. Then I realized that I could easily write him a letter and I shook myself, forcing my feet to take me to the food.

The Great Hall really was spectacular. I had popped in briefly sometime that afternoon, but I hadn’t actually stopped to appreciate it. Now, the ceiling was the same puffy grey as the clouds overhead and all of the four gleaming tables were covered with polished gold flatware. Food was heaped everywhere, its rich smell permeating the air and making my stomach muscles have to work overtime to keep the rumbling to a minimum.

All of the tables were almost full of kids, so I wandered until I found one that was mostly people with the same crest as me. Then I walked down to the very end, closest to the far wall, and settled down where there were few people.

I reached out and began piling my plate high with the foods that Dad always told me to eat – meats and vegetables and fruits. I left the pastas and breads alone, as well as the scattering of deserts; even thinking about tasting chocolate pudding would have made my father furious.

As I gnawed on a piece of steak, a pack of my new fellow Gryffindor students tromped in from outside, their faces red with cold and happiness. They looked about my age and didn’t hesitate in filing in to my right, taking seats that were so close that it wasn’t difficult to listen to their conversation.

There were two girls and three boys, all of them long and lean and muscular. I recognized two of the boys from this morning, the ones named James Potter and Oak Wood. Pretty famous names – the sons of the Chosen One and the internationally renowned Quidditch player.

James, closest to me, had the male Potter tussled black hair, sharp face, and mischievously twisting lips. His eyes were the same luminous brown as the wooden table beneath us and he had a little bit of a heavier build than I remember the photos of his father having. There was something hauntingly attractive about him; it was the kind of face that wasn’t exactly stunning but you couldn’t get it out of your head.

Oak Wood was more flamboyant about his looks, now that the antlers were gone. Stronger features beneath straight brown hair, vibrant blue eyes on sharp cheekbones, thicker muscles. The boy beside him was a dark-skinned Arabic with curly black hair that brushed his collar and a thin face.

The girls weren’t as similar in appearance as the three boys were. One was a platinum blonde with corkscrew curls and vibrant green eyes and the other was a straight brunette that was so willowy that I was half expecting her to turn into a tree. All of them, however, were laughing and chatting as if there were no differences between them at all.

The girls were going on about people I didn’t yet know – mostly someone’s too-tight pants and how they needed and enlarging spell to fit properly. The boys were talking Quidditch, mostly the ever-approaching season and how their seeker needed work. From what I gathered by the latter conversation, all five of them were on the Gryffindor team – Wood was a keeper, like his father, and Potter and the two girls were chasers. The Arabic boy was a beater, which I wouldn’t have expected but understood once I gleaned the information.

I will admit that I sound like a stalker, going on like this, but you need to understand that I was struggling to learn as much as possible so I could blend in more. I wanted very little attention so all I would have to worry about was my mission to find out what this preying monster was and dispose of it.

After a few minutes of this divided conversation, they all began talking to one another, mentioning something that happened in Hogsmeade. The brunette girl was getting insulted, her face darkening in a scowl. James Potter was enjoying this reaction and continued teasing her mercilessly, having so much fun ridiculing whatever had happened that he didn’t notice her tightening grip on the apple she ate.


I did. I noticed every flinching muscle, every flare of anger, every biting retort. My mouth slowed in chewing a piece of meat as I watched her reaction to everything he said, getting closer and closer to the breaking point.

Thinking back, it would have been so much easier if I had just let what happened happen. I would have been able to float under the radar, no issues whatsoever. But I didn’t. I just had to intervene. Granted, it did make things a lot more fun, but also more complicated.

James, guffawing loudly, said, “Well, maybe if you closed your legs every now and then…”

The brunette’s face turned red in anger and she lobbed the apple at him with the strength of a very pissed off chaser.

I leaned forward and, faster than a flash, reached out, my hand opening as it arrived in the area an inch from James’s face. The apple landed in my palm with a satisfying thwack, juices oozing from between my fingers from the force of her throw and flying onto the boy’s head.

All of them turned to stare at me, their shock overruling their anger. I pulled my hand away from the boy and rolled the muscles in my fingers, flipping the apple into my palm. Carefully, I offered it to the brunette, saying quietly, “I think this is yours.”

Her hand trembled when she reached out and took it from me, the juice running from my palm onto the table as I tipped it. I wiped my fingers on my robes and rose, my appetite suddenly abated as I turned and walked from the group.

I made it to the staircase before a boy’s voice rose above the din of the hall behind me. I paused, one hand on the banister, and half-turned.

James Potter ran up to me, skidding to a halt just before he slammed into the first step. His eyes were bright with enthusiasm, a crooked grin on his face and his cheeks still shining with apple slush.

“Hey,” he said somewhat lamely, running his hand over his face.

“Hello,” I replied hesitantly.

“You saved my life back there.” He leaned against the stone balustrade, his eyes zeroed in on me as if I was the only thing that existed in the world.

“Yeah, well…” I glanced past him and watched a trio of girls march in through the doors, complaining loudly about the chill. “I hear death-by-apple is particularly disturbing.”

“Exactly. I owe you, girl-that-I-have-never-seen-before.”

“I do have a name.”

He smiled winningly. “Care to tell me what that is?”

“No.” I turned and began to march up the stairs, almost moving quicker than my new lackey.

“Please? I’ll tell you mine if you do!”

“I already know your name.”

“How?”

We reached the first floor and neither of us stopped. “Because I can read minds,” I retorted, wiggling my eyebrows at him.

“Oh yeah? Then what am I thinking about.”

“Quidditch and girls.” I said dryly.

“One girl in particular.” He leaped up in front of me and stopped, facing me with his arms crossed over his chest. “Do you play Quidditch at all? You’d make a fantastic seeker.”

“Go away James. Your friends will be looking for you.”

“Let them look.” He reached out and, before I could stop him, brushed my hood from my face. I wanted to retreat from the flickering light in the hallway, but I couldn’t – there was no way I was about to show fear or nervousness in front of this boy. “Please, Madame Life Saver.”

“No, Sir Mucho Annoying.”

I edged around him, trying to resume climbing the stairs in peace. Of course, however, he trailed after me like a lost puppy.

“How about this – I tell you what I know about you.”

“You know nothing about me.”

“Thing one – you’re new to Hogwarts.”

“No!” I gasped in feigned shock. “Really?”

“Thing two – you act like you play Quidditch. Everything from your speed to your diet screams it.”

I sighed but allowed that one, figuring that it was a better suggestion than me telling him that I couldn’t afford to be slow and fat because that would make it easier for me to die.

“Thing three – you’re in Gryffindor. Thing four – you are clueless as to how things work around here.”

“Everything you’ve said are things that anyone could have known about me,” I replied as we walked into a dark corridor. Most intelligent people would have refrained from entering the shadows, but I was far more comfortable there than anywhere else. Besides, it would give me a better chance to lose the punk.

“But I am right. So how about we make a deal.”

I was silent, but that only encouraged him.

“How about, in return for you saving me from decapitation, I show you the ropes. You know, tell you the ins and outs of Hogwarts that no one but I could. Who to avoid, who to befriend, what teacher is a bitch on Fridays – not to mention what staircase to not take and whatnot.”

Finally, I hesitated in my resolve to completely ignore him. Hanging around the James Potter, son of the Harry Potter, would attract as much attention as you could get. But one of my father’s favorite sayings was to never look a gift horse in the mouth.

He could also provide immediate companionship, a niche. I could surf through this mission with no effort whatsoever.

I turned around and cocked my head to the side, examining his foolish enthusiasm. “You would do that?” I asked.

“You saved me from P.J.’s fury.”

“P.J.?”

“The girl who threw the apple. Real name Patricia Johnson. Also known as Pissy and Jagged.”

I filed this information away in my brain as I looked him up and down. He was shallow, harmless – not a bad person to befriend, but popular enough that he would be dangerous if an enemy.

I held out my hand. “I’m Elaina Riley,” I said.

“James Potter,” he replied, taking my fingers in his. Then, with a cocky grin, he bowed over my hand and kissed the back of my palm. “Welcome to Hogwarts.”

E/N: Third chapter - any chance you could make this "third time's the charm" and leave me some pretty reviews?
 

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