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The Good War

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It took a little while for Liz to even realise anything out of the ordinary had happened.

The atmosphere in the school leading up to Hallowe'en wasn't quite as bad as it had been last time. Liz wasn't entirely certain why that was. Perhaps it was simply because last year had been the tenth anniversary, a nice round number people decided was special, for some reason, so they'd made more of a fuss about it. About there being less attention focused on Liz specifically, well, last year had been her first year at Hogwarts — the Girl Who Lived was directly connected to the whole end of the war...thing, and they hadn't been accustomed to actually having her around yet. After a year of her being at the school, the novelty of the Girl Who Lived had worn off somewhat, and people didn't actually like her much, so they weren't nearly as inclined to approach her for no good reason.

These days, for the most part, the only people among the other kids who talked to her were people who actually knew her, at least a little bit. Dorea and Hermione's friends, people on the quidditch team, or people somehow connected to the people on the quidditch team. Before Slytherin's first game of the season, about two weeks ago now, there had been a bit of ribbing and taunting running up to the day of the game, but that had been quite friendly, she thought, not even as bad as the hissing and dirty looks she'd gotten when people had found out she could talk to snakes — which wasn't a surprise, since they'd played Hufflepuff, so most of the teasing was coming from Hufflepuffs, and Hufflepuff was Hufflepuff.

Things had changed a little bit, she guessed. After the initial fascination with the Girl Who Lived had worn off, the older students had completely ignored her existence, for the most part. But, since she'd joined the quidditch team, and even done passably well at their first game — originally, Mark had intended to switch out her and Draco on seeker to see which of them performed better in actual games, but Liz successfully running interference on Diggory had impressed him enough it was hers permanently — now they tended to... Well, the older students weren't, like, making a nuisance of themselves, all walking up and talking at her or whatever, but she did get an acknowledging, friendly nod now and again, which was the way she liked it, honestly. And it hadn't made much difference with the kids in other houses either. If they'd played a different team first, there might be a bit of extra animosity from that house for a couple weeks, she guessed, but Hufflepuff was Hufflepuff.

If she'd known beforehand that joining the quidditch team would significantly cut down on the animosity she got from other Slytherins, and even from other houses — mostly out of the assumption her teammates would retaliate if people messed with her, but still — she would have tried out for solely that reason. Really, she'd done it because flying was fun and quidditch was something to do besides just read all the time (and the books she had access to she found interesting were running out), but it was a nice bonus.

Also, Draco and Pansy weren't constantly jinxing her and slipping her potions like they had been this time last year, that probably made a big difference right there.

So, the run up to Hallowe'en wasn't nearly as bad as last time. She hadn't touched her calming potions at all since the day before the match, actually. She'd even considered going to the Hallowe'en feast like everyone else.

For about three seconds — no matter how much better daily life was at Hogwarts these days, she didn't trust that people wouldn't be stupid about it. Liz wouldn't say she was particularly sensitive about the whole thing, about a holiday everybody else celebrated also being the day her parents had been murdered — some of the softer people assumed she would be, so were especially nice that day, but honestly, she couldn't even remember her parents, that they'd died on a particular day was just a fact she knew, it was completely impersonal to her — but she still didn't like people making a big deal about it, it was just annoying.

So she'd had dinner in the kitchen surrounded by excitable chattering elves again, with Dorea and Hermione. They were joined by a few other people this time, kids from other houses they'd invited (after asking Liz for permission, which was silly). Well, they hadn't only invited people from other houses, Dorea had asked Daphne but she hadn't come — Daphne would want to stick with Tracey, and Tracey avoided being anywhere near Liz whenever possible. (She might have overdone it with the mind magic, a little.) All three of the other houses were represented, though.

Hermione had invited Neville and Lily, who were really the only people in Gryffindor she got along with very well at all. Apparently, Neville's parents had been attacked by Death Eaters after Hallowe'en '81, so he found people celebrating the anniversary of the end of the war irritating (it hadn't been the end, not really), had as much reason to not want to be upstairs as Liz did. From Ravenclaw, Dorea had invited Lisa, Padma, and Michael Corner, and Hermione had invited Mandy. (Terry had been asked, but had turned it down.) From Hufflepuff, they'd invited Susan, Hannah, and Wayne, by Dorea, and Sally-Anne by Hermione. (Sophie and Megan were no-shows.) So, they'd ended up with a pretty sizeable group for their own littler Hallowe'en dinner — thirteen kids all together, over a quarter of their year, representing all four houses.

All of whom knew she had been in the kitchens for the entire Hallowe'en feast, and were willing to confirm it for others.

(Liz had the nasty feeling that would be important eventually.)

Liz didn't make it to breakfast the morning after Hallowe'en — it was a Sunday, she stayed in her room reading until after ten. But she did have quidditch practice in the afternoon, and a meeting of Hermione's muggleborn study group after dinner, so she couldn't stay in her room all day. But she still didn't leave the Slytherin dorms until nearly noon, going up for lunch. (She should eat something before quidditch practice, she'd get dizzy if she didn't.)

So she didn't get a hint anything unusual was going on until, during lunch, she noticed more hissing whispers than usual, especially from the Gryffindor and Ravenclaw tables, and the occasional suspicious, filthy look the likes of which she hadn't gotten since...well, before Christmas, she thought. Frowning to herself, she reached out, tasting the energy in the room — sort of the mind magic equivalent of sticking a finger into water to test the temperature.

It wasn't that different from usual, the same dizzying chaos of highs and lows and hots and colds that were always going on around her. (She tried not to open herself up too much all the time, this was why, gave her a headache.) But there was a band that was a bit...unusual, a character to the feelings around her that... It was a slick suspiciousness, on the one hand, and also a tingling fear — not hard, sharp fear, the serious kind that meant real actual danger, but something light and giddy and bouncy, like telling scary stories for fun — and a kind of...pleased thrill, that ha ha, I was right kind of feeling. It was only a portion of the students who were feeling these things, and not all of them were feeling all of them, there was plenty of variety (as there always was), but something had happened, something unusual, that was making people feel fearful while at once vindicated.

And these feelings were focused on Liz.

Something had clearly happened. She had no idea what, which wasn't actually unusual — she could never guess what would set off gossipy superstitious children, she was still baffled people cared about the talking to snakes thing. Whatever it was, she assumed they'd get over it soon enough, had just brushed it off.

Though, clearly, whatever it was was spreading. At lunch, the Slytherin table had been leaving her be with the expected pleasant silence, but she was actually getting looks at practice, from the rest of the team. Not, like, the same kind of suspicious, nervous glances, just...curious, doubtful. Like they'd heard the same story that other people were whispering over, but didn't really believe it.

There were showers in Slytherin's rooms at the quidditch pitch, past their little meeting...planning room...thing, and the changing room between them. Liz had only briefly stepped into the changing room a couple times, and hadn't even seen the showers — they weren't divided, just a big open space, and there was no fucking way she was showering or even changing into her quidditch stuff in there, she always did it alone in the dorms. Apparently, they used to talk, showering and changing, about how things were going and plans and stuff, but out of respect for Liz (and Perry, who also preferred to wash up privately), they got all that out of the way before breaking up for the day. Or most of it, anyway, sometimes she missed things, but Adrian or Draco told her later if it was important.

But this time, while the rest of the team headed for the showers and Liz started floating up toward the castle, she immediately noticed she wasn't alone, the soft, buzzing presence of a mind at the fringes of her awareness — Adrian was drifting up after her, in a lazy arc that would intercept with her course less than a quarter of the way back. She slowed down, drifting to a stop fifty metres in the air, only a minute's walk away from the pitch.

Adrian caught up quickly, coming to a halt in a drifting turn, looping halfway around her before finally stopping. "Hey, I just wanted to catch you alone for a second."

"Okay. What about?"

"Are you really a parselmouth?"

Liz blinked. Was he joking? No, he seemed perfectly serious... "Er, yeah? I thought everyone knew that."

With an easy, smooth sort of shrug — which he pulled off in mid-air, somehow — Adrian said, "I'd heard the rumour last year, sure, but I thought it was just a rumour. You know the kind of things people make up about you."

"No, actually, I don't pay attention to that stuff at all."

"That's probably smart. Draco mentioned you and a few friends weren't planning on going to the Hallowe'en feast, that you were eating in the kitchens instead. Did that end up happening?"

"Yeah...?" Though, she hadn't realised Draco knew about that — who would he have heard it from? "What's this about?"

"You wouldn't have gone upstairs, say, around the out-of-order bathroom in the east wing, on the second floor?"

"Er, which bathroom?"

Adrian's lips twitched, his mind throwing off a spark of amusement. "The one with the ghost in it, who's crying all the time. It floods a lot."

"Oh." That did sound vaguely familiar, now that she thought about it, but she couldn't remember— "Oh! Yeah, on the tour Gemma and Charlie, the prefects, gave us our first day here, Gemma pointed out that bathroom, said to never even try to use it. I completely forgot it existed, honestly. It's not like we really even have any classes over there..." At the end of that corridor was one of the quickest ways to get from Transfiguration to the Grand Staircase, and apparently there was a shortcut up to Ravenclaw around there somewhere, but...

"Right, so, during dinner yesterday, you couldn't have been anywhere near there. And you have witnesses who'll say so."

"Yes, but, why do I need witnesses now?"

"More stupid rumours, don't worry about it." Adrian didn't seem surprised she had nothing to do with whatever it was that had happened, but he didn't seem to believe his own thing about it not being worth worrying about, a slight tension about him. He drifted around a little, one hand lifting from his broom, and then hitching, obviously second-guessing himself — Liz guessed he'd been about to give her a friendly clap on the shoulder before remembering she didn't like being touched. (There'd been an incident in their last practice before the game, it'd been a whole thing.) "We'll have your back on it, no matter what happens. Try not to let it bother you."

Liz considered asking what exactly she was supposed to try to not let bother her, but it was clear Adrian didn't want to talk about it. It...probably wasn't worth breaking into his head to figure it out. (Besides, she shouldn't do anything that might make the team angry with her, including flagrantly attacking the minds of older students who actually knew some occlumency, like Adrian did — he'd definitely notice, and he'd probably tell the others.) So, instead of asking or peeking, she just let out a huff. "Right. Thanks." She guessed.

Shooting her a last crooked, cocky smile, Adrian swirled around, shooting back toward the quidditch pitch.

Okay, that had been weird and confusing.

And things continued to be weird and confusing through dinner. She was still getting stares and whispers like she had at lunch, that odd thrill of kind-of-not-really fear still on the air. Except, it had seemingly spread, the feeling thicker, pretty much dominating the Ravenclaw and Gryffindor tables now, even transplanted a couple places in Slytherin and Hufflepuff (though there more often confused, doubtful, not so readily accepting whatever it was). But, for all that people were clearly gossipping about her, nobody approached her, she still had absolutely no idea what was going on.

She didn't actually get answers until their study group, after dinner. They usually met deep in the library, where the winding shelves blocked out the entrance and Pince's desk entirely, insulating them somewhat from the muffled chattering of the other students, from their attention. They always needed to push a few tables together to have room for everyone that showed up, so it was convenient to be out of the way enough Pince or some prefect didn't come up and stop them.

Liz walked up with Dorea, and already there were Hermione, Neville, Lily, Susan, Hannah, Megan, and Sophie. In the few minutes after Liz and Dorea showed up, they were followed by Sally-Anne, Padma, Terry, and Justin. That was probably everyone — Mandy didn't always come, and Liz didn't expect to see Tracey (and Daphne) at one of these for a while.

Everybody had an essay for Transfiguration to do, because of course they did, McGonagall was awful. Liz still didn't really get transfiguration. She meant, the theory was...theoretically fine. Writing the essays and junk was annoying, but she could do it, more or less. But knowing how a thing was supposed to work didn't really seem to help making it actually work. Visualisations and stuff, fine, but her magic just didn't seem to cooperate.

Because Daphne was brilliant and helpful sometimes, she'd actually found a book that explained that, sometimes, mind mages just had difficulties with transfiguration. (Unless the mind mage in question was also a metamorph, which just sounded like cheating at life.) She didn't entirely understand what the writer had been trying to say, but if she understood correctly, for some reason, mind mages were just naturally terrible at focusing intent in the way people were usually taught to do in Europe. Like, picture the image you want, will your image to be forced upon reality, all that. The writer had suggested it required a rigidity of self that mind mages just weren't very good at, that the energy of their mind preferred to flow and shift and change.

So, Liz thought the idea was, if she was understanding this correctly, instead of holding a static image in her head, she should be imagining a smooth transition from one thing to another, and, kind of, guide the object through the transformation. Which was weird, because that wasn't how transfiguration worked — transfigurations were instantaneous, there wasn't supposed to be some obvious period of transition from one to another, that was doing it wrong. And it was also just kind of difficult to imagine the transition sometimes? Like, take the example of turning a matchstick into a needle, sure, imagining reshaping the thing wasn't too difficult, but how does one picture wood gradually turning into metal, exactly? That wasn't a thing.

It was difficult, was the point. Liz thought she might be making some improvement, but it was very much a work in progress.

They'd been at it for some time, Hermione holding court with a few of the muggleborns, helping them with something to do with the essay, Susan and Hannah and Terry whispering and giggling about something, when Liz finally gave up. She wasn't really getting anywhere with the homework, might as well not pretend she wasn't distracted by something. "Padma, you're in Ravenclaw."

Looking up from her book, Padma ticked up an almost Snape-ish eyebrow. She did feel faintly amused, but it wasn't really showing on her face, Liz was just a cheater. "So I am."

"Do you know what the hell's wrong with the Ravenclaws today? They keep giving me these looks, it's irritating."

"Oh, that." A flare of irritation sparking across her mind, Padma's usually calm, serene sort of face was pulled into a disdainful scowl. "It's about the Chamber of Secrets thing."

"What Chamber of Secrets thing?"

From next to her, Dorea said, "You haven't heard about that? It's been going around all day..."

"Well, I'm a total social incompetent, you know." Dorea winced, a little — that had been her phrase (mostly, "incompetent" was Liz's word), though she at least had the tact to not say that sort of thing out loud. But sometimes, when Liz wasn't bothering to keep herself to herself, there was little practical difference between saying something and just thinking it. "Not counting quidditch practice, when you found me at dinner was literally the first time I've talked to anyone all day."

"Right, sorry."

Liz considered saying something about how she didn't actually mind, she was just saying, but Padma was getting into an actual explanation. (Besides, Dorea knew that already.) "Someone's idea of a sick prank, I guess. Not far from Transfiguration, someone prepared a little scene for the Ravenclaws to find on our way upstairs. Someone petrified Norris — you know, Filch's cat — and hung her up by her tail on a light fixture. It's stupid."

"...Okay." She guessed that explained why Filch was especially miserable today. Liz might not have noticed, she didn't spend a lot of time watching the staff table — and besides, Filch was up there only rarely — but the rage and despair burning in his mind had been a little distracting, she'd felt it from halfway across the Entrance Hall without even trying. "Were they not able to undo it? Filch looked awful today..."

Padma shrugged. "I guess not? I don't know, I haven't heard anything about Norris — except people gloating over it, people really don't like Filch."

"I overheard some of the upperclassmen talking about it," Susan said, jumping into the conversation seemingly at random, Liz hadn't even realised she was paying attention. "It's one of the higher classes of petrification, apparently. Norris will live — pretty much forever, the way she is now — but they'll need to call in a really good cursebreaker, or get Snape to brew a Mandrake Restorative."

There were a few questions from the muggleborns about Mandrake Restoratives, and the idea of restorative draughts in general, and then even more about cursebreakers. Liz knew a little bit about the latter, that it was a profession some people got into, widely-considered a very dangerous but exciting and impressive one. Apparently there was a series of novels written by a famous cursebreaker, some bloke called Ciardha Monroe, some of which were fictionalised accounts of his actual exploits over the years.

The joke from Susan was that Lockhart, their awful and annoying Defence professor this year (though a step up from someone possessed by the Dark Lord and constantly trying to read her mind, really), seemed to think he was Ciardha Monroe, but he definitely, definitely wasn't. Their books were actually very similar in some ways, apparently. The major differences were that Monroe's had treated the events described — many of which were known to be inspired by events Monroe had been involved in, but altered for use in a good story, sometimes enough it was difficult to tell what the inspiration had even been, and about half of them were entirely made up — with the seriousness they deserved, and were not in any way pretending to not be fiction, the cursebreaker-mercenary main character an obvious stand-in for Monroe, but with a different name, appearance, background, and personality — the main character of his novels actually did some really fucked up things over the course of the series, usually far worse than anything Monroe could be said to be responsible for. Lockhart, on the other hand, wrote over-dramatised drivel, turning every event he wrote of into a theatrical farce, while at once claiming they'd all definitely happened exactly the way he described, and used every book to extol his own virtues, the entire thing an exercise of showing the world just how awesome and perfect he was.

Lockhart was basically a modern-day Monroe, but much prettier, a shameless attention-seeker, and also probably (almost certainly) a complete fraud.

While the conversation meandered into mocking Lockhart — to the obvious disappointment of some of the muggleborn girls, who hadn't known his whole hero persona might be totally fake — Liz made a note for herself to check out Ciardha Monroe's books later. It'd been a while since she'd read much fiction at all, distracted by magic being a thing, and since she was running out of nonfiction she was interested in anyway (excluding Snape's restricted books, of course) it wouldn't be a bad idea to find something else. Besides, these were books written by a famous cursebreaker about a cursebreaker doing cursebreaker things, they'd probably be academically interesting on top of just being good fiction.

Eventually, Sophie looped it back around to the original topic — or not quite the original topic, Liz still didn't know what any of this had to do with her — asking why Norris was still petrified if all it would take was a standard potion or calling in a cursebreaker. Megan let out a harsh scoff, rolling her eyes. "Because it's a squib's cat, obviously, nobody cares enough to go out of their way."

"What Megan is trying to get it," Terry said, shooting her a disapproving look (which she ignored), "is that it's not really as easy as it sounds. Breaking that kind of petrification would take a world-class cursebreaker — there aren't very many good enough around, and hiring one is not cheap. And, yes, a Mandrake Restorative is a standard healing potion, but it's not a commonly used one. It's very difficult to make, it pretty much requires a master potioneer or alchemist. We do have Snape here, so that's convenient, but we still need the mandrakes, and those are seriously bloody expensive."

Neville nodded to himself, speaking with rather more confidence than he usually had — but that made sense, he was a Herbology nerd. (Which, Liz was astounded that was even a thing, Herbology was awful.) "Mandrakes are really finicky to grow. They need a particular environment, and they tend to interfere with each other, the grower has to intervene to stop them from fighting pretty much constantly. I wouldn't be surprised if Sprout has half the mandrakes in all of Britain right now."

"Yeah, probably. So, what it comes down to is, the Board of Governors isn't willing to hand over the gold it would take to revive her, especially when it's just a cat — that it's Filch's cat probably doesn't help either. Now, if it were a person, that might be a different story, but—"

"She is a person, though." Terry cut off, and all of them turned to stare at Liz, with a confusing mixture of disbelief and amusement. "Er, I mean..." Not entirely sure how to explain this without giving anything away, Liz shot significant looks at Dorea and Hermione.

Hermione just gaped silently back at her as the implications of what she was saying hit, but Dorea, after a moment of wide-eyed shock, picked up the explanation for her. "Ah, you know, some of the older students talk about how, if Norris spots them breaking the rules, Filch will know about it soon afterward. Not just where rulebreaking is happening — if they get away in time, Filch will sometimes track them down later. He knows who to find and what they did, despite not having witnessed it himself. What does that suggest to you?"

Oh, good, Liz hadn't actually known about that, but it was a reasonable excuse to know what she knew without having to admit to being a mind mage. That was why Liz knew Filch's cat was actually a person — she could feel her mind, just like anyone else's. It didn't feel quite human, had a more chaotic and messy and sparkly feel to it, which was also nothing like a cat's (well, not nothing like, but definitely very different). If a human's mind was like someone casting a wand-lighting charm, warm and steady and constant, Norris's was more like throwing wand-sparks, wild and changing and colourful. The point was, it was big and active enough, tinged with recogniseable feelings and thoughts, for Norris to be as intelligent as an ordinary person.

Liz had no bloody clue what Norris really was, but she definitely wasn't a normal cat.

Now the whole damn group were gaping at them. Sally-Anne spoke first, blurting out, "Are you saying Filch can talk to cats? Like how Liz can talk to snakes?"

No, that wasn't at all the same thing, the snakes Liz spoke to were still dumb animals temporarily given a very simple imitation of intelligence by Liz's own magic — mostly, anyway, there were some magical snakes that had minds of their own, but they tended to be smaller and simpler than a person's. They weren't people the way Norris obviously was.

Thankfully, she didn't have to attempt to explain that. "Oh my God," Hermione gasped, "is Missus Norris an animagus?"

"You mean like McGonagall?"

"Exactly like McGonagall! And now she's petrified and trapped and nobody knows — no wonder Filch is so miserable, he talks about her like she's a person and nobody believes him..." Hermione sounded completely horrified, the feeling spreading to most of the rest of the group, pity and vicarious terror sparking across their minds.

"She's probably not an animagus, actually," Susan said, frowning to herself a little. "I think it's more likely she's wilderfolk."

"Er, and what are wilderfolk, exactly?"

Susan, Terry, and Padma then went back and forth explaining what wilderfolk were, exactly. Apparently, while animagi were a thing that had been around for a very long time — reading between the lines in old legends, certain people had been able to turn themselves into animals for longer than wizardry as they recognise it had existed — they had never been particularly common, and there were good reasons for that. For one thing, it was a difficult thing to learn to do, required ability with self-transfiguration and just raw power that few people had. (Liz, for example, would probably never be able to manage it, with how difficult she found transfiguration.) But there were also serious risks involved. When someone was learning to become an animagus these days, it was strongly recommended they work with a master of transfiguration, just in case they accidentally do something weird to themselves and need help getting it reversed. Even with all the proper research that'd been done over the centuries, all the advice of animagi over generations, serious mistakes still came up sometimes.

One of the more common problems was, when the animagus successfully pulls the transformation off the first time, they sometimes find they can't undo it. If the person has another mage spotting them who can un-transfigure them, this isn't so much of a problem, but if they don't? Yeah, that can be complicated. It can be a little difficult to track down someone to help, and explain exactly what kind of help you need, when you're stuck as a dog, or something.

Sometimes, when this happens to a person, they'll end up trying to live as the animal they turned into, out of a lack of better options. Sometimes, over the years, they end up breeding with them — the children produced by these animagus–animal pairings (and their descendants) are wilderfolk.

At least, that was how the larger populations of wilderfolk probably came about, from the slow drip of stuck animagi over generations, but sometimes an animagus would just...get around. The muggleborns mostly looked really grossed out, didn't quite seem certain whether they should believe that was a thing that really happened — the magic-raised kids also thought it was gross, but weren't surprised, something they'd already known about — but Liz definitely believed it. From practically the day her mind-reading abilities had kicked in, she'd become very aware of just how strange and obsessive adults could be about sex. It was weird, but she wasn't surprised in the least.

Anyway, they were saying, wilderfolk were sort of like animagi in reverse. They usually lived off with whatever animal they were, but had a roughly human lifespan and intelligence, and could make themselves human-shaped if they want to. Most of the time, though, they didn't bother — they might be people, but they almost always grew up in the wild, and their personalities tended to be more heavily influenced by their animal heritage, so they preferred to stay animal-shaped, doing animal things. In fact, most of them thought human society was weird and restrictive, would rather keep doing their own thing. While some wilderfolk are magical, in the sense that they can do magic, they're only very rarely seen in magical society — in its entire history, Beauxbatons, which was slightly older and much larger than Hogwarts, had had only about a dozen wilderfolk students. In fact, they kept to themselves so much mages weren't even sure exactly how many of them there were out there, but they were generally assumed to be more common than people realised.

According to Susan, there were legends about who were probably wilderfolk going back millennia, so they must have been around for a very long time. In Britain in particular, there's a famous old tragedy about the son of a tribal chief, who was engaged to be married to a girl from a neighbouring tribe. They actually got along great, and everyone was super excited about the whole thing, young love and the new alliance between their people, all that. One day, the son went out hunting, and brought down a deer; over the next week, everyone started freaking out because the girl had mysteriously disappeared. Eventually, the neighbouring tribe figured out the son had murdered and eaten their princess, and, yeah, they did not take that at all well — they ended up going to war, actually, the tribe (who had apparently hidden they were mostly wilderfolk because it freaked humans out) allying with local goblins and elves, by the end the human tribe were all killed or scattered.

The chief's son, though, killed himself, out of horror and grief the night before the war actually happened. Turns out, when a bloke learns he unknowingly murdered, skinned, and ate the love of his life, he doesn't take it particularly well.

(Also, apparently old magical British legends were kind of fucked up.)

The point was, because Norris stayed cat-shaped most of the time — though not all the time, she would need to be human-shaped to inform on troublemakers to Filch — Susan thought she was more likely to be wilderfolk than an animagus. Cat wilderfolk were comparatively common, so far as these things went, as a consequence of animagi frequently being cats for cultural reasons — some people thought a fair proportion of long-lived, magical cats that lived in wizarding villages or hung around magical families were actually wilderfolk. (The same was true of magical dogs and, like, post owls, it was a whole thing.) So, while it would be very strange for an animagus to, just, decide to be a cat all the time, it wasn't at all impossible for Filch to have made a wilderfolk friend at some point, back when he was younger.

Liz suspected that, now that Susan had reason to think Norris was wilderfolk, she believed Filch and Norris were lovers. She didn't say that part out loud, though.

Finally losing her patience, Liz blurted out, "Okay, this stuff is interesting, but what the hell does it have to do with me?"

Susan blinked. "Er, wilderfolk don't have anything to do with you, so far as I know..."

"She meant the Chamber of Secrets thing." Padma turned to Liz, her voice dripping with tired annoyance and disdain. "Near where Norris was found, someone painted a message on the wall: The Chamber of Secrets has been opened; enemies of the Heir beware."

"Okay? What the hell is the Chamber of Secrets, and why are people looking at me like I've kicked a puppy or something?" Or, petrified a cat, she guessed.

"It's an old myth about Hogwarts," Terry said. "The story goes, Slytherin really didn't like muggleborns, and didn't want to allow them in Hogwarts. The other three Founders disagreed, and the argument eventually broke out into an absurd, terrifying fight between Gryffindor and Slytherin. Slytherin lost and was expelled from the grounds, but not before declaring that one day his heir would return to finish his work. It's said he hid something in the castle, some forbidden magic or some alchemical monstrosity, it's left vague, that can be used to cleanse Hogwarts of the unworthy. Heir of Slytherin, Chamber of Secrets."

A few of the muggleborns were staring in horrified silence, so Susan said, "The whole thing's made up, of course."

"Well, obviously," Hermione sniffed. "Hogwarts isn't that big, I find it hard to believe anyone could have hidden anything here that generations of the greatest witches and wizards in the country wouldn't have discovered at some point."

"I don't know about that. Hogwarts is a very magical place, weird things happen sometimes, and sometimes things are lost. Ravenclaw's study was keyed to her magical signature, after she disappeared they couldn't get it open, at some point they couldn't even find the door anymore. There used to be a shrine in the caves by the lake used by Hufflepuff's family, the ruins are probably still there somewhere, but we don't know where. Most of the Founders, their children, their children, many of the early professors and their families, and a lot of the people in the village were interred in the catacombs under the castle, but the passageways down there are so twisted and confused we can hardly find any of their graves — the oldest we can find are only from the Thirteenth Century or so, but we know there must be some much older than that. And there are a bunch of other things too, that Slytherin put a room here we can't find actually isn't hard to believe at all."

"But...it could be true, then."

"The Chamber could exist," Dorea said, "the problem is the rest of the story. Think about it, Hermione: we're talking about people who lived in the Ninth and Tenth Centuries. There was no such thing as a separate magical society back then. Blood purity didn't start being a thing until the Sixteenth Century, at least."

While a mixture of confusion and surprise and disbelief swept through the muggleborn's minds — and even Megan and Lily, who were magic-raised — the others, all of them purebloods, just nodded as though this were an obvious thing everybody knew. It was Padma who spoke first, saying, "Some of the things people thought about how humans got magic back then were pretty interesting, actually. That mages were blessed by a god or gods was common, or that they'd been touched by elves or spirits or something. A lot of people thought that to get magic someone just had to be around magic enough, especially during pregnancy."

"There's actually something to that," Terry said. "I read somewhere that Aquitanian alchemists have evidence that exposure to magic during pregnancy greatly increases the chances of the child being magical. Like, a magical woman is less likely to have a squib, and a squib or a muggle woman is more likely to have a mage. It is heritable, you know, but they think it's...er..."

"Epigenetic."

"Yeah," Terry nodded at Hermione, "that was the word. That it is something you inherit, but some outside thing has to switch it on, you know? In this paper, they said that muggleborns would probably be way more common if not for the Statute — we've concentrated as much active magic as we can in our little communities, so muggles are less likely to come into contact with it and have magical children. They also said that might be why nobody can find a magical gene, because a lot of muggles probably have it too, it's impossible to separate out by comparison. Or maybe there are, like, five different ones, or it's not carried on D.N.A. at all, turns out mixing life and magic up gets really complicated."

"Right. The point is," Dorea said, sounding only slightly annoyed by the unwanted diversion, "all this stuff we have these days about purebloods and muggleborns or whatever didn't exist in the Founders' time. They didn't know where magic came from, and they didn't really care. There is some evidence the Wizengamot back then didn't like Christians much, but that was less about it being a muggle thing than being a foreign thing — the Wizengamot was mostly made up of old Celtic families, and they didn't like these people from the Continent coming in with their strange languages and cultures and religions. Christians were only slightly worse than the German pagans because they kept trying to convert them, that was really the only difference."

Susan nodded. "Yep, that's about how it went. And the Founders in particular probably didn't care about that either. Ravenclaw and Slytherin were Celts, but Gryffindor was Saxon, and a Christian himself, and Hufflepuff was Danish."

"Wait, by Danish, you mean— Are you saying Hufflepuff was, what, a magic viking or something?"

The magically-raised people turned to give Justin odd looks. Hannah said, "Well, yes, obviously? Her name was Helga Einríðisdóttir, where did you think she came from?"

"Though she wasn't really a viking," Susan added. "Vikings were a...profession, kind of, I guess. They were Danish, though, her family lived in Svealand before coming to Britain."

"Er, Svealand is in Sweden. It's literally land of the Swedes in Swedish."

While Susan explained to Hermione that British mages just call all of the Scandinavians Danes (for historical reasons, supposedly), Liz said, "So, what I'm getting here is, that story about Slytherin and Gryffindor fighting over muggleborns couldn't possibly have happened, because muggleborns weren't even really a thing back then. Fine. What does this have to do with me?"

"They think you're the Heir of Slytherin, obviously."

Liz just blinked at Hannah for a second. "Because I can talk to snakes."

"Yep," Hannah chirped, feeling far too amused for the situation.

"But...we just established the Heir of Slytherin isn't even a real thing."

"Mm-hmm."

"So..."

Dorea let out a thin sigh. "People believe all kinds of silly things, Liz, you know that. The story about Slytherin being kicked out of Hogwarts for not wanting to let in muggleborns has been around for ages, no matter that it makes no historical sense whatsoever. It's not true, but there are people who believe it's true. And that's really all that's needed for half the school to act like bloody idiots about this. Invoking the story about the Heir of Slytherin is probably some NEWT student's sick idea of a joke."

"And distract people trying to figure out who petrified Missus Norris," Susan agreed, nodding. "It was probably an upper-year Gryffindor or Ravenclaw."

Hermione sniffed. "Ravenclaw — have you seen most of the NEWT-level Gryffindors? That petrification sounds like pretty serious magic, I doubt any of them could do it."

"I don't know, Percy Weasley probably could."

"Weasley has such a hard-on for authority, he wouldn't dare break the rules that badly."

While most of the kids around her started proceeded bickering, again going off on a tangent that had nothing to do with the supposed topic of conversation, Liz turned back to her Transfiguration essay with a heavy sigh. So, if she understood correctly, people were being completely stupid about Liz being in Slytherin and talking to snakes. Right. That's all she'd needed to know.

Honestly, she wasn't even particularly surprised. People always came up with some kind of nonsensical, stupid reason to say awful things about her, treat her like shite. Things had been relatively easy for months now, they'd kind of been overdue for another round.

She wondered if transferring to Beauxbatons was in any way practical. She'd have to learn French...

She doubted it would make any difference. When it came down to it, the muggles of Little Whinging and the mages of Hogwarts were pretty much the same — she didn't expect Beauxbatons would be somehow fundamentally different.

(Liz felt certain she'd have to deal with this stupid shite for the rest of her life.)

Shoving off a sudden wave of exhaustion, Liz tuned out the arguing going on around her, and tried to focus on her damn essay.


Liz stomped away, in something very nearly approaching a huff. Dorea wouldn't call it that, exactly — these days, Liz was far too dark and quiet and serious for words like "huff" to quite feel applicable, but she didn't know what else to call it. Dorea stared after her, disappearing down the stairs toward Slytherin, biting her lip with barely-suppressed nerves.

That conversation had gone very badly, and Dorea wasn't entirely certain why, or what she should do to fix it.

Heading up toward Gryffindor, Dorea continued to turn it over in her head. She hadn't thought she'd said anything in any way unreasonable. Liz might think... Well, Dorea wasn't certain what Liz might be thinking. That she didn't think Liz would be okay on her own, that she pitied her for...well, not having anyone, at all, anywhere. That did bother Dorea, when she let herself think about it, so she tried not to. She'd consciously tried to avoid referencing Liz's home environment — or lack of a home environment, to get closer to the point — because she knew Liz didn't want to talk about it. That she took any suggestion that she wasn't just find on her own almost as a personal insult.

(That she took any offer of help as a threat, almost.)

And it wasn't about that this time, not really. She'd noticed, in that awkward conversation just before leaving for Christmas last year, that Liz had not liked the looks and offers she'd gotten as soon as everyone had realised she had no home to go back to — Dorea had known she'd have to be careful making any kind of invitation because she knew Liz could easily take it the wrong way. She thought the argument that it simply wasn't safe at Hogwarts, especially with the drastically-reduced population staying for the holiday, was a perfectly reasonable one.

Because it wasn't safe at Hogwarts. Nobody knew what was going on, but it was undeniable there was something. Just Mrs Norris, that was one thing, nobody had really taken that seriously, writing it off as a prank targeting a man most of the students despised. Though Dorea had gotten Pomfrey to confirm that she was wilderfolk, which was just terrible how un-seriously everyone had taken it at first (and still were), she'd since been moved into the Hospital Wing with the other victims.

Because there were other victims now, human victims. But it was...weird. As far as Dorea or anyone she'd spoken to could tell, there was no real identifiable pattern. It almost seemed just random.

The second victim — people usually called him the first, because they still didn't count Mrs Norris, despite the fact that she was wilderfolk being common knowledge now — had been found in the middle of the night not far from the Hospital Wing, after Slytherin's second quidditch match of the year. The game against Gryffindor had been much rougher than the one against Hufflepuff, both the pre-game hazing and the game itself, and Liz had ended up taking a couple nasty bludger hits. Slytherin had still managed to eke out a narrow win, despite the Gryffindor chaser squad being very good and the Weasley twins being the Weasley twins — apparently, for at least a portion of the match, Liz had been flying with a concussion, because sometimes she was completely insane. Once her feet were on the ground, she'd seemed much more unsteady than she had in the air, so she'd ended up being carried off the Hospital Wing, where Pomfrey had insisted she spend the night.

By the time Liz woke up, first-year Gryffindor Colin Creevey had already been there for hours, petrified the same as Mrs Norris.

Closer to the beginning of the year, Liz had had a few unpleasant interactions with Creevey. The boy was very excitable, about pretty much everything — he was always carrying a camera around, taking photos of this or that magical thing to send back to his non-magical family. He didn't ask before taking photos of people either, and he was very pushy and rude and entitled about it, had the nerve to act offended when people got annoyed with him for pushing his damn camera in their faces. He'd pursued Liz a few times, babbling off about how awesome magic was and how excited he was to meet this Girl Who Lived everyone had told him about — asking her to sign the photos he'd taken of her, which he'd taken without her permission in the first place, like the insensitive jerk he was — until he'd suddenly, abruptly stopped, halfway through September.

Dorea hadn't asked, but she suspected Liz had compelled him to leave her alone somehow. She still caught sight of him now and again, but he never approached, and always slipped away whenever Liz spotted him.

Or, she used to catch sight of him now and again — he hadn't left the Hospital Wing for over a month now, obviously.

Creevey's petrification had poured fuel on the fire of the theory that Liz was definitely the Heir of Slytherin, definitely a future Dark Lady, and definitely going around petrifying people somehow...for all of ten minutes. Two petrifications, and Liz had air-tight alibis for both of them — she couldn't have left the Hospital Wing without Pomfrey noticing, and the first time she'd been in the kitchens in the company of a dozen other students and like a hundred elves. And, yes, as the Ellie-Potter-is-actually-evil people insisted, Liz did not like Creevey, but neither did anybody else. In only a couple months, the irritating little twit had managed to alienate pretty much his entire year, and plenty of the older students too. That it was Creevey in particular who'd been attacked really pointed at nobody, but it couldn't be Liz, because she'd literally been in hospital under close observation at the time.

Some idiots still held on to the theory, of course, but they were a minority.

Then, the last week of November, Lavender Brown had been found petrified. And everyone had become very, very confused.

At that point, their three victims held absolutely nothing in common. The first was wilderfolk, the second was muggleborn, and the third was pureblood. One could make the argument this was still the Heir of Slytherin targeting people they found objectionable...if the pureblood in question was a "blood-traitor" — the Browns were a member of Ars Brittania, who had a position on pureblood supremacy that really only differed from the Death Eaters' in the aesthetics. In fact, Hermione had more than once complained about Brown and her friends being completely awful to her, and while they were less likely to throw out slurs than children in the Allied Dark, she'd always suspected the core of their issues with her was that she was muggleborn.

(Liz, Dorea knew, assumed it was because Hermione could be a bit abrasive sometimes, and Brown and her friends were very much the girly-girl type, who Hermione had absolutely nothing in common with, so it was natural they wouldn't get along. Dorea was pretty sure they were both right.)

In the immediate aftermath, the Ellie-Potter-is-actually-evil people had latched on to this, that Brown made a point of making Hermione miserable, to claim that Liz had clearly targeted her for that reason...which then raised the question why the Heir of Slytherin, supposedly on a mission to 'purify' the school, would attack a pureblood in defence of a muggleborn. They had no explanation for that, and the faction of students who believed Liz was responsible had shrunk even smaller.

Which was fortunate, because Liz didn't have an alibi for that one. They might have made a thing out of that if they could actually explain why Liz as the Heir of Slytherin should target Brown in the first place.

And then, just this morning at breakfast, they'd announced that Cedric Diggory had been discovered overnight, also petrified.

As little time as it had been, the school was still somewhat in shock over this one. While none of the other victims were particularly well-liked, the same could not be said of Diggory — not only was he not dis-liked, but Diggory was widely-considered to be one of the more popular boys in the middle years at the moment, enough he was considered a shoe-in for prefect next year (and quidditch captain), and possibly even a future Head Boy. Half of the school had been devastated by the news, a few people even bursting into tears right out in the Great Hall, a reaction the others certainly hadn't gotten.

It was too early yet for any narrative to start setting in, but Dorea couldn't guess what it might be. Diggory was from a Light family, which might play into the Heir of Slytherin story...except, like Brown, he was also a pureblood. Diggory's father was the current Director of the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures — while not pureblood supremacist in the way that Lord Brown definitely was, the Browns and the Diggorys, and Amos Diggory especially so, were undeniably both human supremacists...so, presumably, somebody who might have a motive to strike at the Browns and the Diggorys for political reasons wouldn't have the same motive to attack Creevey and Mrs Norris. (Though Cedric himself was said to be much more moderate on the issue than his father, which only confused the matter further.) There was no consistent political motivation that could explain all the attacks, not that Dorea could see.

And the Ellie-Potter-is-actually-evil people wouldn't be able to get any juice out of this one. Again, Liz didn't have an alibi this time, but, again, she had no reason to attack Diggory in particular. The only real contact Liz had had with Diggory, at all ever, had been the Slytherin–Hufflepuff match, which had been a friendly game, especially compared to the later Slytherin–Gryffindor one. There had been no obvious animosity between them then or since, and Liz had even beaten him, there wasn't anything there.

None of it made any sense. Their four victims, there was nothing connecting them, not that Dorea could see. All the explanations people had come up with in the first weeks had been contradicted by later victims. It seemed completely random, she didn't know what to think about any of it.

(Dorea would almost wonder if the perpetrator were doing that on purpose, but what could they possibly gain out of that?)

Under the circumstances, Dorea thought it perfectly reasonable to suggest Liz not stay at the school over the holiday, that she come home with her. Liz hadn't taken it that way. Dorea didn't know what the hell had happened, that whole argument had just been...confusing. She had the feeling she'd insulted Liz somehow, but she didn't even know what she'd said wrong. And, since she didn't know what she'd said wrong, she didn't know what to apologise for, how to fix it.

Or even if she should apologise at all? Especially if she didn't really know why she was doing it — Liz didn't entirely understand some of these social niceties in the first place, and she'd be able to tell Dorea didn't really know why she was doing it. She'd probably decide Dorea was being dishonest, that she was trying to trick her...somehow, for some reason. So, an apology was probably the wrong move.

Sometimes, being friends with Liz could be a bloody pain. It wasn't a problem at all in normal situations, but sometimes Dorea (but usually someone else) would put her foot in her mouth, and when things got tense Liz got very defensive. And when Liz was already on the defence, it was almost impossible to get through to her.

But at least for the moment, just letting Liz cool off for a while seemed like the only real option she had. In the meantime, she had some conspiring on Christmas gifts to do with Hermione.

Like Slytherin, the Gryffindor dorm was also locked with a password, but in their case they had a portrait guarding the entrance — a magical portrait, endowed with a simulation of consciousness. The portrait was of a large woman, long hair bound in an intricate mix of braids, wearing pink silk embroidered with white flowers. In life she'd been, supposedly, a great-great-great-grandchild of Gryffindor, or something like that, in a troupe of travelling performers some centuries ago, but Dorea didn't actually know what her name had been. The Gryffindors all just called her the Fat Lady, which irritated Hermione greatly.

The portrait was humming to herself as Dorea came around the corner, cut herself off a moment later. "Oh, hello again, dearie! Miss Black, was it?"

"Yes, ma'am," Dorea said, coming to a stop a comfortable distance away. "Was that Monteverdi just now?"

The woman in the portrait beamed, her painted eyes practically sparkling. "Yes, it is! L'incoronazione di Poppea — I caught a performance of it in Naples once upon a time, I thought it a great shame so many missed it. Beautiful work, it is. And may I say, I worry about children these days, it's a great relief to see some at least still have a proper appreciation of the classics!"

Actually, she hadn't recognised the song, she'd just made a stab in the dark based on her guess of when the original woman must have lived. Dorea had seen a Monteverdi opera before — one of Cassiopeia's friends had invited them to a performance of L'Orfeo in Venice. It had been dreadfully boring, Dorea had tried to sneak out to explore the magical quarter of the city during intermission, but she'd gotten caught immediately.

She wasn't about to admit that to the Fat Lady, though. Instead she answered with a sympathetic hum before saying, "I'm here for Hermione Granger. Is she in?"

"Now, dear, you know I can't let in Slytherins — not without the password!"

"I'm not asking you to just let me in. You can talk to people on the other side, right? Can you ask someone to tell Hermione I'm here?"

"Don't bother." Dorea jumped — she hadn't noticed the girl show up. The newcomer was young, probably a first-year, dressed in muggle-style jeans and jumper, with a freckled face and bright red-orange hair. Ginevra Weasley, maybe, Dorea knew she existed but they'd never met. "Hidden warbler."

With a florid, hand-swirling bow, the portrait detached from the wall, folding out as though on a hinge. The hall was suddenly full of chattering and laughter, pouring through a round little passage now revealed cut through the wall. She couldn't see much, but from here the Gryffindor common room looked...red. Very red.

Weasley swept past Dorea, hesitated with her foot on the lip of the passage. Turning back to look over her shoulder, one pale eyebrow cocked, she said, "You coming?"

"Oh, er..." Dorea had come up to Gryffindor to meet Hermione a few times, but she'd never actually gone inside. She'd always assumed that wouldn't go over well — Gryffindors and Slytherins didn't tend to get along. "I'd better not. Could you find Hermione for me, though?"

"Don't be such a sop, come on." The girl grabbed Dorea by the wrist and pulled her toward the passage.

Well. Okay, then.

It turned out the Gryffindor common room was, in fact, very red. The poofy stuffed armchairs and sofas here and there, the carpets, the cloth hung up in place of wallpaper (mages tended to prefer tapestries for that purpose), even the wood of the chairs and tables, the ceiling was painted red, bits of gold glimmering here and there across the room. That was a lot of red. It was almost too much red, honestly, it was a little overwhelming.

More than a few glances from the Gryffindors sitting here and there turned her direction, but most were too distracted by their own things to mind (or even notice) one little Slytherin walking into their midst — all of them together producing an almost offensively loud din of chatter and laughter, even a game of exploding snap going on in the middle of the floor, a radio blaring over the noise. It never got this noisy in the Slytherin common room, the prefects (and probably Snape) would have hexed people for making this much of a nuisance of themselves long before it could get to this point. But Dorea guessed this was why Slytherin was Slytherin and Gryffindor was Gryffindor.

Her appearance didn't go entirely unremarked upon, though — she and the redheaded girl, still dragging Dorea along by the wrist, were about halfway through the room when a boy came up. Dorea didn't recognise him by sight, he was probably a third-or fourth-year. "Weasley, what are you doing bringing in a—"

The Weasley girl flipped him the bird, growled, "Piss off, arse-face, it's none of your business."

He was so blindsided at a tiny little first-year girl talking to him like that he couldn't immediately respond, the two of them were the rest of the way across the room before he recovered. Dorea was right there with him — the Weasleys could be a bit...much, but the one in her year or even the twins didn't talk to people like that.

There was a barely-perceptible tingle of magic on the air as they stepped onto the stairs — each of their rooms in Slytherin had separate wards, but she knew all the Gryffindors in a year shared the same room, it felt like they'd just warded the stairs and called it good. Weasley continued to drag her up the stairs, passed one landing, and then a second, before abruptly turning onto a smaller landing she'd hardly even noticed, stepping through a narrow door and out—

Dorea blinked. They were on a balcony. Rather narrow, hugging the curve of the tower, looking down over the body of the castle below them, the grounds beyond, the mountains framing the valley. It was pretty, but cold — Dorea often thought the castle was far too cold, but this was even worse. She had the vague feeling it should be colder, there must be environmental wards on the balcony, but they didn't cut out the December chill entirely, icy wind slicing through her clothes and tugging at her hair.

The girl, finally letting go of her wrist, pulled out her wand and gave it an easy, casual swish. And, suddenly, the cold was replaced with a pleasant, soft heat — warmer than the common room below even, she thought, despite the few crackling hearths she'd spotted along the walls.

Dorea was temporarily distracted from her confusion and irritation, staring at the girl. That was really very good for a first-year. And she'd even cast it silently? Dorea doubted Liz could have done that...

Returning her wand to its place up her sleeve, Weasley gave her a warm, crooked smile. "Sorry about pulling you out like this, but I've been meaning to talk to you for a while, and this seemed like a good opportunity."

Somehow, Dorea managed to hold in a sigh. She'd been pulled aside by one student or another more times than she could count this year — with transparently political motivations most of the time, people in one noble family or another wanting to introduce and/or ingratiate themselves to/with the new Lady Black. (She'd gotten the feeling many were uncertain whether she'd actually inherit, but now that it was official they were finally getting to introductions that should have been made ages ago.) It was a little odd that a Weasley — and the youngest Weasley, usually this was a job for the eldest in the family available — would be doing this sort of thing, but whatever. "It's no trouble, Miss Weasley. I do need to talk to Hermione anyway, and I couldn't have gotten in without you."

"Gin, please."

...Okay. "Dorea."

The girl smiled then, a look crossing her face that couldn't seem to decide whether it was shy or sly (which was a weird contrast), she said, "So, you're Liz Potter's best friend, right?"

And that was not a question she'd expected to hear, at least not right away. "You could say that, I guess." She doubted Liz would put it that way, but. "Is this about Liz?"

"It is. I just, well, it occurred to me I don't really know that much about her. At least," Gin said, her lips tilting into a rueful smirk, "beyond what's in books, and I have the feeling those are mostly full of shite."

Dorea scoffed. "Well, you're not wrong about that. Liz has a policy of refusing to read anything that mentions her, because it's always nonsense — which means there are some Defence books she can't touch, and it's pretty much impossible to read any history covering the last decade or so."

"Hmm, yeah, I've noticed she doesn't seem to like being the Girl Who Lived much." Gin leaned back against the railing, one knee bending to prop one foot against a post, her hands stuck in her pockets. "Or, that's my reading of it, anyway — most Gryffindors seem to think she's a stuck-up little bint who thinks she's just too good for everyone else."

Dorea didn't bother answering, just rolled her eyes very expressively.

Gin giggled, shaking her head. "Yeah, I thought so. I did think it odd, though, that someone who'd grown up with that kind of fame would have such poor regard for it. I still don't quite understand Liz, I think."

"She didn't grow up with it," Dorea grumbled — and then realised what she was saying, bit her lip. There was something...odd going on here, but she didn't know what it was, and...

(Gin was calling her 'Liz', but nobody else called her that, only the people who actually knew her, and Dorea had never seen this girl around before...)

"Oh? I would have thought Dumbledore would tell her all about it, when she was growing up."

Ignoring for now the niggling feeling that something was wrong, Dorea forced out a huff. "Dumbledore didn't have anything to do with her when she was little."

"Really? But everyone says..."

"Liz didn't meet him until the summer before first year, and it was not a pleasant meeting."

That actually seemed to surprise Gin, her smile fading and her eyes widening a bit. "I...hadn't realised that." Her face slipping into a suspicious frown, she asked, "What happened?"

Dorea opened her mouth to answer — and then stopped herself, suddenly enough she actually bit her tongue a little. "I'm sorry, but I can't tell you that. There are things Liz doesn't want to get around."

"Well, I'm hardly likely to tell anyone, am I? You might not have known this, but I don't have a whole lot in the way of friends." Dorea had heard about that, actually, that the youngest Weasley spent a lot of time with her nose in a book, or else hexing people who annoyed her. She'd overheard Ronald complaining about how weird and abrasive she'd gotten lately, and some of the things the first-year Slytherins and Hufflepuffs said about her were much worse.

But that didn't really matter. They were Liz's secrets, secrets she hadn't wanted to tell Dorea in the first place, she wouldn't just go around spilling them.

...But she wanted to. She wanted to tell Gin all about it, how Liz's family were terrible, how Dumbledore had completely fucked up where she was concerned, she wanted someone to do something about it, her best friend had been abused and was literally homeless, and she didn't know what to...

Dorea wanted to tell her. She really did.

(She felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up, her stomach sinking, something was wrong, this wasn't right, she didn't—)

"I really shouldn't."

"I won't tell anyone." Gin's face went softer, a shade of concern crossing her face. "And, when I think about it... Well, if nothing else, these attacks prove Dumbledore is...less than perfect. And I heard about Quirrell last year, and... Dumbledore doesn't even have a great track-record where Liz in particular is concerned, does he?"

"It's worse than you think."

Her head tilting, Gin prompted, "Oh?"

Staring out over the grounds (she couldn't look at her, she shouldn't be doing this, this wasn't right), Dorea bit her lip, the words rising like steam, pressure building in her chest. Finally, she blurted out, "He left her with her family."

"...I hadn't realised Liz had any family left. Aside from you, of course."

Technically, Draco was just as closely related to Liz as Dorea was. Dorea's grandmother and Draco's grandfather were siblings, and Liz's grandmother was their father's sister — Dorea and Draco were second cousins, and they were both Liz's second cousins once removed. Although, Dorea's grandfather was also Liz's grandmother's first cousin once removed, so Dorea was Liz's second and third cousin (once removed), because purebloods and incest. (Dorea remembered feeling slightly uncomfortable when she'd realised her grandmother had been a Black before marrying her grandfather, apparently that wasn't even particularly unusual, Black incest jokes had supposedly been kind of a thing.)

But that wasn't really the point, was it. It wasn't like either of them had actually been raised by anyone related to each other anyway... "Her mother's family — her mother had a sister, after that Hallowe'en Liz was sent to stay with them."

Gin blinked. "I thought Liz's mother was muggleborn."

"She was, Liz was raised by muggles." Though, "raised" was a very charitable way to refer to it...

"...I see." All traces of a smile, all the warmth that had been in her eyes, it had all vanished, the girl staring at Liz hard and serious, the green-blue of her eyes cold as ice. (It was honestly a little creepy — reminded her of Cassiopeia, abruptly switching from playing the role of a cheerful, vapid society lady back to her darker, quieter self.) "Did Dumbledore bring her her letter, then?" There was something more on the words, a weight of meaning Dorea couldn't read, Gin thinking of something unsaid.

"That's just the thing!" Nerves tingling along her fingers and the back of the neck (this was wrong, something was wrong, she shouldn't be talking about this), the words nonetheless spilled past her lips, frustrations built up over the last year and a half bursting free. "Liz hadn't known about any of this! Liz got the standard letter that all the magically-raised kids did, I think McGonagall or whoever just assumed she would have known about magic growing up, but she didn't, her family didn't tell her anything. Liz didn't even know her mum had been magic at all until she read it out of her aunt's head, the day her Hogwarts letter turned up.

"Liz used the opportunity of learning she had somewhere to go to run away from home, because hey, mind magic makes these things easy, and they're awful, terrible people, so why not, right? Of course, people notice if the Girl Who Lived is staying alone at a hotel somewhere, Dumbledore showed up and dragged her back to her abusive relatives — with a lecture about using her abilities to protect herself from them! Dumbledore didn't do shite for Liz, she hates the man, and for good bloody reason!"

Dorea paused to catch her breath for a moment. Gin was still staring at her, cold and still, her eyes gone wide, and— Wait, what the hell was happening? "Oh, God!" Dorea yelped, her hand jumping up to cover her mouth. "I shouldn't have said that. Why did I just— I didn't mean to— You can't tell anyone, nobody can know about this." Especially Liz, she was already annoyed with her, but if she knew Dorea was going around blabbing about her private affairs she would be so angry...

How did that even happen, that shouldn't have happened, Dorea was not this...incautious, something wasn't right...

Jerkily, Gin twitched back into motion, her face pulling into a shaky (obviously forced) smile. "It's all right, I won't tell anyone. I understand how difficult it must have been, all these...awful things, keeping them to yourself, with nobody to talk to. I know how hard that can be."

Well, yes, it had been very frustrating, and rather depressing, that was true, but she... That wasn't really an excuse, was it? She still shouldn't have...

Frowning to herself, something about her voice thick and harsh — thunder from a distant storm, a rumble barely heard — Gin said, slow and drawling, "So, you're telling me, not only did Dumbledore circumvent the established legal process in such cases to leave his precious prophesied saviour in an abusive home, and he had nobody check up on her in all that time...but he forced her backAfter getting some impression of how bad it was — I can't imagine Liz would have told Dumbledore about compelling her relatives voluntarily."

"As far as I know, yes, that's exactly what happened." Although, Dorea didn't know anything about a prophesied saviour, she assumed Gin was just being poetic.

"Well. That certainly explains a lot, doesn't it?"

It did, though Dorea didn't know what exactly Gin was referring to.

"I assumed I would find the Light ascendent, the Girl Who Lived cultivated as a symbol of their power, the inevitability of their victory." Gin shook her head, facing away from Dorea to smile ruefully over the valley. "They've cultivated the symbol, obviously, but they've seemingly forgotten to cultivate the person at all. And it looks like Dumbledore managed to alienate her in short order, so thoroughly the children from Light families already see her as a traitor — and their enmity will only drive her further away! Dumbledore handed the Dark a cultural victory through his own sheer incompetence, and now that he knows he's made a mistake it's already too late to do anything about it. It'd be hilarious, if it weren't so pathetic."

...What? She meant, Gin wasn't wrong, exactly — now that she pointed it out, it did seem inevitable that Liz would drift toward Common Fate, or maybe even Ars Publica, which would be an upset for the Light, to lose their own hero to the opposition. Dorea hadn't quite thought about it that way, but it was obvious now, this could easily become a significant victory for the Dark in the...cultural cold war sort of thing they'd had going on for a century now, recouping some of the damage done to the popular image of the Dark during the rise and fall of the Dark Lord. It just... She didn't know why Gin was talking about this, where this was coming from.

Dorea didn't understand this conversation at all. She had no idea what was happening right now, this made no sense.

(Something was wrong, something was very wrong, but she couldn't quite put her finger on it, the feeling just out of reach...)

"Well. I have one last question for you, Dorea." Gin stopped leaning on the guardrail, stepped closer to Dorea. The smile was gone from her face, flat and cold and empty, some instinctive impulse had her wanting to back away, but Dorea couldn't move, her body somehow feeling too far away, Gin's eyes bright and arresting. "They say Ellie Potter is special, somehow, that her defeat of the Dark Lord is due to some innate ability of hers. I've heard a competing theory, involving self-sacrificial ritual magic, presumably performed by Lily Evans. Tell me, Dorea: which do you think is more likely?"

Her lips numb, seeming to move on their own, she said, "It wasn't Liz. I don't know what happened that night, maybe Lily did something, but I know it wasn't Liz."

"You're certain. Why?"

"She's just a girl." Dorea felt tears prick at her eyes, but she wasn't certain why, her head too filled with confused fuzz to straighten it out. "Liz doesn't even believe it was her, that it must have been something her mum did. She's powerful, sure, and she's a mind mage, but there isn't anything, like, miraculous about her. She's just a girl."

Gin was smiling now, bright and cheerful. "And so she is. Interesting."

The fuzz slowly fell away, Dorea blinking to herself, wiping at her eyes. What the hell just happened, had she just...

"It never ceases to amaze me how the Light construct the devices of their own destruction, again and again. Elevating false symbols with no substance behind them, fabricating lie after manipulation, building a promise of justice they never intend to enforce. Time after time, the same story of oaths made in bad faith, inviting the retaliation of those they've betrayed, time after time. I expect them to learn, but they never do. It's astounding, it truly is."

Dorea wasn't really listening, instead just staring. Somehow, she managed to restrain the urge to pull her wand. (She was a trash duelist, she wouldn't stand a chance.) "What did you do to me?" Mind magic, it had to be mind magic, except Liz had never compelled her like that, she hadn't even realised...

Gin smiled, warm and kind — which, given the circumstances, sent shivers down Dorea's spine. "Why, what a question that is! I didn't do anything to you, Dorea."

That was a load of shite, it'd been slow and subtle enough she hadn't noticed until it was too late, but she'd—

They came up to the final landing, and Dorea paused for a moment, catching her breath. The stairs in the rest of the castle were bloody awful sometimes, but were the little towers Gryffindor had put their dorm rooms in really necessary? Apparently, Ravenclaw was just as bad, she'd never been so glad she'd been put in Slytherin...

"Hermione's in there, I'm pretty sure," Gin said, nodding at the door — casually slouching, her hands in her pockets, didn't look even the slightest bit winded by all the bloody stairs.

Dorea nodded. "Well, thanks for letting me in."

The younger girl smiled at her, slightly crooked, her eyes almost seeming to dance with hidden laughter. It was slightly creepy, honestly.

(Except it wasn't, really, she seemed perfectly normal, nice enough if a little more brash than pureblood girls tended to be. And yet Dorea could hardly meet her eyes, a cold shiver running down her spine, the hairs at the back of her neck standing up, what was wrong with her...)

"Any time. The password will be different when we come back after the holiday, if Hermione won't give it to you just ask me. See you around, Dorea." Gin turned and sauntered off, vanishing down the stairs.

Dorea watched her go for a moment, frowning to herself. She felt like... Like she couldn't think of the word for something, or that feeling she'd forgotten to pack something but she couldn't imagine what. She was missing something, something to do with Gin Weasley. She couldn't think of what...

And then the picture suddenly snapped into clarity, like puzzle pieces fitting together: the attacks did make sense, the target was Dumbledore! Dumbledore's greatest, most consistent support in the Wizengamot came from the Light, more ambivalently from Common Fate, and he was all big on championing muggleborn rights, greater protections for muggles and the like. Whoever it was, they'd attacked a muggleborn, a pureblood of Ars Brittania (a Light-aligned faction), and a pureblood of the Light — and, in failing to protect his allies, in failing to prevent the attacks from continuing, in failing to even find anything to point at a perpetrator, he was failing his allies, proving their faith in him was misplaced.

The Light didn't particularly care about wilderfolk (or squibs), but if she assumed Mrs Norris had been petrified by accident — or perhaps simply to cover the culprit's tracks, if they were aware she was wilderfolk and could inform on them — it all made sense. The kids who'd been attacked, it wasn't really about them. It was about Dumbledore.

It did make sense, Dorea was certain she'd figured it out...but she wasn't certain how she'd figured it out. Something must have clued her in, but...

Oh well, that wasn't really important just this second, she guessed. Shaking off her distracted thoughts, Dorea turned to the door into Hermione's room, raised her hand to knock. They had plans for the holiday to coordinate.

(The inexplicable creepiness of a certain little redhead was even more unimportant, Dorea put Gin Weasley out of mind entirely.)